Slowhand Software Controller for Video Learning
By Chris Loeffler |
The Virtues of Controlling Your Video Learning
By Chris Loeffler
*Note- Following this review is a brief interview with Bob DeKett, the creator of Slowhand. This was included as the software itself is very straightforward; it is the application and solution Slowhand provides that most benefits from a further explanation, as this is fundamentally a new tool for musicians.
Slowhand is a software program designed to zoom, pan, slow down, and loop any music performance video without changing the pitch or sync of the audio (it might help to watch the video at the end of the review if this doesn’t instantly click). Slowhand runs on Windows 95 through 10 systems and is a relatively small install at about 60 MB. As of this writing, the Slowhand software is available as a free, timed trial with full functionality ($49.99 Retail). A quick download and easy install unpacks the software and checks your current video codec library to ensure you have the appropriate support utilities. If you don’t, a recommended, no-frills codec is pointed to for install with an included link. The initial launch of Slowhand opens the player, with project ("project" is the term for videos edited by Slowhand) import controls at the top, speed and pan controls grouped in the left corner, and loop and transport controls on the bottom of the screen.
The current, reviewed version of Slowhand (v3.0) allows users to create a new project from video online (Youtube, Vimeo) or local hard drive, upload their projects to the online user library accessible within the program, or download projects created by other users from said library. Additionally, loops from individual projects can be combined into a single project, which is useful for mixing various versions of a solo to get the best camera angle for each part or to create custom lessons (“Top Six Blues Licks”, etc).
While intuitive to use, I would recommend newcomers start their Slowhand experience by importing a project from the user library. This lets you play around with the meat of the app (zooming, looping, and slowing down) to see how powerful this level of control is in learning a part before diving into creating your own projects and using the handy video download tool. Zooming and panning is accomplished through simple drag-and-drop mouse control, and the speed is adjusted by a single slider. Loops (up to six) are selectable in the side panel and referenced in the video timeline as well.
Creating a project is intuitively menu driven, and begins with importing a video from online (almost any video format will work, but YouTube and Vimeo video importers are included in the Slowhand interface) or selecting one from your hard drive. While using a local video doesn’t need explanation, grabbing video from an online channel like Youtube or Vimeo is easily accomplished with Slowhand’s built in video importer. Importing a video to start a project is as simple as pasting the URL into the in-app downloader and selecting “Import and Play”. The video is downloaded into your local drive and opens as a new project, ready to zoom, loop, and slow down.
From Theory to Practice
I used the Slowhand video downloader to import a video of David Gilmour playing the
The quality of video and sound depends entirely on the source material, and will degrade with extreme zooms or slow downs. That said, a typical 480 video with reasonable audio quality is still very clear at 50% zoom and can be slowed more than 50% (i.e. half time) before audio artifacts became distracting. Then again, a drastically languid tempo will likely grate on your ears before any actual audio issues come in to play.
There are deeper controls for those who are picky about audio and video quality (although I found Slowhand to default to the right mix of efficiency of size to quality), and the previously mentioned “Build a Project from Loops” is likely to become a music instructor favorite.
While the library was just released at the time of this review and only contained a dozen projects, it is safe to say the library will quickly gain hundreds (and eventually thousands) of projects as users share their projects. While I didn't think of myself as a video learner, I could see Slowhand eventually being the place people go before YouTube or a tab site to get direct access to user-created content.
A physical, fully customizable and assignable foot pedal was in the prototype stage when I reviewed the software; the pedal is designed to assign every control from the program to one of eight footswitches for hands-free learning in the program. I can't speak to the final product (due Q2 2016), but the prototype I played greatly enhanced the experience by freeing my hands so I could play while adjusting speed, zoom, and restarting loops.
- Slowhand is currently available only for PC, although a Mac version is currently in development with a Summer launch planned. iOS/Android versions are being spec’ed.
- Garbage in, garbage out. Poor video sound quality played at extremely reduced speeds begin to reveal compression artifacts in the source audio.
Slowhand is a simple and to-the-point program that does only a few things, but does them really well. While I didn’t enter the review thinking of myself as someone who would look to performance videos to learn, after actually experiencing it (and I’m not one to dedicate much time to something difficult or that doesn’t interest me) I fully realize the potential as a learning tool. While you'd assume zooming in to see what’s being played more clearly and slowing down the tempo will make learning a piece more accessible, it's truly surprising how helpful Slowhand is in practice.
Slowhand Creator Bob DeKett on the Virtues of Video Learning
When Slowhand creator Bob DeKett first explained Slowhand to me, I was a bit confused.
“Slowhand allows you to slow down videos, zoom in, and create loops without changing the pitch or sync of the audio, so you can actually see what the guitar player is playing and learn from it.”
A few beats later, I muster, “That’s pretty cool, but doesn’t that already exist?”
Bob grins. “Nope. Most people think this functionality must exist because it is so intuitive, but I assure you after 20 years of off-and-on development and the patents to prove it, this is the only one that's easy to use. They’ve been doing it with audio for years, but that just helps you hear the notes at a slower pace. Video lets you actually see what’s being played; whether it’s a picked note or a pull off, the fingering of the chords, whatever. It’s like, ‘Hey, Jeff Beck, can you play that part again but at half speed?’ Slow down video in any standard player, and the audio pitch shifts; the notes you are hearing aren’t the notes you are seeing being played. At best, that’s distracting. More likely, you’re going to say, ‘Forget it.’”
Having learned exclusively through books and instructors (and it’s been decades since I’ve worked with either, as my playing will attest), my thoughts of video learning lean more towards the hot pink and neon green HotLix VHS tapes and feathered haired, spandex clad guitar heroes teaching mixalydian runs at 100 BPM on aggressively pointy guitars. Obviously, those videos have created thousands of amazing players and kept their stars’ fridges stocked with pizza and beer, but I’ve personally never bonded with video instruction. It was sort of the worst of both book and live instruction worlds for me; books allow me to learn at my own pace (including skipping the parts I don’t want) and instructors are capable of slowing their playing and demonstrating their fingering up close. Instructional videos are limited by virtue of their format to the captured performance of the instructor and the speed the performer plays the lesson.
Bob, however, sees video instruction as the most valuable way to learn directly from the musician… with the right tools. In this case, the tool is giving players and students more control over how they can view and control the performance.
“Slowhand takes a performance and allows you to zoom in for a better view of their hands to see what they’re doing and slow the performance down to reveal the technique and show you exactly what the player is doing to master the part. It’s literally transforming a properly shot performance into the next best thing to a personal lesson with the artist. Slowhand isn’t a set of video instructions, it turns pre-existing videos into lessons you have control over. Pretty much anything you can find on Youtube, Vimeo, or elsewhere online is game.”
Obviously, a video shot in low resolution, from half-way across a crowd of 20,000 people, or the focuses on the singer’s hip gyrations isn’t going to work, but typing pretty much any song title and “solo” in YouTube search returnes something that is almost perfect every time. I say almost perfect, because while the shots can be great, they were playing at regular speed and I would have to constantly stop and rewind every few seconds if I wanted to actually learn and replicate what was being played. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t have the patience for that and was frustrated within a minute or two.
Bob acknowledged my frustration and asked me to try it in Slowhand. After a quick import of the video file from YouTube, he immediately identified three break-points in the solo and set them as separate loops of video. This allowed me to watch the same loop of four bars over and over until I nailed and and clicked to the next loop, making the entire solo more digestible. While the camera was pretty well framed, he pointed out the solo never dropped below the 3rd fret or beyond the 12th fret and zoomed in and panned the shot, giving about a 25% zoom. Once he was happy with the shot, we dropped the speed 50%. The whole process took less than two minutes, and the end result was a 24 second solo parsed into three 8 second loops. Maybe 30-45 seconds with each loop was enough to learn the complete solo and repeat it in standard tempo.
“The hardest part is finding the right video,” Bob acknowledged when I stopped the final loop. “Once you have a video, importing takes a couple of minutes and editing takes between a couple minutes to maybe five minutes, depending on the size of the initial video and number edits you choose to make. I come from a background in video games, and if there’s one thing you learn in video games, it’s that if it isn’t dead-easy to do, people aren’t going to use it.”
There’s a FAQ for Slowhand, but the user interface is about as simple as can be… anyone who has played with a simple recording device will intuitively know how to create loops, adjust playback speed, and zoom and pan thanks to the universally recognized button symbols and single-layer control scheme.
Of his intention for Slowhand, Bob stated, “Right now it’s a tool to help the individual player leverage existing videos to learn new material. As the user base grows, we’ve building out a space for users to share their projects and lessons. There’s a lot more coming, and Slowhand is the tool that will get you on that road”.
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.