Know the Basics: 3ds Max Part 3: Material Editor

Creating realistic materials takes time, not only practicing but also studying real-world materials. We're all still learning but it's a fun process to be involved in.

Creating realistic materials takes time, not only practicing but also studying real-world materials. We're all still learning but it's a fun process to be involved in.

For part 3 of the Know The Basics series for 3ds Max, we take a look at the slate material editor built into 3ds Max...

Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 1: Modelling
Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 2: UV Mapping

Materials enable you to determine what objects will look like in the finished render. Materials hold properties of diffuse, reflection and refraction as well as bump and displacement. 3ds Max ships with a selection of different material types and each has its own set of unique properties. We'll be focusing less on the individual types of materials and more on how you can use the interface to create your materials. We'll also go into detail about what maps are and how they can be used in conjunction with materials.

Step 1: Compact vs slate material editor

Before around 2010 there was only one place to edit your materials and it was just called the material editor. Then came along a new and improved editor called the slate editor. The original one was then renamed to 'compact editor' and now 6 years later belongs in the dark ages, although I appreciate some people do prefer still to use it. I think though for new users it's better and more intuitive to learn about the slate editor and that's exactly what we'll be doing.

3ds Max ships with two material editors, the compact and the slate.

3ds Max ships with two material editors, the compact and the slate.

Step 2: Material/Map Browser

Open the slate material editor by pressing the 'M' key. You'll be confronted with a node based interface with a panel on the LHS called the 'Material/Map Browser'. All of the materials are listed first followed by the maps and depending on what renderer you have active a different set of materials and maps will appear. For example, if you have V-Ray active then you'll get a load of materials and maps which Chaos Group have developed for specific us with their renderer.

Choose your materials and maps from this panel. A simple drag and drop or double click will carry out the creation process.

Step 3: Materials

In that browser the first section is materials. I like to think of materials as the primary node that can be applied to any object we want. So you'll have a glass material which is separate from a concrete material. Each material will have a whole set of properties which make it unique. 3ds Max by default do give you access to a load of basic materials but I'd recommend utilising whichever one's ship with your renderer of choice.

Create a new material for each new material in your scene.

Step 4: Maps

Underneath materials in the LHS panel is the Maps section. Maps are basically nodes that can be plugged into properties of the materials. For example, there is a bitmap map type. This enables you to load bitmap files and it can be plugged into the properties of a material such as its diffuse or bump map properties. A material could therefore be made of many maps.

There are a whole host of different maps available to you. Each one performs a different task and has unique parameters.

Step 5: Active view

The large middle section is called the 'Active View'. This is where the nodes of your materials and maps live. You can drag any of the materials or maps from the LHS panel into your 'Active view'. You can move them around to your heart's content. You can even quickly duplicate these nodes by shift+dragging.

The active view gives you a node based layout of your materials.

Step 6: Active view continued

You'll notice that a standard material for example has a series of dots along its side. These enable you to plug map nodes into the properties of the material. Do this simply by dragging from the node of a map to one of these dots. It'll turn red if the connection is invalid. One of the beautiful things about the slate material editor over the compact version is that you can visually connect the same map into multiple materials. This saves endless amounts of time during the material creation process.

Create as many materials as you want within each view. We'll look shortly at how to find the materials you want if you created a lot.

Step 7: Parameter Editor

With a material selected (double-click on it) you'll notice that on the right hand side you get a load of properties that are specific to that material. These can all be edited and adjusted to get your desired result. The thumbnail associated with the material will update interactively. You can even use the sliders to animate properties over time such as making a material more transparent over the period of a few seconds for example. Just double-click on another material to see its properties instead.

Fine tune your materials by adjusting the parameters. Double-click on a material in the active view to bring forward its properties.

Step 8: View Navigation

In the bottom-right hand corner, you've got some icons which drive navigation tools. You can either use these or you can use shortcuts. I'd always recommend using shortcuts as it'll speed up your workflow. Pan using Ctrl+P. Zoom with Alt+Z. Simply use the Z key to zoom extents selected. There are several others and I would highly recommend getting used to them.

Use these icons or the shortcuts to move quickly around the active view.

Step 9: Navigator

The other way to navigate around your active view is to use the navigator which is located in the top-right corner. The red shape indicates what is being viewed currently in the active view. You can move this box around by simply clicking and dragging. This is a brilliant tool if you've got a really complex active view.

Keep track of large numbers of materials in a view by using the navigator.

Step 10: Views

The other way to manage really complex material setups contained within a scene is to use views. These are essentially tabs whereby each tab can contact a different set of materials. This is perfect if you want to keep all the wall materials in one place and all the translucent materials in another. This will keep your interface responsive and ensure that you find the exact materials in double quick time. It's also especially helpful in studio contexts when other people might be handling your files.

Set up multiple views to keep your materials nice and organised.

Step 11: Apply material to selected object

The final thing to cover is how you actually apply your materials to your objects! Obviously you need to know how to do this. With your material selected in the active view, simply go to the top toolbar and find the icon which says 'Assign material to selection'. Click this icon and your material will be transferred over to the object in your scene that is selected. Once that's done you can move onto the next material you need to create.

Make sure the object is selected and then click this button. You can also drag the material from the active view onto the object in the viewport.

Top tip 1: Moving node trees to other views

In an attempt to keep things organised or to duplicate node trees you may come across the requirement to move a node tree to another view. To do this just right click on your material and go to 'Move Tree To View' and simply select the view you want.

Keep on top of your organisation by making sure materials are contained in the right views.

Top tip 2: Customise the interface

You may think as you use the editor that you'd prefer the node direction to be the other way round. Well fear not! 3ds Max have given you the ability. Simple go to 'Options' and 'Preferences'.

Set the interface up how you want it with these handy settings.

Related links

Download 3ds Max
Head over to Autodesk's 'Area'
3ds Max tips on YouTube
For more from Paul, check out C A Design Services
Grab a copy of 3ds Max Projects
Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 1: Modelling
Know the basics: 3ds Max Part 2: UV Mapping

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