Online music making with open source tools. Hook up some phones and controls and lock yourself in a cage, if you like, as one of the core developers did.

Imagine a massively multiplayer music studio, connected worldwide over the Internet. Log in, and everyone sees a set of synths, effects, sequencers, or other custom patches. Everyone’s looking at essentially the same screen, and can add beats, trip out effects, slide the bpm up and down, and reprogram synths — all at once. That’s the basic idea of netpd.

Last night I attended New York’s first “Patching Circle” at Brooklyn Polytechnic, a chance for NYC area patchers to come and work in a communal environment, whether on Max, Pd, Processing, whatever. Pd superstar Moritz Wettstein was there, in town for a few months while in residency at Harvestworks, a music technology center in Soho. He booted up his kubuntu-running Linux laptop and fired up a complex set of synths and beats. Soon, we were listening to beats being reprogrammed in Switzerland via the same software as someone across the table changed a synth line. The magic all comes from netpd, build in Max/MSP’s open source cousin Pd, and it can run entirely free on Mac, Windows, or Linux:


There are many, many add-on patches like this one for netpd. Possibilities include sequencers, utilities, synths, effects, and even visual capabilities. Not sure who the woman represents — the spirit of netpd? Lady of the lake?

There’s more. The patches can be entirely redesigned by anyone accessing the server. If someone in Barcelona decides to add extra features to a synth, the new patch will be downloaded for everyone simultaneously on login so everyone has the same patches. Moritz told me that the core group of developers regularly holds all-development sessions where they patch collaboratively, so not only can you make music together, you can develop the software, together, too. (Think extreme programming.) You can listen to some results on the netpd site. The music has to be loop-oriented and sequenced so that latency doesn’t become an issue, but theoretically a wide variety of music could be possible, depending entirely on the users developing on the platform and what they choose to produce.

Thanks to GEM, visuals are possible, too, although not anything involving sampled files — sampled audio and video are out, because every user would have to download the files. Generative visuals in 2D or 3D are definitely game, and while it sounds like there’s less interest in this area, there’s lots of potential because of the power of the GEM add-on for Pd.

Enough of the technical details, though. I know what you’re asking: could I dress up in funny costumes, and answer phone lines and control netpd while in a cage? I get that question all the time. The answer, says Moritz, is yes. While I don’t entirely understand this process, he and some colleagues did a piece of performance art in a cage with various inputs (joysticks and such) controlling a custom netpd patch and a series of phone lines routing in calls from the public, courtesy a sophisticated open source phone switching solution (really!) called Asterisk.

See Moritz’s site for photos. His domain is down and there are some other problems, so I’ve included samples here.

Any netpd users out there? Sounds like we should have a CDM group.