Posted: Apr 4, 2023
**Guest post written by Jeff Robbins, a long-time songwriter, producer, and musician who fronted the band Orbit and toured with Lollapalooza back in the 90’s. He started Lullabot, a web development company whose client list includes NBC, The Grammys, MTV, Sony Music, and Tesla Motors. He is also the founder of Spaceage, the company behind Visibox.
"The pandemic thrust us into a time warp that affected many things, including live music, which was hit especially hard, forcing many in the business to reinvent themselves." – Matthieu Larivée, Rolling Stone, Aug 2022
Since the days of Pink Floyd’s animated concert visuals from “The Wall”, we’ve come to expect shows at our local arena or amphitheater to rattle our eyeballs as well as our ears. We expect images and videos to underscore the vibe and emotion of the music – and to echo the visual vocabulary of the performer or band. We expect big screens with camera feeds of the singer and other performers on stage to allow us to connect from a distance. We want clips to echo their music videos and social media content to elevate the performance and immerse us in the music.
But most of us are still playing smaller theaters, clubs, and cafes. We don’t have a lighting person, much less someone to set up and run visuals while we perform. Maybe you’re a bedroom beat maker who performs with backing tracks. Maybe you’re an aspiring Taylor Swift. Or maybe you’ve got a Kiss cover band looking to add some fire-marshal-safe pyrotechnics to your show. It would take a lot of expensive production and equipment to elevate our performances, right? Wrong!
We’ve finally hit the tipping point for aspiring artists to tap into this realm of visual creativity. It used to be very expensive to shoot and edit video content. Now you can do it on your smartphone. It used to be hard to find footage to use in your shows. Now there are numerous sites with giant libraries of content. Video projectors and large-screen LCDs used to be very expensive. Now you can find an amazing used video projector for $400… or even a giant 85” LCD TV for less than $1,000. Heck - your uncle who works at that law firm probably has a closet full of video projectors looking for a home. As more and more clubs are already set up for video on stage, it’s available to just connect your laptop to the club’s audio and video systems and you’re good to go.
The one key element is the software to tie all of this together and allow performers to control videos, images, cameras, and audio backing tracks during their performances. Over time, I’ve tried most of the solutions out there. Here are some of the most popular solutions… and one that I created!
QuickTime Player: Apple makes this video/audio player and distributes it free for both Mac and Windows. It’ll do in a pinch for one-off videos to show at school performances and the like. But it is far from “presentation quality”. It doesn’t offer any sort of play lists or even much beyond looping the current video. https://support.apple.com/downloads/quicktime
VLC: VLC stands for VideoLAN Client and, as the name implies, it can be a little confusing to understand. VLC is free, open source, and runs on macOS, Windows, and Linux. It offers a lot of functionality like playlists, wide video format compatibility, cropping and aspect ratio settings, and even some video and audio effects. However, like most entertainment-focused video players, it doesn’t have any support for MIDI or other remote control. And playlists are inclined to play continuously - which makes talking to the audience between songs a challenge. Like many open source apps, VLC has a lot of confusing settings. I’ve seen people use VLC on stage, but it usually requires workarounds and very careful setup. https://www.videolan.org
Q-Lab: This macOS-only software is for “designing and playing back sound, video, light, and show control cues.” Its roots come from professional theater production and it offers many options for video, audio, camera, and even lighting scene control. It can be controlled via MIDI, OSC, and other remote software. It offers many many controls and settings including audio and video effects. It’s free to download and try, but the standard purchase price is $1,199. They do offer granular, customized purchasing options, right down to a day-long rental of just $12. However, the average performer is going to find Q-Lab daunting. It is not designed with musical performance in mind and it’s difficult to understand how to fit it into a musical paradigm. There are certainly touring acts that are using this software, but it’s usually part of a complex setup with a dedicated lighting person cuing visuals during the show. https://qlab.app
Synesthesia: Synesthesia is fun to play with. It’s the iTunes music visualizer all grown up. It’s available for both macOS and Windows, however as of this writing there is no Apple Silicon optimized version. Synesthesia focuses on generative visuals, relying on algorithmic “shaders” to generate trippy visuals reminiscent of iTunes. Visualizations can react to audio and even connected webcams. There are lots of settings, but I can’t call it intuitive to use. As far as I can tell, there is no way to play back existing video or audio files with it. So while it does “trippy generative visuals” really well, that seems to be about all you can do with it. Synesthesia costs $99 for the standard version and $299 for the pro version with audio-reactive controls and most of the stuff that VJs are going to want. If you’re creating EDM, or other music that lends itself to random algorythmic digital visuals, Synethesia is an easy solution. However, it pretty much specializes in just that. https://synesthesia.live
VDMX: This macOS-only app is over 20 years old. VDMX is focused on audio-reactive, generative visuals and VJ-style “video mixing,” hence the name. Launching VDMX brings up an interface consisting of, I kid you not, over 12 windows arranged in a 747-cockpit-like layout of controls and displays. VDMX supports MIDI, OSC, and even DMX networking. At its best, VDMX is a riff on the DJ mixer, allowing you, the VJ, to mix algorithmic generative visuals, video files, and other media for an audience. At its worst, it is overwhelming and infinitely confusing. If you’re interested in VJing, look into VDMX. If you’re not, don’t. VDMX costs $349. https://vidvox.net
Resolume: Resolume is the grandaddy of VJ software. Also over 20 years old, “Resolume” actually refers to the company, which makes an array of software tools focused on live event visuals. Within this ecosystem, Resolume does just about everything. Algorithmic, audio-reactive, video layering, via a networked media server? Sure! 3D modeled speakers pumping in time with the MIDI clock? No problem. Projection mapping composited to an array of 6 video 4K video projectors? Let’s do it! But with complex functionality comes a complex user interface. And complex pricing! To get all of the functionality I’ve listed, you’re probably going to spend over $1,000. However, the trial version is free, and the stripped down “Arena” software has most of what you’d want to get started as a VJ for $299. Here again though, this is cockpit-like VJ software. If you’re simply looking for some software to put flowers on a screen behind you while you play acoustic folk-rock, it’s probably not worth the effort. https://resolume.com
Visibox: Does it seem like I’m unhappy with the alternatives? As a long-time songwriter and musician myself, I was looking for the Goldilocks solution – an easy way for performers to control visuals themselves, on stage, while remaining focused on the performance. Visibox is just that. It runs on both Windows and macOS (Apple Silicon optimized). It allows you to drop in videos, images, and audio files or connect live cameras. You, the performer, can easily control these visuals using MIDI devices (keyboards, pedals, drum pads), an Elgato Stream Deck, or just the computer keyboard and mouse. It’s designed like a set list, easy to read on-stage. And easy-of-use is our top priority. You can shoot a video on your phone outside the club, transfer it to your laptop, and use it in your show 10 minutes later. Visibox starts at just $8.99/mo or $89/yr. And there’s a free trial so you can see if it might be a good fit for you. Visibox is not VJ software. It does not offer generative or audio-reactive visuals. It’s something new. And we’re hoping that by being fun and easy to use, Visibox will inspire new, visual creative expression for all types of performers. https://spaceage.tv
Of course, there’s going to be a learning curve with any of these tools. And there are a wealth of questions to answer and hurdles to get over. As a musician, what is the best type of video projector to use on stage? What types of videos will work best? How do I connect the video projector to my laptop? Etc. etc. We’re trying to fill in these knowledge gaps over on our YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@spaceage. Check it out! We hope you’ll be inspired."
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