Bob Jaroc: Visual Alchemist

Using MIDI Controllers To Turn Recycling Into An Artform

“Before black and white TVs in Brighton totally disappeared, I’d go into shops and I’d go ‘Can I just switch off all your TVs?’ And they’d go ‘What?’ And I’d say ‘No, honestly, trust me, it they’re good, I’ll buy them.’ And I’d go and switch them off, and I’d go yes, no, yes…”

Bob Jaroc presses the power button on a fifty-year-old television and the picture crumples to a white dot, instantly evoking a lost age of broadcast technology.

In a world where EDM shows are dominated by super-clean 3D renders and CGI animation, Bob has spent more than twenty years developing a uniquely grungy, retro visual aesthetic. Since making his name with art-electronica duo Plaid in the early 2000s, he has provided live visuals and designed and directed video shows for the likes of Fatboy Slim, Craig David, the Go! Team, Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra and Tom Staar, all of them generated from an Aladdin’s Cave of car boot sale video kit coupled with the latest 4k cameras and pixel-crushing computers.

Although Bob works with pictures rather than sound, his process will be familiar to anyone who’s ever used a sampler to do resampling. He begins each project by assembling a collection of video loops; sometimes these are animations or clips he’s filmed himself, while others are supplied by artists he directs or, where time and budget are tight, sourced from stock libraries. These are then taken to his Brighton studio, where they get played back and recaptured through a variety of old screens, cameras, test equipment, video players and more.

Bob Jaroc’s collection of old TVs and video equipment provide creative inspiration for his art.

“For the last thing that I did for Norm [Cook aka Fatboy Slim], at Alexandra Palace, I made a whole bunch of animations that occupied a space about an inch square. I brought them back here, listened to the track that it was going to be for, and then played it live into a monitor on that inch square of phosphors, re-filmed that, and then re-made the loops. And that’s what I actually played at Alexandra Palace. When you’ve got an inch’s worth of phosphors that’s been re-filmed on a beautiful macro lens and is suddenly 20 metres by 40 metres, it’s quite something to see!”

The Remake Is Better Than The Original

Bob’s workshop is stuffed to the gills with obsolete video and film kit, to the point where he has had to ban himself from buying any more cameras or TVs. It all gets used, and abused, in the process of content creation. “I’ve got a whole bunch of bits and pieces — electronics, old TVs, analogue stuff — and that gets all mixed up with more traditional ways of making visuals using Premiere, C4D and After Effects. I used Super 8 a lot in my work previously, but to get a 4k or HD transfer of Super 8 is a ton of money even just for one or two minutes. So I’m constantly looking for something that I can capture cheaply that has that kind of quality.

“When you’ve got an inch’s worth of phosphors that’s been re-filmed on a beautiful macro lens and is suddenly 20 metres by 40 metres, it’s quite something to see!” — Bob Jaroc

“I’ll make a basic loop, play it through the TVs, effect it live, and then I’ll recapture it and then I’ll edit it again. Where I’m not happy with the way it looks and I need some sort of analogue ‘matteness’, I’ll replay it a couple of times through a VHS tape, or I’ll stick the original animations on to VHS tape, and when I play it back, I’ll mess with the tracking in time with the music. I’ll do that live, and then when I’ve captured it I’ll take it all back upstairs, chop it all up again and then make it show-ready.

“I’ve even got a bunch of cameras from the police department in Wellington — or was it Auckland? — that they used to use for their interviews. They put them in their cases without any packaging, and when I got them, they were in pieces. So I had the lenses out, I had the circuit boards out, and I ended up putting them back together again. They’’ve got that old-school video thing that I’ve always been chasing, where when you see a bright light, it flares out in black instead of white. I love that.”

Routing audio sources to visual destinations provides Bob with abstract and unique patterns.

Sometimes the process of resampling is even more abstract, such as when Bob makes animations specifically to trigger oscilloscopes and other test gear, which he then films. “I make a lot of animations using those, and messing around with the circuitry inside them as well. Essentially this [the ‘scope] is a readout of this [the TV], and if you make something that contains a lot of colours and movement, it’ll look a very specific way. It’s a waveform monitor, but I’m using it as something to re-film and as a source of making my visuals. That’s a key thing of mine.”

Clip Capture

It’s all about exploiting the quirks of 20th Century technology for artistic effect, and to do this, Bob employs some very 21st Century methods. Raw video fragments that are ripe for analogue reprocessing are first loaded into a clip launcher program called Resolume, which he describes as “a bit of software that essentially is like Ableton Live, but for video”. Like Ableton, Resolume allows almost every parameter to be controlled over MIDI. “On the MIDI controllers, each pad kicks off a clip, and I can overlay them in different ways, and then the buttons can be assigned to anything. It’s pretty much the same in video as it is in audio, it’s just that you get pictures out in the end.”

“A lot of the time I’m being asked to make stuff really quickly, which is where a setup like this really helps.” — Bob Jaroc

The knobs and sliders on Bob’s Novation controllers then allow him to manipulate playback from Resolume in real time, to provoke the response he wants from his vintage TVs and cameras. “From MIDI, I like changing the size, the brightness and contrast. When you’re dealing with old cameras and old TVs, when you change the chrominance and luminance, that has a very direct effect on when it disappears and when it appears and when it flares out.”

During the content creation process, MIDI offers Bob immediacy and hands-on control that just wouldn’t be available otherwise. “A lot of the times I’m being asked to make stuff really quickly, which is where a setup like this really helps, because you can just plug it all in, monkey around with it, take it out, send it on or stick it in a flight case and fly on to wherever with it. And then 24 hours later you’re pressing the button in front of the stage.

“It’s as simple as putting Resolume into program mode, sending it the MIDI note of the controller that you want and then turning it off again and seeing if it works. It’s got a MIDI learn feature which makes it easy, and these days, the program and the controllers have started talking to each other without anything in between. If I scroll through all the clip banks I’ll get a lighting state for each one so I know where the clips are, and the fact that the program now plays nice with the lights on the controller means that I can actually see what I’m triggering, which is amazing. Before, with other controllers, I used to have to count them, so I’d go ‘Four across, six down… that one!’”

Reaction Times

Once the laboratory work is over, the reprocessed video loops are assembled into new Resolume sets for performance. MIDI control now becomes even more important, at least in the smaller shows that Bob enjoys most. “Bigger shows are totally on rails these days, because you’re coordinating with lasers, pyros, lighting, those kind of things. A server wheels in, plugs up, and then the same thing happens each time. For me, as a creative, it’s not that exciting, because I like to make stuff.

“For the shows I do with DJs and bands I like to change things up, and have the ability to react. When I work with Norman he’s forever changing tracks and going ‘Ah, there’s this track, listen to it…’ four minutes before we come on, and then he goes ‘Can you do something for it?’ Just in case a DJ or an artist goes off-piste, I’ve got to have something, because a blank screen is a bad screen.”

The ability to respond to what’s happening on stage depends on preparation and organisation. Sets in Resolume are organised in layers, with the top layer appearing ‘in front of’ the second layer and so on. Bob makes sure to arrange them in such a way that if the unexpected happens, he can cover for it at the press of a button. “With an act like Tom Staar, the way that I put the Novation MIDI controller together is that the top layer is always my ‘get out of Dodge’ bit. The whole top layer, those three lines, that’s my logos, and then my breakdowns and builds. If I’m in trouble, or if he suddenly decides to cut straight in, there’s a button to press that launches one of those, and by that time my finger’s on the next one and I can get it. That’s the way that I like to run those shows where I have to make it up as I go along and jam it. And they’re enjoyable.

Bob Jaroc in his Brighton, UK basecamp. It’s here where he generates and edits his visual creations and prepares his live sets.

“Everything happens on the controllers, and during the making of the show, I’ll link everything and adjust a whole load of parameters and practise it a few times and change things. In the end, it’s like being a keyboard player in a band: you don’t want to be adjusting a whole load of parameters in menus, you want to be focusing on a performance.”

Moving Targets

The ease with which knobs and sliders can be mapped to Resolume parameters also means Bob can adapt his show to each specific venue. “With each job comes a re-map — sometimes at the gig, depending on the configuration of the screens. I’ll turn up at the gig and I’ll go ‘There’s only one way that this’ll work’ and I’ll have to quickly reassign. It’s not a hard thing to do but you’ve got to be prepared for it in terms of your composition, and understand that’s the way it’s going to go in the gig — which can sometimes be confusing because you’ve not slept for three days, and anything that isn’t the normal way that you do a show is something that might trip you up!

“You can assign anything to any of the parameters in Resolume, so you can even go into MIDI Learn halfway through a show and just go ‘OK, I could really do with this.’ You can also do a whole bunch of things like take one output and split it out into a whole bunch of difrerent feeds, or you could take a video feed out from each Thunderbolt port and send them to different screens. Then I’d end up mapping the controller in a different way so that I’ve got control of each screen. And that’s essentially done at the soundcheck, except that for DJs, there ain’t no soundcheck!”

Source Selection

For the gigs he does with Fatboy Slim, Bob also integrates a Roland video mixer/switcher to cope with the number of potential video sources, including live cameras. “The Roland is like a base camp for everything. On Norm’s show I’ve got his computer visual coming in from Serato, I’ve got a robo-cam that lets me look at Norm’s computer screen to spy on what he’s doing, and then we’ve got stage right and stage left cameras, and a camera on the audience. This is all downstream of the computer — from here it goes to the screen.”

Bob’s Novation controllers, such as the Launchpad, provide a tactile control surface so he can manipulate his visuals on the fly… and get him out of trouble if the unexpected happens!

At other times, he might set up links that allow performers to trigger visual events. “On some occasions, I’ve been taking MIDI notes from stage, so a MIDI note will be sent from a keyboard player or a laptop on stage to me, and that’ll set off something on my gear, and then I’ll busk on top of that.”

On occasion, Bob has even found himself having to re-map his Novation controllers at short notice to fire off pyros or trigger CO2 jets — and there have been many occasions where they’ve helped to dig him out of a hole. “There was a show in Vegas where they didn’t really read the rider, and there was nothing prepared for us. This was a show that was totally sync’ed — every frame, every lip-sync, everything was completely locked in — but I ended up having to trigger all of the clips live. I ended up making one of the rotary knobs act almost like a jog/shuttle wheel, playing the track pretty much when I thought it was and then just tweaking it forward, tweaking it forward until it was in sync. I would then have to do that for every track, and that was probably a performance of two hours, so it got a bit tiring!”

Bob’s ideal touring rig combines this sort of flexibility with portability and ease of use — and it’s only MIDI control that makes this possible. “These days, when I go out on a new show, my battle kit is the Novation controllers, the laptop, and as little stuff as I possibly can take. The Holy Grail for me is to not have to touch a mouse or a computer. You want everything to be as simple as possible, so that you can get to bed as quickly as possible. There’s always this massive timer that’s counting down to you wanting to be in bed, because you’ve got such a short amount of time to sleep…”

Words: Sam Pryor