Although Remix's primary focus is on music production, the latest advances in VJ (video jockey) technology can't be ignored, as more and more DJs are beginning to incorporate visuals into their sets. With a laptop, a video extension cable and just one of more than 100 different software applications, even the most visually challenged can walk into a club, jack in to the house projection system and rock a crazy visual set — that's not saying it would be good, mind you, just crazy. Good requires at least a little talent, a fair degree of know-how and a whole lot of p-words: patience, preparation and practice. That said, “spinning video” is actually strikingly similar to spinning records or even playing a musical instrument.
In many ways, the new crop of digital VJs may just be the long lost brothers and sisters of the digital musician. Their tools look like yours (laptop, software, keyboard MIDI controllers and even video-scratching turntables). They work with loops and samples, and they frequently record their surroundings for source material — just like you do. And perhaps most impressive, they pride themselves on their originality, style, technical virtuosity and artistic expression. Like most DJs, VJs spend their creative lives holed up in dark underground clubs mixing and remixing their material in a quest to inspire audiences. Just as DJs sift through crates of vinyl to find the perfect cut, VJs typically spend hours poring over their original video content to make sure each crop, coloration and splice makes for the most compelling result.
GOING TO THE SOURCE
Just as many musicians and producers frequently “roll their own” loops, samples and even software by using builder applications such as Cycling '74 Max/MSP/Jitter or Native Instruments Reaktor, VJs also pride themselves on their works' uniqueness and often take to designing their own VJ software programs. In short, there has never been a better time to be a musician curious about visual imaging. Whether you are an experienced VJ or just tapping into this art form, the price and variety of fundamental VJ tools make adding visual images to your act fun and feasible.
If you already have a computer and a digital camera, you are less than $100 away from projecting your visuals in a live setting. Add a digital video camera ($500 to $2,000), Apple's QuickTime Pro ($30) and a VJ software application (ranging from $75 to $800), and you are well on your way to having a professional VJ rig. The key is to spend as much time experimenting with the available hardware and software tools as you do cropping your latest round of footage. That way, you can see what is available and discover what you like. A thoughtful VJ has likely logged hundreds of hours arranging image combinations, retweaking clips and then compressing his or her final results into small and easy-to-use movie clips for rapid-fire playback at a gig. Prior to their performances, VJs craft their sets by cherry-picking their best digital video footage in applications such as Apple Final Cut Pro or QuickTime Pro. Some VJs also build their own original Flash animation clips using Flash MX or psychedelic pixel-art programs such as U&I Software Artmatic Pro or LairWair PixelToy.
CONTENT IS KING
So just how does one get started in the image-pimping game? Are you thinking that it may be time to add some video to your band's next live show. Or how about a trippy QuickTime piece to speak to your fans on the Web? In terms of approaches to mixing images with music, working VJs and VJ-software creators — no matter what their individual approach to performing or image-splicing style — tend to agree on one thing: Content is king. The overwhelming collective consensus is to keep your focus on collecting great raw footage. The rest is merely an illusion, like pulling rabbits from hats.
New York-based VJ Giles Hendrix adds that contrast is also important when selecting footage. “Images can frequently be washed out once you are adding a bit of effects and then throwing them across a room [in variable lighting conditions],” he says. Hendrix's partner, VJ Chris Jordan, advises the following: “Gather media together that inspires you — not just anything, but the stuff that really rocks you, things that challenge you, things that inspire.
“Never play the same image more than once in a single night,” Jordan continues, comparing VJs to their DJ kin. “A DJ would never repeat a song. Say what you have to say, and shut it down. Start simple, and realize that visualists have to generally play four times more material than any DJ. Since [DJs] carry about 50 records for a set, you have to prepare at least 150 clips to really keep it interesting.”
Other VJs agree with that, adding that you should never stress the hardware or software and the limitations of what they offer. Start small, with a digital video camera, and begin to collect footage that grabs you. “Spend as much time as you can sampling different types of clips, animations, images, filters, setups and software applications,” Jordan says. Visit VJCentral (www.vjcentral.com) for software and other technical advice. VJCentral's related site, VJForums (www.vjforums.com), is also a great jumping-off point and networking tool. There, you will also find news about live VJ performances, such as New York's Share (www.share.dj), Eye Wash (www.forwardmotiontheater.org) and F:T:H (www.fthnyc.com), as well as San Francisco's Video Salon (www.dimension7.com), to name just a few.
Once you have a feel for what current VJ projections look like and which medium you want to use, it's time to gather your own materials (clips) and begin practicing the art of recombining images. If you are mixing DVDs, VCDs or live camera feeds, you can begin by plugging in to your video mixer and outputting to a TV or computer monitor for practice. When working with software, you can mix on your screen or output via S-video to a television monitor. Keep in mind that your digital video footage will need to be trimmed and compressed before use in a VJ software application like ArKaos VJ or Vidvox Grid. This is due to the processor demand inherent in digitized or sampled video. Smaller files contain slightly less color and information (usually no audio, for instance) and are easier for your CPU to handle. Make sure to check with your selected software's manufacturer about the preferred compression format. Then, use QuickTime Pro to trim and export your clips.
For static images, JPEG is the preferred file format for applications such as ArKaos, Vidvox VDMX and Grid, and Dervish. Constraints on your JPEGs should generally be set to the following: low-res, 320×240 and an animation rate at 15 fps. Because there are hundreds of possible compression methods, feel free to experiment, but be prepared to do some waiting while your computer exports the files.
In general, for small clips, commercial Web compression such as Sorenson Squeeze is not advisable, though some VJs use Discreet Cleaner when posting finished movies to the Internet. Codecs such as Sorenson tend to add their own information that can burden your CPU. VJs recommend sorting your clips into folders based on content — for instance, people, animals, animations and so forth. Some VJs create folders full of scenes or combine multiple clips to make new clips whereas others build animations, complete with text, around their DV footage. The key, Jordan advises, is to complete your edits at home or in the studio, not at a gig, so that the bulk of your work is behind you once you plug into the projector.
Even with tons of software options available, inexpensive video mixers, controllers and projectors make it possible to create impressive video shows with or without a computer. The most talked-about video-mixing gadget is Edirol's V-4 video mixer. The V-4 sells for about $1,000 and can mix as many as four sources of video, including a live camera feed. Many VJs use the V-4 with a laptop and then mix in a camera, a DVD or a VCD for larger higher-resolution clips. The V-4 also contains tap tempo and several customizable effects.
If you are shopping on a budget, older video mixers might save you money. For instance, you can pick up Videonics MX-1 on eBay for about $550. For a whole lot more processing power (and price), Edirol's DV-7PR sports a touchscreen monitor, instant video triggering and a fully functional computer chassis. You might also look into Panasonic's MX-30, MX-50 and MX-70 video mixers.
In addition to video mixers, it is also possible for VJs (or musicians) to control their own video clips with a MIDI keyboard controller or a drum trigger (such as Alternate Mode's DrumKAT MIDI drum trigger). DJs will want to check out the EJ Turntable or Ms. Pinky for scratching video with optically lined or digitally encoded vinyl plates, respectively. “I'd love to see Kid Koala run Grid with a set of Ms. Pinky controllers,” says David Lublin of Vidvox. Taking the concept even further, Pioneer's soon-to-be-released DVD scratcher, DVJ-X1, adds video manipulation to the trusted CDJ-series control surface. For the six-stringed VJ, the Viditar (www.sinch.net/technology) — a guitarlike video controller — deserves some attention. Or if you're looking for hardware video effects, many VJs are raving about Korg's latest Kaoss Pad Entrancer.
Regardless of what is already on the market, invention is happening all of the time. Once you have a mixing utility (and possibly an effects box), you will want to expand your source options. Some VJs use a digital video camera feed live at their performances. Pointing the camera at your screen can create some interesting video-feedback loops that can be thrown back out to the screen and again filmed. If you have yet to purchase a DV camera, you can expect to pay anywhere from $450 (for a single-chip, medium-quality unit) to $1,700 or more (for a more detailed three-chip camera). But even a cheap Web camera has its place in the VJ's arsenal.
For another idea, New York VJ crew Feedbuck Galore (Missy Galore and Feedbuck) frequently points a laser penlight directly into its camera feedback for some bizarre effects. The duo then mixes this light feedback on top of DVD and VCD movies concurrently playing on inexpensive ($300 or less) miniature players. Many artists also mix multiple computers, such as dueling laptops, or a slew of powerful rackmounted computers.
Although most clubs do not provide video-mixing gear, projectors are becoming commonplace. As a result, VJs are able to bring in their custom configuration — be it hardware, software or both — and plug in to the house projector. Should you need to purchase your own projector, go for a projector with 2,000-lumen output and an 800-to-1 contrast ratio for maximum bang for your buck. If you want a bare-bones projector, 1,000-lumen and 400-to-1 will cut it in most small clubs or for occasional use.
Other factors to consider include portability, lamp life and the cost of replacement bulbs (which can run between $200 and $300 each). It is also important to remember to give your projector the required room it needs to operate — don't smother it in some corner, or your projector might literally melt. One trick to preserve bulb life is to clean your dust filter after each performance. That keeps your bulb free from grime and improves air circulation to keep your bulb cool. For all of the latest specs and product reviews, make sure you check out www.projectorcentral.com.
The other decision that you will need to make is where to project from. It is becoming increasingly common for VJs to set up out in the open or even onstage (in a more visible location) as opposed to in the DJ or house sound booth. If you are a band or a DJ that is looking to add visuals to your show, look for a venue with suitable visual staging. You may consider contacting the venue directly or displaying your images online and then reaching out to a promoter in a city near you. You might also try digging up other bands or DJs that are looking to mix images at their shows.
One of the most striking things about professional VJs is not at all related to their image wizardry, but to the community's collective openness to teaching beginners about its medium. VJs speak with passion and intensity about new ideas, techniques and approaches. You can find friends in Internet forums discussing ideas from where to buy projector bulbs to how much to compress digital video footage to when the next big VJ competition is (and how to submit materials).
Oddly enough, a few VJs don't like to be called VJs at all, preferring more apt names such as audio visualizer, visual artist or simply visualist. No matter what moniker they choose, many of these artists agree that learning about what they do is as simple as reaching out. Jordan advises aspiring VJs to preserve that spirit: “Share. Through sharing, you'll learn.” It is also important to work with intention. “Respect the medium,” he says. People have been doing this for many years — since the first art projection more than 100 years ago. It's not a stretch to assert that people have always been attracted to moving images: From the storytelling shadows cast on cave walls to the Northern Lights, the VJ's roots surely run as deep as the human race itself.
VJ SPEAK: A GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Chrominance: A type of mask (filter) that rejects or allows portions of an image based on color, and you can eliminate or feature specific colors in an image. This is a useful technique when blending images.
DV (digital video): An acronym used in relation to cameras or footage.
Luminance: A type of mask designating the amount of brightness present in a clip. You can use luminance filters as a way of blending clips by limiting either the bright or dark pixels of an image.
Spinning video: Because hard drives and DJs both spin, VJs have adopted this term to describe their gigs. For example, “I will be spinning video at a club tonight.”
Throwing an image: Projecting an image onto a screen or wall.
VCD (video compact disc): Popular throughout Asia, VCD players are an inexpensive way to play video images from CDs. You can fit about an hour of video content on a single CD.
An astounding array of VJ software titles has entered the market in the past couple of years. Like their audio cousins, VJ applications allow you to trigger video loops and still images via MIDI. As always, you should try the demo (if available) before you purchase the software. After all, you will be spending hours in an application that will definitely stylize your art. The following list is a current who's who of visual jockey software applications. (This is not meant to be a complete list.)
ArKaos VJ (www.arkaos.net)
Currently in version 3, ArKaos VJ is an intuitive video-mixing application that allows you to map video images to your computer (or MIDI) keyboard. Your projected mix is then refined by setting each clip's Luminance and Chrominance settings, adding effects or piping in a live DV camera feed. Also, ArKaos is the first video application that can connect to audio applications via ReWire. Note: You may need a Mac G5 or a powerful PC to do this effectively.
Cycling '74 Max/MSP/Jitter (www.cycling74.com)
The video Max/MSP component, Jitter, requires both Max and MSP to run. Many VJs feel originality means building your own software application from the ground up. This may be a daunting task for some, but VJs assure that the Max/MSP community is usually quite helpful.
This free live VJ mix application (pictured right) was written in Max/MSP/Jitter by Josh Goldberg, who admits that it can be tricky to use.
LairWair PixelToy (www.lairware.com/pixeltoy)
This $20 video-special-effects shareware application creates dazzling QuickTime movies for use in other VJ applications or on their own.
Motion Dive (www.digitalstage.net)
This widely used live VJ application is made in Japan and is therefore more difficult to navigate (unless, of course, you read Japanese). Motion Dive 3 (recently upgraded to version 4) is regarded as a classic VJ application for mixing.
Vidvox Grid and VDMX (www.vidvox.net)
Grid is an inexpensive yet powerful way fire your video clips live. Look for the soon-to-be released Grid Pro for even more power, effects and professional features. Made from Max, VDMX (now in Mac OS X flavor) is a powerful video-mixing tool with a DJ-style video crossfader that enables you to preview images before playing them. It has plenty of effects, power and good old-fashioned wow factor.
Visualight Visual Jockey (www.visualjockey.com)
Possibly the most popular PC-based VJ application, Visual Jockey (now in version 3.5) routes images through a ladder of processing commands to include downloadable virtual effects plug-ins.
U&I Software Artmatic and Videodelic (www.uisoftware.com)
These two simplistic animation-creation applications work with PICT, MOV and JPEG files — great for text and ultra-abstract images in need of flavor. Artmatic is the deeper and more expensive version of the two.
GET YOUR VJ FIX ONLINE
Like with just about everything else these days, the Internet is a hotbed of information for all things VJ-related. In addition to www.vjcentral.com, you can find scads of excellent info at www.audiovisualizers.com, as well as VJ-community and event sites such as www.vjtv.net and www.eoptica.com.
For a more personalized Web experience, the following VJs and visual artists strut their stuff online:
Jeremy Bernstein (www.bootsquad.com)
Feedbuck Galore (www.feedbuckgalore.com)
Josh Goldberg (www.goldbergs.com)
Giles Hendrix (www.gesture.org)
Chris Jordan (www.seej.net)
The Light Surgeons (www.thelightsurgeons.co.uk)
David Lublin (www.lmnopf.com)
Daniel Vatsky (www.skyvat.net)