Sound-Responsive Visuals with Max for Live

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Almost 2 years ago I was approached by artist and producer Adriano Clemente about creating a Max for Live device that would allow him to generate sound responsive visuals during his live sets. We had worked together on a number of interactive projects for other artists and had discussed wanting to collaborate on something together. A Max for Live device seemed natural as Adriano teaches Ableton Live at Dubspot in NYC, and I had been teaching and using max for years to develop interactive sound and video pieces for myself and others. 

As a DJ, Adriano knows what tools are helpful to have during a live set. For him, the ability to automate parameters was key. So, one of the first things I set out to do in my programming was develop an easy way to assign LFO's and other control data to the knobs and sliders in the device. We devised the drop down menu that is located above each of the ui elements. The menu system allows you to assign a visual effect to the control of one of three LFO's - or high, mid, or low frequencies in the audio track. The LFO's can be switched from several BPM synchronized note values, or to free oscillating rates specified in Hz.

When we had this skeleton of the device figured out, we moved on to deciding which visual effects would be included. We knew we wanted there to be the possibility of having two videos crossfade because it was something that we hadn't seen in a Max for Live device yet. I also wanted to expose newcomers to all of this stuff that is almost hidden in the examples folders of Max, so I added in some of those compositing ideas lurking in the program's subfolders. We wanted the device to be very functional, so we made sure that all of the fundamental effects you would expect in a VJ tool were there. These are things like hue, saturation, and color balancing including more boutique things like color inversion and kaleidoscopic effects.

I would say the majority of people with Max for Live have no idea about all of the pre built example code that comes with the install - so I wanted to unearth that stuff and package it in a neat little box that people could get their hands on and use quickly. That isn't to say that all of the visual effects in Live Video Tools already come with max though. Some of the more interesting effects like "Leave" and "Displace" were programmed using custom algorithms. The Leave effect takes an incoming video frame and checks it against it's previous frame - if a pixel in the current frame isn't less or greater than the threshold set by the knob, it will leave the previous pixel. A weird idea but very cool looking. The Displace effect acts like a vertical or horizontal hold on an analog television but only effects pixels with a certain luminosity. This creates a really strange looking take on a classic form of video manipulation.

One of the other pieces of functionality that we built in was the ability to save and recall presets. There were several challenges in achieving this but we ultimately settled on our two part preset system. The main preset slots would store things like knob states, slider values, loop points - visual effect data that is dialed in by the user. The second preset system which is hidden to make the device less wide by default stores video files. The ability to store video files is key because it allows you to greatly scale up the variability of your visuals. With 40 preset slots in the secondary video preset system, a total of 80 video loops can be accessed without having to search through Ableton's file browser. Separating the two systems allowed us to program in the ability to "slide" between stored presets in the first system without very quickly recalling video files introducing lag. 

Live Video Tools offers a quick drag and drop interface for loading media. Videos play back automatically and parameters are quickly automatable and midi-mapable. The main output window can be fullscreened on a secondary display or projector and even simple video mapping can be accomplished using the built-in corner pinning feature. A free demo version is available that offers the same ease of use with limited features. Take a look at a promotional video released by Dubspot and download the device from