How to Build a Synth in Max/MSP

Published: 31st October 2011
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Everyone has different ways of writing music whether you sit down with your guitar, play and hum until you get something you like, or draw out some beats in Reason. However, one thing that many composers and songwriters often have in common is linearity in their music making. What I mean by this is that when you sit down in front of a sequencer and program in some notes, you’re placing them on the timeline of a song which you can see from start to finish on your screen. When you’re writing a song on an instrument, you fill in the verses and choruses on a timeline, one after another.
This fashion of writing is as old as the hills and is probably the most tried, tested, natural and widely used way of composing. The mixing desk and the tape recorder were even more linear in that at first you couldn’t go back to alter the recording. You played the part from start to finish and to alter anything was a whole new take. When computer music as we now know it evolved, as soon as computing power became able to imitate the environment of the mixing desk and the step sequencer it did so. This was mainly because the companies making the software had to try and coax guys who had been using studio gear all their careers into buying the software, and the best way to get them into computers was relating what was happening on-screen to what they knew.

So… We are now in the position that the vast majority of commercial software is based on a linear timeline. Some of this software is truly astounding and they allow you to do all kinds of incredible things, and it’s getting better all the time. I love some of these programs and have dedicated much of my time in learning to use them and composing using the linear timeline. However, it’s not the only way to do things. There are simply some things that a sequencer cannot do, or at least cannot do without a great deal of effort. Even more importantly though is that doing things differently opens up so many new music making possibilities.

Much of doing things a different way is a change in perception, or coming at it from another angle. Take this as a simple example; to represent the standard house beat on a sequencer, you could write out:



This is, to put it in drummer terms, a four to the floor kick drum with an off- beat hi-hat, with a snare on the second and fourth kick. To think of it in linear terms, you could say it is a kick, then a hi-hat after half a beat, then a kick and a snare after another half beat etc. To look at it from a global perspective of the timeline, you could say there are eight kick drum hits, equally spaced over the course of eight beats, starting on the first beat. The hi-hat is the same but starting on the first half beat, and there are four snares equally spaced, starting on the second beat. That’s a very long way of saying it though isn’t it? That kind of pattern can be described very concisely in a textual programming language but that’s not what this article is about.

In Max/MSP, this drum pattern could be made by a using an object called a counter that counts upward four times per beat. Once it gets to a specified number, it starts again, say after sixteen quarter-beats, one 4 /4 bar. With this in mind it is simple to make the program play a kick drum when the counter hits ‘one’, plus every fourth quarter-beat after, a hi-hat when it hits ‘three’ plus every fourth quarter-beat after, and the snare on ‘five’, but only repeating every eighth quarter-beat. With the counter looping you have the same musical effect as

before, but with no visible timeline. This may seem just a different way to get the same effect and it is, but the perspective is different and the system is different. From here can add two more counters, one resetting after eight beats and the other resetting after eleven. Attach a few more sounds to be triggered on the other counters on different beats. Make one counter count at a different speed. Make the other stop for eight beats in- between it’s normal count. From these simple parameters you can make some crazy sounding beats and musical phrases that you may have never thought of before which would be very time consuming in a normal sequencer, and would probably take ten years of drum practice to reproduce in the acoustic world! Beats and timing aren’t the only thing to mess around with though. Melody, harmony, timbre, synthesiser parameters, whatever you like. You can pretty much create or change anything you want to. Want to import a picture of your studio and have the picture colours dictate the notes of your track? Do it. Want to have different notes played from your guitar set off different drum loops? You can do that as well. Trying something apart from the timeline can reap great rewards, especially in inspiration and being able to have an idea for music and putting it into action.

Don’t get me wrong here, I love to sit down with Ableton and make some dance music or write a song and record it into Logic. They are amazing programs and do what they do so well along with many others. But I also love to have the chance to break away from the mixers and sequencers and do something completely different, or do an new take on an old idea and that’s where I find Max/MSP comes in. One final thought to send you away with; how many times have you been writing music on a computer and thought "Why won’t this program let me do this thing that way?" Well, here’s your chance to make it that way.

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