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Max Factor 

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

Wednesday, May 29 2002
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.)

Of course, the Bay Area has seen more than its share of tech companies that quickly grab headlines and then fade away just as swiftly. But Cycling '74 isn't so much a survivor as a sidestepper, a boutique software company less interested in an IPO than in infusing idealism with pragmatism. As Zicarelli says of the company, "The overriding principle is sustainability." Many users vouch for Cycling '74's character. Los Angeles' Richard Zvonar -- a disciple of Max since 1989 -- explains, "The community transcends the usual users' groups that provide support for most commercial applications, largely because there is no sense of 'us' and 'them' in the Max world. The primary creators of the software are enthusiasts, and they treat their customers as part of a community."

Most of the company's employees, in fact, came looking for jobs specifically because they were so committed to the product. "It's worked out well," says Zicarelli. "You don't even have to think about what your culture or philosophy is going to be -- it's just centered around shared interest in the software, and everyone understands where everyone else is coming from."

A visit to the company's SOMA office gives a good indication of the low-key character of Cycling '74. The 500-square-foot room is cluttered with computers, award plaques from various magazines, and bundles of flattened boxes for shipping CD-ROMs. The lone symbol of dot-com decadence, a Herman Miller Aeron chair, was bought at a bankruptcy auction a few blocks away and wheeled back to the office. Zicarelli doesn't even work here -- he's based in Santa Cruz -- and most of the company's other employees work from home. Half of Cycling '74's 15 staffers live in the Bay Area; the rest are scattered across North America and farther afield. Matthew Curry, aka onetime S.F. techno-pop artist Safety Scissors, handles tech support from a cheap flat in Berlin.

Unlike other software companies, though, Cycling '74 also runs its own record label. Zicarelli founded the imprint, c74, last year, in an effort to release music made using the company's tools. "There was all this music [that] people were telling us about, and saying, 'We couldn't have done this without your software,'" says Zicarelli. "There are some people who think that the software company having its own label is cheating, like this music is only valuable to the company to the extent that it promotes the software, but that's not what we're doing at all." Cynics may quibble with Zicarelli's self-effacement, but there's no denying that the releases on c74 are artistically wide-ranging, from Tetsu Inoue and Carl Stone's relatively straightforward computer music to the Freight Elevator Quartet's dizzying mash-up of didgeridoo, cello, guitar, bass, synthesizers, and electronics. The label's latest release, William Kleinsasser's Available Instruments, may represent the most ambitious project using Max to date. On the full double-concerto, Kleinsasser recorded and processed the soloists and orchestra using Max/MSP, then fed the resulting mutations back into the music -- a far cry from the minimalist dance music with which the software has often been associated.

Further expanding its presence in the music world, Cycling '74 sponsored Chicago's August 2001 Transmissions Festival, an annual event of experimental and improvised sound -- a sponsorship Zicarelli says was motivated more by community than by commerce. "Obviously there's some marketing component to being involved with that. But as I've said before, the company is not being primarily focused on making tons of money. Rather, we're trying to support creative work. These are investments in culture. We hope that it has some benefit to the company, but not just in terms of getting our name out there. What we're trying to do is to make our company sustainable by making this culture sustainable."

The promotion can't hurt, of course, but even without it, Cycling '74 seems to be making its impact on the computer music community. "The program's been around over 10 years, commercially, and the sales just keep going up," Zicarelli says. "It's not like we've suddenly started doing a massive advertising push. It's all driven by word-of-mouth and a community of people who are extremely generous. They're the people who have made Max/MSP what it is."

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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