Reason remains one of those tools that a whole lot of people use. So, the decision by Propellerhead to allow developer access to the Rack, the virtual array of modules in which you make sound, has been one of the fastest-trending music making stories of 2012. But it’s also big news for a wider audience: music makers and developers alike frustrated with the limitations of existing plug-ins. (The video above is racking up views, but it might surprise you what the biggest referrer on YouTube has been so far – it’s the Native Instruments forum. So, interest goes beyond just the Reason community.)

Now, we get a chance to give these Rack Extensions a try, in the shipping versions of Reason and Reason Essentials. I’m finishing an overview of what’s available, which we’ll at last run early next week. As that’s becoming a big round-up, I wanted to first review some of the reasons developers are excited about Rack Extensions in the first place. (My favorite developer to show up in the list isn’t KORG or someone like that. It’s Chris Randall from Audio Damage, who has regularly griped on his uncensored blog Analog Industries about just how awful it is to develop for plug-in formats and hosts, both perpetually-moving targets.

Propellerhead surveys developers in the video above; I’ve talked to others privately, and looked at some of the details of the format, and can confirm some of the advantages here:

  • Intuitive automation, handled in the host
  • Logical integration with the host
  • Undo via keyboard shortcut, and other standard features
  • A specification that’s predictable, defined, and doesn’t change
  • Crashes of add-ons that don’t crash the whole host (and cause lost work)
  • An integrated shop with the ability to try out add-ons, and, when you buy them, associate them with your account
  • Seamless cross-platform support and backwards compatibility (at least, in terms of what Propellerhead promises – and what they’ve delivered so far in their software)

These are real advantages, and they’re really not possible in the same way with plug-in formats like VST and Audio Units, or even Avid’s host-specific RTAS and TDM. (It’s especially unfortunate that AU didn’t significantly advance possibilities here, since Apple wiped the slate clean when they created it.)

In fact, the only really bad news is that this is meaningless if you don’t want to use Reason as your host. But, on the flipside, those who are fans of Reason are likely to find this development an absolute godsend.

Indeed, the worries I’ve heard about this trend come from people who love plug-ins who are afraid that music software in general is moving away from common formats. It’s not just Reason: Apple makes their own integrated instruments for Logic Pro, for instance, and Ableton – via both Max for Live and their own Ableton Devices in Live Suite – also uses a format built for the host rather than for a plug-in.

This seems to me, however, reason to fault the plug-in formats, not the hosts that devise their own solutions to fill needs the plug-ins can’t.

So, the next question: will the rise of new options like Rack Extensions finally call attention to the need for a different direction in plug-ins? Time will tell. In the meantime, we’ll watch to see how these work for Reason users – and developers.

  • metrosonus

    If developers start to feel confident in a given platform in terms of stability and security,  I think we can expect nothing but good things in the future and I certainly hope this will be an across the board change. 

    I’ve been saying for years the reason why we don’t see hardware level quality VSTs is simply piracy and look where Korg is choosing to put their products. 

    As a professional who chooses to pay for his tools, I’d happily pay 800$ for a VST M3 or JP-8000. This is what it’s going to take to get it done and I’m quite in favor of the change.

    However the whole cult-esque shtick needs to stop.  It’s counter productive. Live had it for a while and it’s mostly gone now and they’re nearly the top used DAW these days.

    • Thomas

      I think most people will agree that VSTs indeed has surpassed hardware when it comes virtual analogs and digital stuff. I can’t see anyone in their right mind still buying VA hardware for sound quality reasons alone. The only real value of hardware VA that I still can see is hands-on control. Makes total sense if you’re playing live for instance.

    • xonox

      I still haven’t seen a plug-in that does sample + synthesis machine like a Roland Fantom.  These things come loaded with useful samples and lots of options to treat samples.  Today’s workstations are often criticized but i think they provide tremendous value for the money.

      If someone knows about plugins that have a similar complexity to a Roland Fantom, i’d like to know about it.  4 oscillators per voice, multiple filters and types, many envelopes, ring mod, oscillator distortion, some sort of fm and a modulation matrix.  Loaded with acoustic waveforms and synth waveforms.

      I expect the M3 to be of the same caliber.  I’m not very knowledgeable about plugins but i haven’t seen something that does all this in the same package.

      I’ve seen many VA plugins but they seems much simpler than hardware VAs.  Could you name good VA plugins ?  The Access Virus has a ton of options that beat a standard 2 osc + filter synth plugin.

      This being said, i’m disliking the fact that rack extensions are for Reason only but i understand why they did it this way.  I’m a Reason fan and being able to switch to the back of the rack and wire things yourself is just fantastic.  I don’t see myself using another DAW since i fear it would severely limit the way you can connect things.

      I promise i’ll read about every plugin mentionned in a reply to this :)

    • leenuss

      “4 oscillators per voice, multiple filters and types, many envelopes,
      ring mod, oscillator distortion, some sort of fm and a modulation
      matrix.  Loaded with acoustic waveforms and synth waveforms.”

      Reason? You should check out the Combinator. Combine sampled waveforms or acoustic instruments, subtractive synthesis, FM synthesis, Phase modulation synthesis aka PD synthesis, Wavetable synthesis, Graintable synthesis, lots of filters and modulation possibilites.

    • xonox

      For some reason i can’t click reply on your comment leenuss.
      I’m using Reason a lot these days and i sure enjoy the combinator. 

      My comment was aimed at VST plugins, since it seems somewhat fashionable to hate workstation keyboard when many VST plugins are not as powerful.

      This being said, it sure has taken some time for Reason to provide a step sequenced pitch shifter.  Now with Polar i think it could be done but i haven’t bought it yet.

      I still think my Fantom is a very interesting instrument.  I finally got a proper sound card and will soon integrate it with Reason.

      After spending time with Reason’s Thor synth, i felt very restricted when trying out many other soft synths.

  • slabman

    What excites me most is when you flip the Rack Extension round and see what ins and outs are available on the back panel. Also the potential for combinator patches. 

    One slight downside is the dilution of Reason as a closed system that you can really learn in depth and work within the constraints. Now it’s open to the tyranny of choice and dithering over what extensions to install. Maybe a nice problem to have?I guess it’s not inconceivable that someone will reverse engineer the format and figure out how to build another host for Rack Extensions

  • Bob

    RE’s have certainly given Reason a heck of a boost. And thats even with the RE’s currently being a little limited in what they can do, compared to VST’s/AU’s etc. But as was said in the vid, it’s just the beginning. I look forward to seeing how the format develops.

    Still no midi out though. Which is head bangingly frustrating.

  • markLouis

    Reason always looked exciting to me because Malström seems like the most interesting softsynth, to my ears.  It’s nice to know the technology behind the software is exciting people, too.

  • Radiophobic

    This is great for reason users, and bad for everyone else. If its successful more companies will follow it. Which will lead to people getting locked into particular hosts. That would be bad for market competitiveness.

    • Peter Kirn

      It’s not quite that simple. The actual content of the plug-ins is DSP code. It’s not a big deal to port plug-ins to the Rack Extension format. Where you spend a lot of time is on things like UI … but that’s true anyway, and the payoff is add-ons that seem designed for this host. (That’s a better use of time than just troubleshooting, etc.)

      The other reality is, even though plug-in formats like AU and VST promise the ability to “write once, run anywhere,” that’s not what actually happens. You can spend an extraordinary amount of time supporting idiosyncrasies of different hosts, partly because of the fact that these formats are spec’ed in such a way that allows seamless compatibility. So, figure that a lot of these developers are *already* investing all this time – which is very bad for market competitiveness.The one significant problem, and plug-in vendors are going to have to sort this out, is licensing. Like many of the app stores in general (not just for music), I think users are going to ask some serious questions if they feel like they’re buying the same software more than once.Also, I don’t seriously expect every DAW to have its own add-on store. I think the Reason architecture and user base is fairly unique, as is the work Propellerhead has done.That’s why my plea is, generally, that we need to fix the plug-in formats. But it’d be a shame to dismiss what Props have done here, which I think is significant – and which could be a model for any solution that does cater to multiple hosts.

    • Rumba Codex

      Peter, you make good points about the peskiness of the VST format and I agree we need to have a fresh, radical look at plug-in formats in general. But the irony is that Propellerhead have inverted the problem.

      Reason offers a closed environment (with all it’s quite brilliant and inspired features) that connects to the rest of world via ReWire. Fine. But since v6 the choice to add a dongle combined with online authorization into the equation (what PH call the Authorizer), now puts the emphasis on web accessibility and “seamless” browser compatibility for the whole package to work.

      But as any web dev will tell you “seamless” browser compatibility over a secure connection requires a huge amount of testing. And a lot of it is about cookies. All server side settings (especially security related) need to be constantly monitored / patched / updated every time IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari etc release a new build. PH are also reliant on WIBU (who make the CodeMeter stick) to ensure their runtimes are up to date and fully compatible at system level with each major OS update or release.

      While in theory there are some attractive advantages in the Rack Extension format (as you’ve outlined), contributing devs should be concerned about the web browser based authorization issues which many PH users have been struggling with over the last two weeks or more. Once you are headed down that uninstall / re-install “intelligent guess” path, it’s a situation conducive to operator error.

      In my own case, using Chrome is the only reliable way that I can access my account. What RE means to me boils down to a couple of basic questions: Can I actually log in to my account? Will Authorizer load in my browser this time?

      Reason 6.5 (including the new RE format) is a great example how both God and the Devil reside in the details.

    • Ben Pettit

      “But since v6 the choice to add a dongle combined with online
      authorization into the equation (what PH call the Authorizer), now puts
      the emphasis on web accessibility and “seamless” browser compatibility
      for the whole package to work.”

      Honestly. The only people complaining about a dongle is the people who never bought the software. They can bitch and moan all they want. But in the end those who did buy it (I did!) don’t mind the dongle. It has stayed attached to my editing computer since day one. If you hit the road, pull it out and put it on your keyring. Not that big of deal.

      You only have to authorize the ignition key once when you first get it. Then your good. It will work on any computer as long as it’s plugged in first.

      I haven’t talked to a single person who actually bought the software who minds it. It’s kind of a USB key of pride.

    • Dan

      That’s the wrong way around. The only people who the dongle even *can* bother are those who bought the software, because they are the only ones with an unfixed/”broken” copy of the software that even looks for such a thing. People who don’t buy the software are incapable of being inconvenienced by the dongle requirement, because their copy of the software doesn’t even know what a dongle is.

      DRM, in whatever form or extent, only ever badgers legitimate customers, if anyone. That’s just a basic, logical, and time-proven fact of the whole shebang. And I am baffled that there are actually still software companies out there that not only didn’t get the memo yet, but are non-ironically making steps backwards.

  • Qqq

    The day that the marketing department took over.

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, there’s no way to say this that doesn’t sound like an ad for Rack Extensions.

      But it’s also hard to overstate the frustration with VST, AU. As I say above, I’d still like to sound the alarms for a new plug-in format — because you don’t always want to use Reason as your host, necessarily.

    • Hello

       “But it’s also hard to overstate the frustration with VST.”
      Because dragging a .dll into a folder is really difficult.

    • Peter Kirn

      Dragging DLLs into folders is quite easy, yes. So is reading the rest of what I say about the many things that those proprietary plug-in formats fail to do.

  • Rumba Codex

     “Press a button and try it out. Without any hassle at all.”

    Nice idea.

    Well, for trial versions of REs you need to be connected to the PH servers the for the entire time you wish to use them. Otherwise, it’s an annoying pop-up message asking for a internet connection every time you open the Reason GUI (stand alone or via ReWire).

    PH could re-think the way in which RE trial licenses work, so we are free to work with Reason as we please, on or offline.

    As for the REs themselves, it’s great that they’ve managed to convince so many good devs to come on board.

    • Eric

      Still orders of magnitude easier than any other plugin demo I’ve ever done. When RE’s debuted, I demoed 7 plugins by 7 different manufacturers in an hour or two, without needing to do 7 different registrations and dealin with 7 different demo limitation quirks (splash screens, noisemakers, time limitations…). I’ve never demoed that much software in a day. I actually have gotten songs done with no interruption. Ymmv, but it’s been the most uncumbersome demoing experience in my years of buying music technology. For me, the burden of needing connectivity is vastly outweighed by the ease of the whole process.

    • Rumba Codex

      Sure, you put aside time to be online, demo a number of REs and you enjoy the convenience you speak of. 

      If PH can cook up a way to allow users to demo REs offline, even better. That further justifies using a take-anywhere dongle as a storehouse for all your license data. From time to time some of us work in places where internet access is wonky or simply not available at all.

    • Ben Pettit

      Seriously, who the hell doesn’t have internet? You guys act like we are still on dial up. I’ve got 4g on an iPad. Give me a break.

  • Excuseme

    No add-on crashes or host crashes? Marketing, meet reality.

    • Peter Kirn

      No, that’s not what it says. Add-ons are sandboxed. They simply *can’t* bring down the host.

      Now, can the host crash on its own? Absolutely.

      Can an add-on crash? Absolutely.

      The difference is, when an add-on crashes, it won’t also crash the host.

      I’m sorry, but think what you will – it’s actually technically impossible for the add-on to crash the host. The fact that people think this is simply marketing is partly a function of the fact that plug-ins have trained you to believe that something that’s technically reasonably easy to implement (sandboxing) is actually impossible. But it isn’t so.

      But I stand by the technical accuracy of everything I’ve said.

    • Excuseme

      Yes I red-ragged on crashes! It says, “Crashes of add-ons that don’t crash the whole host (and cause lost work)” Add-on crashes aside, the Prop forums report many instances where the host has been crashing, or work is being lost in various ways. Teething problems, I suppose. But until the dust settles, some of the ‘confirmed advantages’ could just easily be regarded as admirable but speculative aspirations.

      Btw it should say, “A specification that’s prediCtable”. Or at least, it should be spelled like that.

    • Eric

      Fwiw, the crashes are also resulting from Props’ own plugins and seem to be coming in certain configurations (Windows 32-bit mode). Time will tell if this is better or worse than the usual VST stability blues, but I find it somewhat encouraging that one company has their arms around the problem rather than relying on two independent companies with differing aims and busy independent schedules coordinating to patch a problem. I think we’ll have a better sense after a patch or two and after seeing how gracefully all the REs jump to the new OSes (Mountain Lion, Windows 8) on the horizon.

  • Raaphorst

    I love it. I just did my first production with a couple RE’s and it worked out great. 

  • Jakku

    Please oh please give me Reaktor for Reason! That would be the best possible counterpoint to Max for Live, which I also love. Wouldn’t it?

    My only problem is, this is gonna be expensive!

  • DJSur

    I’ve only used three DAWs and Reason is the most stable and inspiring of the three.

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    The problem has never been specific plugin formats. It has been the stupid insistence of the music technoogy industry that they must have proprietary plugin APIs. The stupidity is doubled down on because this is the same industry that managed to generate MIDI – something which I doubt could ever happen today. And then it gets doubled down again by someone recapitulating yet another XKCD cartoon:

    If this industry could once again realize what the people who did MIDI realized – that everything gets better for everyone when there is cooperation around open, non-proprietary, license-free standards – we’d finally see plugins change from a necessary pain in the ass to the fully realized source of promise that they could be. And by everyone, i really do mean everyone – host developers, plugin developers, users, and anyone else with a stake in the area.

    Until then – this is just the MI industry doing “business as usual” aka “we think that this technological innovation will make us top of the pile”, rather than the much more visionary “lets grow the size of the pile and make everyone’s life a bit better”.

    We tried this with GMPI in the mid 1990’s. It fell apart when the MMA (of all organizations) lost the plot as we edged toward actual implementation, and insisted that it be closed source and essentially secret. Sometimes even the younger dogs get old and forget their tricks.

    • Peter Kirn

      Well, you know I agree with you on this, Paul. That may be a topic for another post — the basics here, sandboxing, better host integration functionality, and then, as you say, a genuinely open format that multiple entities can follow, sound like a roadmap for trying this again.

    • Ferz Frank

      Amen Sir, cubase made once VST specification for everyone and we all were happy, then jelousy took control and now everyone wants to create their own plugins?? no way. I was gonna buy reason, in fact that’s why I ended up here but not anymore, you see, I use different daws for different purposes, for isntance, I use FLStudio for composing, Cubase & waves for mastering and mixing, Ableton & NI for DJing & live performance so the idea of having special plugins for specific DAW is not on my plans, sorry

  • Bendish

    They should start getting modular synth companies to make modules that have cable inputs and outputs on the front. Forget Reaktor or Max. That would certainly shake things up a bit.

    • Bendish

      I mean as rack extensions obviously.

  • Taylor Holliday

    Are they just running the “rack extensions” in a separate process to keep the host from crashing? That could be done with Audio Units (and probably VSTs too, though I’m only familiar with the Audio Unit API).

  • Mark Hans Avon

    I think that it’s time Reason got MIDI In? Anyone?

  • Ethday

    As another plus, I’d add that there are certain Rack Extensions that are much cheaper than the VST/AU option, I’m assuming because of the proprietary nature of them.  This is a big plus for me.  I own Logic as well as Reason and at $249, the FET compressor wasn’t an option.  Now as an RE for $119, I bought it.

  • Ferz Frank

    One thing I love of this video, is what the bald guy says at the end, “reason remains reason, but now, it opens”. This really make sense don’t you think??