Modular synthesizers have long been prized by electronic music producers for their hands-on control, pure analog output, and near-limitless customization. And nearly as long as these analog audio tools have existed, analog tools for making visual art have developed in tandem. Starting with devices like the Sandin Analog Image Processor in the early '70s, these types of visual tools were produced in limited quantities at huge expense and used mostly in academic settings or for installation pieces.
The arrival of affordable digital alternatives in the 80s made most of the previous analog equipment obsolete. And its only in the past five years that affordable analog tools have made a comeback, spearheaded by the modular video synth upstarts at LZX Industries. Based out of Portland, LZX is a leading innovator in the field of video synthesis, offering a range of modules that allow artists to shape and contort analog video signals into psychedelic colorscapes that look both retro and futuristic.
The way analog video synthesizers work is simple, relatively speaking. A signal path begins with either a video input (say, a clip of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or the same type of voltage that drives audio modular synths . By using 1/8" patch cables, the user sends that voltage through a chain of different modules purchased individually, build-your-own-adventure style. By twiddling with knobs on modules, the user sculpts the video output in real-time, producing shifts in color, shape, and focus.
The constraints of working within a system where each piece performs a specific function limits the user experience in a way that's actually comforting to artists who'd otherwise get lost in the infinite canvas of digital possibilities. Think of it as a painter starting with red, green, and blue rather than a Photoshop gradient wheel. Plus, since the signal is purely analog, the output resolution is far lusher than what digital software produces, making it ideal for projections accompanying live bands, music videos, and museum installations—without costing a fortune.
To learn more about the revival of analog visual synthesis, we talked to LZX co-founder Lars Larsen about the difference between digital and analog video signals, the history of the medium, and what type of artists use this sort of gear.
THUMP: How did the company start?
Lars Larsen: It was originally a DIY effort. I have a film school and web interactive background professionally, I combined that with an interest in audio synthesizers. As I researched visual synthesizers from the 60s and 70s, I couldn't really find schematics that I could just build for myself. All the parts were decades obsolete. On some online forums, I met Ed Leckie, an engineer from Sydney. We worked together throughout 2008 and 2009 to design an initial set of modules whose circuits and the architecture would be future-proofed against the idea of obsolescence.
What were some pioneering products in the field?
With a lot of video synthesizers, less than 50 units were ever made and mainly used in university environments or at the BBC. Circuit-wise, the big pioneer is Dan Sandin's Image Processor, which was developed in Chicago as an open-source video modular instrument. The goal of Dan's instrument was to create a video equivalent of the Moog modular. He was into photography, so a lot of those function modules were based on replicating photographic effects like solarisation.
Could you explain the difference between analog and digital video?
These days we're used to thinking of things in terms of pixels, like JPEG or video files. Analog video has more in common with analog audio than it does with digital video. Digital video is more like film, where you see one cell of exposure at a time. Analog video is kind of this weird thing that runs in real time, it's kind of like the voltage controlling the brightness of your television.
You recommend the Visual Cortex as the first building block of a system, can you explain how it works?
You could think of it as the core of the LZX video system. It's got a video sync generator, an outputting coder, and input so you can send an external video source through it. There's also basic color mixing and shape generation that can be expanded with other modules. It's designed as a learning lab, so once you take it through its paces you'll know enough about visual synthesis to know what else you'll want to buy next.
What type of artists use this gear?
There's a number of very active gigging visualists that use the system as a part of their rig or as the sole performance instrument. Then you have people creating studio pieces. Sabrina Ratte is really an amazing artist that's done installations of content generated with the LZX. Sam Newell is another. There's a list of artists in our 2015 demo reel.
What's next for the company?
The biggest thing in our R&D right now is digital modules. If you want to adjust the dimensions of an image, say you want to stretch it or skew it or adjust its width or height, or draw it on a screen so that it stays there, you need digital buffer memory. Analog audio exists in a moment, you only see one flash of light moving really fast. With digital memory, you can take that signal and draw something on a screen, like an Etch-a-Sketch. The digital buffer modules will be composed of a frame buffer effects module and video delay module that will add a really new interesting dimension to the workings of the system. It'll add that whole concept of memory and transformation to what you're already able to do with the analog tools.