Electric Light Show reviewBy Martin Hansen. Published: 29th Jul 2005, 17:46:56 | Permalink | Printable
Throw some crazy shapes on your desktopHaving marvelled at audio-to-visual software on a PC, Martin Hansen reviews Peter Everett's ELS plugin to see how it fares in comparison whilst running on ARM based computers with little or no hardware acceleration.
Review We'd all had a few drinks and it was getting rather late as eleven of us, all teachers, piled into a tiny two-room flat belonging to Moffo, a friend of mine who is a student teacher from America. My eye was immediately drawn to the laptop connected up to the Sound System which was working its way through a selection of Moffo's favourite tracks. For me, the music was not the interest but rather a stunning graphical display that pulse and swirled to the beat. "Why is it", I thought, "that there is nothing like this for RISC OS?"
I was thus primed to take notice of the fairly recent mention on drobe.co.uk that stalwart supporter and writer of free software, Peter Everett, had released a "sound into colourful effects" program for RISC OS under the title "Electric Light Show", or ELS. I am a big fan of Peter's work and reviewed his desktop clock, Tock, and his MPEG 1/2 video player, KinoAmp, at around about this time last year. So, I downloaded ELS to see if it matched the high standard of those previous offerings.
It's probably worth pausing at this point to think about one's expectations. Several pop and music videos in recent years have made their mark by means of innovative computer graphics. Part of the charm and fascination of such a video is that it is obviously computer generated. Yet, upon its release, such a video needs to be fresh and different to what has been seen before. There is also a need for some variation in what the graphic does as the track progresses in order to hold the viewers interest.
Here are three examples; David Bowie has become famous for his love of using computers in innovative ways. When I saw him in concert last year he kicked off his show with a stunning computer animation, that bordered on being a cartoon, of his band playing. More abstract computer graphics featured throughout the show. Duran Duran also toured last year with a large backdrop onto which several computer generated graphics were projected. My favourite example could well be the MPEG video on one of last year's singles from The Charlatans Try Again Today, which, if you can be bothered faffing around with Windows Media Player, can be viewed on their website.
Now, I would suggest that it is unrealistic to expect any "sound to effects" package for a home computer to be of the cutting edge standard used by professional musicians and artists. The home version is having to work with whatever music happens to be playing rather than being constructed with a particular tune in mind. It has to be of a more general nature, rather than including bits of band personality and characteristics. And our home grown version has to be, more or less, built and animated in real time; no generating each frame over five minutes, and the entire video over a month, before running it as a three minute graphic. None the less, the Windows PC version that I saw in Moffo's flat was impressive and fun to watch for minutes at a time, before leaving it to run as background ambience and engaging in social intercourse with other people in the room.
The Electric Light Show is being billed in most of the RISC OS press as a plug in for Andre Timmermans' DigitalCD but I was particularly interested to see that it claimed it could be used in a stand-alone mode, in which case it would "visualise" whatever sounds were being passed through the computer's audio system. I unzipped the download, chucked a music CD into my Iyonix, and fired up the application. It didn't seem to do very much although it didn't precisely do nothing either. Interspaced with long pauses with a blank window, it occasionally spring into a half-hearted sort of life. I read through the supporting documentation and messed around with the "Events" settings, which were presumably the levels at which the spikes in the audio waveform triggered a display event, but to no avail. ELS just didn't seem to respond to music CDs.
I've never really bothered with DigitalCD, the audio player for which ELS was initially designed, having always used AMPlayer instead. However, I figured that before writing ELS off as a disappointment, I'd better give it a proper chance with the program it was intended to work with. First though, out of idle curiosity, and because it was already in my hard drive, I launched AMPlayer, and dragged an MP3 file across to it. Much to my delighted surprise ELS sprang into life.
I was immediately impressed with a fairly smooth and lively animation on my Iyonix. I dragged ELS across to my Select StrongARM RiscPC where the entertainment seemed to run equally well.
As supplied from Peter's website, ELS comes with 49 effects which are used as the building blocks for five sequences. So ELS effectively has five different styles of display and these are titled, Circular, Patterns, Spectra, Waves, and, Blobs and Bars. I enthusiastically set about exploring these one by one and for each I set about trying to grab an illustrative screen shot that captured the essential style of that sequence. Of course, no still can do justice to the dynamic of an animation. Note that there is also an option to play "The Whole Lot" as one entertainment. I decided to give each sequence a score out of ten, one being abysmal, ten fantastic, and eight being my memory of the impressive display I'd seen in Moffo's flat on that initial eye-catching evening.
The circular plugin [Full size]
"Circular" throws several concentric circles, of variable line thickness and texture periodically onto the centre of the screen, smooth sheers them randomly, often into an egg type shape, rotates and pulse enlarges or shrinks the entire display. Typically, the display is not that colourful, and while initially interesting, there was not, for any given song, that much variation in what was going on. I had to wait a while to get a screen shot worthy of keeping and so I'll rate this first sequence three out of ten. It works better with a quiet song as the radius of the circles seem to be inversely proportional to the overall volume.
The patterns plugin [Full size]
"Patterns" periodically throws back to back bar charts with about sixty bars each side at varying angles onto the screen. It immediately starts to blur this and wave the bars. The result is at first a burning fire type effect and then a swirling smoke motion by which time the process starts again, overlaying on top of the unfinished previous one. This is colourful, attractive and clever. I'll rank it six out of ten.
The spectra plugin [Full size]
"Spectra" seems to be a more intensive version of "Patterns" with lashings of extra colour and more frequent throwing of bar charts onto the screen such that three or four are overlayed, each at a different stage of being step rotated, twisted and blurred. This is a lot more "in your face" and wonderfully psychedelic without being painfully so. I doubt it'll be to everyone's taste but I thought it very effective. Seven out of ten.
The waves plugin [Full size]
"Waves" throws random line graphs onto the screen, with the drastic up and down appearance of share price movement diagrams. These crudely animate as if they were waves, hence the name. The bar charts are there again but this time are not back to back, but rather the positive or negative deviation from a central value. A solid circle is repeatedly and randomly added to the confusion and immediately blurs and distorts. Tiled rotations result in a square tessellatation of the screen as the next batch of animated line graphs are raggedly drawn on top. Again, a distinctive and attractive style results. Seven out of ten.
The blobs and bars plugin [Full size]
"Blobs and Bars" alternatively throws three circular blobs and three rectangular bars on screen. These typically enlarge with a similar shape then appear inside the enlargement, this repeating several times. Colour switching is aggressively used and the, by now, familiar techniques of step rotations, wave sheers and blurring result in a lively animation. Six out of ten.
As you may have gathered, I don't quite feel that any of the sequences quite matches what I saw on Moffo's Windows machine, but two come close, and two come very close. They are entertaining to watch briefly, and would not be embarrassing if left running in the background of a party or dance. Indeed, I'm sure a few conversations about the underlying computer system would result. This package is a valuable catch-up for RISC OS in an area that I, for one, was certainly aware that it had fallen behind.
In the thought of writing your own computer graphic animations is of appeal then you'll be very interested to know that the program allows one to edit or add new Effects, and compose these into new or merge them with the existing, Sequences. So Peter has, actually, managed to build an effects package that has some generality about it and a real enthusiast could, possibly, rebuild it to provide a substantially different set of animations. It will be interesting to see if any users of the program can concoct a significant alternative from the building blocks that Peter has provided.
Peter Everett's website - ELS and other goodies
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