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Visual Synthesis

One of the things I think about when I think about electronic music is the future performance aspects. Unlike a “regular” band, there’s not a lot happening on the stage for an audience to look at. So, what does the visual aspect of an electronic music performance look like?

Many years ago (apparently, 40 of them), I saw Howard Jones live at Merriweather in Columbia, MD. He was touring in support of his first album at the time, and I remember just how little was going on. The whole stage setup was white. White floor, white risers, white walls, white lights. I’m guess Jones had some concerns about the audience reaction to a skinny guy with a shock of blonde hair standing alone on the stage with some keyboards and synths, because he brought a bass player along. And that was the whole show. Jones on one riser with his keyboards and bass player on another riser with his bass. Musically, the show as really fun. Visually, it was a snooze-fest, especially for those of use camped out on the lawn.

Sleepy Circuits Hypno Video Synthesizer System

There are quite a few hardware “video synthesizers” on the market, and some of them are really pretty neat. But, while big-screen TV monitors and even decent video projectors are relatively cheap these days, the devices to drive them can be quite costly. Even so, I’m intrigued with some of these products, such as the Sleepy Circuits Hypno Semi-Modular Video Synthesizer System, a Raspberry Pi-based, Eurorack-compatible module that can create basic video and mix it with incoming camera video. The Recursion Studio by Entropy and Sons also looks really neat, but will come at about twice the price of Hypno. (By the way, you can sign up to win a free Recursion Studio! I did!). Critter and Guitari also make a number of less expensive, though much simpler, visual synths. Their Eyesy is intriguing, since it offers HDMI output, but it’s not as advanced as other, newer products on the market. Their Video Scopes series are very affordable, but only have a composite video output.

I actually like the idea of using a computer-based “visualizer” to generate the source video based on both audio and MIDI input. I posted a video some time back, and today I had another, more in-depth session with the VS Visual Synthesizer plug-in by imaginando, specifically looking at how both audio and MIDI can be simultaneously used to guide several video layers. VS can also operate in a stand-alone mode on a PC, Mac, or iOS device, so it could be loaded onto a computer with an audio/MIDI interface to take the load off of the main sequencing computer.

In this example… Visual Synthesizer is running as an instrument on a MIDI track in Ableton Live. Audio is from Izotope Iris 2 playing fairly simple patterns on another MIDI track, and piped through Cluster Delay by Minimal Audio. Percussion tracks are from clips included with Ableton Live 11 Suite. The resultant audio is sent to VS’s [virtual] audio inputs. The MIDI from Iris 2 is used to trigger VS to “play,” and the audio “modulates” different video layers’ size and intensity and various other parameters. Based on the incoming audio and MIDI data, VS applies modulation to each visual layer using two envelopes, four LFOs, and four audio modulators which can be either threshold-based or filter-based. The results are not always entirely predictable, but are always interesting….

While VS doesn’t have capability to mix it’s video with an incoming feed, that’s a task that could be easily accomplished with something like a Black Magic Design ATEM Mini or even using a complete software solution like OBS. It also appears that VS can appear as an NDI source on a Tricaster or other NDI-compatible video switcher. The downside, to me, of a software-based visualizer is that real-time control appears difficult at best, so tweaks or changes to the video during performance could be less than convenient. The concept of being able to control an entire electronic music show, including visuals and lights, from Ableton Live or Native Instruments Maschine is really exciting, though.

And, as with pretty much everything else I research, I have a playlist of videos on YouTube that I’ll be updating as I find more interesting tidbits…

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