The Making of Moogfest 2017: How Bronto Created Interactive Visual Effects

Mike DeMar, Lead Product Designer

Mike DeMar, Lead Product Designer

This is the third article in a four-part series about how Bronto employees collaborated to transform raw, anonymized data into an interactive audio and visual installation for Moogfest 2017 called The Sounds of Commerce.

It’s not every day that your general manager invites you to tap your personal creativity in a team project like this one.  I knew right away that I wanted to participate. I didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, but I knew I could bring my video jockey (VJ) experience to the table. I’m also part of an electronic hip-hop group, providing live, interactive visualizations for our performances.

I had my sights on a singular MVP idea, and knew that if we could accomplish it, I’d consider our prototype a success. I wanted to trigger a specific video clip to play in correspondence with individual sounds, which would be controlled by buttons on the MIDI controllers our team built to make it possible for festival-goers to interact with the display.

Easy enough, right?

To test the idea, the first thing we needed to do was to look at what VJ software was available. I first considered Cell DNA by Livid Instruments, which was the software I used as a VJ for the hip-hop group. As it turned out, that software was no longer supported on the latest versions of Macintosh OS. We considered Resolume, which had amazing capabilities, but seemed too robust for our needs.

After some searching, we landed on a software package called Magic Music Visuals. It was considerably cheaper than other products, and it seemed to have quite a fan base. We downloaded Magic Music Visuals and started to test it out. The software supported MIDI, and we quickly proved, with a test MIDI controller that I brought in, that part of our MVP idea was possible. I could trigger multiple VJ clips to play, depending on which buttons I pressed on the MIDI controller.

Great!

I also learned a lot about the various visual effects that came bundled with this software. After watching a few tutorials, I figured out how to add multiple effects to each clip, which ones worked together, and which ones didn’t. I was able to figure out how to trigger them using knobs on the test MIDI controller. Bonus! After a few hours of playing around, we had a few nice blends of clips playing with effects all being triggered by the MIDI controller.

Now what about the music?

The first half of the MVP idea worked out. Next, it was time to figure out how Magic Music Visuals would play with Ableton, our software for music creation. This is when we needed to test the idea of triggering a visual clip to play with a sound. Luckily for us, Ableton and Magic Music Visuals played nicely together. We could easily get MIDI to work with both programs at the same time. Working with another Bronto, Eric Hirsh, we successfully MIDI-mapped specific sounds to corresponding visuals that I had gathered and processed the night before.

Success! We’d proven the MVP was possible. A user could push a button, make a sound, and play a VJ clip all at the same time.

From there, I took some time to restructure and clean up the Magic Music Visuals flow, import more VJ clips, add more effects, and do some general improvements. When all of our MIDI controllers were built and ready to go for The Sounds of Commerce installation, I sat down and mapped specific buttons and knobs to control different aspects of the visuals.

What we ended up with was a truly amazing interactive audio-visual experience. We tested it out in Bronto’s main kitchen area and were blown away with how cool it was. People would walk by and test out the controllers, which was fun because we instantly had an impromptu internal user-experience (UX) usability test on our hands. We watched other Brontos’ first impressions, gathered feedback and got a general idea on how Moogfest participants would react and engage with the installation. One Bronto said,  “It sounds like aliens are landing a spaceship in here.” When I heard that, I knew we were on the right track.

The Sounds of Commerce was an incredibly successful audio-visual experience that was enjoyed by Moogfest festival-goers and Brontos alike. For me it was an amazing learning experience and a challenging project that allowed me to explore a completely different side of my skill set. I was able to collaborate with brilliant engineers, some of whom I rarely interact with in my day-to-day work at Bronto. I was also able to work with some amazing people from across the organization including project managers, marketers, facilities team members, support, executives and others. Everyone came together to make this project happen and in the process, we all developed a special bond.

Big thanks to our General Manager Carolyn Sparano for creating this opportunity for us. And of course, a special thanks to all the brilliant musicians at Bronto who helped bring this installation to life.