Max Factor

S.F. software company Cycling '74 provides the tools for a multimedia revolution in music

At February's Activating the Medium Festival -- an annual tour of sound-art performers curated by San Francisco collective 23five that played at SFMOMA -- a group called Sensorband churned out ear-splitting, gut-rumbling noise by altering various algorithm parameters on its laptops. During the show, the three artists highlighted the technological aspect of their performance by projecting what they were doing on their laptops onto an enormous screen above their heads. As the numeric figures ascended in a blur of digits, the disembodied sound climbed to frightening volumes.

Though many audience members covered their ears, few seemed fazed by the PowerBook presentation. Indeed, the Bay Area has become something of a center for computer-led performance, thanks in part to local "laptop techno" musicians like Kid606, Blectum From Blechdom, and Kit Clayton, who've been profiled in Spin, Wired, and assorted electronic-music magazines. But what many in the SFMOMA audience may not have known is that Sensorband's setup -- a complex arrangement linking two performers at the museum with a third in Paris, playing in real time across eight time zones -- was built using Max/MSP, a software suite designed and produced by the San Francisco company Cycling '74.

Few people outside the serious computer-geek community have heard of Cycling '74's products. Yet the company's applications are quickly becoming the tools of choice for a growing segment of the multimedia avant-garde, used by artists like Kim Cascone, Kurt Ralske, the Freight Elevator Quartet, and Clayton (who also works as a programmer for Cycling '74). Electronic Musician magazine recently called Max "a must-have for hard-core electronic musicians." (The company's founder, David Zicarelli, estimates he's sold fewer than 10,000 licenses for the software, but his plans to modify the Macintosh-only application for Windows users by late 2002 should boost sales significantly.) Chicago performer and educator Christopher Sorg, an enthusiastic new user of the software, says, "Once the PC version is released, I believe that Max collectives ... will be ubiquitous."

It may be difficult at first for the layperson to understand what Max and MSP do. Max is a programming environment that acts as a foundation for other applications, while MSP is a program that allows Max to process, synthesize, and play back audio. Together, the software duo doesn't mimic hardware synthesizers and sequencers the way many applications geared to the dance-music market do. Instead, as Zicarelli likes to say, Max/MSP "allows you to control anything with anything," especially when triggering audio with video input or motion sensors, or linking traditional musical instruments with computer effects. At its most basic level, Max/MSP is a digital tool kit for building miniature sound applications that can be pieced together in infinite ways. Imagine being able to pry the cover off your vintage synthesizer and radically rewire it, or hack into a commercial application's source code to make it do things the programmers never intended. As Oakland's John Eichenseer, who writes code for Cycling '74 and records as jhno, explains, "Most tools are constructed to provide a specific set of features to the end user. Max/MSP is constructed to provide not only a specific set of features, but the ability to create new features and even new tools."

New York student Aya Karpinska, who's learning to use the software to modify spoken word pieces, recalls a classmate's use of Max/MSP as part of a body-painting performance. Using a camera and microphone attached to a paintbrush, the student captured the audio and video as the brush traveled over a model's naked body, converting them to ambient sound and abstract color. More conventionally, musicians use the tools in improvisation, helped by the program's real-time capabilities. Shawn Hatfield, a San Francisco musician and programmer who records as Twerk, notes that he's even seen Max/MSP used in a factory to run a hydraulic system and conveyor belt.

"The software is basically a bridge," says Zicarelli, speaking via phone from Santa Cruz. "A guiding principle of how I think about Max is that it's a program that's incomplete. So all the thinking I do and my co-workers do in developing the software is to map out some general space in which others want to work and to give them a set of tools they can put together to make something that is uniquely their own. So we don't give them a finished product, but we give them a way to get there."

Developed in the late '80s at IRCAM, a French research institute for computer music, by the American programmer and music theorist Miller Puckette, the original Max was named for Puckette's colleague Max Mathews, a computer music pioneer. In 1988 Zicarelli -- then working on algorithmic composition software -- saw a demo of Max. "I realized that it was pretty much the greatest piece of software I'd ever seen, that whatever I was doing was pretty pointless," he says.

After meeting Puckette at a conference at IRCAM, Zicarelli began working with him to commercialize the software, "making it more reliable and expandable and adding some features." In 1990 the Palo Alto music software company Opcode started distributing Max; the following year, the product was chosen as Software Innovation of the Year by the readers of Keyboard Magazine. Soon after, Zicarelli developed a complementary program that would become MSP, which stands for Max Signal Processing (and which corresponds to Miller Puckette's full initials). In 1997, Zicarelli founded Cycling '74 to distribute MSP, and three years later, when the Gibson Guitar Corp. bought out the financially strapped Opcode, Cycling '74 purchased the rights to distribute and continue to develop Max and other products. (As for Cycling '74's name and banana seat icon, Zicarelli says they stem from an old catalog for a bicycle company he stumbled across when building the business' Web site in 1997. In need of graphics, he plundered the catalog's vaguely Scandinavian images of happy cyclists, settling on the moniker Cycling '74 when the domain was unavailable.)

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