Animusic , as the name implies, is visualized or animated music; the brainchild of one Wayne Lytle, Columbia Music major turned animator.
The Animusic DVDs feature computer-animations of preposterous-looking instruments – part fairground organ, part Disney's Fantasia – that ‘play' various pieces of music from techno to classical.
The brains behind the technology is MIDI. MIDI allows the music and the animations to work, control, and be controlled in sync. Initially Lytle used off the shelf animation and music applications but in recent years the business has grown sufficiently for the company to invest in their own, purpose-designed software, Animotion.
How did this get started?
WL: I got into synths before MIDI, back in seventies, with things like the MiniMoog and all that stuff. By the early 1980s I had been vaguely aware of MIDI and I had already started drawing sketches in notebooks about how I wanted to drive animation from music. Then a friend told me about me about this thing called MIDI, and how you can have synths and computers talking to each other, and suddenly my two worlds merged together. It’s been a happy place ever since.
It wasn’t really until1989 that I first started experimenting with animation being driven from music, and analyzing the MIDI files that I would read in from whichever sequencer I was using.
Are you a keyboard player by nature?
WL: I started with piano and drums. I actually studied classical piano in college but I wasn’t really very good. I was more interested in playing with my bands. I’m not particularly accurate so I’m very grateful for MIDI and sequencing. The keyboard doesn’t get in my way. I ‘think’ the notes and then figure out a way to get them in there. The keyboard may or may not be involved. Thanks goodness I don’t have to play correctly; I just have to think it.
How many people work on projects?
WL: We have three people on our core production staff with a couple of other freelancers who do background projects, skies. We have one full-time software developer and then Dave and I are the core that cook up the ideas, and model them and write the music. On the one hand it’s hard to be small but it’s also hard to be big. On the one hand we don’t have any major communication issues, but at the same time with so few people it’s easy to get burned out.
How long does a project take?
WL: Each of the first two DVDs took three years. We’re working towards being able to do one a year, which is why we developed the software, to make a more streamlined pipeline. We want to get to a point where we’re spending more time playing with the instrument than writing and testing the code.
Are you an animator who plays or a musician who animates?
WL: That’s the tough question I’ve asked myself! In fact worse: Am I a musician who programs or a programmer who’s trying to be a musician? I guess for a long time I wondered how was I going to get good at any of these things. I felt that I needed to just pick one and focus on that. But I didn’t and at this time they do seem to have merged nicely together.
It’s certainly a lot of fun and a wonderful thing to be able to do what’s your passion and for it be able to support a company. We feel very fortunate.
Is there any underlying motive or message behind what you’re doing?
WL: That’s a great question I don’t get asked much. You’ve really touched on something. When we started out it was just a personal passion; what I wanted to do and what I thought about all day long. It certainly started with my own personal interest. But from there when the first DVD was released, and we could see people’s reaction to it, then our motives and purpose began to broaden quite a bit. It did really seem to bring joy to people, to make them smile, make them happy, mesmerize them even. It does seem to affect some people very deeply – kids, and older people, right across the spectrum. That changed our motivation somewhat. There’s even special education. We have Special Needs teachers using our work for education, helping with everything from musical timing, to math, to social interaction.
None of that was expected. It was kind of a happy surprise. Now our motivation to go and kindle those things. We don’t really have an agenda that we’re out to educate per se, but we do want to contribute positively to the electronic media and entertainment world that, at the moment, we see filled with a lot of poor quality, or violent, or plain disgusting content. We’re trying to show a positive side by producing something that’s different and cool, without being silly or corny.
Which comes first – the visuals or the music?
WL: Yes and yes. We’ve done it both ways. With certain animations I have the entire music written sequenced and mixed before even we’ve even thought about animating anything. Other times we have designed and built and tested the graphical instruments before we write any music for them.
In the most ideal sense – and certainly the approach we’re taking with Animusic 3 - it’s really something we try to do in tandem, where we’re working on building the instrument the same time as we’re learning how it will play better. What is it capable of, will it play better faster, or is it better at slow, plodding riffs and basslines? Are there too many notes and do we need to take some out and have it be this 8-note bass machine, or can it handle having 40 different notes? Then, as that evolves, the musical palette evolves and perhaps even stuff we’re doing in the music influences the design of the instrument. Ideally it is a much more integrated process rather than one coming completely before the other.
Have you worked specifically with any of the DAW manufacturers?
WL: Not yet. We try to just focus on the content. Our product is the DVD themselves rather than the tools, although it’s not out of the question that at some point we’d do that. We’ve actually gone away from using commercial sequencers. Not that they’re not great - they get greater and greater as times goes on – but a year or two ago I finally got to the point where I decided to write my own sequencer [MIDIMotion] that could integrate directly with the music animation stuff so that animating and sequencing become a more unified process; where they’re almost one and the same – where you could say you were sequencing the animation or animating the music.
Is MIDIMotion available for sale yet?
WL: It’s been discussed but we haven’t done that yet. It’s quite an undertaking to release a price of software and support it well so up to this point it’s just been an in-house set of software tools.
We have this large animation sequencing program called Animusic Studio and that uses the MIDIMotion engine to do the music animation part of it.
What do you see as the strengths of plug-ins and software sounds as opposed to hardware synths?
WL: I for one am very happy about where we are now. I don’t have a lot of complaints. Nowadays you can have synths that sound fantastic, and that offer total recall, and can be used in as many instances as you like. In the old days you couldn’t just run out and buy six MiniMoogs. Now I can open, say, multiple Reason sessions open and just switch between whichever I’m working on at the moment. And there everything is, configured. Honestly I don’t find myself reminiscing about the old days too often. I’m happy about the new days.
I do however having fond memories of ELP at Madison Square Gardens watching them with mountains of gear and Emerson sticking knives into his Hammonds and stuff. That was fun too.
How does MIDI fit into the modern idiom of music making?
WL: The fact that it’s become as transparent as it has become is in itself an indication of its incredible success. Yes it’s powerful, but you don’t necessarily have to understand it. It’s not like the old modular synth days where if you couldn’t figure out what to hook up to what you were pretty much sunk. Now, a lot of it is going on in the background, invisibly. And even in computer stuff a lot of it is MIDI that may not even make into a physical cable at all but it’s still using the MIDI protocol and a lot of people are completely unaware of that’s what‘s there.
I don’t really see much of a problem with that though it would be nice if there was little more evolution because clearly there are some things that are missing. I don’t see a whole lot of activity in pushing stuff forward. One thing I personally wishing for sometimes is the ability to glide from one note to another in some controllable way, sort of like a ribbon controller where you’re not snapping back to the old note. Using a pitch bend you can bend up a fifth, say, and then have to let it snap back and pick up from where you were. But that actually presents some problems graphically when bending, then having to go back and then going to a new note. I have to tell it ignore certain data and pretend like it was someone gliding up to another like on a fretless bass. I have to fight it.
Are the basics of MIDI Still useful for people to learn?
WL: Probably, but how far down do you want to get knowledgeable about your tools? You can get really at using your tools without necessarily knowing too much ‘about’ them. A painter may not necessarily know all about the wood his paintbrush is made from or where the bristles come. That won’t prevent him from being able to do great job at painting. But if you want, you can keep digging down another layer.
Obviously for the people who build music technology tools it’s critical that they understand MIDI, and not consider it to be frozen, never to be enhanced or pushed forward. And it never hurts anyone to understand what’s under the hood.
How much are you prepared to reveal about the processes you use?
WL: Right now we don’t really want to give away the recipe to our secret sauce but at certain point I think it’ll be important to share what goes on behind the scenes. It’s important for us to figure out how to do that so it’s clear, and doesn’t comes across as “wow that’s really complicated. Those guys are really smart.” That’s a reaction we can get sometimes and that’s not really the point. It’s cool what can be done but not as complex as it looks if you explain in right.
We’d like to share this in such as way as people can be empowered by MIDI. Maybe we’ll do that at the same time as we make the software available for people to use. Right now, though, our focus is still very much on the next DVD.
What do you think can be done by the ‘average’ person?
WL: As far as out-of-the-box goes, not a lot, probably. It’s like when synthesizers were operated by guys in lab coats at universities; plugging cords in… Nowadays everything can be done on a laptop. I think that’s how it should develop; it should become that way with music and animation, where people are just dragging and dropping and making their own instruments making new instruments pumping music into it. They don’t necessarily need to know the technology behind it. That’s a target. To put it in people’s hands as a simple and enjoyable process as opposed to crashing and dorking around every few minutes in order to make cool things happen.