Are computers the worst planned-obsolescence racket since the lightbulb? Maybe, but I still want a new one. I always want a new one; that's the point. As soon as you think your machine can do everything you need it to do, “they” come up with new things to do that your CPU can't handle. Remember when you thought 16-bit/44.1 kHz sounded pretty good? Not to dis 24/96 — it does sound better — but cats have been able to produce albums on computers for a reasonably long time now. However, one certifiably dope activity that's been tough on native systems — particularly laptops — until just recently is VJing. Although there's been someone working visuals at nearly every rave since 1992, the interest in VJing during the past couple of years has risen concurrently with a laptop's ability to drive real-time VJ performance, which — with multiple video streams and effects running simultaneously — can beat on a CPU like a left-handed orphan.
Enter the Numark NuVJ, a marvelous hardware/software platform for aspiring VJs to take an immediate plunge into the vast waters of VJing. Unlike many of the older stand-alone VJ tools that intimidated with both an esoteric interface and a corpulent pricetag, the NuVJ adopts a control system that most DJs will instantly be comfortable with, along with a price that won't result in an eviction notice. To accompany the controller, Numark partnered with ArKaos to include a special NuVJ software based on the ArKaos VJ software.
The software disc also comes with a few hundred short videos, pictures, text effects and character generators to get you started. Installation was simple; the controller also acts as a giant hardware dongle. While the controller is USB bus-powered, if you don't have a powered port available, then you'll have to spring for the optional AC adapter.
SPIN SOMETHING, ANYTHING
The NuVJ hardware looks similar to one of several DJ-oriented MIDI controllers out there, and in fact, the NuVJ's buttons and controls send MIDI. This makes it very handy as a MIDI controller in audio apps when you're not VJing. In Ableton Live 6, I had no problem assigning the NuVJ's buttons to solo or mute tracks, the knobs to plug-in parameters, the faders to track volume, etc.
When you launch the NuVJ software, the hardware syncs up perfectly and immediately to the software functions, and the controller response was reliably instant. There are two identical sides for each video feed, with a crossfader to mix between them. Also in the center, there's a Tap button for setting the tempo (if you choose not to sync the tempo to incoming audio) and an Instablack button that fades the combined video to black. A Master FX section in the middle controls one of the 30 visual effects that you can apply to the master video output — that is, the combined signal that can output to a monitor, projector, etc. This section has knobs for selecting the effect, effect level and two parameter knobs, which vary depending on the effect. Finally, two encoders set the master contrast and brightness. The bright-blue backlit display shows you all of the relevant info related to your actions, such as effect parameter values, tempo, etc.
The NuVJ's left- (A) and right-hand (B) sides each have nine Pad buttons for launching clips and two knobs for controlling the effect that can be individually assigned to a clip. All NuVJ's knobs are endless rotaries, except for the Bank encoder on each side, which cycles the nine Pad buttons through 16 banks of clips. Both video channels access the same 16 banks, so you have 144 total slots to place videos, photos and graphics to use in your performance.
The pitch faders control playback speed; clips play forward at the fastest speed with the faders all the way up and then slow down all the way to a stop in the center position, at which point clips play in reverse faster and faster as the faders move down. The two jog wheels control momentary clip speed and clip scratching. If you nudge or spin the jog wheels, then the clips speed up or slow down momentarily. To scratch, you hold down the Scratch button to stop the clip, at which point its back and forth movement locks to the jog wheel.
Insta A and Insta B buttons bypass the crossfader to force the output to one channel or the other while you have one of those buttons pushed. The front-panel Auto-Fade Speed control sets the transtion from the Insta buttons from immediate to a slower fade. With Fader Start turned on from the front panel, a selected clip will begin playing once you move the crossfader toward its side. Also on the front, Fader Mode sets the crossfader to blend the two video channels or to mix them in and out with different types of video wipes. The wipes looked pretty cheesy, so I chose not to use them.
The NuVJ software may not be gorgeous, but with its self-explanatory one-window interface, you can feel at home using it in just a few minutes. It's basically a more informative mirror of the hardware, with some extra clip-related features at the bottom, a file/effect/video source browser to the left and three video displays across the top. A center display window shows you the master output, while the two on either side show the active clips, including their effects (if active).
To load up your video arsenal, the file browser shows your whole computer's folder directory, so you can drill down to your content and then drag videos over to the clip “cells.” You can also assign internal or external video cameras to cells for live feeds. Click on the Effects tab of the browser and then drag an effect on top of a cell to assign it. Each clip can have its own effect assigned — one at a time per clip. If you save your file, NuVJ will save the clip banks with their assigned effects, the position of the file browser and all other parameter information, making it easy to resume a session.
Along the bottom of the window, you see a cell properties area for whatever cell you last clicked on. The properties include six Copy modes, which determine how the clip is mixed with the other, from standard blending to Addition and Subtraction modes, where the pixels of one clip are added to or subtracted from the other. Other properties include playback modes: One-Shot, Loop or Ping Pong (forward then backward in a loop). There are also different masking modes, which let you tweak the brightness and color range for many cool combinations.
I tested NuVJ on an iMac 2.1 GHz G5 with 1.5 GB of RAM, usually with no other programs running. While way above the minimum system requirements, when I had two motion-heavy clips running with effects and a third master effect, I witnessed some choppy playback when trying to scratch video or drastically alter a clip's speed. That wasn't too surprising, as many current laptops on the market (and most desktops) exceed those CPU specs. To get the best performance, you should have the fastest hard drive, the most memory and most powerful graphics processor you can afford in a system. Numark also recommends encoding videos to the Motion JPEG format for best results, and the software can also lower the output resolution for a smoother flow.
Even with some performance issues — which the NuVJ isn't really to blame for — I had a blast learning the basics of VJing with the NuVJ. The hardware and software interfaces are immediately inviting to anyone familiar with DJ gear and looping software, which lets you get down to the fun of creating a visual image immediately. Sure, the closed system has limitations as compared to high-end VJ rigs, but no matter what skill level you're at or what system you're using, compelling VJing depends largely on your ability to choose or create great clips, creativity and your eye for composition. You could buy a NuVJ today and put on a decent visual background show for a local bar band tomorrow, or you could spend countless hours creating custom-made videos and performance tricks to define your unique style. That's what's nice about NuVJ: The choice is yours. And while it's as fun as a toy, it's clearly not just a toy. The first time I saw it in action was at the Sahara tent at Coachella in April. Not too shabby for a few bills out of your wallet.
NUVJ > $499
Pros: Simple, yet powerful approach to VJing for any skill level. Works as a MIDI controller for other apps. Compatible with all QuickTime video formats (Mac and PC) and Windows Media formats (PC). Low cost but lots of potential. Syncs tempo to incoming audio.
Cons: No upgrade path to full ArKaos VJ software. No AC power supply included.
Mac: G4/1GHz; 512 MB RAM; OS 10.4.x; USB port; QuickTime 6.5 or later
PC: Pentium 4/2GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows XP/Vista; QuickTime 6.5/DirectX 9.0.b/Flash Player 7 or later