Hit "Play" and a bass guitar shaped like a pogo stick plucks itself with robotic arms, then gallops down a 3D path alongside fellow computer-generated bandmates. Skip ahead and streams of shiny balls bounce in perfect tempo across a room of spinning drum heads, chimes, and plumbing as 5.1-channel surround sound wraps around your head.
Click again and you're breathlessly floating above dozens of crisscrossing strings on an impossibly multi-necked "acoustic" instrument. Strangely graceful robotic fingers pick and strum, producing the sounds you'd expect from an actual guitar, lute, cello, or harp. Click once more and you're front and center at a majestic computerized pipe organ as it bellows a MIDI-powered, high-definition version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
This is Animusic 2, the astonishing new DVD from Animusic, a wildly creative video production company.
"Watching computer animation perfectly synchronized to MIDI music does seem to stimulate something very positive in our brains," says Wayne Lytle, Animusic's chief creative visionary. "Someone once gave me a scientific explanation of the process, and it only half made sense to me," he laughs. "But apparently watching our music animations lights up more of your brain and sparks creativity."
Scientists say they've gotten new ideas as they watched Lytle's music animations, while elementary school children who had never shown an interest in drawing suddenly fill walls with Animusic pictures. My 76-year-old mother, who recoils from all things digital, was mesmerized by the "Pogo Sticks" and "Resonant Chamber" animations on the Animusic 2 DVD.
Drum and bass robots bounce in perfect sync to a musical score in "Pogo Sticks." Animusic's proprietary MIDI-to-3D-graphics software transformed each note and drum hit into motion. (Click here to play a 4.5MB QuickTime movie excerpt.)
Surely Lytle knew these would be the eventual fruits of his labor when, 15 years ago, he wrote his first music animation software after completing graduate work in computer graphics at Cornell.
"Not at all," he admits. "We had no idea. It was about making Animusic for people like us: music fans and computer geeks with similar tastes. It was more about building something we wished we could buy off the shelf but couldn't, so we created it. We had no idea our DVDs would appeal to babies and great-grandparents alike."
Dave Crognale and Wayne Lytle
Somewhere in the pastoral hills of upstate New York, not far from Cornell, Lytle lives with his wife/office manager, Patricia, and their kids. Animusic's lead digital artist David Crognale and his family live just down the road. It's a million miles from the high-tech Meccas of L.A., Silicon Valley, and New York City.
"Our neighbors are cows and farmers," says Lytle. "I'm wound pretty tight as it is, so my brain would probably blow a fuse in a major city. This laid-back environment is a perfect balance."
Lytle envisioned the first Animusic disc in 1982, when MIDI synthesizer technology was forming. But it wasn't until the late '80s that computers caught up enough for him to begin plying his art. But what was his original inspiration for Animusic?
"That's difficult to answer because this is pretty much all I think about for 16 hours a day," he says. "Writing software for the new Animusic production pipeline, sequencing music, designing virtual instruments—it all just floats my boat. I do know that what I'm doing is what I was meant to do."
Lytle punched out his first computer program in the third grade—literally. Back then, computers filled large rooms and programmers entered code on punch cards. When Lytle's father introduced him to the mainframe computer in his office, it was love at first sight, and programming has been nothing but fun for Lytle ever since. Along the way he's also embraced the synth stylings and odd time signatures of early ELP, Yes, Genesis, Kansas, and Rush; studied classical piano; and played keyboards in progressive rock bands. But he says that, as much as he desired to do so, he just wasn't cut out to be a music performer.
"Honestly, I wasn't that good. I just wanted to be a rock star," Lytle laughs again. "But that was just a phase I went through leading me to where I am today. At Animusic, the real rock stars are the little computer graphics guys on the covers of our DVDs. I'm more than happy that everyone is watching them while I'm tucked away in the back room."
Neon lights flash to each note as a band of robots rock on top of their spaceship in "Starship Groove." (Click here to play a 4.3MB QuickTime movie excerpt.)