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E3 2005: Ministry of Sound StikAx
game: E3 2005: Ministry of Sound StikAx
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Digital Leisure
developer: Ministry of Sound
date posted: 12:00 AM Sun May 22nd, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Sun May 22nd, 2005

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Hurrying out of E3's West Hall (historically the console? hall, although these days consoles dominate pretty much every corner of E3), past a platoon of soldiers playing PSPs, a kung fu workout class, and a game about a bikini hot dog stand (Hot Dogs, Hot Gals), my just-shy-from-seizure brain focused for a blithe moment on the Digital Leisure booth. It was as if time slowed down,something was? different. Digital Leisure? On the show floor? Right across from Sony?

In the past, Digital Leisure has been seen holding down vintage Hologram Time Traveller and Dragon's Lair machines in the bowels of Kentia Hall. Now, I'm a Kentia Hall lover; any gamer too cool? for the kind of innovative (occasionally bordering wacky) stuff shown in Kentia Hall isn't fit to play Kimchee Man anyway (and if I have to explain that reference, then maybe you should go find a Madden review to read?).

The point is, Digital Leisure has always done a phenomenal job of converting and reissuing classic laserdisc games for DVD, PC and console play. Their work has generally shown a great affection for these fairly oddball games, and these games are both historically significant and kind of fun to go back to. Sure, I'm not giving up Oblivion in favor of Shadoan, but Drug Wars 2 still makes me laugh every time.

This year, front and center was a PC running what looked, at first, to be something like Sonic Foundry's Acid or Vegas Video. At the instant I saw the Digital Leisure booth I found myself drawn to it, as if my brain had already calculated the ramifications of what I was seeing. I thought to myself, If Digital Leisure is showing up with the big boys, they must have something cool going on??

I wasn't disappointed. The product that was being showed in the Digital Leisure booth, in addition to their lineup of classic games and eJay software, was the Ministry of Sound StikAx and the TrakAx software. The StikAx is a controller that plugs in via USB to a PC and conrols a multitrack audio and video sequencing program. A bit smaller than a grade-school recorder, and with a key layout akin to a saxophone or clarinet, the StikAx looks like a futuristic musical instrument.

Eight buttons on the front of the unit, four on the top and four on the bottom, can be set to either play or toggle loops, sounds, and videos using the TrakAx software. On the back of the unit are two thumb buttons and an LED light, all of which are used to provide precision control over effects that can be bound to each loop, allowing the user to modify sounds on the fly.

The software interface is familiar to anyone who has worked with multitrack sequencers before, and certainly approachable for people who are entirely new to audio packages. A file explorer within the interface allows you to easily browse your computer for audio and video clips, which are conveniently previewed for you. A quick drag and drop onto one of the button assignment areas will set the file to be triggered by pressing the corresponding key on the StikAx controller. Properties of playback including volume, toggle, and attached effects can be set quickly and easily.

Once you've chosen the audio and video to use in your mix, you can begin playing the StikAx itself. You can control the audio and video, as well as effects you've assigned, using the keys and the LED light sensor. The LED provides for a nice analog interface to the effects, and the two thumb buttons are suitable for pan and volume effects. Up to two StikAx controllers can be plugged into the computer, allowing for collaborative live audio and video mixing.

After performing a mix, the software presents the composition in a standard multitrack viewer, and users can return to the mix they just created to tweak various elements. If a finished product is the goal, the user can export the composition to an audio file after making their final adjustments on the computer.

The Ministry of Sound involvement offers up a large starter library of quality audio and video clips that can be used to create bangin' club beats and video lightshows. But any clips can be imported, so users can create their own audio and video assets. The expandability of the software, assets and the spontaneous mixing offered by the hardware controllers, means that the StikAx could easily become a favored tool of musicians, DJs and VJs.

Current digital DJ, VJ and live mixing equipment is usually difficult to use and expensive to buy. Hardware to allow digital scratching? on CDs is unsatisfactory, as the continued reign of analog turntables shows. And a big part of the reason why has got to be that the scratch? interface is something that was developed because of how an analog turntable and record work. The digital form is so different that it requires different approaches.

Instruments similar to the StikAx have been developed as MIDI controllers and synthesizers, but these are very expensive and require serious technical and performative know-how. The StikAx puts this kind of interface into the hands of he masses. At a low price point (should be around $99 when it releases in the US), the software alone would be an incredible value. Comparable programs that allow effects, mixing and enveloping of audio and video, like you can do with the TrakAx software, cost upwards of $500. But the cost of the StikAx also includes the innovative controller, which pushes this over the edge to an insanely good deal. 

As a former DJ and current multimedia artist, I can see a world of possibility in the StikAx interface that could help push VJ art and culture into the mainstream. Entire bands of users could be formed, creating incredibly complicated and satisfying audiovisual shows. Bands could be broken up not by the instruments they play, but the samples they use or the role they perform. As instruments like these become available to the public, we are certain to see the creation of a whole world of performance that we can only imagine.

So after playing Xbox 360, seeing some of the first mainstream mobile augmented reality games, and even taking We Love Katamari for a spin, I find myself sitting in the office daydreaming about what audio and video footage of E3 would make a cool mix. I don't think there is any higher endorsement I can give, based on our demo of the system. The Ministry of Sound StikAx should be out later this summer, and I'll definitely be one of the first in line to get my kit.