The Slate Material Editor

Understanding what makes a realistic material

01. Introduction – What you’re going to learn

The material that defines your product is as critical to the consumer as the geometry that shapes it. It needs to tell the person looking at a picture if the finish is smooth or rough, polished or matte, opaque or translucent, soft like fabric or hard like stone. Here in this section you will be introduced to the Slate Material Editor, the main editing interface for creating and interacting with materials in 3DS Max.

02. What is the Slate Editor?

The Slate Editor is where you create a material and navigate any libraries of previous materials saved. You can customize the layout to best suit your needs, but the typical layout below works well. You can open the Material Editor by pressing (M) on the keyboard.

The default UI loads in Compact Mode but you can change to the Slate Editor by going to Modes – > Slate Material Editor in the menu bar of the Material Editor window. The biggest advantage of the Slate Editor is you are able to see how the material is built all in one screen and you can create tabs for different materials in the scene to keep things organized easier.

03. Components of the Slate Material Editor Interface

a. Material/Map Browser

On the left side of the screen is the Material & Map Browser. Here you can load/save materials you’ve built and start creating libraries to commonly used maps without having to search for them constantly. The individual maps you use are called nodes.

i. To create shortcuts create a new group from the dropdown. You can name the group whatever you like and can drag it by the title bar to rearrange it in the stack. Now simply drag material nodes you want into it. The colored text corresponds to colored areas on the image.

ii. If you make custom settings to a node and want to overwrite an older one just drag the new node over the old and you’ll see a red line appear. This will overwrite the settings.

iii. When you right-click in the graph editor this Material/Map browser will show up in the same order. When updating a saved material right click the title bar and choose to update the library.

iv. Creating a Material Library will let you save built materials and their settings in a .mat file. It doesn’t copy the bitmaps referenced in the material so if you plan on sharing these make sure the reference images are saved in an area accessible by other users (try to name the folder and images clearly or same as the material)

v. The search bar will search all default maps and any loaded groups.

Note: To search for a V-Ray Material you have to preface the name with “VRay” for it to come up. Ex: “vrayc” brings up “VrayColor” but if you just typed “color” it would not include “VRayColor”

vi. To add a node or material to the editor simply drag it over into the current view tab. Note: You can’t copy & paste between view tabs, and edits made to the same material in one view, that’s also in another tab won’t be mirrored. Views act as their own independent editors.

b. Graph Editor (View 1)

This is where you will be working with nodes to build materials. You can right-click on the view tab to rename the views, or in an empty area next to it to create new ones.

i. The red lines connecting the nodes are called noodles. Inputs are on the left and outputs on the right. When you
drag one over a circular connecting point then the connecting point will turn red or green depending on if it’s
a valid choice for that node combination.

ii. If you drag and drop a noodle over a non-interactive part of another node (like the name of the other node or a gray area that is not a circular connecting point) a context menu will pop up showing you the available connection options.

iii. If you drop a noodle onto an empty area in the graph editor then a context menu will pop up with available node options
that you could connect the noodle to.

iv. You can have multiple noodles from the same node. This is called Instancing and part of optimizing materials. You want to always have as few nodes as necessary to produce the desired effect.

v. Any node coming off another node is referred to as a child of that node. In the example to the right the Noise and Bitmap nodes are children to the VRayMtl node.

c. Common Shortcuts

i. Drag a noodle from an unused map to a node that is in use and it will transfer those noodles over to your unused node.

ii. Select a material and all its children with Alt-C.

iii. Organize all materials in the current view tab with (L).

iv. Hide unused slots in a node with (H).

v. Holding Shift and dragging a node duplicates it and instances any nodes that were connected to the original.

vi. Left-click and drag to select nodes and hit delete to detach.

vii. Drag a node from the material browser over an existing noodle to insert that node between two others.

viii. To organize all child nodes to the selected node hit (C).

ix. Pan by holding the middle-mouse button or use (Z) to zoom in and out of selections.


d. The Preview Window & Customizing the UI

To open a materials the Preview Window right-click the square thumbnail of any map in the graph editor and choose “Open Preview Window…” This will open a floating window that you can dock on any side of the Slate Editor. You only need to do this once unless you close out of the preview window.

The drop-down below the material preview window lets you select what preview is displayed. You can lock it to certain maps/nodes or have it change as you click on them. You can also double-click a node, like Color Correction, then single-click the VRayMtl node to see your final result as you adjust settings.

You can rearrange the UI of the Editor however you like. Drag windows by their title bar and place them on the arrows that show up to “dock” them there.

e. Parameter Editor

This is where you can make adjustments to any of the maps or nodes making up your material. Double-click any node to view its parameters (see right).

f. Toolbar

The toolbar allows you to sample and apply materials, lock attributes or organize the layout of your graph editor as outlined in the shortcuts earlier. Most are self explanatory by mousing over the icon and reading the tooltip.

  This icon lets you view that material in the viewport (with limitations)

  Turns on the multi-colored checker background in the Preview window.

04. Further Information

While this guide gives a brief overview of the editor and how to use it, there are many resources available on the Internet.

Here is a tutorial video by Arrimus 3D that does a good job of explaining the basics of using the Material Editor, even though they are using “Standard” materials, which we never do (we only recommend using a VRayMtl for your base materials).

Furthermore, Autodesk has a lot of great resources available on their help site. For a more detailed explanation of the Slate Editor click here.