Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better: MIDI Software Duel
Last night I bore witness to a battle... a geeky, geeky battle. Two MIDI-support software packages faced off in the arena of death, popcorn and kittens, and only one emerged triumphant.
At odds were two estranged brothers: the slick, user-friendly Max/MSP, and the scruffy, open-source pd-extended. Both packages act as MIDI interfaces between a computer and external inputs for the purpose of generating and manipulating sound: drum triggers, microphones, keystrokes, or anything else that can make noise. Max/MSP is packaged and sold, whereas pd-extended is given away and patched by the user community. I knew nothing whatsoever about either of these packages (I was lured in by the cool flyer), but immediately identified with the open-source underdog, since NowPublic is built on Drupal, an open-source platform.
Manning the MacBook Pro running Max/MSP was clean-cut and well-groomed Frank Tsonis. Operating the Macbook running pd-extended were fauxhawked Dafydd (DAFF-uth) Hughes and bushy-maned David McCallum, who entered the basement arena in suits and lucha libre masks. The event was emceed by Misha Glouberman, with brilliant musical accompaniment by Graham Collins and his magical keyboard.
The evening was divided into six events, whose objectives also created the means of running the contest. The opponents had to build a working buzzer, and then a functioning scoreboard. They had to create an applause-o-meter. They had to build a patch to make a clip-art kitten race across the screen. They then had to make the kitten dance, dance, dance. Both teams had to teach a n00b how to build a patch to make an on-screen image change.
The final event was a game of Pong, in which each team had to build a paddle powered by external input. Max/MSP's kitten-paddle was driven by a scream-o-meter. Pd-dextended's old-school paddle was driven by a piezo-enabled teletubby toy. Yes, someone had to spank Tinky-Winky in order to play the game. Such is the world we live in.
How did they fare? Well, the open-source roustabouts won 4-2. From what I gathered from this, pd-extended is easier to use, and required fewer elements to create a working patch. On the other hand, Max/MSP is far prettier to look at, and easier to teach, with its instant graphic elements. Note that both teams were made up of users whose ability level is beyond what you'd see in the help queue at Best Buy.
pd-extended won the Pong match, but I don' t think that that victory was related to the patches themselves. Both the scream-o-meter and the spank-a-tubby (?!) had steep learning curves, but the group who screamed would have a tougher time mastering their input system than would the single spanker, so, while neither side could claim Pong expertise, the pd-extended volunteer had a better handle on his Pong paddle than did the collective screamers for Max/MSP.
So how are these software packages used in real life? Music performance, teaching, and triggering. One user mentioned “granular audio”, which I'm not entirely convinced isn't a made-up term... the audience was composed of downtown techie types who spent the pre-show period discussing hacking/building conventions, hardware mods, and homebrew software. I just stood around trying to look cool.
A good time was had by all, and there was lots of beer and popcorn. The event was hosted by Interaccess, whose events I'll surely check out in the future.
The 11 pageviews that this story will get will be from really enthusiastic supporters of one or the other of these packages!