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Modern music production is a right old Jericho - the walls are tumbling down. Mixed Media highlights products and developments which are changing our lives, as digital techniques fuse sound and picture creator and user, entertainment and communication. Keep in touch...
In Soho, The Virtual Nightclub is taking shape. But you won't have to jump on the tube to Leicester Square to enjoy it; you won't have to dress up; and you'll have no trouble with bouncers. In fact, you'll log into it from a computer, or maybe even your TV set. It has more rooms, more music and more strange personalities than any real club, and it could become a three-dimensional, audio-visual database of anything and everything that's like, happening, man.
The Virtual Nightclub project was started about three years ago by a publishing company called Prospect. They'd picked up on some fledgling CD-i developments and found they generated a lot of interest from a new breed of independent record company; dance labels branching into ambient and techno, and looking for media to suit their games-generation audiences. This interest, plus lucrative flirtations with the fickle prophets of corporate entertainment, keeps the team out on a particularly well-balanced R&D limb.
It helps that they have musical backgrounds. James Plummer of Prospect was a music journalist; another director of the company made music films: and David Collier - one of the pioneering programmers who collectively call themselves Trip Media - worked on video magazines for BMG, no less.
Prospect aren't only aiming at computer users from the 12-year-old who's not allowed to go out to clubs to the 40-year-old who might, but can't get a babysitter. The makers of The Virtual Nightclub are most definitely tapping into the cyber-culture of the moment: the Internet, Wired magazine, William Gibson et al.
In doing so, they are simultaneously building their own software tools to zap any compatibility gremlins foolish enough to interfere, and establishing links with the various platforms that could distribute the product to the widest number of people. According to Prospect's Titus Adam, universality is the ultimate goal.
"CD-i is limited - there are only about 300,000 users out there. The Nightclub has to be PC and Mac CD-ROM-compatible, at least. Obviously we're waiting for Sega, Nintendo and the rest to come on line, but what we're addressing now is translating Mac-based master software into PC and CD-ROM. You have to get someone to invent something for that to happen."
Despite the fact that this makes development twice as expensive and twice as long, Prospect have faith in the future.
"Our core objective is to be an interface between multimedia and music," says Adam. "All these things are so fluid that people change their positions all the time. But look at the market. The Christmas before last, video games outsold records by something like 600 million to 400 million. And video games consumers are going to grow up.
"The whole idea of the Nightclub is to create a template that can be filled over and over again; to act as an interface between musicians, artists and this new medium. Within the prototype, there's already a Shamen room. They came in and made suggestions, and they're now developing their own CD-i, which can be incorporated later. Lots of people can have a design influence, and we could end up providing a showcase for what they're doing. It could also generate many spin-offs, in the shape of specialised discs emphasising music, or graphics, or whatever..."
There's another interfacing role for the Nightclub, too. Taking it out to various venues and exhibitions, the team are keen to create installations which use projections and sound to make people in a real club feel as though they're actually in the Virtual Nightclub, as well as the other way round. Literally, it cuts both ways.
"The final Virtual Nightclub," says Adam, "will be a global one, with all of these electronic cafes linked on line. The energy comes from people getting together, not technology. The sparks come from imagination, not cables. Having said that, one of the things about computer culture is being at the outer limits. People like David and Olaf always want the latest tools, and always want to be doing amazing things with them. There is an element of technocracy. But it just depends who the user is. Computers can be all things to all people."
'Olaf' is Olaf Wendt, another of Trip Media's crack software developers. Creating environments with state-of-the-art computer graphics, he neatly complements David Collier's interactivity programming expertise. Their musical direction is also clear. On the wall is a poster of The Future Sound Of London's Lifeforms images, and on my arrival at the studio Wendt is hunting for a copy of WarpVision's Motion video that's been floating round the office.
"What this kind of music does," he begins, "is put people in a changed mind-state. Music is still the most effective way of affecting someone subliminally, and ambient/techno music puts you in a certain space. I use it to work to, [Banco de Gaia is sweeping across the studio as we speak] and there's definitely a commonality with what I do that doesn't exist with rock.
"You can, of course, link it to drug experiences, but many creative movements have been fuelled by that. What's more interesting for me is the task of creating something that will stand up on its own. Both the music and the visuals arising from the rave explosion are maturing into something you can use to say something meaningful."
With the addition of audio and movement, it's enticing to imagine the Virtual Nightclub as representing the next generation of Graphical User Interface, analogous to Windows in its potential ability to infiltrate a wide variety of applications. All of which assumes a multimedia future about which Wendt has specific views.
"Multimedia is a very abused term. Taken crudely, it just means that you've got video, graphics and audio all mixed up on a computer - which is actually 'mixed media', fine for conventional media like broadcast video and promotions. I would like to be more precise and say 'interactive media' - that's what we're talking about here with the Nightclub: something the user can take part in, directly affecting the experience with anything from a mouse-click to a full virtual reality suit."
Nothing wrong with the term Mixed Media, mate. As it turns out, fully immersive virtuality holds little attraction for Wendt.
"We're deliberately working within the limits of current consumer technology. We want to represent environments, but we've got a flat screen, a CD-ROM player hooked up to that flat screen, and a remote control device. Those are the technical parameters within which the Virtual Nightclub exists, and I think it works very well within them. We can export it to any platform, and we can be content publishers, rather than a games company."
The Nightclub has also been demonstrated in more sober settings than your average rave: London's Museum Of The Moving Image, for one, plus a host of progressive art exhibitions throughout Europe. The attempt, according to Titus Adam, is to show what can be done. How far such an amorphous entity can project beyond both the fashionable underground and academic worthiness, only time will tell.
With an open-ended medium like this, all you can ever say is that it's, er, virtually finished.
"We've got one resource which can go into all digital channels," Adam concludes. "That's the mission."
The pro-audio industry has taken a significant step into the multimedia future, like it or not. In California, where the chips have been down for longer than anywhere else, Digidesign have formed a Multimedia Products Group headed by engineer Mike Rockwell. The products in question are intended to customise Digidesign's audio editing tools for multimedia work, with a view to ensuring that the audio side of things doesn't get left behind in the rush to market audio-visual applications - and Amen to that.
Rockwell is well qualified for the job. If you've ever got your hands on a copy of ProTools (Digidesign's groundbreaking digital editing system), you may have seen an instructional video hiding in the box. It was produced and directed by Rockwell, who also runs his own sound-to-picture (any sort of picture) studio. You may also have come across two ProTools enhancements: Region Munger and Track Transfer. These were developed by Rockwell and now form the basis of the first product from the new Group, an as-yet-unnamed program designed to provide shortcuts in the multimedia soundtrack process. Who knows; maybe the myth-riddled multimedia apotheosis will start to make a lot more sense if other pro-audio companies follow suit and bring their ears and resources to bear on it. And maybe then, just maybe, we'll stop having to complain about the sound quality of computer games.
We're sorry if we gave the impression that CyberNoise, the magazine-on-a-floppy featured in Mixed Media, the mix July issue, is a Mac-only document. It ain't. In fact, it's formatted in MS-DOS, and is used on Macs via Apple File Exchange or PC Exchange. Which also means it's even easier to read on PCs and Ataris, of course, whilst Amiga users need only CrossDOS or some shareware that goes by the name of MessyDOS. Full instructions are provided with the 'digizine', and Issue Five is due in September or October.
More information: Graham Needham, (Contact Details)
If you still think underground audio-visual and comms culture is going to avoid corporate hassle and save the world, just hold on a nanosecond. A conference called 'Multimedia & Broadcasting Reform' is taking place on 29th and 30th September at the Langham Hilton Hotel, right opposite that overgrown wireless set Broadcasting House. Delegates are invited to come along, sip tea and 'maximise commercial opportunities', 'identify potential media alliances for the international multimedia future', and 'harness emerging interactive and digital technologies to competitive advantage'.
Every electronic media executive, regulator and policy maker with an expense account to match the registration fee of £875.38 (not including hotel accommodation) will be there, for a lip-smackin' thirst-quenchin' view of the opportunities presented by digital television and its attendant barrier-dissolving technology. The first 100 delegates to register will receive a free "UK Media: Who Can Own What?" wallchart.
Make no mistake. This is the sort of interest that ensures, in the world of commercial exploitation, that things happen. Which is great, because some genuinely talented and visionary artists are going to get proper finance for their dreams. It just means that the Utopian, deregulated global tea party of switched-on subversives is going to have a few extra guests, in suits. One lump or two?
September sees the first-ever degree course in computer-based media design, called Software Systems for the Arts and Media. It takes place at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, and promises training in electronic imagery and electronic music for the next generation of interactive media designers. The BSc Honours degree is run jointly by the Science and Arts departments at the University, so there's one barricade stormed for a start. If you want to be "tailor-made for the industry", contact Sarah Lamdin on (Contact Details).
News by Phil Ward
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