Max for Live and Volta: Are we scientists?

I am thrilled with all the new enhancements in Ableton Live 8. Two other NAMM 2009 announcements having me scratching my head a bit though. Max for Live and Motu Volta are two new products that have a large buzz around them in the blogo-twittersphere. Max for Live is an extended version of Ableton that will allow you to create your own instruments and effects. It uses a flow diagram, object and element metaphor as it’s interface. Motu Volta is software that turns MOTU and RME audio interfaces into highly editable CV (control voltage) interface.

The question I keep asking myself is, “Will these new tools help me make better songs?”. Since I already own Ableton Live, a Motu interface and several vintage analog synths with CV there is no doubt my curiosity will lead me to my credit card.

Volta First Look from Matthew Davidson on Vimeo.

What excites me about Max for Live more than programming my own devices will be the devices other people come up with. I own a Kenton Pro-2000 CV to MIDI interface but because digital audio recording is so easy these day I rarely use it. I just record my old synths as audio and manipulate them after the fact. As much as Volta intrigues me I fear it may put an unnecessary software layer between my hands and hardware knobs.

I  know Max and Volta are completely different beasts but I think you get my point here right? I guess there is a time for right brain knob twisting and song writing and a time for left brain analytical sound design.

What do you think?

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Oliver Chesler

"Hello my name is Oliver and I'm going to tell you a story." I have been recording music since 1989 under the name The Horrorist. I have released over 60 singles and 4 full length albums. To hear my music please go to:

12 thoughts on “Max for Live and Volta: Are we scientists?”

  1. I’m of the same mind for the most part. Similar to Reaktor, on the one hand it seems amazingly cool to be able to build your own synths/fx from the ground up (and some really cool stuff has come out of that program), but on the other . . . I guess it should be said that I’m more than happy to load up a preset and tweak it for my immediate needs just to keep the flow going.

  2. Hey Oliver,
    Yeah I know what you mean by this. But I think you may straddle a gap that most people end up on one side or the other of. There are knob twiddlers and sound designers on one side of the gap, and song-makers on the other side. Many people cross over just fine. But I for one am quite aware that the more ‘stuff’ I get to play with, the less song I make. For instance, I can spend three straight days enjoying myself thoroughly in Reaktor and in the end I might have saved seventy-hundred presets and made several new ensembles and instruments. But I’d bet that nothing more several four-bar loops come out of it. My favorite synth is Synplant right now. But I’m not finding it that useful for creating songs.
    I made more real finished songs when I had nothing but Live 4 with Operator/Simpler/Impulse, and Reason 2.5.

    I don’t plan to get Volta for my Ultralite, since all the synth hardware I have is an Alesis Micron, but I can’t wait to get my hands on Max for Live. Again, I totally agree — these things might not make *your* songs “better” but it can certainly add to the mad-scientist enjoyment of trying.

  3. I think the main reason for all the excitement is that these 2 apps ‘uncap’ the programs within which they run…certainly Max for Live blows the top off Live giving it virtually unlimited expandability for a ‘one time’ price… Need a widget to plug your joystick or other sensor into Ableton? write one in Max! Want to add a real time random number generator to control your plugins? Ditto! Want to send MIDI and audio from softsynths to control visuals? Live->Max->Jitter! (along with pretty much anything else that you or the supernerds can come up with! including synths, FX, motor control, mouse organ etc)

    Volta is a little more specific but again takes the software ‘outside the box’ and allows it to talk to ‘pre-digital’ machines which are very task-specific (for all the VST virtual analogue plugins out there, there’s not much that can stand side by side with analogue goodness!). And all this using hardware that’s already in peoples studios… It’s a niche product but looks like the ‘killer app’ for that particular niche.

    Totally agree with you about the gear lust getting in the way of the music at times, but it’s not really fair to blame the gear for that is it? :D

    BTW regular reader, love the blog, keep it up etc!

  4. I think this is yet another sign that we’re entering the era of the Interface for electronic music: our computers are getting really really powerful, so the big development will be in harnessing that power in a simpler fashion: MaxForLive will make it heaps more democratic than “regular maxMSP/Jitter”, and Volta uses the power of your audio interface to control your rig.

    And there’s some convergence in there: If you happen to use MaxMSP you could do the things Volta does out of the box(with the right interfaces, that is) – DC voltages can be generated by using only two objects and a cable – super-easy.

  5. I tend to think about this in terms of ‘order of removal’. Max is a programming language, and as you observe, it has the potential to remove you from the focus of the creative task at hand and into the (sometimes equally creative) realm of algorithms, data structures and program flow.

    Now, when I write some software (e.g. a Max patch) that is completely geared towards one particular artistic work, I see this as ‘first order removal’ from the creative task — the programming is tightly coupled with the artistic goal. However if I write software for *general* use, e.g. a plugin, this becomes ‘second order removal’ — the programming process takes on a generic nature, only loosely related to the artistic task.

    The issue for me is to be clear about the purpose of my programming activity, and if I am primarily working towards artistic ends, to avoid the temptation to remove myself too far from the creative process.

  6. First great thing about max is that you can make plugin like volta in it. It has unlimited potential. For instance you can easily write such algorithms that generate note patterns that you couldn’t imagined off. Imagine effect that manipultes melody in real time when you are playing on stage(and it isn’t some random useless bleeping). This will be possible in version 8 because you can access midi notes in clips. Max is great and with version 8 live integration it is the future. :]

  7. Cool as Max for Live is, I think it’s actually important not to overstate its importance. The thing is, people have already been creating Reaktor devices that run in Live, SynthMaker synths and FX that run in FL, Max patches they use with other software or via Pluggo, minus M4L… so we have a pretty good sample set of this stuff.

    Obviously, you can get lost in these things. But I find that the DIY thing is actually often about simplifying. When you have to build stuff for youself, you often end up with *less* functionality than a big off-the-shelf tool. You may have to pare down to, say, a basic compositional idea — and focus your music in the process. That’s possible with Live, too, but then it’s a reductive rather than additive process.

    And most often, *because* these things can be time sucks, the people who are productive in them use them to solve simple problems. That was the case with the Reaktor patches our friend Jonathan Leonard built for Kore, for instance.

    That said, there is one way in which you become scientist rather than musician, and that’s when you program out all if the actual playing (which I find can be a problem with Live, too). But then, you can take Stefan Schmitt’s approach and drop all the LFOs and automated envelopes and play everything live! ;)

  8. i agree with peter that what max4live offers is not really new, but i expect much of the integration. having a cool reaktor sequencer control a vst synth over midi inside live sounds easy, but it took me hours to get it too work. and i’m fairly knowledgeable in this. similarly, with synthmaker, you’re tied to the vst protocol, so forget controlling live8 gui elements for instance. i think max4live will allow people to easily do a lot of things in live8 that right now are impossible or really cumbersome.

    whether a lot of people will actually build stuff in it? as with reaktor, there will probably be way more consumers than producers. but that’s ok. usually these communities are all about sharing. so expect some cool tools that will become part of your everyday toolkit.

    and yes the ‘too much tools’ virus is out there. i tr to fight that by dividing my time between work and play. you need both, but most time should be devoted to work, if you’re serious about it. fooling around with max4live would definitely be play. unless there’s a really specific thing that i *need*. in the end it’s all about discipline.

    1. Hey it’s been a year since this post and I’m curious where the thought has taken you. With all your analog hotness and a MOTU interface, has Volta made itself useful? I was surprised to read my own response, as I was excite about Max4Live and ambivalent about Volta. In the year since I’ve decided consciously to stay away from the likes of Max and dive down the modular hole, where Volta is really a friend. It’s not nearly as fun as just twisting knobs and plugging cables as I record into Ableton (for later manipulation as you write), but Volta works so so well running sequences and allowing me to modulate stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t.
      Just curious where you’ve landed…

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