N501 VLM Review
by James Kracht
When it comes to ‘virtual light’ no one does it better than Yak – aka Jeff Minter – the scruffy genius behind the Virtual Light Machine built-in to the NUON chipset. The latest VLM – lurking within the Samsung N501 DVD player – features 152 effects, analog control of effect geometry (deformation, feedback, and color cycling), several beat detection algorithms and the ability to adjust gain settings.
The VLM in the N501 can be thought of as “VLM-2” – a sequel, in a way, to the VLM built-in to the Atari Jaguar CD-ROM drive back in 1995. Since Jag-VLM, there have been three versions of VLM-2 to appear in various consumer-level DVD players. In the chart below, I’ve listed the two recent Samsung versions next to the original Jag-VLM (I am not listing the Toshiba SD 2300 version of VLM-2, since it only contained 8 effects – which is an insult to VLM users worldwide).
The scores shown are very subjective, and don’t really reflect anything more than the obsession of one VLM user (i.e., me). However, it is important to note that despite the N501’s lower resolution effects, the analog control and configuration options more than make up for this. The Extiva’s version of the VLM is incredibly beautiful, but it is rendered useless by less-than-perfect beat detection and absolutely no analog control. To date, the N501-VLM is the best iteration of VLM-2 to hit the market.
I am still not convinced the N501-VLM is a performance device, which is what the Jag-VLM was so good at. My primary reason for saying this is the N501’s intrusive on-screen user interface - it completely ruins any type of seamless public performance you might attempt, and it eliminates the creation of videos altogether. That caveat aside, I was very excited to finally gain control over the effects. It took a few hours, but I finally realized that just like any "musical" instrument, the N501-VLM has a learning curve. Once you learn how to "perform" an effect, you will really fall in love with the analog stick on your gamepad. The range of alterations on an effect is superb, and usually quite different from one effect to another. You can control the intensity of effects and completely overwhelm your senses when the music warrants it. In fact, you can completely transform certain effects - making them look like a different effect entirely! The N501’s “Time Random” mode is a great way to perform without the nuisance of the user interface. It gives you enough time to improvise with an effect - then it switches to a new effect, forcing you to adapt your performance.
Deep in the guts of the VLM is ability to select one of two beat detection algorithms (called RAQ modes). RAQ 1 mode alters the color intensity and feedback levels of effects, while RAQ 2 alters the geometry (which is the more subtle of the two modes). You can also turn beat detection off – which is very nice when you just want to chill-out on the couch without any harsh flashes of light blasting through the room. Gain can be turned off as well, or set to one of 14 intensity levels. Upon experimentation, Gain often seems like an accelerator control. With Gain set to 1, the effects are "slowed" considerably - you can really get a good sense of what an effect is made of. Slowly rotating the analog stick through its full range of motion reveals a lot about the overlaying chaos of the effect, as well as the mathematical construct at its core
You'll never be able to make a cool video with this thing (the interface is just too clumsy - for instance, to get from effect #12 to effect #57 you have to scroll through all the effects in-between - this just won't fly when you're recording). This VLM does offer a great live performance value, provided you're only using a single effect – or modes like “Time Random” and “Power Random.”
You can "stretch" a single effect throughout an entire song if you’re careful with how you use the analog control. You can hold back an effect - "minimize" it - while letting the music build, and then towards the end really let the effect loose - and even push it beyond its default state - and the responsiveness to the analog stick means even the most rhythmically inept users can get good visuals.
Minter is a genius. These effects are deep. Even after all these years, I still find myself discovering new things in the Jag-VLM – and I suspect the same will be true of the N501-VLM for years to come. There is a lot going on here, and some of the analog alterations you can make really send an effect into a frenzy you never thought possible. A flick of the stick creates a wash of searing feedback. Push the stick forward, and you’re suddenly zooming into the effect. People who never invest in an analog controller will only experience one third of what the N501-VLM is truly capable of. The only down-side to the N501’s visuals is the lower resolution of the effects – but this fact shouldn’t concern anyone until another version of a fully user-controllable VLM appears on the market.
The N501-VLM also offers preset modes of use – Rock/Pop, Classical, Techno, and Chill Out. While this review focused mainly on the use of Manual mode, these other modes are nice and quick, and they make those late-night VLM sessions hassle-free, especially if you have people over and you just want a nice wash of calming light waves to illuminate the scene.
VLM effects are numbered uniquely within each mode.
In Manual mode, the new effects are numbered 1-52, and the original Extiva-VLM effects are numbered 53-100.
* these mode settings can't be changed. Only Manual mode allows customization. The + 2 in the '# of Effects' column refers to the following two effects settings: Random Time, which switches VLM effects based on a random interval of time, and Random Power, which switches VLM effects based on the beat, and at random intervals.
RAQ = "(R)hythm (Aq)uisition". RAQ 1: Rhythm alters the color intensity and feedback levels of effects. RAQ 2: Rhythm alters the geometry of an effect.
Overall: 9.0 (Not an average)
What the N501-VLM lost in performance usability by being included in a mainstream DVD player from a major appliance maker (i.e., Samsung has NO CLUE what they're sitting on), it more than makes up for with its stunning visuals and absolutely phenomenal responsiveness to analog control. The selection of effects – from strange geometric forms to vast canyons of bubbling, gaseous light – will keep you in neurological state of chill-out for many nights to come.
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