Max for Live: the techno producers’ guide
Making techno with Ableton Live? Here’s why you should care about Max for Live, and some essential add-ons to try
Part of the appeal of Ableton Live is its customizability and the community around it. When Ableton added Max for Live some years ago, it allowed a tribe of advanced developers and hacker-musicians to make their own custom instruments, effects, and tools.
No more did Live users have to look at the software and wish for it to work differently. Those with some chops could create new features themselves. (“Ask not what Ableton Live can do for you, as what you can patch together in Max…”)
As an end-user, you can take advantage of that power with a download and maybe PayPal-ing a developer some lunch money for the week. Your reward: a more personalized, powerful set of tools in Live for yourself.
There are now so many Max for Live tools, in fact, that it’s impossible to explore all of them. So let’s learn what Max for Live is, and a few of the tools that might help you out as a techno producer.
"...make a device that checks the Internet for the weather outside and adjusts a reverb accordingly..."
What’s Max - and why is it unique?
Max for Live comes from Cycling ‘74’s Max. Max is a decades-old, powerful toolbox for making your own multimedia software. It’s a real development tool, but instead of typing in code, its main interface is visual - you patch together building blocks with virtual patch cables. If that sounds like a hardware modular synth, that’s no accident - the two paradigms grew up together, and the “patching” in software here is a direct reference to those synths.
This visual format is particularly well suited to audio applications. Even when writing code, it’s not uncommon to sketch a diagram of how signal flows on paper, so - why not make that sketch the actual interface.
Max is there if someday you want to get into it. But by baking Max into Ableton Live, Ableton also are giving you access to the ecosystem stuff Max users create. Max has acquired a deep set of tools for synthesis, effects processing, sequencing patterns, and even adding live video and 3D and interfacing with hardware and robotics. All of those capabilities are now available inside Ableton Live, which is far more than what something like the VST or Audio Unit plug-in format can provide. And yes, that means you could even, for example, make a device that checks the Internet for the weather outside and adjusts a reverb accordingly - or that controls a robotic arm to fist-pump along to your song.
What is Max for Live?
The “for Live” part of Max for Live means that Max patches can also work with Live itself. Devices made in Max for Live can use interfaces that look and behave like normal Instrument and Effect Devices in Live. There’s also the Live API, which lets these patches control other elements of Live - like set the tempo and create and manipulate clips and scenes. Those superpowers have made Max for Live a favorite tool for creating advanced integration with hardware.
Ableton and Cycling ‘74 have always had a close relationship. Before they started Ableton, co-founders Robert Henke and Gerhard Behles made their own Max patches together for performance and even released some alongside an album. Ableton bought Cycling ‘74 outright a few years ago.
You get the full set of development tools with a Max for Live - you can open up patches and modify them, or make your own. The Max standalone still exists for people who don’t care about Ableton Live, or who want to develop their own patches as standalone software (or, now, even run it on other hardware, but that’s another story).
What do you need to run Max for Live?
The important thing to know now is, you need to either buy Max for Live as an add-on, or (more likely) purchase or upgrade to the Suite edition of Live. Other versions don’t include Max for Live. But Max for Live alone is a great reason to invest in that upgrade, especially since you’ll find tons of devices for free.
Since Ableton Live 10, Max for Live has been fully “bundled” with Ableton Live. Previously, it relied on a separate installer, which could cause confusion when the version of Max didn’t sync up with the version of Live. Theoretically, this meant the two would release updates in lockstep. In reality, Max for Live slightly lags Live, but at least you know when you update Live, you’ll get a compatible update to Max for Live.
FREE Sample pack: 542 Techno Loops & Oneshots
Download in here: Free Sample Packs
How to install and use Max for Live devices
Ableton gives you a selection of Max for Live devices to get started. There are templates for making your own Instruments, Effects, and MIDI Devices, but probably you want to head straight to the Max for Live Essentials pack. It’s included with Live 10 Suite and later, or you can download it separately for Live 9:
That includes stuff you should try right away, like the Convolution Reverb and synths like Bass, plus a bunch of Devices you can use for advanced modulation.
You should also grab Max for Cats’ excellent Gratis Hits, also on Ableton’s site alone - useful for the MIDI monitor Ableton forgot, alone.
When you’re ready to give custom devices a try yourself from the other sources here, you’ll often be left with just a file with the extension .amxd - and you may not know what to do with it. Your best bet is to just drag it into a project where you want to use it - straight from the Finder or Windows Explorer into a track will work.
If you like what you’re seeing and want to have easier access, you can install to the User Library. Locate that on your OS - it’s found at Preferences > Library > Content Locations > Location of User Library. You can drag into the Max Audio Effect, Instruments, or MIDI Device folders depending on the type of device.
If you want to get advanced and make your own devices, Ableton have compiled a list of resources:
Let’s get to some of the actual tools for Max for Live - a selection of some great solutions techno producers will want.
Instruments and sound makers
Bengal is a powerful semi-modular polyphonic synth with FM and wavetable synthesis, built entirely in Max for Live. Basically, think deep modulation, filters, and sound generation - either via the ample presets or patching up some recipe for sound yourself. (If it’s more a modular synth you’re after, you should check out the 79EUR OSCiLLOT from the same developer, https://www.ableton.com/en/packs/oscillot/ - or try the Max for Cats Bundle, https://www.ableton.com/en/packs/max-cats-bundle/ !)
EUR 49, available from Ableton directly, https://www.ableton.com/en/packs/bengal/
Granulator II is a bit more experimental, but it’s still a must-download. It’s the creation of Robert Henke, who co-founded Ableton and is responsible for the design of tools like the Operator synth. Granulator II manipulates sound samples into stretched, singing, and warped textures. The same underlying principle is the basis of a lot of Live, but here you have an advanced set of tools for working with it.
Robert has other free creations, too, like a retro drum sample cell for 80s-style drum manipulation (MicroDrum), and a powerful step sequencer with modulation (NoteModulator).
Leakage from Tom Cosm is a freakadelic bassline machine, working with Live’s built-in Wavetable but allowing you to chain and transform presets thanks to Ableton Live. Connect to live performance input if jamming is your thing, or use the built-in step sequencer if you prefer programming. Either way, you can create radical shifting wavetable bass sounds.
Wave Weld from metafunction you need if you use any wavetable synth. Fire it up in Ableton Live and make wavetables, then bring those into Ableton’s own Wavetable, or Serum, or use it with your hardware wavetable synth, or whatever.
Green Kick is like the Live 10 kick, but better. It maps MIDI note to kick drum pitch, so tuning is easier (finally). And you get dials for both attack and decay, which weirdly Live’s kick lacks.
UltraKick is a kick for obsessive types. Developer Daan Pothoven adds extensive envelope controls, partials, noise shaping, equalizers, and even patchable modulation with seemingly endless options to tweak and compare. Or there’s randomization if you just want to see if you can get lucky.
Isotonik Studios (€27.66), https://isotonikstudios.com/product/ultrakick-kick-drum-synth/
GMaudio Dvolve Drumatix combines multiple effects that you can add to any drum bus. Distortion, filters, bitcrusher, EQ, expander, compressor, reverb - ideal for thickening and livening dull drum parts.
A$10 (less in USD), https://gumroad.com/l/gmaddp/
Pump is a zero-configuration sidechain compressor - the no-setup way to get a massive kick. (It has simple controls for envelope shape and gain reduction, too, if you want them.)
Pay what you want, https://patches.zone/pump
Art Frequencies is a Tokyo-based design shop with some beautiful effects. DEKOBOKO凸凹FX (yes those weird characters are part of the name) combines a sequencer, filters, and degrader. Whether you want techno or glitched-out IDM here is really down to how you set the parameters, but you can opt for a simpler ‘lite’ or full-blown ‘PRO’ edition.
Reverser by jabbone is for people who like Beat Repeat but wishes it reversed slices.
Circular Doppler is one more monolake creation that deserves special mention. It lets you create delays by simulating stereo positioning of virtual mics that you can move. It just turned ten years old this month, but it’s brilliant - the kind of thing that would be standard in Live if Robert Henke just decided everything, probably.
Particle-Reverb is a unique form of reverb effect based on granular processing instead of another technique. It’s a useful flavor to have in your arsenal, and the controls here are Ableton-esque and precise enough that you could easily be fooled into thinking this was an official Ableton device.
Sequencers and modulation
ALEXKID sequencers emulate analog style sequencing - think rows of knobs - for that hardware feeling inside Live. There are powerful generative tools ideal for techno (including vaguely Euclidean renditions and “hats for days”), so you’ll never be without an idea. It makes sense, coming from the inventor of the instant Haus genre.
Bundle A (€23,99), https://isotonikstudios.com/product/alexkid-sequencer-bundle-a/
POLYRHYTHMUS by bennniii remains the definitive Euclidean rhythm generator. Use it for great techno polyrhythms or go nuts and make insanely complex arpeggiators or use sequences to trigger other sequences.
Twistor is another of the deeper and more flexible modulation sources for Max for Live - use it as a fairly straightforward step-sequenced modulation, or go completely wild, or anything in between.
Modulat goes as far as you imagine with modulation, giving you a whole visual patching environment for connecting LFOs. It does steps, it does cross-fades - it’s an insanely powerful tool for adding transformation to your music, almost like adding an entire new layer to Live itself. (That also explains the higher price.)
Isotonik Modulat (€97.17), https://isotonikstudios.com/product/modulat/
Stokes and Weights are two companion sequencers - one for creating Euclidean polyrhythms (a kind of symmetrical rhythm that sounds really good in techno), and one for doing even more with modulation using the same. Together, you can do crazy things with drums and melodies, in production or performance. (I did a long write-up/review of this one, as well. https://cdm.link/2020/02/strokes-euclidean-drum-sequencer-max-for-live/ )
GBP 10 each, https://www.congburn.co.uk/strokes
CURVE by SKINNERBOX is a stupidly simple but invaluable tool from the Berlin duo. Map anything to anything else, and CURVE does what it says on the tin - it lets you shape MIDI input into an adjustable curve. Nice!
NTPD Sometimes you need notes - like the ones with words, not the musical ones. They can be places to write information to yourself, or helpful when collaborating on sessions with other people. NTPD is the most elegant way to add them to a session (and ELPHNT has a bunch of other great Live content to check out, including some bundles.)
CV Tools from Ableton themselves give you a bunch of features that let you connect your Ableton Live rig to analog gear - like Eurorack modular or desktop synths and drum machines with CV.
Free from Ableton; here’s a guide I wrote to how to use it and what hardware you’ll need:
Also consider: Spektro Audio CV Toolkit (US$19.99, with a free ‘Mini’ version), which has its own patch bay.
IMPULSOUND M4L TOOLS is a handy collection of tools. There’s a simple but useful delay (a kind of stereo delay called a Haas Delay, here named “Haze”), a BPM sync calculator, a mastering/mixing rider, a sample loop calculator, and a tool that helps you locate and correct common problem frequencies.
$5+ pay what you will, https://gumroad.com/l/M4Ltools
ganz graf live reproduces the signature 3D animation effect produced by artist Alex Rutterford for Autechre’s IDM classic. Well, we thought it was really cool in 2002; now you can run it as easily as you could a screensaver and trip out to reactive visuals for your music.
See also the synnack mod: https://maxforlive.com/library/device/1530/ganz-graf-mod-x
EboSuite is what Ableton Live would look like if it could handle video as flexibly as it can audio. The exhausting Mac-only visual environment turns your Live rig into a full-blown VJ tool. And it keeps some paradigms you know from the music side - there’s an eSampler that works a bit like SImpler for video, clips that mimic Live’s Session View, plus transformations and even integration with other video tools and custom 2D/3D effects. You could use it to make Live an AV tool or VJ from your own live music or DJ sets, to make music videos, or even as a dedicated visual performance option.
And more… There are too many control/controller devices to mention, many providing remote access to synths (like KORG volca series, MeeBlip, and Roland Boutique), or modifying the way integration with controllers like Ableton Push and AKAI MPC work. Or there are devices like this control layout for the Roland TR-8S - perfect for integrating that drum machine with Live:
Aerobik Performer, free, https://maxforlive.com/library/device/5486/tr-8s-aerobik-performer
Got more questions about Max for Live? Other ideas for tutorials you'd like to see - on Max for Live, Ableton Live, or another topic? Let us know.
Peter Kirn is a composer/musician and creative technologist, creator of the site CDM, and once upon a time briefly even taught Max/MSP in Brooklyn College's music program, though his memory may be a bit fuzzy.