Sound Byte: The Father of Computer Music - Max Mathews

We take a moment to honor and look back at the legacy that Max Mathews has left with the video game audio community in this special edition of Sound Byte.

When the topic of video game music comes up, gamers and even non-gamers have a tendency to think back on the classic melodies from Super Mario Bros., Tetris, or Final Fantasy. These catchy 8-bit tunes left a lasting impression, especially for anyone lucky enough to grow up during the era of big hair and leg warmers. Older games like the iconic Pac-Man and Pong have also made their mark in the audio realm of video games, but digital music and sound go back even further than the 1970s.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

It was 1957 when Max Mathews wrote MUSIC, one of the first computer programs written to make music (or sound) on a digital computer and was widely used in the music research community. Mathews' program spawned multiple descendants including current programs such as Csound, Cmix and MAX--named after Mathews himself--that video game composers such as Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill, Shadows of the Damned) have used. In the 1970s Mathews developed Groove, a system used to create and manipulate music, and it was the first computer system designed for live performance.

"Mathew's visionary work in computer music was the forerunner of modern digital audio sequencing and reverberates into the future of cutting-edge new developments in real-time music composition," said Adam Levenson, executive director of OmniMedia Music who has managed multiple audio and talent groups at Activision.

His work didn't end there. Mathews' interest in live performance and what a computer could do to help a performer led him to invent the radio-baton and the conductor program, a controller and program used for conducting MIDI music files. This device helped pave the way for motion controllers that were eventually developed by Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. To see a demonstration, click for the video here.

Computers have come a long way since Mathews first began his work in the 1950s at Bell Labs. At the time, computers were so weak that there was no possible way for the machine to play music in real time because it would take several seconds to generate a second of sound. Now, it's entirely possible to create an orchestra in real time on a laptop.

According to his eldest son, Vernon Mathews, working in digital music was by accident. He was originally set to work for Honeywell after graduating from MIT, but by chance he met with someone who would ultimately lead him to Bell Labs, where he would be able to pursue his research in digitizing sound and lay out the groundwork for the tools that exist now.

"He was an amateur musician. He was basically given a job assignment which snowballed into his interest in digital music. It was often just a hobby," Vernon said. "Once he was established and once he had this interested, he worked at it tirelessly."

At the time when Mathews was hired at Bell Labs, his son said that it was an environment that encouraged research and development of technology and that Mathews wanted to have his work be public domain.

"He wanted his work developed," said Vernon. "He nurtured a lot of musicians and tried to get them interested in composing with his tools. What he did with the radio-baton, certainly in someone else's hands [would have] turned into a lot of patent royalties, but Max was just interested in people having the tools to manipulate music and expand the musical frontiers."

An avid violinist who enjoyed Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn, Mathews continued his work for decades to come, collaborating with composers and other scientists. After leaving Bell, he continued his research at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University.

"He never became irrelevant," said his son. "Everybody was always seeking him out. He didn't want to flush it all out himself. He wanted people to develop [his work] so he always had students around him and was always looking for somebody, for the ultimate composer that would really make electronic music listenable."

Chris Chafe, the director of the CCRMA, was a friend and colleague of Mathews and together they worked on various projects over the years. Not only did they play music together--with Mathews on the violin and Chafe on the cello--but Chafe continues to use a prototype bridge pickup that Mathews designed for him in 1988 for his hand-made cello.

Max Mathews and the Radio-Baton.

"He made the electronics for it, a prototype. That's the quality of engineer this guy was. A prototype in 1988, and I'm still carting it around onstage," said Chafe. "Everything he did was that kind of engineering finesse. [He] built stuff that lasted."

Chafe did note that not one person does everything, but he pointed out that Mathews was the right person to instigate and inspire others and ultimately planted the seed of an entire medium back in the late 1950s.

"We're all very lucky it was Max," said Chafe. "Friendly guy, always a smile and very approachable. He's always in contact with people from all over the world, a real people person. He had a real quality of appreciation. It was neat to see some things through his eyes and you learn what he appreciated."

Mathews may not have actively been a part of the video game music community, but his extensive research and inspiring work has evolved into a medium that game composers, sound designers, and audio engineers can take advantage of.

And they do. Boris Salchow, the composer for Resistance 3, called Mathews "a tireless optimist and visionary whose inventions not only led to collaborations with Cage, Varese, and Boulez, but who laid the groundwork for many of the most interesting and cutting-edge music software products that were created recently since music production itself has moved into the digital realm."

Even though Mathews' work was always meant for the public and meant to be evolved by others, his ideas and inventions have made a mark in audio history and will continue to live on as the industry grows.

"For computer audio and music, Max was the combination of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Albert Einstein," said Rod Abernethy, the composer for the upcoming game Rage by id Software. "There will never be another like him. Max was at the right place at the right time in history, the true 'inventor' of computer audio. Anyone creating digital music--past, present, and future--owes Max Mathews big time."

Max Mathews was born on November 13, 1926, in Columbus, Nebraska, and passed away April 21, 2011, in San Francisco. A memorial event is planned in honor of Mathews on Sunday, May 29, at CCRMA, located at The Knoll Building, 660 Lomita Dr., Stanford, CA 94305, beginning at 5:00 p.m. All are welcome, and his son Vernon suggests bringing ear plugs. For more details on the event, please visit the CCRMA web site. For information regarding Max Mathews' work and the history of computer audio, please visit the Computer History Museum.

Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music and audio in games, including interviews with top game music composers and sound designers, as well as discussions of new or classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below or e-mail us at soundbyte@gamespot.com. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here. Follow us on Twitter! @gs_soundbyte

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Discussion

55 comments
AkhilAnilkumar
AkhilAnilkumar

I still remember the music from super mario even though i haven't played it in years.

Tayar
Tayar

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Tayar
Tayar

Thank you and Rest in Peace.

raduaerosx
raduaerosx

Truly a Genius ! Never know about this until now thank you Gamespot ! R.I.P Max Mathews and Thank you for your great music and tools that you give it to the world and to all of us.

deplay2000
deplay2000

He is grate one he made it trough all the realms of evil shadows that covered researchers and he survive the history is writing by him "MAXDIGIT" may his gentle and humble soul rest in perfect peace.

DarkPadwan
DarkPadwan

All current forms of modern music can pay hommage to Max Mathews. R.I.P

DeskLazer
DeskLazer

I love when gamespot does stuff like this. what an amazing impact max had [and Max/MSP is a great piece of software too]. RIP.

c_rakestraw
c_rakestraw moderator moderator

Truly a revolutionary. It's a darn shame he's gone now. May he rest in peace.

Blankgen86
Blankgen86

That was fascinating, what an amazing man. R.I.P.

19Gam3NErD91
19Gam3NErD91

R.I.P Max Mathews. you definitely were a great man and had a great impact in the world of digital audio.

bobdimstar
bobdimstar

heh the man who revolutionised electronic digital music,and i wont know bout it till gamespot wrote about him,R.I.P MM

jjmonster2006
jjmonster2006

rest in peace Max. Thank you for your gift and for the memories.

FreakshowGamer
FreakshowGamer

Wow, very eye-opening. I didn't know digital music was so old! It also gives me a view on how great technology advances.

neonhair
neonhair

that was awesome, that's a great man right there.

VintAge68
VintAge68

@theKSMM "It's a shame that there aren't more places like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC that encourage pure research for its own sake anymore." - Yes and no: Over the last decades most industrial research in the domain of entertainment electronics in general has been provided by big private companies like Sony (and with more money than used to have the universities), while the growing computer industry contributed a lot to making digital devices --both hard and software-- affordable to everybody so that electronic music today can easily be produced in a home studio (and distributed via Internet), independent of public funding (techno music and other pop electronica did largely profit from this), yet academic research structures still have the task of teaching basic scientific concepts and traditions. However, computer music concerns video games only in part, and there synthetic sound contents like in Pacman might be closer to genuine electronic music, while a lot of musics used in video games today in reality is but truly composed music performed through real orchestras just implemented in the game...

archvile_78
archvile_78

I owe it to this man for listening to video games music. Rest in peace sir, your legacy will not be forgotten.

Jiraiyair94
Jiraiyair94

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

vash_destampede
vash_destampede

a man who pursues music for the sake of music, that what makes him a legend.. RIP

Zv2112
Zv2112

Ahh, so this is the guy that caused one of the greatest degeneration in the history of humanity. Good to know.

havocmerc
havocmerc

He was and will always be the master.

giantming
giantming

Hugely respect him. We will miss you a lot.

uckazaz
uckazaz

He's great man. It's very nice to see that great article about him. They started some things with the idea of "singing computer" at Bell Labs. A song called Daisy was the first which can be found on YouTube. Also, there is an allusion to that song in the movie 2001: A Space Oddysey. April 21 was the date that Richard Boulanger "Dr. B" visited our school in İstanbul with one of those radio batons and told about its inventor. It was sad to learn that he passed away so soon after we talked a lot of things about him respectfully and gratefully. RIP Max Mathews the father of the computer music. I wish I could go to CCRMA for the memorial.

theKSMM
theKSMM

It's interesting to read about the research and technologies that led to the rise of the videogame industry before there were even videogames to consider. We take these things for granted today, but the people who imagined what was possible were visionaries. It's a shame that there aren't more places like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC that encourage pure research for its own sake anymore.

lemoi
lemoi

Never heard of Max Mathews before but I'm going to change that starting right now :) Thanks Max, RIP.

ahpuck
ahpuck

I curse myself for not knowing about this wonderful man before. Awesome article, thanks for sharing.

apolloooo
apolloooo

without him there can be no vidogame music

edmaccan
edmaccan

The man who started it all.

kuruppath
kuruppath

A legend no doubt and a great article

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

awesome, the father of pc music, great article GS!

MJ12-Conspiracy
MJ12-Conspiracy

It sounds like Mathews was a genius, I didn't know electronic music could be traced back to the 1950's. Cool video and great article.

Super-Poke-Bros
Super-Poke-Bros

Thanks Max. Great article. Musi...wait a minute!...how come Gamespot users can't add Youtube videos to their posts?