This brief video, uploaded to YouTube by Fairlight co-founder and designer Peter Vogel himself, gives a brief history of the development of Fairlight’s legendary video hardware, the CVI. The CVI was a theoretical (in name, at least) visual counterpart to the ground-breaking CMI digital sampler instrument. And, like the CMI, the CVI had a major impact on artists and produced some of the best digital creation of the 80s — and some of its most-repeated cliches.

Vintage Fairlight Computer Music Instrument Videos [Retro Thing; see also Create Digital Music]

But here’s an important difference: has the evolution of visual hardware and software really equaled what’s happened since the CMI on the sound side? Music hardware and software has evolved and exploded since the CMI. The only real visual hardware today available to consumers that’s not a mixer is Roland’s CG-8, and it’s arguably narrower in scope than the CVI, despite being two decades newer. Even in software, the idea of a visual instrument you can play is still evolving. Now, I suppose you could argue visualists have more to play with — powerful 3D capabilities, for one — but perhaps that’s why visual gear has been slow to catch up.

What do you think? Is there a visual – musical cap in digital tech? Or am I trying to compare two things that really can’t be compared, whether Australian designers gave them parallel acronyms or not?

  • Steve Elbows

    Maybe one big reason is fragmentation. Lampies, animators, artists, video editors, motion capture, computer games, virtual reality, there is a lot of specialisation, and much less fusion and crossover than with music.

    But if you include all the software and hardware that these diferent visualists use, I could argue that progress has been at least as rapid as with music.But in the affordable hardware bracket, there just isnt the money in the market compared to music, Im ust greatful that affordable devices such as midi controllers can be used for both.

    I sure would like to see more visual instruments. I think a lot of people are trapped by established VJ metaphores, visual sample manipulation & triggering, and often constraints imposed by someone elses music.

    I think the emergence of video on the net may help, espeially if live video reaches a decent quality in future.

  • Dan Winckler

    What about the Korg Kaoss Pad Entrancer? Or the more boutique-y Viditar and other hybrids.

    Or am I trying to compare two things that really can’t be compared, whether Australian designers gave them parallel acronyms or not?

    Yeah, they're apples and oranges — or eyes and ears. Video's a completely different game.

  • Peter Kirn

    Actually, I'm not complaining necessarily — I think this is about to explode. If you think through the range of tools you have that actually function as instruments, in terms of digital instruments, you've got an enormous range. You also have a few millenia on which to build, as opposed to a couple of decades. On the visual side, things that you can pick up and perform rather than just play content on, well, that hasn't really happened that much yet. Part of the reason I didn't get into things like the Entrancer is that it's basically an effects box. But figuring out what the paradigm could be for visuals is a challenge. And yeah, in software, we do have all kinds of early ideas about what that could be, lots of individualized projects which is rather exciting.

  • superDraw

    this is an incredibly complex topic, with a great number of angles to consider. one important factor is the almost universal tendency for music to drive visuals. I don't think there are any "visual concerts" that focus on video and have no sound, (and quite possibly there should be, at least as an experiment). I think this is a key component to the reason the computer music has developed faster and with a wider range than visualism. though I agree with you Peter, it's in the process of exploding.

  • Jaymis

    What about the Korg Kaoss Pad Entrancer?

    You mean the discontinued Entrancer? It's nowhere near the capabilities of a CVI (I have played part of a gig with one care of the awesome VJZoo kids.)

    Visual hardware and componentry is more expensive, and the market is smaller. That's a reasonably potent innovation-squashing combination.

    Loads of great software helps, but there's something to be said for a hardware box you can just plug in and play, without having to load clips or configure things. That's the reason I'm keeping my Entrancer: Its capabilities are considerably less than the software I use, but the latency, tactile feedback and lack of configuration requirements are great.

  • sleepytom

    i'm always confused when people want to perform visuals from some kind of box "…that you can pick up and perform rather than just play content on," – what does this mean?

    video simply isn't comparable to music – nobody will ever make a video guitar. Music is composed of notes which are put together into scales. There is no visuals equivalent. We do not have a common set of primitive objects which can be manually combined in realtime to create visual music.

    put another way – content is the important part of visuals – anyone who has used a CVI will know this – the box which was a revolution in low cost video effects is just a video effects box – without incoming video the CVI is quite boring and very very limited (because it's realtime graphic generation is err very 80s and cannot stand up against non realtime graphics generation.)

    this is still the case with current hardware and software – even quite advanced realtime 3d visualizers such as R4 look poor quality and limited in style of output when compared to non-realtime rendered CGI.

    What surprises me is that we are only just seeing affordable hardware video samplers – video sample players are much easier to design to a high level of performance than supposedly realtime effects. Triggering pre-made video from a reliable hardware based device with decent controls and post processing effects is an easier design task than making a realtime effects system which is anywhere near the quality of offline effects software.

  • Peter Kirn

    @sleepytom, good points. I guess I was just fascinated by how different the path of the CMI and CVI has been in the years intervening. But I don't necessarily agree with this statement:

    "We do not have a common set of primitive objects which can be manually combined in realtime to create visual music"

    … and this:

    "content is the important part of visuals"

    That can be true for some people and some sets. But what if you do a set using video feedback — what's the "content"? Or something involving visual synthesis or generative visuals? Or drawings with a Wacom tablet?

    Music, after all, is just sound. There isn't an entirely common language. There are, for instance, considerably more than "12 notes" — even, arguably, in Western music there's a lot more to the language of music than that. So I don't actually think it's unfair to compare music and visuals, because what we're talking about is performance … just as you can compare music and dance. You can't expect them to be the same; as you say, they're obviously not. But you can expect that some basic ideas about performance and time will carry over, just as they do between music and dance, or music and theater. And even with video "content", the moment you start manipulating that video, it's not the same static content any more.

    Of course, as far as the medium maturing to the point that you get widely-popular commercial products (beyond what we've gotten so far in visuals), I suppose you can again look at music and timing. Basic oscillators and processing circuitry was reasonably affordable by the 1950s, modulars were available in the 60s, and the keyboard synth in the 70s. But it wasn't until the 80s and 90s that that practice really became widespread. We only just saw commodity visual software in the 90s, and it's right now that some of it is coming of age … up until the last few years, 320×240 was a sort of accepted ceiling.

    And I still hold that the basic limitation is that there are far more PAs than there are projectors.

    But looking at all of those, everything does appear poised to explode. The market is not unlike music around about 1984.

  • Steve Elbows

    I dont really get where the idea that things are poised to explode is coming from. There used to be excitement along those lines back in the very early 2000's on vjforums, but as best I know it never happened.

    Projectors are more affordable, computers more powerful, etc etc, and Im sure there are more VJs now than there used to be, but I think it takes far more than this for things to explode. I dont expect it to catch up with music, people dont dance to the visuals and good cinema gets far closer to musics ability to connect with moments in peoples lives, than VJing ever will.

    And I dont expect a software revolution this year. As best I can tell software has evolved rather slowly, when it comes to things like 3D the gap between VJ software and game engines has been growing. And then when powerful tools arrive, only a minority of VJs seem to have the time or inclination to try them. I am currently using Quartz Composer & VDMX and once Kineme have released their 3D object plugin, I should have all the tools I need. Then it is a case of trying to avoid being overwhelmed by the vast array of possibilities, a prime reason why many VJs would stick to less modular apps.

    So for an explosion to take place, I think you would more to happen than I see on the horizon, for example:

    Software or hardware that offers new possibilities in a way lots of people can get their heads round.

    Closer collaboration between different sort of visual creationists – eg 3D animators working with VJs.

    Collaboration on the net between visualists and musicians. In an age of youtube, VJs could be a good source for affordable music video creation.

    More building of visual compositions that are driven by detailed musical data – eg midi or audio from individual instruments, sequencers etc, rather than crude audio analysis of the overall track.

    Either way if I was looking at the market for selling software or hardware, I dont see much out there to raise future expectations?

  • Peter Kirn

    Maybe "simmer" is a better word than "explode."

    Very well said, Steve. I guess I would be less optimistic if I had to put a whole business on the line, frankly. But I do see potential in the community … and I think everything you're describing hits on what's necessary for more to happen in the medium.

  • Steve Elbows

    Mmm yes, community & collaboration floats my boat, though sometimes I wonder if web 2.0 technologies are missing humans 2.0 to make the most of this potential – there has been way less fusion between different sorts of creatives than I had expected this century. If theres any way I can help with such efforts in cyberspace, let me know. I guess artistic control is a big issue, along with time & lack of high-quality realtime jamming via the net.

    What has always appealed to me with realtime visuals, is the potential to do all the hard and tedious work beforehand, then get someway close to playing the visuals as an instrument, being able to jam with others. Plus you get to have the build up to a big buzz of doing something live, then its all over, no post-production causing things end on a low. And being able to reuse set's might make all the early work worthwhile.

    I think its a crying shame that I can interact with many other humans across the world in realtime, if I want to play war. Things like Second Life dont live up to the hype for me, but maybe one day there will be powerful new public spaces for visualists to perform and collaborate.