Digital Videokalos


Writing this, forty years have elapsed since I built the original Videokalos Synthesiser (VK), which was a purely analogue device. The VK was not a synthesiser in the same sense as most audio synthesisers were at that period, but a conception of a (live performance) visual instrument that allowed images to be manipulated at a greater complexity than was usual, or indeed possible then, certainly in real time, and particularly in the realm of colouring: it was categorised more as a processing synthesiser – it only “synthesised” colour.

Since then of course personal computers were invented, the internet and social media have changed the world and virtually all audio and video media and its production and recording have become digital. The question obviously arises whether a digital version of the Videokalos  is now necessary or useful? Is there something it did that is still not being done digitally? The answer is both yes and no . . .

In the video world, which now encompasses all aspects of moving image, probably three main threads of image manipulation have evolved, all of which overlap. The first – the digital creation of images unconnected with cameras, evolved from a combination of drawn images, as in animation, with the raw generation of images, as in old devices like the EMS Spectron, text and wipe generators etc. The second evolved from the path of film editing to video editing, where the driving force is broadly based around sequences of unitary images arranged linearly to tell a “story”, whether fiction or non-fiction. The third, of more interest in this context, is a somewhat less mainstream area of VJ (video jockey) software, where a complex flow of multiple simultaneous streams of imagery are produced, and crucially mixed in real-time, although mainly using pre-recorded clips. As almost anything is possible with software, do these approaches fulfil the original criteria, motivation and need that the analogue VK fulfilled?

The VJ software provides a closer parallel with some aspects of the VK, and it exists within a popular culture context of clubbing, where typically a VJ will produce a live visual presentation alongside the music being played by a DJ. There can be little or some connection (usually around the amplitude or rhythm) between the music and the visuals but invariably the visual is subservient to the music which has already been recorded. It is (most often, but not necessarily) not designed for the musicians to be reactive to the visuals and what I would call “the mutual internal connection” of the sound and the visuals, and the people producing the sound and the visuals – so the music/sound integration is not given high priority. But is this just how the software is used rather than inherent in the design of the software?

The issue is complicated and revolves around the user interface – of how the image(s) can be manipulated in real-time. Software is invariably and necessarily designed around control by computers, typically laptops, so the parameters and limitations of keyboards and “mice or touch-pads” have been of central concern, but are now giving ground to touchscreen control. Can a digital Videokalos use VJ software and computer controls for a live performance instrument or is something else needed?

What can or could a digital VK do that the old analogue version did or did not? Primarily, and wonderfully for a mature video artist, the need for the decoding, encoding (to differing world standards) and the generation and distribution of sync pulses to multiple sources has disappeared. Digital technology deals with images from all sources, encodings and resolutions in a synchronised form. The digital colouring, and now “colour grading” of images is very advanced, but often of a single image stream, so the multiple-channel colouring of the old VK is still missing. Digital keying is almost limitless now, so again it is the number of keys and the ability to manipulate all the choices in real time that is critical. The mixing of images is very advanced digitally – any number of layers can be manipulated – far beyond the old VK.

But what else do digits allow that was simply impossible in analogue days? The most obvious is that ability to “multitrack” any number of live or pre-recorded image streams in sync (how often I wished for that back then). And then the potential to hold these multiple tracks or streams of images in memory, manipulate them in a myriad of ways and call them, as well as live inputs, to a live output mix at will (and in sync). And of course there is now the ability to do all this at far higher output and display resolutions than were even dreamt of some decades ago, and to project the output(s) onto multiple screens, of varying sizes undreamt of back when I started, and even complex surfaces as well.

I am at present developing a combination of some commercial VJ software, free software and a laptop with some physical interfaces that suit the performance needs. It would a stretch to call this a digital Videokalos as a crafted artefact like the old analogue one, but it is definitely so conceptually, if not physically.