Image (CC) akihiko.japan.

Max for Live is a fantastic product that treads on genuinely new ground. Its level of integration with the user interface and operation of the host reaches a new high, it comes with a rich selection of instruments, effects, and tools to use as examples, and, in combination with Max 5’s re-vamped interface, makes a comfortable development environment. It does all of this inside a host that, true to its “Live” name, provides a unique workflow.

But Max for Live also comes with some significant strings attached, and it confirms some of the disadvantages to Max as a proprietary, vendor-specific development solution for music and performance. That means that it’ll be a superb choice for certain applications, but will fail to be a viable option for others.

Technology is about trade-offs; understanding those tradeoffs is essential to making informed decisions. There’s never a “right” choice; only a right choice for you. I think the music tech community will embrace Max for Live, but it’s also important to have alternatives. The DIY creative music community likely won’t – and certainly shouldn’t – simply make Max for Live and Ableton Live its tool for everything.

In summary:

1. Max for Live doesn’t have a free run-time, which means it’s not your best option if you want to reach a wide audience with your creations.

2. Max is no longer an option for people wanting to develop plug-ins for multiple hosts, a change that didn’t go over well with all developers partly because it was only revealed after Max 5 and Max for Live.

3. Jitter output while editing is crippled in Max for Live if you don’t also own Jitter.

4. Max isn’t an open source tool, which has practical implications, including –

5. You’ll want to choose something else if you’re interested in mobile music making.

You’ll want to weigh these options when considering Max for Live, even before considering the technical specifics of the tool. You may determine it’s still the perfect tool for the job, or you may not; it should simply be part of your equation.

These aren’t entirely black and white issues, so I’ll be specific:

1. There is no Max for Live run-time – meaning Max for Live is a poor choice for deployment of instruments, effects, and controller support.

This is the most significant and fundamental issue. If you create a Max for Live patch because you want to share it with other people, you should be aware that you’re limiting your audience. Anyone wishing to use your patch will need to buy both a full version of Live 8 and a full, $295 license for Max for Live. There is no free run-time, and neither Ableton nor Cycling ‘74 has indicated they plan one in the future. In fact, representatives of both Ableton and Cycling ‘74 have told me that they expect that many people will buy Max for Live at that price for the sole purpose of running other people’s patches.

Ableton and Cycling ‘74 are businesses, and this may well be the decision that’s in their best interests. Of course, you also have the right to make a decision that’s in your own best interests. If, for instance, you get commissioned by a band to make a Max for Live patch for their performances, then you might easily pay off your own cost for Max for Live – this might be a really smart way to go. On the other hand, if reaching a wide audience is your main goal, then Max for Live is probably not your best choice – particularly if you’re interested in providing support for a hardware controller in Live. (That’s part of the reason why I hope we’ll still see OSC natively supported in Live, not only in Max for Live.)

I’m not suggesting Max for Live isn’t worth its price – I actually think it could be a fantastic investment for many users. But that’s not the point: the question is, from a creator’s standpoint, does building a tool in Max for Live allow you to reach the people you want to reach? Anyone imagining a Max-style App Store for patches is likely to be disappointed with Max for Live, at least unless Ableton and Cycling ‘74 decide to change the deployment model. On the same note:

2. Max for Live marks the end of Max as a development tool for multiple hosts – a change that, whether justified or not, wasn’t clearly communicated.

One way around item #1 is to simply use Max 5’s existing – and excellent – support for producing standalone Mac and Windows applications that use its free run-time. I expect some users who aren’t as interested in Live will continue to opt for a conventional Max/MSP/Jitter license in place of a copy of Max for Live.

Unfortunately, Max 5’s versatility as a development tool no longer applies to plug-ins outside of Max for Live. The Pluggo framework had previously provided the ability to create VST, AU, and RTAS plug-ins for Mac and Windows, covering virtually every host on the market – even Pro Tools. It was included free with a copy of Max. Correction: Pluggo was a US$160 add-on for developers, including the Pluggo plug-ins bundle, though the run-time for users was free. As noted in comments, the run-time export itself was included in Max 4.5 and later. Now, Max costs just as much as it did before, but you can only target one host (Live). Not only is there an additional cost to you, but there is to your target user, too.

Again, it’s possible this change will ultimately make sense for Cycling ‘74 and the future development of Max. That’s the decision of Cycling ‘74 and Ableton. As for what makes sense in your future, that’s a different issue. You should simply be aware that if you want to create tools for hosts other than Live, Max is no longer your tool.

I’m also disappointed in the way that Cycling ‘74 made the announcement, and I think I’m obligated to express concern about that. When Max 5 was announced in September 2007 – by which point (according to Ableton’s press release today) work had already begun on Max for Live, this is what Cycling’s David Zicarelli told the user base:

“[Pluggo] 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.”

(See CDM’s article from that month.) That certainly implied support was coming when it was not. There was no mention at the time that the replacement would cost money, would no longer provide a free run-time, and would only work in Live. When Max 5 was shipped, there was still no news. When Max for Live was announced in January 2009 at NAMM, there was still no mention of the status of plug-in development in Max. It was only in May 2009 that Cycling ‘74 formerly announced it was discontinuing work on Pluggo and effectively ending cross-host compatibility. Whether that decision was made earlier and not made public, or whether Cycling really did wait until May 2009 to decide what to do, this meant that a big transition for its developer base became an awkward one.

3. Jitter editing is crippled for Max for Live users.

A major selling point of Max for Live – and a significant edge it has over solutions like SynthMaker in FL Studio or the open developer tools in Reaper – is its support for video and 3D. However, this support is crippled in Max for Live if you don’t own a separate Max/MSP/Jitter license, apparently for the sole reason of encouraging you to buy Max, too. Cycling ‘74 announced only this month that Jitter’s output window will be disabled while you’re editing patches. I thought perhaps this was for technical reasons, but in fact, if you buy a Max/MSP/Jitter license, this goes away.

The good news is, Jitter output works when you’re not editing the patch, so you can still make pretty amazing audiovisual performance solutions in Max for Live for people who don’t own Jitter but do own Max for Live. However, it seems to me unfortunate that software would be crippled for marketing reasons in this way.

4. Max isn’t open-source, and projects that use it should not be considered free software.

I’m not an ideologue, and neither are most of our readers. I rely on proprietary software on a daily basis, and I believe many of these tools are worth using. Different business models and development models may make sense for different projects.

It’s also clear that many things about Max 5’s development environment are unique, and have no direct alternative or equivalent. It’s a terrific tool, and for all the complaints about price, many users get more than their money’s worth. You make an investment in something because you think it’ll pay off.

Free and open source software has its own, unique payoff, however. You can write custom objects for Max, but you can’t modify ones that are already there. There’s no direct community involvement in the direction Max development takes. You can release a Max patch with an open-source license, but only your patch is free software; the creation tool is not. That’s not to discourage anyone from developing in Max. But if your aim is making free software, you should consider using free software as your development tools. That’s true not only of Max, but proprietary software like Apple’s Quartz Composer and Cocoa APIs, or Microsoft’s .NET. Having free software development communities using largely proprietary tools would limit the potential for these communities.

Many users are likely to use both something like Max and something like Pd or Processing; that’s healthy. But just as Cycling and Ableton have worked to build their business model, the larger music tech community will benefit if people contribute to and use the open source/free software model, as well.

You don’t need to engage in philosophical arguments because of the practical reasons for doing so. One practical reason these alternatives are important:


Mobile music applications have been empowered by open-source frameworks beneath; Pd, for instance, is behind the magic of the popular RjDj. That has led to millions of people using music tools on mobile devices – and the trend is likely to accelerate. Photo (CC) Nicolas Nova.

5. Open-source alternatives are the choice you need if you care about mobile hardware.

Ableton and Cycling ‘74 software run only on desktop Mac and Windows. Without touching the question of whether desktop Linux makes sense, open source software clearly has the edge on new, emerging, embedded, and mobile platforms. Part of being truly free software is the ability to compile that software anywhere, any time. On the Linux side, that includes platforms like Google’s Android or the upcoming Chrome OS, already running on mobile phones and e-readers, and soon on other devices. But this isn’t just about Linux or free software. Pd and ChucK, among others, already work on the iPhone, and have enabled commercial applications like RjDj and Smule, mobile apps that sell numerous copies and are featured in the windows of Apple Stores around the world. You could see a Max 5 run-time for iPhone, but it’s impossible for commercial development to keep pace with everything out there.

Conclusion: choose wisely. It’d be easy for me to come out, guns blazing, advocating free software development, or alternatively, make CDM the all-Max-for-Live-all-the-time channel and ignore other options. Obviously, neither of those makes sense. I hope that Cycling and Ableton will address some of these areas going forward. I hope that we’ll do as good a job as possible on CDM covering Max for Live and how to use it. I likewise hope that we’ll work hard to develop the free software community, too. Open source doesn’t have to mean unfriendly – have a look at Processing, which I’ve found easier to teach and easier to use in my own work than commercial software. This is really about understanding the underlying models behind these tools, making the best use of those models, and making the best use of the tools for the job.