Max 4

Cycling ’74 hasn’t yet made a screen shot of the next version of Max public, so instead we offer this blurry picture of the current version, courtesy a lovely patch Peter Segerstrom was using with his Monome last night. If you squint really hard…

Love it or hate it, there simply is no graphical development environment for musical and multimedia anywhere near as deep as Max. Max remains the most powerful “blank slate”, custom creative software around, and it’s allowed two decades of artists to create their own tools without coding.

Today, David Zicarelli, the Big Kahuna at Cycling ’74 and a driving force behind Max as we now know it, talked publicly for the first time about Max 5. This version looks like the biggest ground-up overhaul of Max, MSP, and Jitter since their creation. It’s a huge article, well worth reading, but here are some highlights. (I get to sit down with C74 Director of Engineering Darwin Grosse next week at AES; not sure how much of that meeting I’ll be able to share right away but will definitely find out.)

The capsule summary (as I understand it)

Max 5 is a complete overhaul that’s all about making patching more pleasurable, with an entirely new, 21st-Century user interface and code base. It’s not about adding a zillion new objects. The idea is to be easier to learn for beginners, and more fun to use for experts. (Interestingly, this is similar to the more modest but philosophically parallel reworking of Logic Studio, another app born in the late 80s.)

It’s not just skin deep, because doing things like building workable UIs for performance and debugging promises to be easier.

Keep in mind, this is all basically hearsay on Max 5 because I haven’t seen it yet; I’m just condensing what I can based on my knowledge of Max and David’s introduction. But I don’t want to make you wait for details, since I know we have plenty of die-hard Max users collected here (and the odd Cycling ’74 employee, so I hope I’m not too far off.) That said, here’s an overview of what to look for from the new version, with more details to follow:

New features

  • Multiple undo. (Whoo! I’ll pay to upgrade right now.)

  • All new UI, resolution-independent patching with zoom in / zoom out. (See also: Quartz Composer.)
  • Find objects by browsing a visual catalog full of icons.
  • Overhauled codebase, built on cross-platform libraries.
  • New timing model that’s “more meaningful than milliseconds.” (The timing model was pretty essential to the old Max — it’s the reason original creator Miller Puckette named the program, after computer music pioneer Max Mathews’ timing work. It was also one of Max’s least modern features, arguably. I’ll try to find out what this means, technically speaking.)
  • All-new documentation, fully integrated with the interface and the Web, and with friendlier introductory tutorials.
  • Separate user interfaces for performance/use, called “Presentation Mode”. Aside from multiple undo, this is the other thing I’m most excited about; I love the ability to do this in Reaktor and loathe the UI building experience in Max 4.
  • Host sync for VST plug-ins, making Max into a more usable host.
  • File browser with preview
  • Multi-processor polyphony

Oh, yeah, and preset saving that actually works the way it should, messages sent to message boxes without prepending anything, pattrstorage editing, localization and Unicode via a new JSON-based file format, and lots of other improvements.

Support and compatibility

So, that’s all well and good. Now, more importantly, what will work, and what will break? You should definitely read David’s story for the details, but since I like birds-eye views, here’s how I understand it:


  • Mac and Windows, now identical-ish: Thanks to new, cross-platform libraries, and a window overhaul that will particularly benefit Windows (long second-class systems UI-wise when it came to Max), you’re less likely than ever to care what platform you’re on.
  • Someday, Linux? David suggests that a Linux port, while not in the immediate future, is something C74 “wants” to do. It was impossible with the old codebase, but no more.


  • Most patches (patches with specific UI features may require reworking, naturally, because of the new UI)
  • Most externals (again, UI is likely to be the issue, but otherwise, if you made it through the Max 4.6 / Intel Mac hurdle, you should be in good shape)
  • Java (using mxj)
  • JavaScript (using jsui)

So, from a compatibility standpoint, you’re in pretty good shape. But there’s some major bad news:

What about plug-ins?

Pluggo support is completely broken, for now:

  • Max 4 Pluggo plug-ins won’t work. They need to be updated to a Max 5 format. Wait a sec … there’s a problem:
  • The Max 5 Pluggo won’t be ready with Max 5.

Translation: you won’t be able to take your Max patch and turn it into a plug-in for use with other applications, which for many of us is one of the major selling points of Max. David writes: “this new format is unlikely to be ready when Max 5 is first released. If your life revolves around plug-in development, you’ll probably want to wait to upgrade until we change our plug-in support to work with the new core environment.”

So, the good news is, there will be this functionality eventually. The bad news is, we don’t yet know when that is. If I hear about a timeline, I’ll let you know.

This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, because for some applications, building a standalone Max application, possibly with ReWire support, is a better choice. There’s no mention of standalone or ReWire support in Max 5; again, I’ll keep you posted if I hear specifics.

  • Doug Theriault

    Been waiting for word for a long time now..

  • Im so fucking pumped for Max 5!

  • Anders Tveit

    Oh yes!! this is it! lots of great features.Looking forward to see and experience it

  • I can't decide which is harder to wait for: Monome 256 or Max 5… it's torture!

  • bliss

    Does this have anything to do with MSP? Is is just "Max 5" now, or will MSP be developed separately like Pluggo ?

  • Sambo

    I assume this is Max/MSP. It would be a little ridiculous to overhaul one without the other.

  • "A new file format is more readable, extensible and reliable."

    Hmmm… I wonder if the file format is XML-based?

  • Matthew : it is, its JSON, which is an XML derivative and a bit more human readable:

    from David Z's post:

    "As I mentioned above, Max 5 has a new file format. It is entirely textual — it's based on JSON which is a more readable version of XML — and if you need to, you'll be able to look at a file and immediately see what everything means. It provides for Unicode character support, unlike the old format, which only allowed you to save comments in unicode if you checked a special box. Max 5 can also read and write files with long filenames (finally!) on both the Mac and Windows. However, we are not planning to export Max 4.x files from Max 5. Someone could probably write a converter fairly easily, but it probably won't be us."

  • The article says "it's based on JSON which is a more readable version of XML"

  • Ha. Yeah. Just read that.

    envi and timeline support is dropped. This doesn't bother me except that I remember when those objects debuted and it was really exciting.

    Now I just feel old.

  • @Sambo:

    It's Max.

    It's MSP.

    It's Jitter.

    David refers to just "Max", which is the affectionate name I like to use. There hasn't been any formal announcement about branding and bundling, though. It would seem crazy to me to continue to offer Max alone without MSP in 2008, as C74 does now, so maybe we'll just see "Max 5." (I hope so.) But I could see them continuing to leave Jitter a separate product, as that market really is independent. We'll know soon enough.

    @bliss: The one thing that's really vague in this article is Pluggo — not the set of plug-ins by that name, but the ability to run Max patches as plug-ins. That's I expect important to a lot of us, so hopefully we'll hear more.

    @Matthew: Yeah, I remember when the timeline object debuted. I also remember it not ever working correctly. So this one I'm definitely NOT going to complain about. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    (It'd be interesting to see someone taking a crack at patching something that does a better job … maybe someone has?)

  • Andreas

    hopefully it gets more vvvvisch – would love to see something like 'spreads', and double clicking on the desk to get a module list would be also very nice.

  • Damon

    "Love it or hate it,"

    1) love it

    2) can't figure out how to use it…

    3) I just created a sound that sounds like a spoon stuck in the garbage disposal

    4) I am a sound designer…

  • Angstrom

    it's a little misleading to say that JSON is a more readable version of XML, although it is a data interchange format, but they are two very different things. One is not a version of the other.

  • Some Guy

    The one thing in Max that always drove me crazy when I played with the demo and sent me running back to Logic's less powerful Environment was that things work from right to left rather than the FAR more intuitive left to right. Has that aspect of Max been dragged from the realm of ancient languages and into the 21st century?

  • @Some Guy: you obviously don't speak Arabic as a native language, eh? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Seriously, though, I'll ask, but I would be surprised if they changed that now, alienating 20 years of Max users. It's not so bad; it's so rare with patching that you do so much flow control visually — because of the other problems this causes — that I haven't found myself bothered by it.

    @Angstrom: Good point; sounded like a little JSON advocacy to me! Then again, it's a LOT better than the text patch format they had before, which was not a readable version of anything! (Well, at least it was plain text…)

  • The right to left thing is a little bit of a red herring, because a good max programmer usually doesn't rely on it anyway. A good Max programmer will use trigger objects to force order of execution no matter how the code is structured in the patch.

    That said, I also use an RPN calculator. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • vanceg

    Oh happy day, happy day! Looking forward to more info on the new update!

  • vanceg

    And…yes I DO need the ability to write Pluggo plugins (or any form of VST or AU plugins) using MaxMsp. Currently, that's my main focus of using Max/MSP….but I do agree that sometimes it's a lot more useful to build a standalone that can use Rewire….I'm just loving being able to create my own simple plguins and use them in Live….

  • Some Guy

    @Peter Kim: Is it *that* obvious that I don't speak Arabic?!

    @Peter Kim & Chris Muir: Hmmm, seems I haven't spent enough time with Max to know what I'm talking about. Hopefully, the overall increased ease of use in version 5 will enable me to get past the initial "WTF?!" stage.

    I was hoping Logic 8 would help me decide whether or not to finally get into Max (i.e. no Environment = get Max, improved Environment = stick with Logic) but no such luck – L8's Environment is pretty much exactly the same.

  • @Some Guy: I'm kidding. Arabic and Hebrew are both written right-to-left. This is actually a critical issue in user interface design and interpretation of things like graphics. (And there are right-to-left visual traditions even outside these languages.) So, actually, I only find this amusing because I think it really *is* an interesting issue — and your comment points to that.

    The main problem with Max and patchers in general is, if you use layout for flow control and ordering, you risk problems if your patches are moved around, etc.

    But yes, you're *absolutely* not alone in the "WTF stage." The intention of Max 5 as I understand it is absolutely to ease that initial learning curve. I've taught patching to people relatively new to computer music, let alone this sort of thing, so it's definitely possible with some help for anybody. Hopefully the interface improvements and better documentation will help.

    As for the Environment, it's really not an either/or thing. It can be useful to have some basic interactivity inside Logic without loading Max. And the two are entirely different. Logic has very, very few objects. The best way to learn it is to see someone else's simple examples, honestly. Max has a lot more objects, but also a lot more functionality — despite its added depth, I find Max even its current version to sometimes be easier to use than Logic. But really, you could pick either one — what you learn will transfer on a basic level to the other, once you get past the obstacle of how their respective interfaces work.

    @vanceg: yep, I know I want plug-in support. (See above: Max in Logic 8!)

  • Grigori

    "The idea is to be easier to learn for beginners, and more fun to use for experts. (Interestingly, this is similar to the more modest but philosophically parallel reworking of Logic Studio, another app born in the late 80s.)"

    It'd be great if they decided to follow Apple's pricing approach to Logic Studio by cutting it in half… of course, Logic Studio is (relatively) small potatoes for Apple, while Max is the centerpiece of Cycling '74's product line. Still, it'd be nice.

  • @Grigori: Nice, yes. But while I don't want to speak for Cycling here, I will say I do appreciate their per-user support costs — unlike Apple, they're a small company, with a product that has the potential to, ahem, generate a lot of support calls. But yeah, from my perspective, it'd be very nice… especially when you're trying to convince students to buy it beyond that 9-month student deal.

  • yuG emoS

    )-: .esnopser deliated ruoy rof sknahT :miK reteP@

    !reisae TOL a noitisnart eht ekam d'ti – stcejbo s'cigoL ot tnelaviuqe erew taht xaM ni stcejbo fo tes a saw ereht hsiw yllaer I .stcejbo xaM lareves fo boj eht od ot mees ,tcejbo remrofsnart eht .g.e ,meht fo ynam )ecnalg tsrif ta tsael ta( tub ,stcejbo ynam sa evah ton yam tnemnorivnE s'cigoL

    !lufesu*yllaer* eb d'tahT ?)gnihtemos ro sub CAI eht ro

    eriweR hguorht( cigoL ni desu eb sehctap xaM naC

    )-; .won yb llet ylbaborp nac uoy sa ,yaw taht hsilgnE nialp gnidaer tsuj hguone tluciffid s'tI .ysae gnieb gniht tfel-ot-thgir eht enigami ot drah ti dnif I tuB .si yllaer ti reisae hcum woh ees dna 5 xaM rof tiaw tsuj ll'I esoppus I

    emoS ,sreehC

  • holy fucking god this is good news

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  • Adrian Anders

    God if Max catches up to Synthedit/Synthmaker in terms of GUI implementation I may start using it a WHOLE lot more than I do now. I've been hesitant to really dive into Max to make plug-ins, etc. because up to now most exported pluggos that I've seen are a) fugly and b) unstable on many PC hosts.

    It seems like this release will fix both the stability and GUI issues (I hope!).


  • DD

    Well, I'd like to know more about the timing…I've always found Max timing issues to be the most frustrating thing to deal with.

    I think I'd love to use this if it banished some of the frustrations I've had in the past…hell, maybe I could start using Max as a UI front-end to OSC-compatible sound producing backends (SC3). Hmm…

  • :yuG emoS@


    .tuo m'I ;niw uoY

    .maps ruo ekil kool stnemmoc eseht woN


  • Pedant

    Not to be too pedantic, but Logic wasn't "another app born in the late 80s". It was originally released in 1991/92, although it succeeded Notator, which was born in the late 80s.

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  • is it really true that Max/MSP is "the most powerful “blank slateâ€ย, custom creative software around" ? is it notably better than PureData? in what ways?

  • barKer

    a few reminders of Plogue Bidule…..


  • @Paul: In comparison to Pd, I'd have to say: overall breadth of objects, flexibility of development (JavaScript, Java support), networking facilities (thanks to the mxj objects), integrated OpenGL support, integration of different libraries (as opposed to Pd and its various extensions with their dependencies), full multi-platform support on Mac and Windows, and the patching interface itself in Max exceed what Pd provides. Pd (and GEM etc.) have some unique features of their own, some of them quite subtle — but no less important. I'm particularly impressed by netpd; there's nothing like that on the Max platform. But I think if you looked at overall breadth, Pd can't compete with Max, just in sheer quantity of features and the maturity of the development environment.

    Does that mean you should choose Max over Pd? Not necessarily. It'd be a mistake to discount the open source nature of Pd, and the fact that Max — whatever future speculation might be in David's article — doesn't support Linux. For that matter, some people will choose coding directly, or Csound, or SuperCollider, or Reaktor, or something else altogether — sometimes *because* Max is so big, or does things they don't need.

    But I'll absolutely stand behind that statement, because I do think it's true. I don't think there's anything quite on the scale / breadth of Max. What this demonstrates, though, is that that isn't always the most important factor: Cycling needed to step back and consider the Max codebase and (very significantly) the UI / user interaction. I wonder if the Pd developers would consider evaluating Pd's interface, or whether the Pd community feels it's best left as-is.

  • Ah, but you can do as Damon did and make a sound like a spoon in a garbage disposal in either Pd or Max.

    My own personal bias: what I'd really like to see is an open source synthesis library in a high-level language, ideally Java. There are times when coding is preferable to patching. ChucK is interesting, but if this were implemented in Java (and it is technically possible), synthesis could in turn be integrated into other software more easily. That's really a separate discussion, though.

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  • As far as Max vs. PD goes, I would say that PD has about 70% of the functionality, and about 30% of the polish that Max has.

    I don't mean to detract from PD and MIller's efforts with PD at all here. Miller is clearly brilliant. PD just hasn't had access to the resources that Max has been able to utilize.

    Patching in PD is like getting in a time machine and patching in Max in the late 1980s. There has been a lot of Max development since then. Patching in PD feels somewhat crude in comparison to Max4, much less Max5.



    Disclaimer: I do occasional consulting for Cycling 74. These are my opinions only.

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  • dead_red_eyes

    Wow … that backwards comment hurts my brain!!!!

  • Im really excited and nervous. Im worried that all my patches wont work and after seeing how long it took for my favorite externals to get updated after the switch to intel, well im not looking forward to waiting another 2 years to get settled in fully after I just got settled into my MBP.

    secondly, about time!!! its funny that I posted a thread a while back on the list and basically feature requested several of these things. I think the community knew what wavelength Mr Z is on! Im ecstatic about most of the new changes!

  • Some Guy

    @Peter Kim: Glad you appreciate my sense of silliness. ๐Ÿ™‚

    But I was also emphasizing the point I'd already made, which dead_red_eyes' response highlights: trying to think from right to left when figuring out what a Max object does hurts MY brain! I read English from left to right (usually for hours a hours), I read music from left to right (often for hours a day), Logic's Environment objects work from left to right, I live in a country where we drive on the left side of the road, and I'm left-handed. Thinking right-to-left is… ummm… WRONG! And while Max is being revamped it's a perfect opportunity to fix this 20 y.o. blunder.

    BTW, I'm not sure how the right-to-left thing can be so significant that changing it would "alienat[e] 20 years of Max users" and at the same time be "not so bad" because "it's so rare with patching that you do so much flow control visually" and "because a good Max programmer usually doesn't rely on it anyway". How can it be a problem AND not a problem?

    Dead horse completely flogged yet? [Goes away sulking…]

  • Actually, regarding Pd, now that we've brought it up — anyone out there familiar with the way Pd is developed? Why not redo the interface with Qt or GTK? I don't think Pd *should* necessarily emulate Max 4 or Max 5; maybe there's a direction in which it could go that would be uniquely its own. But this may come down to how it was developed.

  • @Some Guy: "I’m not sure how the right-to-left thing can be so significant" – It's significant because it's the way Max has been functioning for 20 years, so even if someone wasn't aware of it while writing a Max patch, they were still creating within this right to left structure. There are thousands+ patches out there depending on right-to-left order of operations without their creators even knowing it. All these would (will?) break if (when?) Max 5 changes the way it does business.

    Here in the future, good Max programmers do use [trigger] objects to specify exactly which branches of the structure should fire off, but it didn't used to be this way. The increased use of [trigger] as good programming practice may have happened as a direct result of brains hurting tracking down order of operation issues.

  • PetitZozo

    Hmm seriously… lot of that stuff should have been in there for a LONG time.

    – Multiple undo ? (come on…)

    – Zoom in and out in patches ?

    – Code built on cross-platform libraries? (what were you thinking?)

    – Integrated documentation…

    Absolutely brilliant software, no problem, but how comes it's so late on such basic things? And huh, why not wait until Pluggo support is not "completely broken" anymore?

  • Rio

    Petitzolo, if you know how many programmers they got (around7, distributed around the world, not all full time) and how big C74 is (around 25), you'll know that it is already a great effort for them to switch to PC and intel MACs.

  • @PetitZozo, some of this requires clarification:

    *Zoom in/zoom out is a relatively new idea in patching.

    *Code in Max 4 presently has cross-platform elements; this was just as I understand it a chance to build a an even more platform-neutral and flexible foundation for the future. And overhauling code isn't a fast process (Max is largely written in C).

    *Documentation is integrated in example patches, to an extent it's not with Pd, and there's generally great documentation in Max 4 (certainly a lot of it). This simply takes the next logical step.

    So I don't think "late" is quite fair. The one area where I expect Max die-hards and C74 would probably agree with you is the UI itself, which is largely unchanged since Max 3, and multiple undo, which everyone wants.

    But I agree, I would love to have plug-in export the day it ships, just because I'll be happily patching and want to use those patches with other hosts.

  • If anyone from C74 looks here, then I'd like to say, I'd buy it for Linux.

  • Some Guy

    @Vlad Spears: I actually said 'I’m not sure how the right-to-left thing can be so significant that changing it would “alienat[e] 20 years of Max usersâ€ย AND AT THE SAME TIME be “not so badâ€ย…' i.e. it seemed that I was being told 2 completely opposite things.

    But thankyou for elaborating on why the issue's so important. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I know nothing about Max's internal workings, but as a naive wanna-be user wanting what's probably impossible, it'd be really nice if this issue could be fixed (according to my way of thinking) without breaking the thousands of patches out there.

  • @Some Guy: I don't think it's naive to want to change the right-to-left ordering system. It really *is* confusing sometimes. I've been using Max quite a while now, and I'm still getting caught by it.

    I was thinking about it after I posted that last response: [trigger] is a perfect one object example of how screwed up everything could be if Cycling changed order of operations. [trigger] itself operates right to left. So [trigger b i] first sends out an integer coming through it to one place, *then* a bang to another place.

    So… even all our new patches relying on [trigger] for order forcing would break. ๐Ÿ™

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  • C. Elliot Thursday

    Max on Linux would be great for many reasons not the least of which would be the ability to use the patches in Runtime on inexpensive Windows-free computers. Great for art installations.

  • @SomeGuy

    Either R2L or L2R evaluation can present the same sort of problem when a patcher is restructured. Evaluation based on graphic distribution in a patch is inherently somewhat fragile. Judicious use of trigger goes a long way to solving this problem, and making code location independent. Factoring your code into good abstractions and sub-patchers helps dramatically, too.

    I'm sorry that the R2L thing seems so wrong to you. I don't expect it to ever change. All I can say is that, in my experience, after you've been at it for a while, it's rare to have it be a problem. I honestly can't remember the last time an R2L problem tripped me up. Changing it to L2R would not so much alienate the existing Max user base, as much as it would break existing patches.

    When I was first learning guitar, I thought that the fretting hand should have been my right one (I'm right handed). Way too many years later, fretting with my left hand seems the only way to do it. Postscript has a coordinate system that seemed really alien to me at first, but I got over it.

    (I suppose that I shouldn't mention that in the case of an R2L "tie" during patch evaluation, it then proceeds from bottom to top) ๐Ÿ™‚

    @ PetitZozo

    The basic premise of this release was to construct a modern foundation upon which to build. To quote Devo – "Duty Now for the Future."

    You can argue that some of this stuff is late in coming (e.g. multiple undo), but if you read David Z's article, you see that much of the cause was the program's deep roots, and the need to support the moving targets of major OS revisions & processor changes. These were eating much of the development time. It's hard to make the environment nicer when all your time is spent on making it run on whatever Apple or Microsoft throw your way.

    Also, I would argue that completely cross platform code is the exception in software development, not the rule.

  • Some Guy

    @ Chris Muir: Thanks mate – the more it's explained with such care the more confident I feel in having another go at Max one day, especially once version 5's released.

    Logic's Environment has some bugs and limitations (unless they've been fixed in version 8?) particularly in more elaborate patches, so I've been tempted for years to move to *THE* MIDI processing program. I'm getting sick of waiting to see whether Apple's secret plans include developing that part of Logic.

    Funnily enough, I agree with your first impressions of how to play the guitar. As a leftie who plays a bit of guitar I reckon one's dominant hand *should* do the fretting. So, yeah, I play guitar right-handed. So, apparently, does fellow leftie Steve Morse, the guitar genius who disqualified himself from winning the Guitar Player magazine "player of the year" award by winning it 5 years in a row and replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. And Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

    And no, PLEASE don't mention that bottom to top thing! =:-O

    Cheers, Some

  • Doug Theriault

    "My own personal bias: what I’d really like to see is an open source synthesis library in a high-level language, ideally Java"

    Peter, come on man ๐Ÿ™‚ Nick Didkovsky has a java based program that is awesome great for instrument building with Java, check it out.

    <a href="” target=”_blank”> …” target=”_blank”>

    Would be nice for you to post an article about it. It's been posted in a few magazines, etc for over a year now.

  • JMSL is an interesting tool and I do hope to talk about it. But it's not a synthesis library; for the most part, it relies on JSyn, which I think is not pure Java and is definitely not open source. What we really need is a real-time Java implementation (currently not readily available), and a pure-Java synthesis engine on top of it. The reason I say this is not arbitrary; it would give us a more modern synthesis library that others could build upon and expand freely, which could be greatly beneficial to research purposes. I believe in the value of commercial and proprietary code, but there's still a need for people doing research in synthesis to have a fully-open synthesis library with reasonable performance written in a more popular higher-level language. (Hence, I'm not talking Csound.)

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