After our dear friend and colleague Darwin Grosse passed away on June 5, I decided the best way to illustrate his contributions to the world through more than two decades of work with Max and Cycling '74 was through the words of the people who worked with him.
What follows is possibly the longest article we have ever published on our site, and at the same time by far the most heartfelt. I invited current and former co-workers to respond to any of five questions related to their work with Darwin.
Many of you know Darwin through his passionate writing, teaching, and podcasting about art, music, and technology -- especially Max of course. But very few people outside our organization know about Darwin was his devotion to developing people. In the stories that follow, you will catch a glimpse of Darwin as a leader and collaborator driven by care and curiosity.
1. What do you remember about your first interaction with Darwin?
David Zicarelli: With everyone else, I can relate an accurate story of how they came to work here, but the origins of Darwin's relationship to Cycling '74 are a little murky. All I remember is that he somehow ended up beta-testing Pluggo, and his reports were so detailed and insightful it was pretty clear we should hire this guy? A memorable feature of those reports: many plug-ins would just initialize everything to some random state when you selected their default presets. So for these plug-ins Darwin would write CRAP PRESETS (in all caps). Pretty effective communication strategy: I dreaded the thought of seeing CRAP PRESETS in another report so I'd work late nights and weekends making sure all 74 plug-ins had at least ten presets with unique names as well (a default name would have been grounds for CRAP too).
Gregory Taylor: I have trouble precisely recalling a time when Darwin wasn't a part of my life, but here are some recollections in no particular order...
- The guy who did the noise/industrial radio show after mine brought me a recording from a band in Milwaukee. "Hey. Didn't you loan me a bunch of stuff by these F/i guys a couple of years back? I thought they were Throbbing Gristle wannabees, but this new thing is really great. It's almost Hawkwindy." The drummer on the recording was playing synth drums. Some guy named Darwin.
- I'm in the market for a new synth to sit alongside my DX7II, and I need something that'll do Javanese scales. Someone suggests the Kurzweil, and mentions that it's expensive. So I go looking for information on the internet. Apparently if I really want to figure out how the thing runs and also get some serious-ass examples written for normal humans, I should download this guide by a guy named Darwin. It winds up being the deciding factor.
- A friend of mine from my brief career curating the USENET cassette compilations back in the 1980s excitedly sends me email telling me that he's got a gig writing a column for an online publication called Creativesynth with the same excitement that I'd expect from someone landing a gig writing for The Guardian. He's over the moon because the guy who runs it is great, and it's something that people actually read... some guy named Darwin.
- Our mutual friend David Z. calls me and asks me how I'd feel about interviewing a guy he's thinking about hiring to work with us. Since the guy lives in Milwaukee, it's going to be a local interview. The deal is that he'll drive out to Madison and we'll have dinner and I'm supposed to get a sense of what he'd be like to work with. I'm surprised and a little nervous... it's the Crap Presets guy. It's the best "job interview" I've ever been involved with in my entire life, in part because we wind up talking about VMEbus boards, since it turns out he's at GE Medical, and I've just left the company that sold them VMEbus boards for their development environment. I find out that he knows Lyle Mays' family and claims to have a copy of the absolutely legendary UNT Jazz department Lab band LP that's all Lyle Mays compositions. I wind up with beer coming out my nose laughing at everything and nothing and realizing that this guy "really knows where his towel is." We hire him, and the rest is history.
Cory Metcalf: In 2008 I headed up to the University of Denver for a visiting artist gig. Tim Weaver, the head of the program, told us he had made friends with a guy who lived up in his canyon that was a big part of Cycling '74 and asked if we would like to meet him. After years of watching the splash-screen and reading all the stuff at the bottom while waiting for Max 4 to load, I was definitely familiar with Darwin Grosse as a name, but didn't really know what he (or anyone else, really) did. At the time, Darwin was running a little cafe in Coal Creek Canyon and he agreed to meet us there.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't Darwin. He was sitting at a table with his laptop working while also casually passing out orders to the cafe staff. We spent about an hour drinking coffee while he went into his interview mode and asked us all about our work and how we were using Max. He did everything he could to blow past the fanboy in me (which was probably not easy) and made sure it felt like we were on even footing. I walked away feeling that he was genuinely interested in me as a person as much as he was in my work with Max.
Later that week, Darwin came out to our show at the planetarium and sat in the front row, which was pretty adventurous given that it was only about 10 feet away from a massive arching screen. After the show he came up and told us he hadn't seen anything like that done in Jitter and made me show him my Max 4 spaghetti-nightmare patch. Leaving Denver that week I knew I had made a friend.
Josh Weatherspoon: It was NAMM 2015, I think my first NAMM. I was a new Ableton certified trainer and the school I worked for at the time asked me to find a teacher for a new Max for Live class. Someone at Ableton told me to talk to Darwin. I was already scared. I assumed from trying to build devices that Cycling people were super smart and would see through me...for some reason.
Then I walked up to Darwin. He looked serious, which made it worse. I probably trembled as I asked who could teach the class. Darwin gave me Tom Hall's email.
The second time I met Darwin was at Synthplex in 2018. I was more confident and I considered it my first actual meeting. I sat out on the patio with him, Tom, and some Ableton people. Darwin and I started joking and riffing off each other poking fun at some crazy music products that were there. It was a cool time. We resumed laughing and riffing together after I started working with Darwin in July 2020.
Ben Bracken: For quite a while after I was hired, Darwin, for me, was a source of equal parts mystery and fear. Before we actually started interacting, I had to run the hazing gauntlet of the Andrews. I somehow finally passed the tests and was allowed an audience with Darwin. After a few nervous (on my part) phone calls with a rather stoic Darwin, we met in person, but not before I was told about a time Darwin fired someone. They were taken to a specific restaurant to do the deed, and I remember thinking about this the whole walk to our first meal together. Thankfully, by the end of the meal, I was still employed and had Darwin heartily laughing. Getting Darwin to laugh became a sub-goal of every interaction we had, as it was so satisfying. His laugh made you feel appreciated, noticed, accepted, and that you were more than his colleague, you were his friend.
In an email from 2007, probably not too long after our first meeting, he sent me this after I sent a video to the internal company mailing list: "I just got to watching this, and blew milk out my nose. Strangely, I wasn't drinking milk at the time...Thanks a ton, man."
Joshua Clayton: It took me at least a year to think of Darwin as "Darwin", not "MR. CRAP PRESETS"
Rob Sussman: When I started in 2003. Darwin's title was something like "Director of Engineering." I recall David telling me about Darwin and cautioning me not to judge him by his accent or manner of speech; he said Darwin was super smart and not to be underestimated.
At that time, my wife Lisa was pregnant with Jonah. I sent an email update to Darwin, two days after Jonah's birth. I was doing some work from the hospital over a dial-up connection. Darwin replied:
Man, you are freakin' me out. When I saw you check something in this morning, I knew you were one of the obsessed - like the rest of us...
Many times over the years Darwin would laugh his hearty laugh and remind me that I was checking in code from the hospital.
Rob Ramirez: I first met Darwin when he called me up to talk about working at Cycling '74. Obviously the first thing that stood out was that gorgeous throaty midwest smoker's accent. I don't remember much else from that conversation other than my mood starting to shift -- from terror that I would say something stupid and sabotage the opportunity -- to complete easeful conversation with a new work friend.
Far more impactful was the second time I chatted with Darwin on the phone. It's likely we had met in person by this time at the first Expo in SF, but I'm foggy on dates. By this time I had consulted for a few months and was utterly wracked with imposter syndrome, convinced I was not going to have the contract extended. This was back when email and phone were our only mediums of communication, so we were pretty much on our own. I think Joshua took the summer off for art school, and my mentor was Wes, who if you know you can maybe understand my feelings of inadequacy at the time. I kept waiting for the email sending me back to a life of scraping by as a freelance media artist.
But what I got instead was a call from Darwin. Cool as a cucumber yet full of warmth. Assuring me I was wanted and appreciated, squashing any lingering doubts about my abilities (or at least tamping them down temporarily). Assuring me that I was part of the family now. It took several years, and several more encounters before I started to think of Darwin as a colleague and friend, and not my work Uncle. Whenever doubts about work crept back in, I would think back to that conversation and remember that at least Darwin thought I was pretty cool.
Andrew Pask: Must have been January 2003, Winter NAMM in Anaheim. I have the picture of the round metal table and the beige walls of the Marriott as clear as a bell. There was this door which led outside to a kind of deserted area where all the smokers hung out for lunch. We were in the donuts and cigarettes phase. I didn't know what I was in for, but David had said to me an hour or so earlier "I hired my boss" and he showed me this space-age Max code with grey graphics, which turned out to be Mode. I had no idea who Darwin was, but as he started asking me questions about who I was and what I did, my blissful ignorance got replaced by something a bit more nervous. Obviously this guy was very serious. I had no idea how I made it past that.
Isabel Kaspriskie: I first "met" Darwin when I started listening to his podcast Art + Music + Technology. (It kept me company on all of my commutes to the very same large company Darwin had worked at before he joined Cycling '74!)
When I applied for a job with Cycling '74 in late 2020, I received an email back saying that, hey, a spot on Darwin's team was open, and he'd like to join in on a call with me and Joshua for an interview. I don't know if I was more excited about hearing back at all or that I would get to meet a genuine celebrity, let alone possibly work for him.
What I remember most about that first conversation was how gruff he looked. I was so worried that I would trip and fumble over my words in front of these people I admired, but we just started talking. Eventually Darwin got to something close to, "So, can you tell me a little about your background?" When I started rambling on about the things in computer music/creative code/etc. that I was into and how I had gotten into them, I saw him start to light up. I understood then how he had gotten so many people to share their stories with him -- he had a special way of truly listening and holding conversations that made it easy to be yourself around him.
Andrew Benson: In 2005 I had just finished art school, and managed to get an interview at Cycling '74 for a support position. Darwin and Andrew Pask were my interviewers. At one point we were talking about the video examples I had sent along with my resumé, and Darwin said, "That one video you showed us was pretty creepy, like something that crawled out from under the stairs. It made my skin crawl. Ya know, that's the first time anything made with Jitter ever made me feel anything, so you must know what you're doing." I laughed off the compliment at the time as a joke, but Darwin continued to repeat it for several years, so I figure he must have meant it.
Ginger Ngo: My earliest memories of Darwin were from my very first in-person Cycling '74 meeting. Everything from that experience was a first-time-for-everything. It was my first time flying to LA by myself, still using my Filipino passport, where the border officers asked me all kinds of scary questions about my intentions. I was nervous and frazzled and terrified when I came out of the airport.
When we arrived at our rented beach house, my first impression was that Darwin was quiet and gruff for the most part. The only two times I saw him really animated and activated were, first, when he talked about Max users, and second, when he retired for the evening and found a curious piece of furniture in his room.
It was certainly some kind of antique lady's make-up mirror / console thing, but I remember him howling with laughter when he pointed to the bottom where your feet were supposed to go. Between the space was a mirror angled in a way that suggested that this was also something to... check one's... bits?
I swear I had never heard a laugh as hearty as that.
Tom Hall: When I first met Darwin in 2011, I had only been in LA a few months and had already randomly bumped into Andrew Pask at a gig. Pask remembered me as the only Australian beta tester of Max for Live before it was released. He invited me around for tacos and to meet the dog (Desi) - I later found out this preliminary interview was known as the "the taco test." I think I passed. I loved the tacos (Yucas) and fell in love with Desi.
Pask emailed me a few weeks later. "Some Cycling '74 folks are coming to town; you wanna meet them?"
Of course I did! The whole gang was there, Bracken, Gregory, Darwin, Stretta, Pask... The first thing I remember about Darwin was that he had this giant coffee (I was still getting used to American sizes). The whole time we hung out, he didn't say much, just enough to get me talking and keep me talking: classic Darwin move. I was in complete nerd out mode, meeting all these legends and in disbelief that they were considering me as a potential hire. I remember leaving and thinking, "Wow, that is one seriously cool group of people," but I was curious to know more about Darwin (who spoke the least); luckily, I got that chance.
Emma Grey: Darwin and Andrew Pask were the first Cycling '74 employees that I ever had the pleasure to meet in person. We arranged to have dinner at a small restaurant in Minneapolis before I even started my job, and let's just say that neither of these people turned out to be what I expected.
I was immediately struck by Darwin's passion for this company, its employees, and the deep desire to not play the corporate game. In previous jobs, when coming on as an HR professional I have often been greeted with caution and distrust and a sense that I was only there to change things around and make things harder; that I was there to prioritize equality instead of equity. Darwin was also wary of this, and pretty quickly told me as much, but after just a few minutes of talking with him and sharing my own philosophy, I could tell that I had quelled these fears as I talked about the ideas of radical HR, servant leadership, and employee centered approaches. I always admired the fact that I had to earn Darwin's trust even though the respect has always been there. I admired that he loved this company and his coworkers so much that he was immediately ready to go to bat for them, and every day I try not to disappoint him.
2. Any stories that illustrate what Darwin was like to work with?
Ben Bracken: Over the course of the 16 or so years we worked together, Darwin and I worked on a lot of different projects together. Some of them were great successes, but many never saw the light of day. These included new Max objects, Packages, example content, research projects, experiments, etc, that, for whatever reason, weren't shared. But, if you were working with Darwin on something, every step of the process was considered and taken seriously. Darwin fostered a rigor that elevated any project regardless of who was going to see it in the end. I learned a lot from Darwin, but this is one thing that sticks with me in this moment. Whatever you do, take it seriously, even if it is seriously good fun. Chances are, other people will take it seriously if you do.
I learned just as much from those "failed" projects as I did from the successes. With Darwin, every activity was an opportunity to learn something.
Joshua Clayton: Darwin was perhaps generous to a fault, but like many of us, his passion and care for our colleagues and products occasionally led him to strong opinions and stubbornness that could result in uncomfortable conflict. I have a vivid memory of one such moment when he was struggling in such a situation and reached out to me for advice. Both parties were operating in good faith but at total loggerheads. I don't know why but I remember that I was in my basement, pacing back and forth, surrounded by dusty laundry and a disorganized tool shelf. Empathizing with the seemingly intractable situation and not feeling particularly suited to help, I reflected that perhaps he should simply repeat what he was doing in that moment with me -- share his vulnerability and desire to make progress. He was super appreciative, worked on taking the advice to heart, and followed up to let me know how it went. For Darwin, asking for advice -- as much as giving advice -- was a commitment to a relationship.
Josh Weatherspoon: Darwin was no-nonsense, and I mean this in the best way. Joking, compassion, seriousness, and concern, he'd express it with feeling. Whether solo or in group meetings, I know what he felt. If we were interviewing someone and he was excited, you'd see his eyes light up and tell them something like, "I was expecting X, and then you did Z and I thought, 'Oh...wow, that's interesting."
In our book club, he would share deeply how some of the books we read redefined his view on organization and work relationships. In our team meetings, he regularly thanked everyone for their contributions. It was always gracious, and it wasn't out of habit. You could see it on his face.
I was hired in the thick of the summer of 2020. As a black man, I had many emotions about class and race (still do, always have) that were forced to the surface, and Darwin always gave me the space to talk and work on things that could help elevate marginalized groups.
After getting back from the hospital once, he told me it was great to see his friends at work. I wanted to cry but didn't. I wish I did and expounded on what I felt and how fun and career-building it was to work with him, but I didn't want to concern him with my worry that we might lose him. So I just told him, stammering, "Yeah, it's great to see you back!" I told him in other ways and discussions what our relationship meant to me, but I wish I had spelled it out one last time.
When he set out to do something, he did it. Even in our last meeting, he was telling me about some lights he bought and started working on building a simple full-room rig to take things back to the old rave days where the focus was not on the performer/DJ but the party. He was in a lot of pain, but he was still looking forward.
Les Stuck: When Ron McLeod and I finished the initial development of the UpMix plug-in, Darwin took me out to dinner at LuLu south of Market. We had a fine meal, and he said nice things about our work. Then he said Nick Bonardi was going to add the UI, and that my work was done. It was a bit abrupt. I had plans to keep on improving the product, but nope. That was it.
When Darwin had criticism, it was direct, maybe a little painful, but specific and actionable. When he praised someone’s work, it was heartfelt and genuine.
I bet his kids are going to turn out great.
Gregory Taylor: Over the years, I've had the opportunity to perform and record with Darwin in addition to working on Cycling '74-related stuff. What strikes me as I listen back to recordings with him is the sense that I can hear him thinking in the moment. It always seemed that he was sharing ideas or thoughts already formed. Where the two strains meet up is the simple idea of how careful he was in almost every case. He's playing in the background right now for a performance in our quartet with visualist Mark Henrickson and my found percussionist friend Tom Hamer. He's using the modular to coax Tom into turning up his contact-miked pine cones; I can hear it clear as day.
Ashley Bellouin: Six months into working at Cycling '74, Darwin asked me to go to Chicago with him to teach Max to some Ableton brand managers. I think I actually responded with "Are you sure about that?" My portion of the workshop went fine, but the real highlight was witnessing how Darwin taught with eloquence and candor, ensuring that that everyone would have fun. At the end of the trip Darwin told me to be ready to leave for the airport an hour earlier than scheduled. We left the hotel in a car and on the drive he told me that he always makes room for one fun engagement on work trips. He then drove me totally out of the way to see an old friend of mine who opened a coffee shop on the outskirts on Chicago. (My friend was of course completely surprised when I walked in.) Darwin must have remembered that I mentioned I had a friend who recently moved there.
When Cory was about to go on paternity leave, Darwin asked me to fill in as the support manager by saying, "It seems like you have some issues with authority, so I'd like to see what you do in a position of authority." I didn't know whether to laugh or be embarrassed. He definitely had a skill for bluntly summing things up in one sentence.
In one of our last meetings about a month before his passing, I could tell that Darwin was in a lot of pain so I asked him if he really wanted to be working right now or perhaps resting instead. He responded, "I want to see my friends' faces."
Matthew Davidson: Darwin loved technology. Especially music technology, but this also meant he was an early-adopter in other areas, like pre-internet/usenet on-line communities. If you live in the Midwest, and you’re really into synthesizers in the 90s, it is natural to cultivate relationships in on-line interest groups.
Darwin and I haunted the same on-line areas for close to 20 years before we began working together at Cycling. I met with Darwin every week during my entire tenure. During this period we gradually uncovered our common experiences. A lot of gear went through my hands and a lot of gear went through Darwin’s. We shared the exact same likes and prejudices on things like… data encoders or the best hardware LCD implementation. We’d share hacks for upgrading old, beloved equipment with new technology or the best places to grab cheap cables. We grappled with existential questions like “Why do I have a footlocker full of IEC cables?” and “where did all these keyboard stands come from?” Sometimes it seemed like we owned all the same gear. With all the buying, selling and trading we probably did -- if you’re reading this, you might have one of Darwin’s old pieces in your collection.
Often, something would happen during the week and I’d be like “I can’t wait to talk to Darwin on Monday!” I really looked forward to talking to him. My week did not officially start until Darwin and I had a chance to catch up. Because Darwin and I would have so much to discuss that wasn’t exactly cycling-related, we had a pretty efficient system for flushing out all the things that happened during the week to get on to the business at hand. It became a quick shorthand for checking our viewpoints against each other to see if they lined up. They always did.
Monday traditionally follows Sunday and I think it would be accurate to say Darwin was a fan of the Green Bay Packers. Myself, living through the Tom Brady-era of the Patriots in New England, I was experiencing acute, adult-onset football fandom. Even though Darwin bled Packers green, he still was an aficionado of football coaching and execution, regardless of the team or individual.
Cycling is somewhat fueled by coffee and Darwin wasn’t an exception. On one of his trips to New England, he got off his flight with the, (approaching critical) need for a cup of coffee. Of course, his first opportunity is a Dunkin’ Donuts. Bleary-eyed, he walks in and asks for a regular coffee. In a New England Dunkin’, ‘coffee-regular’ means cream and two huge scoops of sugar. I don’t think he ever returned to Boston after that.
Tom Hall: Joshua mentioned Darwin's dedication to meeting with each of his team members periodically to work on career development but also get to know us on a more personal level. There was one time where it didn't go as planned.
In early 2019 he decided it was time to come out to Los Angeles to spend one full day with me, Andrew Benson, and Chris Martin. My day coincided with an event called Synthplex that was happening at the Marriott Burbank Hotel. Darwin requested that I be there early so that we could spend 4 - 5 hours working hard 1-to-1 and then enjoy some time checking out the show.
Darwin had booked a cheap tiny room with no space for us to work, so we set up in the outdoor beer garden around 8AM. The beer garden was between the hotel rooms and the convention center. No one was there at time -- just the barman preparing for the day. Darwin pulled our his notebook and wrote:
Tom Hall - 3/29/2019 (Synthplex)
Before we were even through the pleasantries, someone yelled out "Tom!" and over they came, a short chat and introduction to Darwin thinking they'd be a good person to have on his podcast, and they left. Darwin wrote their name and contact info under my name. This went on and on -- we were constantly interrupted by someone who knew me, Darwin, or both of us. Since we in the beer garden, people started offering drinks and Darwin kept saying "Yes!" Then the Ableton team crashed our table for lunch (which included none other than Josh Weatherspoon).
This continued all afternoon. "Darwin!" "Tom!" "Darwin, Tom!" in the end the barman was so impressed with the amount of business we were bringing to the bar that he started sending over food and drinks on the house; he'd figured as long as we stayed there it would be a big day for business.
By 8PM (yes, we sat there for a whole 12 hours) Darwin had to cut it off as he had a dinner meeting with Tom Oberheim and the Synthtopia folks. Before he took off I got him to take a selfie with me, which you know he hated, but gracefully obliged. And then, with a huge list of contacts written underneath my name, Darwin left, saying, "I'm going to have to come back to LA soon, so we can talk about you!"
Andrew Pask: The day Mr Grumpy met his match.
Darwin grew up on farms, the family business was selling tractor parts or something, so we pretended to have something in common. My family was in grain and seed when I was little, but I can barely tell the difference between a cup of Earl Grey and a bucket of 245T.
Darwin always played up the rugged country boy thing. You have a different attitude to animals when you grow up on a farm, you see. He visited us a few times while Desi was around. Desi was actually born on a farm, and was a New Zealand Huntaway, a real sheepdog just taking it easy in LA for a spell. So of course there had to be a big show of utter indifference the first couple of times Desi came out to sniff Darwin's hand.
I don't know if it was the second or third time Darwin met Desi, but Desi just stood in the doorway, took one look at him, turned and wandered off. You should have seen the look on Darwin's face. I had to get Desi back out to say hello nicely to make all the wobbly go away. But they were buddies after that, and were no longer afraid to show each other their true feelings of friendship.
Andrew Benson: One time we were in the Albertsons in Los Feliz and I was talking to Darwin about the emerging cultural significance of La Croix sparkling water among the LA Eastside upwardly mobile millennial parent crowd. Darwin snorted with some disgust and said, "if you'd ever been to La Crosse, Wisconsin you wouldn't feel so fancy drinking the water."
Early on in my work-from-home life I was having chronic problems with my cellphone. Darwin finally got fed up. "Hey, if your boss can't call you, it's time to get a new phone." It was so clear and direct that it got me off my ass and I ordered a phone immediately.
I was working at a table we had set up for Maker Fair and he quietly told me, "This noisy FM stuff isn't gonna win anyone over. You might enjoy it, but it's just weird and unpleasant to other people." He sat down with his laptop and knocked up a simple patch that had some actual notes and pleasant subtractive synth sounds. He was really good at judging the difference between what we think is cool and what the general public could approach and comprehend.
One time I off-handedly complained that all I read anymore were non-fiction books, so he asked me what I would read instead if I had the time. "Maybe sci-fi, but don't really know where to start." He lit up and spent the next half-hour walking me through his highlights of the genre, starting with Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Dick's A Scanner Darkly. He wasn't just telling me his favorites though, he was thinking about my personality and what he thought would be the crucial books to read. I've read all of them and he was spot on. It was the same with synth modules, MIDI controllers, and books about business. He put great care into what he recommended to people and tried to ensure you'd have the best possible experience.
During a two-day intensive in-person review, Darwin told me, "When things are crazy and there's a deadline, you're at your best - focussed, calm, and organized. But when things are quiet, you disappear. You'd probably thrive in a more stressful work environment, but we aren't going to give you that. You'll have to do that for yourself." It was at once a scorching read and genuinely thoughtful advice that I've carried everywhere. The next day he told me it was my turn to review him, and I had to return the favor. I took notes while he talked about his challenges and what he wants to achieve. I offered him my honest impressions, which was incredibly uncomfortable. He handled it well (with some eye rolls and grunts of course). After those two days, I felt a lot more comfortable seeking Darwin's advice or offering my own.
Lilli Hart: Some people say Darwin mastered teaching people about Max and a variety of subjects related to music, so what did he bring to a relationship with someone like me who isn't a Max user and isn't a musician? A lot! Darwin also mastered the art of building relationships and maintaining them.
My favorite times interacting with Darwin were when we were traveling for work, because we made a point getting in some 1-to-1 time over coffee or a meal. An occasion that stands out was a meal at a Japanese restaurant close to our hotel in LA in 2018. I don't remember what we talked about specifically -- because we'd typically touch on dozens of subjects -- but I remember the setting vividly and how nice it was to hang out with a good friend and coworker.
Manuel Poletti: After I joined the company for the Max 5 release, we started working on example patches for Max For Live. Darwin was my "coach" for the very first educational M4L content after his Big Three devices. He asked me, "Could you imagine something like four or five good examples of use?" One year later, we had more than 100 example devices. This was true for any little thing we'd discuss about work: he would ask you a question. "Could you imagine something like scoring a goal? That would be cool..." said the coach to his player. "Oh yeah, let's score plenty" - answered the player.
David Zicarelli: At one of our all-company meetings shortly after we moved into our last office in San Francisco, each team leader was tasked with devising a way to give the rest of the company the experience of what it was like to work on that team. To help us understand the life of a Max tech support person, Darwin created cards for an adventure game with ridiculous tasks like build a musical instrument out of a pile of junk or write and shoot an action adventure movie in two hours. Except halfway through the game, Darwin gleefully handed everyone a card that essentially caused us to start over. For example, the card for the instrument-building team said, "you just lost the ability to use electricity." The resulting scene in our office, captured on a video Darwin gleefully helped shoot and edit that we never tired of watching, was total chaos. I don't think the office ever recovered.
3. Is there anything about Darwin’s work with Max that you would want our community to know?
Cory Metcalf: I had the pleasure of taking Darwin's Max classes at the University of Denver. He of course made the information really clear and put a lot of thought into the curriculum and presentation of the information, but what stood out the most was how much effort he put into making it fun. He knew that there was a learning threshold that was easy to pass through when a person finds the joy and wonder in patching. Fun is easy, even when it's hard.
The first project was to make a piece of "button art" just using delays, counters and colored buttons.
Josh Weatherspoon: I didn't get to see much of Darwin's patching, but he loved the Max community and was always trying to do what he could to educate and make it better. We had talks about equity of race, gender and economics in music spaces and brainstormed what we could do to help.
Matthew Davidson: It is comforting to know there isn’t any single person who "knows" all of Max, but Darwin is about as close as it gets. Darwin was an invaluable resource for overcoming obstacles. Darwin was also an educator so he had a unique perspective not only into how Max works, but also how to teach it to others. I bring Darwins lessons forward with me every day.
Gregory Taylor: The amazing thing about the life in public of a generous and passionately engaged person is that all one really needs to say is "fire up the search engine and type 'Darwin Grosse' into the search field." You'll figure it out.
Andrew Benson: Around the time I began working for Cycling '74 I remember digging around in the repository of our plug-ins, and being astonished by the vast differences in the underlying patches -- some of them were absolute messes. When I mentioned this to Andrew Pask, he suggested I look at the MODE patches as a prime example of patching style. I still think about those patches and how much I learned about organizing a big project from them, not to mention the great synthesis ideas. Darwin had a very ordered way of patching that has had a big influence on what I think of as the "House Style" of Cycling '74 patching.
Style aside, I was always very impressed by Darwin's desire to learn and try new things in Max, and how he turned that into a group exercise if not a personal mission. His concept of the Patch-a-day collections are to me the quintessential Darwin idea. We all get together as a group and each try to come up with one thing using a novel new feature of Max. In the process we'd end up with both a big collection of examples, each with their own character, and we'd all get to learn from each other. I still regularly reference a lot of these patch-a-day examples.
4. What's something you learned from Darwin or some advice he gave you?
Josh Weatherspoon: I remember dragging my feet on something and Darwin telling me, "No one is going to fire you for making a decision." He then went on to tell me that whether it fails or succeeds, it was a step forward. We will learn something.
After years of freelancing and doing YouTube tutorials, I felt a spotlight (or made-up one), making me think anything I did publicly needed to be absolutely perfect. It made me quite sluggish in my output.
Coming to Cycling '74, I carried that fear over and Darwin melted that away. I think of that all the time when I start to freeze. First, think of the goal I want, then make a decision.
Alex Van Gils: When I was interviewing for my job here, Darwin was my main contact, and attended my interviews along with Ashley. I was pretty intimidated, because he was pretty stern and direct in those conversations. As I got to know him over the course of this past year, I realized that this was likely because of how serious he took the job search and the community of Cycling '74.
In one of our first one-to-one conversations after I was hired, he told me, "Thank you for trusting us with your career."
That statement really bowled me over — it's totally the opposite of how I usually think about the dynamic between myself and a job, the sense of "I better perform or else they won't trust me to be great and thus I won't have a career." He flipped that on its head, and I have found that moment to be deeply meaningful and instructive.
Gregory Taylor: One of the lines I heard again and again from Darwin that I fear I will spend the rest of my life striving to accomplish amounts to five words: "Simple is better than clever." That advice infused nearly everything we did together. When I think of all the interviews that comprise his Art, Music + Technology podcast, I think there's a single question at the heart of every conversation, regardless of the form the interview takes: "Tell me how you got here...."
Stefan Brunner: At our company meeting in 2019, I found myself talking to Darwin over dinner. He somehow heard about my artistic endeavors and insisted on hearing more.
It was half a year after the brith of my son. As many of us who try to navigate the area between tech and art might have experienced, there are sometimes moments when you start to question if it is worth it: the time, the extra stress, the everything. And this was especially true for a sleep deprived new father, trying to keep my head above water.
To my surprise, Darwin did not leave it with this one conversation. He wanted to know more. He kept asking questions and even interviewed me for his podcast later that year. Maybe this was a routine encounter for him -- just the way he seems to have been wired -- being interested in the people around him and following through with this interest. But for me, it had a much deeper meaning at this specific time in my life and gave me a really important push where I needed one desperately. I will always be thankful for that.
Ginger Ngo: 2019 Expo, on the last day, I saw Darwin having a coffee by himself at a table. I walked up to him and asked if he was okay, and he replied, "Yes. I'm fine. I'm all people'd out. Thanks."
So awesome. So honest. So polite. Did not waste his time or my time. I always think of this whenever I am feeling forced to do small talk or to interact with people when I am just not in the right space for it.
I've always wondered what he was like with telemarketers.
Joshua Clayton: I'm still working on trying to learn from Darwin's example of deep investment in developing the work life of the members of his team. His level of generosity, engagement and dedication to growing together with his colleagues is unparalleled. In our ramshackle artist collective pretending to be a company, he is the only one to have fully embodied the role of mentor, confidant, coach and captain with utmost humility and candor. He has helped me build confidence and capabilities in my attempts to grow in this way. He has shown me the difficult mirror with acceptance, encouragement and gentleness. I still aspire to walk his walk in his commitment to flying to meet individually with every member of his team on an annual basis to talk exclusively about their mutual growth.
Andrew Benson: I've been lucky to have gotten a few rounds of career reconfiguration under Darwin's guidance over the years. His advice on many matters has been priceless. On one occasion I was concerned about building trust in one of several new roles. He got a serious look on his face and told me "You aren't going to build trust by talking or being brilliant, it's only gonna come from you consistently doing the work and helping other people succeed." I really think of this as the Darwin Principle for Success, and it's something I come back to regularly whenever I start worrying that I'm in over my head.
Jill Munger: Not only did Darwin love Max and its community of people, he was an extremely effective steward. I sat in many meetings with Darwin. He didn't feel the need to weigh in on every topic of discussion and often waited while the rest of us wrestled to try to find answers. When Darwin would finally chime in, it often started with the words, "one of the things about...". When I heard those words, I knew we were about to receive some wisdom. People stopped and listened to him. He had a way of uncovering what was important and doing so with tact and care. One of the things about Darwin is that he taught me about using my voice to make an impact.
5. Can you share a photo, text, or other media related to Darwin?
Josh Weatherspoon: We had just interviewed someone and Darwin couldn't be there the whole time. I think he was having treatment that day, but he really wanted to be there the whole time. He cared a lot about helping and seeing people succeed.
David Zicarelli: Ten years ago, we invited everyone in the company to make a poster about Max. This was our way to figuring out what we should do next.
This was Darwin’s poster, which quickly assumed legendary status among his co-workers.
This poster exemplifies Darwin’s commitment to making Max better, centered on people’s experience rather than technology. At the same time he reveals painful truths, he expresses his critique with joy and optimism. When Darwin asks, “Where is the fun?” he is not casting doubt on the existence of fun, he is inviting us to start out on a journey to find it.
Rob Sussman: I found this email from Darwin congratulating the team on the very first Windows Max beta release back in 2003:
I've just posted the initial WMax (MaxMSP for Windows) beta release to the first test group. Monumental! I want to publicly thank the developers that broke their backs to meet my arbitrary date (in no particular order, except for the boss first...): David Z, Rob, Joshua, Richard, Andrew, David F, Chris This was one of the best team efforts I've ever seen in a development group, and all these cats need to get some major kudos. Now, on to the fun! [ddg] Darwin Grosse
Lilli Hart: The only Max patch I use on a regular basis is one I recreated from a screenshot I saw Darwin post once. He referred to it as the "urn picker". It allows me to randomly choose an email address from a list and I use it to run random giveaway promotions. Inadvertently, I learned a little about Max patching thanks to Darwin.
Rob Ramirez: The date on this picture is from February of this year. I snapped it after receiving the cassette in the mail from Germany, so many months after ordering that I had completely forgotten. The arrival was such a nice surprise and I wanted to share my joy with Darwin. For whatever reason, I never did. So let me share with you all, and finally say to Darwin, the album is beautiful, treasured.
Tom Hall: The last time I got to see Darwin in the flesh was at a team meeting in January 2020. On our final night in Sante Fe we had a Cycling '74 public event, billed as a casual meet and greet. It didn't promise much but encouraged people to bring their laptops; there were no presentations or workshops planned.
A guy turned up, completely scared looking, He'd finished work in Albuquerque that night (which happened to be his birthday) and sped to Sante Fe wanting to catch our event. He introduced himself to Darwin and me, saying he was interested to know more about Max. Darwin ran to the car to get his laptop, sat the guy down and proceeded to give him a full "fun in the first hour" 1-on-1 session. It was Darwin at his best, in his element. The guy couldn't believe what was happening. I snapped a sneaky photo of them nerding out on the couch together.
I've thought about this a lot recently, how that last glimpse of him in-person was the complete Darwin I know and love. I started wondering how the guy's Max journey has been since. I want to believe that Darwin's generosity and passion on display that night would surely still be with him.
And tonight I got this message, I didn't know it but Taylor Ruff is "the guy" and follows me on social media.