Several applications can make life easier for any VJ that needs to generate 2D or 3D visuals in real-time.
The best software alternatives to generate visuals in real-time are Notch, TouchDesigner, and Resolume Wire. In addition, there are also visual programming and creative coding tools such as vvvv, Max, openFrameworks, and Kodelife, with which you can also generate real-time VJ visuals through programming.
This software is synonymous with great brands and projects. If you have previous experience with programs like Cinema 4D or Blender, you will find that Notch makes things easier when creating real-time 3D visuals.
Notch has a very intuitive canvas to create 3D scenes. You will not find anything similar in any other real-time VJ visuals application. Organizing your lights, cameras, and objects is hassle-free.
You also have more than thirty 3D deformers available to enjoy greater creative freedom when creating abstract animations. Some of the more interesting ones are the FFT Deformer, the Chunk Effector Deformer, and the Ocean Wave Deformer.
On the other hand, the process of cloning and applying effectors is super simple. You can get incredible results in a short time with little effort.
Integration with third-party software is another of the comparative advantages of Notch.
For example, you can not only import OBJ sequences and FBX files but also work with MDD or Alembic files. It means you can bring in animations from software like Blender and manipulate them within Notch with great freedom.
Additionally, you can communicate Notch with Resolume via NDI to combine the best of both tools. You can find more details about this integration in the Notch Tutorial: Combining Notch and Resolume.
You can also use your creations in other applications through the Notch Blocks.
Notch Blocks are files you can use on media servers only requiring a playback license. Within TouchDesigner, you can also use these files through the Notch TOP.
Notch has an option to export videos. This option allows you to render your node scenes and keep them as VJ loops. You can choose between different codecs, turn on the alpha channel, and activate the looping option.
This real-time graphics tool has many more amazing features. Those above are the first to jump out at you when opening the application for the first time. You must check the Notch Features List to discover all you can do.
Regarding the pricing, although the Pro version is 2.600 USD/yr, you can always work and practice with the Learning plan for a one-time 70 USD payment and upgrade to a Base or Pro plan when a profitable project arises.
You may find the same things you do in Notch a bit more complicated to do in TouchDesigner. It is not a bad thing. It is simply the price to pay for having more freedom within the software.
For example, in Notch, you have a well-defined list of deformers –probably inspired by the most popular ones– instead, in TouchDesigner, you have to experiment with different SOPs to achieve the desired deformation. Even in some cases, you will have to use MATs instead of SOPs.
For example, to create a 3D landscape, you will have to play with the height map and the vertex displacement of a PBR MAT. The point is that this and other possible solutions are not one hundred percent intuitive.
Of course, you can reach the same conclusions by experimenting, but it all depends on your goals as a visual artist and available time.
Regardless, there is a large online community that will save you many hours of experimentation. For example, if you want to create a 3D landscape, you could use the Noto The Talking Ball tutorial to design landscapes and save precious time. Besides this fantastic channel, Matthew Ragan is another must-stop on the path to gaining proficiency in TouchDesigner.
Another example of the freedom that TouchDesigner offers you is that every parameter is programmable with Python. With short expressions, like those you can find at Python Tips, you can communicate different nodes and achieve great results like audio-reactive real-time VJ visuals.
You can also use Python libraries like Pandas or TensorFlow, making it possible to work with data and artificial intelligence within your TouchDesigner projects.
Also, you can create shaders in GLSL. TouchDesigner makes things easier in this regard, and it can be a way to learn GLSL and not die trying.
Finally, if you want to use your VJ loops in TouchDesigner, you can use a Movie File In TOP. You can also communicate TouchDesigner with Resolume via the NDI Out TOP or the Syphon Spout Out TOP. There is the possibility of rendering your creations as video files with the Export Movie Dialog.
Considering what it offers, the price of its commercial version –600 USD– is a good deal. TouchDesigner not only lets you generate VJ visuals in real-time. You can also create applications for mapping and lighting design. If you have time and are willing to experiment, TouchDesigner is a good alternative.
Wire is Resolume real-time VJ visuals bet. It allows you to create procedural setups making your life easier within Avenue or Arena.
With Resolume Wire, you can create effects or design generators. Then you can reuse these patches in Resolume Avenue or Arena. In a nutshell, it will allow you to enhance your VJ loops with unique effects, create procedural 2D animations and automate your workflows.
There is also the possibility to publish your effects and generators to Juicebar. A not insignificant way to generate a little extra cash.
Regarding 3D, for now, Resolume Wire does not include tools to create 3D animations, a function that Resolume users have been waiting for a long time.
Resolume included the ability to create 2D shaders with GLSL via an ISF Node, which is already a big step forward. However, we need to wait a little longer for the 3D support.
At first glance, Resolume Wire may seem small compared to Notch or TouchDesigner, but the balance offered by Wire is unmatched.
Resolume Wire offers a gentle learning curve while managing to respond to the most common needs of a visual artist. Text animations, music visualizers, and other 2D visuals can now be achieved in real-time by the user without leaving the Resolume ecosystem.
The current price is approximately 400 USD. For all it promises, it may be worth it. If you are a Resolume user or want to avoid a steep learning curve with other software, you should try Resolume Wire.
Visual Programming & Creative Coding
Until now, you have seen those out-of-the-box applications: you can download, install and start creating. Simply put, their learning curves aren't as steep as those of visual programming or creative coding.
In the case of visual programming and creative coding tools, you will need to learn how to code. That's the mountain you need to climb to master tools like vvvv, Max, openFrameworks, or Kodelife.
While visual programming can make some things easier, eventually, you'll need to brush up on programming and linear algebra, especially if you opt for creative coding with GLSL.
In short, it is not easy. However, if you like challenges and learning new stuff, here you will find the best options to create VJ visuals in real-time through programming.
It has been around since 1998 and allows you to create applications to generate visuals in real-time and much more.
Within vvvv, you have numerous libraries and add-ons that let you create applications or patches with different levels of complexity. You can work with physics, 3D, and even hardware like Kinect or VR devices.
You can also do simple things like play VJ loops or connect vvvv to Resolume.
Vvvv is free for personal use. The license for commercial purposes, without updates included, is worth around 500 USD.
Max is kind of a vvvv for music. It has been on the market for almost thirty years, and you can do sound design through visual programming with it. Nevertheless, it also offers the possibility of generating real-time VJ visuals.
For more details, you have to refer to Jitter, which includes the video extensions of Max. Then you have Vizzie.
Vizzie is a Jitter abstraction meant to simplify working with real-time visuals. In Vizzie, you can create filters and effects to manipulate video footage or VJ loops. In the promotional video for Max 8, you can see Vizzie patches in action and the creative results you can achieve.
Max 8 has a very versatile pricing structure. You can opt for a monthly plan of 10 USD/mth, annual plans of 100 USD/yr, or even purchase a permanent license for 400 USD.
openFrameworks is the only free option that allows you to create all kinds of VJ visuals in real-time.
You can do mapping, 3D animations, physical simulations, manipulate VJ loops with incredible effects and filters, work with shaders, create GUIs, develop your add-ons, and much more.
It has good documentation and a strong community that often feeds the project with new add-ons and educational content.
The bad news is that openFrameworks uses C++. It can be challenging for someone with no programming background. On the other hand, OF does not have its IDE, so you will also have to install Visual Code Studio to start creating.
If you gain proficiency in openFrameworks, you'll be able to do everything you'd do with other applications without spending a single dollar. Instead, you will spend time learning to use a not very intuitive tool.
Kodelife is a real-time shader editor designed to make it easier to work with shaders, learn GLSL or do live coding performances. Of all the tools for real-time VJ visuals, Kodelife may be the most difficult to learn how to use.
Whether you can use Kodelife depends mainly on your knowledge of GLSL and linear algebra required to create 2D or 3D graphics. In a nutshell, it's a pretty steep learning curve.
But it's not all bad news. Kodelife costs only 20 USD, and you'll find many resources available to learn online. Probably the most recommended is The Book of Shaders. There are two other resources worth checking out too:
Finally, once you want to show your shaders to the world, you can easily do so via Syphon/Spout. You will be able to integrate Kodelife with applications such as Resolume or TouchDesigner and achieve great results.
Inexpensive software does not mean a bargain. Remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
The ease of use of a tool is proportional to its price. What you do not spend on software, you will spend on learning. Learning takes time.
Faced with a new project, you will not be able to sit down and climb steep learning curves. Therefore, the best choice will be the tool or software that solves the most problems in the shortest time.