An Interview with Alessio Santini
Hi Alessio, can you please introduce yourself to Max users out there that will read this interview and perhaps don't know you yet?
Yes. I can say I'm a long-time user of Max/MSP. I'm someone that found Max sometime in his life and fell in love with it. Then we grew into a relationship that also became a job. The work part of this relationship with Max is called K-Devices; it's the company I run. I think it's more or less ten years now, started as an experiment and survived, and now it's a full-time job.
My relationship with Max has had many different stages. It started with an audio focus; then I had a real deep Jitter moment; then I began K-Devices, more audio-focused and commercial.
I'm curious; you said you've used Max for a long time. How long have you used Max? What was the first moment where you heard about Max, or someone showed you Max?
If I remember well, jitter came out in 2003. I think I started with Max two years before that, say 2001 (I'm getting old!). I come from heavy metal; I was in a Black Metal band ( called As You in Agony Cry). This was my first approach to making music, metal bands.
The band ended. And with one member of this band, we started to get into electronics. We did some IDM stuff, etc. We were always looking for the oddest effects. And at this time, if I remember correctly, I was a massive user of Smart Electronix stuff, a small collective of really cool plugins.
I wanted to create the oddest music I could. And this friend of mine came to me talking about Max/MSP. Already, the name was something strange to me. He said Max looked hard to learn, but one can realize anything you want with it.
Around the same time, I discovered Pluggo, this excellent plugin suite from Cycling '74. So, I could make VSTs using Pluggo objects in Max. I did that for a lot of time. I was totally out of control (laughs). It was really like discovering a new instrument, an infinite instrument.
You know, my approach was really straight: Guitar, computer, linear sequencers, and then this stuff came in. Discovering Max was a big shock for me!!
So you've pretty much been using Max for 20 years now.
I'm 45. It's almost half of my life (laughs)
The time goes so fast.
Did you take Max and use it in this new kind of offshoot of the black metal band?
No. The black metal ended before Max, but this is interesting because I missed it for an extended part of my "electronic music" years. Beyond the black metal band, my more immense metal love is Doom; it's something cathartic, therapeutic to me. This enormous sound, this raw texture, this absence of rhythm, it's something that talked to me—still today.
I would say this quickly, but it's interesting because all this pedagogy I did with Max started with my impulsivity to do Doom again. And I was somehow gutted when it ended; this was a problem for me, why I was progressing Max, founding new concepts for time, et cetera. I was unable to include this sound in my music.
Just in the last few years, five years or so, I would say, I found my way back to mixing in those elements. It's so important to me. So, no, it was not part of the black metal or my metal history initially. But now, my music is somewhat metal again; they merged.
Can you elaborate on your deep dive with Jitter?
Yes. In 2003, I had already started working with Max and working on IDM music with a friend. We were looking for some visuals; we wanted some cool stuff. And we wanted something modular, something flexible. Realtime and visual processing was something else back then, not as straightforward and flexible as now.
I remember there was an experimental software from the University of Genoa called EyesWeb. I started with it because it was the same structure then Max: you had an object, you can do stuff with that. Then jitter came out. Since I was already a Max user, I started to work with jitter.
At this time, I dropped the guitar. I was 100% electronics. And for me, this was a big problem as I missed the performative gesture. Electronic music wasn't gestural, and this was really problematic for me; I was not interested in doing stuff mysteriously at the computer.
I always thought that I had to feed the eyes of the audience too. I started to work on the real-time video process. And at the same time, I started my final year at the University of Bologna. I was really excited about Max, and I wanted to do my final paper on Max, but none of my professors knew about Max (I guess things changed now). I found an old professor that told me, "Look, I know what it is. I cannot use it. If you do it all alone, I can accept your paper." So this is how I handled it. I finished my studies in December. I started to think that this Max/MSP stuff maybe was not just a hobby for me; maybe elsewhere, it could be considered academic.
So, I found that in Paris, there was a Master in Sciences and Technologies of Art, directed by Argentinian composer Horacio Vaggione, a pioneer in the granulation of sound.
So I went to Paris. At this time, I was still obsessed with this visual component of computer performance. Since at the same time, I found another of my big loves, granulation of sound; I started to work on video in the same way I was granulating sound. Meaning, I never touched image synthesis.
This is fun because it's the same for sound and for an image for me: I really suck with synthesis (laughs). I only work with sampling and elaboration of samples, like granulation of sound, et cetera. For the video, it was the same.
I was capturing images and pictures with my camera. What I did was create more temporal grains in these videos and create several layers. The result was, I would say, somehow impressionist. There was really a mark of images and colors where sometimes you can see something that you can recognize.
Beyond performance, I started to work on audiovisual works, like abstract short films. Working in real-time, it was hard at this time to get a nice frame rate! I remember that my first suite of Max objects and abstraction that I created were matrix-based. Then I discovered the GPU thing, and I elaborated that with the GL environment.
I used a low-resolution version of sources to see the dynamics and compose in real-time. But then, when I wanted to create a video, I loaded up the high-resolution video sources, and I wrote a system for frame-by-frame rendering on Max.
I think I got nice results for the technology that we had at this time, and I was happy with that. There's a lot of ingenuity in those videos, but I still like to watch them today!
Everyone knows K-Devices, but I think they would love to see some of your early work. And if I recall, you were also doing a lot of granular exploration in the 00s?
Yes, it was called K Granulator. I made K Granulator because I was studying granulation of sound with Vaggione and reading Curtis Roads, etc.
And also, when I started with the K Granulator, there were a lot of tools. I was in Paris, so there were a lot of tools IRCAM was doing that was great. But I was sure that to understand this process and to use this process, I had to make my own; I created this patch that's pretty simple, but I found the key for me was flexibility. It was flexible for my needs, and I did a lot of stuff with this patch. When I started with K-Devices, Kflux was the first device for Max for Live, and it was a port of K Granulator.
I remember seeing K granulator; I knew that Max patch before I knew you. I forget who now, but I saw many different people using that patch.
This was the first time I used the "K"... sometimes, people ask why K-Devices. At this time, K in my head was my pseudonym, and successively this originated the K-Devices name. This pseudonym was originally /K. This comes from a fun story that my professor, Vaggione, told us about his residence at Urbana University in the '50s.
He told us that there was a big computer terminal. I don't know; I think eight users at a time can approach and code. But when a user had to use all the power to render something on this machine, they had to schedule this need.
But sometimes, someone needed all the power; they wanted it suddenly. So it was common for a user to steal the power from the others by typing this /K command. So, /K, it sounds fun to me because it's like a lot of power, but in an obsolete computer era. So, a "lot of power" concept, but CPU efficient for today's machines. And CPU efficiency was (and is) a solid guideline of our products.
So, /K was representative of pulling all the computing power?
Yes. The /K in this university computer would immediately cut all the power to the other users and bring all the power to your station.
I want that now, imagine being able to harness all the power of all computers in the world with a key command (laughs)
Exactly "I needed all your power, but I did not schedule it, so /k! (laughs)."
I'm curious when you switched to K-Devices. Was that around the time you switched to a kind of producing and becoming a developer? Was that around when Max for Live first came out?
So, Max for Live was a catalyst for you seeing the possibility to create work for people in the community and to grow a business.
Yes. I will say that in K-Devices history, there were two big steps in Max's development that allowed me to do this job. The first step was Max for Live, and the second step was gen~.
I was initially creating tools for myself, and I released the K Granulator. I thought maybe this stuff could be found useful for other users, but I never learned to code. So I was not able to face VST development. It wasn't possible. And then Max for Live was announced. Since I was already using Live a lot, It was perfect for me!
I started to port some of my initial Max patches into the Max for Live environment. And then I tried to release it. Somehow it worked. I started with Kflux, and then a sampler called Drumk. And then the whole thing was shaken up as Ableton contacted me, proposing a partnership. Without that, I have to be honest; I don't know if I would be here today because I was not an enterprising person. I was just a guy trying stuff out, and this gave me a lot of confidence to pursue Max for Live development.
So you realized at that moment when you received that email from Ableton that, "Oh, they've been watching my work, and consider my work to be top quality" Because they wanted a partnership.
Yes, That was huge feedback for me.
It was crazy. I was so excited. At this time, I worked together with Simone Fabbri who you know from Frap Tools.
Right. He's a legend.
He's a very important person to the K-Devices' story. We can't believe it. It was crazy. That's how we started this and other stuff released by Ableton.
You asked me the difference between doing stuff for myself or for other users. The truth is, I think I'm a bit savage at this. I mean, I never studied graphic design or interface design. Speaking honestly, somehow, I thought that there was something good in my ideas. And so, I had to follow this vision.
On the other hand, of course, our user-base grew. You have to keep developing stuff with your signature but also learn to have a more friendly approach for users. And I think this came step by step.
I think this is also the highlight of our tools. For example, if you take Max for Live, I had an important moment with those tools that I call Out Of Grid. So, five devices, MIDI sequencers, et cetera, with really odd user interfaces.
I know that some users were scared, and others loved it. I mean, I'm also happy with this contradiction. I always learn and listen to users writing in support, some of them saying how they love our GUIs, others asking about how it works; it's my design: I like to propose to users and musicians tools that come from my vision.
This was one phase. What is followed at this phase, it's the latest Max for Live product we released. It's a suite of six modulators where we kept this little twist we always have at K-Devices, in a, let's say, more standard look.
These modulators look friendly for common live users and give you immediately the feel of what they should do. "Oh, okay. So, you can start messing up audio; you try with the parameters you know." But then there are other parameters. These parameters bring some unusual stuff, always linked to musical needs, of course. Not too odd for itself, but to let the user taste obscure.
Yeah. That's excellent. Your journey into the world of being a developer of Max for Live devices for other people really did begin around Max for Live's inception and that email from Ableton. That's excellent.
You mentioned earlier that gen~ was very much key to this.
Yes. It's like Cycling '74 was observing me and said, "Okay, what can we do for this guy now?" (laughs) Also, the gen~ event was great.
When I created the Out Of Grid series, the company truly became independent. Gen~ already came out and is used in those devices.
I was starting to think that maybe it was time to talk also to non-Ableton users. That wasn't possible for me because I am independent only in Max/Max for Live development.
I remembered that when gen~ was initially announced, Joshua Kit Clayton replied to comment (I do not exactly remember the question now), saying that in a coming update, an export code feature would be included in gen~. So, I said, "Wow, this could be really cool for me, time to explore!"
I started to think I could realize the first series of plugins developing the DSP in gen~ and working with collaborators for the interface and the build itself. And this is exactly how the plugins series called Phoenix started!
My idea was to create something (finally more complex than that) like a pedal. So, just knobs and sliders, not too complicated a user interface, and a precise look and feel. For the sound, my goal was to give immediately, let's say, a DSP main purpose, as the first step, with the chance to introduce other stuff and processes beyond it.
We had WOV that's a tremolo, but one can create more elaborate textures with amplitude. And TTAP can be used as a basic delay, but also can be a processor, more advanced than that, then Shaper offers the same approach, and more will come.
Working with gen~ helped me because now I can always take care of the DSP development. I have other collaborators that take the DSP gen~ and continue the development in a June framework. I also work on the user interface as a graphic file. This will evolve again, I guess, but we already have a nice workflow.
So, before gen~, you would have just stayed developing Max for Live devices, but gen~ allowed you to not only make your Max for Live devices sample-accurate, but it then also allowed the code export and creation of iOS apps. And now, the Au3 plugins, right?
Yes. We have these too, and we are currently working on a really rich series of MIDI tools that are not in Max for Live. We have two other audio effect plugins in development. This way of working, it's really performative for our team these days!
Amazing. That's great. You are exporting the gen~ code and giving that to the juice workflow developers. Basically, the whole code back end is gen~ on those plugins. Is that right?
Yes. You can say that. The bigger part in gen~.
Right. And then other than that, it's just connecting up the UX to the code...
Yes. For now, this is the main workflow we use.
It's interesting that the addition of one product, again, much like Max for Live, allowed you to expand into further markets within the music industry.
True. The development of Max really worked with me this past 20 years and allowed me instant power. It allowed me to do my stuff my way. I mean, I cannot give a lecture on plugin development good practices, but this is not my purpose. My purpose is to give small bricks of a possible vision of music composition to users. I can do it this way, and I'm happy about that.
Some people derive a lot of satisfaction from writing lines of code, and that's completely fine. And clearly, they enjoy it. And then other people are more visual orientated.
Yes. Look, over the past two years, often, I had in mind this thought. "Okay, so I have to learn C++ to code? It would fit my role better?" And sometimes, I thought, "Yes," so I started to do ..." I completed some lessons. But at the end of this time, at least, I think if it didn't work, it's okay—this Max-based way of working works. I'm happy with my work. I work with pleasure. I met nice collaborators, so why change anything?
I don't think you have to change. Not at all. Not at all. It's funny because I feel like if you did change to writing, doing it all in C++, aesthetically and functionally, K-Devices might change completely. Like what you end up making might not even be the same anymore.
Yes. I think that a part of the design of these kinds of tools, it's also sort of naive that it stays during the development. I mean, someone really strong with code would maybe find the same things. But for me, it's fine because I see these objects, these chords, and there is an interaction of different levels for me.
I did something in the corner of the patch that I forgot about. And two days later, I see it, and I try to understand what it was for (laughs). And sometimes, I find it's really messy, but I like to work this way. I mean, I sit here with my computer, it's a lot of fun. This is important.
Fun is key. I mean, I think the second anything becomes not fun and feels like just a grind, it then takes a lot of stamina to work through it to where it's fun again. A lot of stamina, a lot of energy. Often, as human beings, we give up, I feel.
I've spent a lot of time doing my tricky stuff in Max, and I will keep doing it. It's playful. For me, it's really a play. I mean, not just that, of course, there are more levels when you are developing tools for other users, but as you say fun is the key. I want to live a life that I like. So, for now, this is it.
That's exciting and fun.
It's clear to me that some of the early K-Devices stuff you were pulling on your past and your past experiments like K Granulator ended up being one of the first K-Devices, Max for Live devices.
What does the design process look like now? Is it you playing around just jamming in Max, and then you have an idea? Or do you have an idea in the shower and then go and write it down and then start patching it?
I think most of the time; it's the shower thing. I have an idea in my head before I start working on it. And this is interesting because this is a continuous interaction. You have an idea; then you sit on the computer, you start your idea. It never sounds or looks like it was in your head at the time. You already have to interact with this response, the sometimes unexpected answer to your theoretical idea. The pragmatic part, it's different, so then you deal with that.
I will say that, yes, it's an abstract start always. And it's always more or less an answer to a question. For example, take the Out Of Grid series: I found at this time that (at least for my knowledge) sequencers for my needs were boring to me. So, I started to think about what I would like as a user to make sequencers more interesting to my work process.
So, I started with the idea. I needed a sequencer where each step was not necessarily the same length, for example—a really basic start. Then I thought that it was interesting to bring these MIDI notes out of the bar but in a safe way. So, I tried to sync the MIDI generation to a phase, processing the phase. I found that I had something that could really sound odd but groovy at the same time. This was how I developed the Out Of Grid series.
For the modulators, we wanted to approach a larger user base, all keeping our "twist." The answer was trying to work in a more standard user interface and fill up with parameters that at the right moment show up and say, "Hey, user, look: I can do something that you don't expect."
For the plugins, the question was, "How can I evolve a basic idea like a tremolo, like a delay, that can also introduce, suggest to the user the unexpected?". This is the keyword: unexpected.:
I'm curious. I mean, I know you love working in Max, and it's fun and the likes. But, what is something that excites you about the future of DSP in general?
Well, I think what I see is that it's maybe people. There's education on more levels now. The pedagogy, it's more than 360 degrees. I mean, you can learn good stuff in different places, not just at university.
Somehow we can say the DSP is maybe more democratic. It's like a drum machine in the '80s: every one can now make a rhythm, the good and the bad ones. DSP is democratizing. We have more companies like mine. I am a small one beside other small ones and bigger ones. It's good.
I think that it's interesting to see that it's more textural: there are more nuances. You can see the bigger companies that can reinvent basic concepts really well or introduce new stuff. But you also see these odd ideas coming up from independents.
I think the thing that is most interesting about DSP for me is not the DSP itself, the code itself, or the tools that you use, but it's the results. There are more of them, and the quality for the user to choose. Yes, it's exciting. There's a lot of stuff coming out every day. And somehow, you say, "Okay, wow, this again." And somehow, you say, "Wow, how did you get this idea? Wow"
I think you make a good point there. I hadn't thought about this, but the larger software companies in the industry, they're building on a legacy to a degree. And the smaller companies like yourself can, in a way, afford to take risks and bring out more experimental stuff that perhaps could catch on later for the bigger companies without a large amount of risk.
I've got one last question for you. It's pretty wide open. You've been around a long time, and your work as K-Devices' is legendary. What would be your advice for new Max users and also new people getting into gen~?
For me, I think about Max, and maybe you can apply this for gen~, but let's keep to Max. I think that the important thing for me was r to learn the basics first, stuff like right-to-left ordering, etc.
Oh, right — definitely important stuff to know.
And then get messy without fear. First, because from inconsistent patching comes really interesting results. Through this, you discover unstoppable realities that you can use for your music.
You do not have to fear doing things in the wrong way: you can get a nice intuition. And if you are a person that can correct itself, you can grow up. Okay, there's error and error. If you are doing some simple sampling stuff, and you keep getting bad clips where you do not want it, you go through the forum, and you learn how to fix it. You make a step to be better.
When you have an idea, you have to go for it without asking yourself if it is intelligent. "What If it shows up in the community? What will they think about that?" I really do not care about that; you just have to go for it.
Max is so powerful. It's scary because it's empty when you start. You have to not have fear to fill it up with your unique personal approach. Also, when you become more educated, you may lose a little bit of wildness, and that wildness is useful too. So, you have to take care of the wilderness too, I think.
So, get the basics, then just go massive. If you have the idea, just pursue the wildness.
Amazing. Alessio, thank you. It's been a great chat.
Me too, Tom. Thanks for inviting me. It was really an honor.
by Tom Hall on
Oct 29, 2021 7:55 PM