Modular for the masses
December 29, 2017 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Over the past few months, VCV Rack has been gaining an enormous amount of buzz and excitement in the electronic music production community. What is VCV Rack? It's a modular synthesizer (think: someone hunched over a mess of cables, patching them into jacks on an arcane-looking device to alter and modulate sound signals in complex ways). But it's virtual, and it runs entirely in your computer. If you want to get started with VCV right away, you're in luck: here's a gentle primer suitable for people who are new to modular synths. Or read on for more.

What could have been a mere amusing diversion is quickly turning out to be one of the most powerful electronic music tools available. VCV Rack is open-source, and free (mostly - there are a few paid modules available, but they're not necessary by any means). Furthermore, the sound engine is quite good. There are already hundreds of modules available for download due to a feverishly busy developer scene (follow the Switched On Rack blog for the latest releases), and the most recent update provides a much-needed plugin manager to easily download and update modules. Perhaps most interestingly, there are many free replicas of heavy-hitting modules you previously could only find in expensive hardware form - Mutable Instruments and Befaco, for instance. A full suite of Monome modules and much more are in the works. To top if off, a soon-forthcoming update will provide VST/AU integration with your production environment of choice. The end result offers up full-fledged modular synthesis exploration and deep sound design without having to spend a single penny. Dive in and be wary of obsession...
posted by naju (44 comments total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
 
My curiosity is piqued... Does it play nicely with midi controllers?
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 2:26 PM on December 29, 2017 [2 favorites]


I haven't watched either yet so I can't vouch for them, but here are two promising-looking Youtube channels that are making tutorial series and other VCV-related videos:

Modular Curiosity
TheKlirrfaktor
posted by naju at 2:28 PM on December 29, 2017 [2 favorites]


My curiosity is piqued... Does it play nicely with midi controllers?

Looks like it - here's someone controlling VCV Rack with some MIDI encoder boxes.
posted by naju at 2:35 PM on December 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


There is a module that lets you pipe in MIDI CC controllers as CV to route to other modules.
posted by njohnson23 at 3:11 PM on December 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


Free you say? I think I might have to check this out. Suddenly feeling nostalgic about clumsily messing with ReBirth.
posted by rodlymight at 3:14 PM on December 29, 2017 [4 favorites]


Free modular synthesis is amazing. Now if only VCV Rack can figure out a way to jam an extra four hours into each day...

(I'm selling off my physical analog gear because I got no money and I got no time. If you're interested in a gently-used MiniBrute or desktop modular Boomstar 5089, hit me up.)
posted by infinitewindow at 3:23 PM on December 29, 2017 [4 favorites]


I played with this recently and it's really well done, and a super cool project.
Then I remembered I don't like real modular synths.

I'll probably keep checking it out and see if that changes though.
posted by bongo_x at 3:25 PM on December 29, 2017


Oh, cool, this is a lot of fun!
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 3:30 PM on December 29, 2017


Can't seem to find any mults, tho, which is annoying.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 3:47 PM on December 29, 2017


I started learning Pure Data earlier this year, and will be hoofing it up that steep learning curve for a while, so it's nice sometimes to work with a synth program that someone has already put together. There are quite a few unimpressive ones out there, and I've tried quite a few. But VCV Rack is simply great. I use it with my Arturia MiniLab (which fits into my laptop bag), and I've been having so much fun. I've only worked with about half the modules, so there's a lot more to explore. My one complaint is that the documentation so far seems to be a bit skimpy, but it seems that the developers are working on it. Other than that, I highly recommend diving in.
posted by vverse23 at 3:54 PM on December 29, 2017 [2 favorites]


Aha, there are mults among the Mutable clones!
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 4:16 PM on December 29, 2017


You don't need mults! you can run as many cables as you want from any given input.
posted by blue t-shirt at 4:47 PM on December 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


yeah, this is one of those things that keep popping up to my attention but i haven't just gotten to it yet - maybe over the weekend for a bit

i have so much hardware stuff it's hard to get time for other things in
posted by pyramid termite at 4:51 PM on December 29, 2017


Oh fun! One of my favorite memories from the MIT Media Lab was seeing Joe Paradiso's modular synthesizer. You can hear it (and Joe) in this video. Enormous beast, some 125 modules. What I liked best is it wasn't so much a tame musical instrument as it was this chaotic process of sound generation.
posted by Nelson at 5:00 PM on December 29, 2017 [2 favorites]


I started learning Pure Data earlier this year, and will be hoofing it up that steep learning curve for a while, so it's nice sometimes to work with a synth program that someone has already put together

The difference between this and PD or Max/MSP is the granularity. Rather than having to wire things together from simple signal processors, the fundamental unit is a ready-made module with a front panel and inputs and outputs for control voltages and signals. Which is larger scale than, say, low-pass filters or signal adders, but finer grained than VST synthesisers that take MIDI in and emit audio.

Native Instruments seem to have come to a similar conclusion with their Reaktor platform; version 6 added a larger-scale layer named Blocks, which was modelled on Eurorack modules and included modules based broadly on Moog and Buchla ones. (Unlike Max/MSP or PD, Reaktor has multiple levels; under Blocks are the simpler, UI-less modules like signal adders and switches, which you can mix into your patches, or include in Blocks modules. And if you open one of those, you get lower-level modules in a system named Core, which is apparently compiled directly into vector-oriented machine language.)
posted by acb at 5:28 PM on December 29, 2017 [3 favorites]


Isn't that similar to Reason? (https://www.propellerheads.se/en/reason/)

Those things are so cool!
posted by WaterAndPixels at 5:37 PM on December 29, 2017


This is finer grained than Reason, which consists of modules each of which encompasses the whole path from note data to sound. Here, the modules are individual parts of the path, like signal oscillators, envelope generators, or signal sequencers, each of which has its own stretch of rack for UI.

Also, IIRC, Reason is philosophically grounded in the MIDI synths of the 90s, and based around a MIDI/tracker-like paradigm of a piano-roll of notes (and leans strongly towards a 4/4 dance-music paradigm), whereas VCV Rack is grounded in Eurorack and the revival of CV/Gate-based analogue modular synthesisers, and thus is more freeform. You can build a structure of nested sequencers whose inputs don't look like anything that would fit into a MIDI sequencer workflow.
posted by acb at 5:44 PM on December 29, 2017 [9 favorites]


I've been toying with this since early betas on github, and I'm astonished at how quickly it accelerated from a handful of included modules to what is available now (with more appearing by the week). Clearly there was a empty niche.

It's also incredibly fun and brings me back to the messy (almost) free-form modularity of Buzz, where I cut my teeth making music. There's a very satisfying unpredictability in this kind of modular environment, and it's so easy to spend hours cabling things together and tweaking knobs.
posted by kmkrebs at 5:49 PM on December 29, 2017 [3 favorites]


I've been playing with VCV Rack for a couple of months and agree it's awesome. I'm also a long time Reason user, and I'm pretty happy with that platform. (Especially after VST support came to it this year.) I know that VCV is going to run inside a VST container eventually and so I'll get the best of both worlds. I will say (because I do a lot of midi interface programming inside Reason) that VCV having midi to CV routing is nice, but it doesn't compare to having a system where the knobs and faders in the rack can be midi controlled and additionally automated in a sequencer. From what I've seen VCV is never going to be able to achieve this, nor is it meant to. But in terms of bringing expensive Euro rack modules to the masses, VCV is a godsend. Anyhow, it's certainly cheaper to get into VCV Rack.

(I also know how particular music nerds are, so I'm basing my opinion of VCV's no knob midi on using it rather than trying to code a module, though I do have plans next year to attempt coding a module. And a Rack Extension or two for Reason on top of some other revolutionary midi interface stuff for it. I'd also like to say that I feel Reason isn't geared up for strictly 4/4 music, and that I hardly ever do any of my recording in it these days to a tempo in the sequencer. )

I think that rack skeuomorphism is creative gold.
posted by Catblack at 6:42 PM on December 29, 2017


hmm, I am skeptical of skeuomorphism in this context. My favorite modular synth editor was the Nord Modular editor. but the music creation app world desperately needs more open source contributions, so that's awesome.
posted by scose at 7:47 PM on December 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


I normally hate anti-skeumorphic prescriptivism in interface design, but good Christ there has got to be a better way than willy-nilly phono plugs. Sadly, Garage Band isn't it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:00 PM on December 29, 2017


This is not skeumorphic just for the sake of imitation, so much as an exact as possible a replica of actual hardware Eurorack modules... originally, anyway. A lot of the third party stuff isn't.

With a DC-coupled audio interface, you can literally swap the connections on, say, "Audible Instruments Tidal Modulator" and a real Mutable Instruments Tides and it should behave almost identically, at least in theory.

When the developer demo'd this for me at KnobCon in September he set up a patch with a Befaco Rampage, then switched it between hardware and software seamlessly.

(It's not enough to tempt me away from hardware modular, because not everything is or will be ported or emulated, some of the analog emulations won't be perfect, and even among the Mutable stuff there are some differences that matter to someone familiar enough with them. But it's really cool regardless.)
posted by Foosnark at 9:06 PM on December 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


So am I going to regret having paid money for Reaktor Blocks now?
posted by atoxyl at 12:14 AM on December 30, 2017


I believe that one major advantage of VCV Rack over Reaktor Blocks going forward is that VCV Rack supports multiple cores, something that has been lacking in RB for a long time.
posted by bouvin at 4:44 AM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm not a fan of the skeuomorphism in this case, though at least being able to separate your patchcords from your knobs (I'm a rabid Nord Micro Modular and now Audulus/iVCS3/Model 15 user for this very reason) eliminates the now increasingly standard live performance stance of modularists in which you're hunched over a mass of wires, peering through the knots and desperately trying to figure out why a certain unexpected thing keeps happening, all while looking much like a tiny monkey usefully picking lice from the pubes of a much larger animal.

Looks fantastic, though, and I'm all for anything to hand this tech out to people who aren't just rich white dudes with a perfectly curated super-expensive monosynth. I'm pimping this thing to all the people who huffed at me at how Pd is tooo complicated.
posted by sonascope at 5:16 AM on December 30, 2017 [6 favorites]


For those looking for inspiration, Patch Storage has you covered.
posted by bouvin at 7:54 AM on December 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


While I know it's against the spirit of modular noise-wankery, I'd have really liked something other than empty racks on startup - or at least an option to have a demo setup that would produce a loud, rich, farty (“LRF”) tone on pressing a key. MEGO at the tutorial that had all the wire-pulling and module-dropping, but no saved example you could load up.
posted by scruss at 7:59 AM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm with you scruss; I'd love to have a set of wired up machines to load and play around with. I'm in no way a musician, so maybe that's a desire borne of ignorance, but it'd be fun to play with that way. I think the linked Patch Storage is that kind of library, but you're on your own for finding all the plugin modules they require.
posted by Nelson at 8:04 AM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm so psyched for this.

Perhaps this will reveal my ignorance, but it's long seemed to me that modular synthesis is meant to be free. You're just plugging together a bunch of known, individually simple DSP functions. It takes work to find good configurations, and no shame in paying for that, but the basic idea is just too easy not to be available to everyone in this computer age.

And here it is!
posted by grobstein at 8:50 AM on December 30, 2017


Despite the plugin manager, you still have to manually install some plugins. At least Strum's Mental Modules shows up on the plugin manager but without a "+ Free" button, despite being free. So download the zip release manually and copy it over. Grumble grumble it's nearly 2018 and people still build code that has you copying files into the Program Files directory on Windows.
posted by Nelson at 9:18 AM on December 30, 2017


Oh hey I got the Instant Autechre patch working and this is fun! I feel like I can tinker with something sort of like what I read about 12 years ago. Being presented with a fully built out set of modules like this all at once is a bit bewildering, particularly for something as random-process like as Autechre. But it's fun.

It's a shame the Plugin Manager site doesn't have a simple way to link to modules. It'd be really simple to build a web tool that you drag a VCV machine file onto and it links to downloads for all the plugins. The VCV files themselves are just simple JSON with a handy "plugin" field in the metadata for every module.
posted by Nelson at 9:37 AM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


This is super fantastic. Thanks for the tip!
posted by TheCoug at 10:17 AM on December 30, 2017


You're just plugging together a bunch of known, individually simple DSP functions.

This is only true of rather trivial audio dsp stuff. Not so much the stuff that actually goes into a useable/good sounding module. If you want to see how complex this stuff can get check out the kvr dsp forum and see a bunch of people arguing about the minutiae digital filter design.

I tried out VCV rack a few months ago or so when it only had a few modules so its really nice to see how much this project has grown in such a short time. This sort of thing would normally be right up my alley but the entire time I was making patches I just kept thinking that I could do this exact same thing in pd in 1/2 the time at about 1/4 of the cpu cost and probably learn a whole lot more along the way. It's really frustrating because on paper I am 100% the target audience for this sort of thing (I love synths and open source) but in reality it just feels like using a VST plugin. I'm still just twisting fake knobs on a screen with my mouse. For me the whole advantage of an actual modular system compared to a computer is actually having this complicated physical interface to create sounds with.
posted by Television Name at 11:25 AM on December 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'd have really liked something other than empty racks on startup

It would be useful to have a demo loaded on first startup after a fresh install. I suspect that will happen for 1.0, since there is support for loading a 'template.vcv' file on 'File->New'. I have a simple template.vcv with midi inputs and an audio interface and a scope on the output for example.
posted by alikins at 12:07 PM on December 30, 2017


I believe that one major advantage of VCV Rack over Reaktor Blocks going forward is that VCV Rack supports multiple cores, something that has been lacking in RB for a long time.

Yeah what I'm sort of good-naturedly complaining about here is that I bought Reaktor 6 a little while ago, mostly for Blocks - there's some other good stuff in the ecosystem but a whole lot that's out of date quality-wise or half-assed - because I had gotten into checking out modular stuff on YT but wasn't inclined to shell out for real Eurorack. And it's cool, but I was frustrated by things like that and by e.g. not having versions of most of the Mutable Instruments modules everybody loves despite the fact that the DSP is open source - because presumably nobody wanted to try to port them to Reaktor's visual language. So once this has plugin support I feel like it kinda kills NI's thing.
posted by atoxyl at 2:02 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


By the way for a more self-contained sort of modular experience - and yeah, "self-contained" maybe misses one of the major points of contemporary modular but there's something to be said for the relative polish and the fairly distinctive choice of functions in this one - U-He's Bazille is pretty cool. They always do a good job with interfaces, too - skeuomorphic, but clean.
posted by atoxyl at 2:10 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


Perhaps this will reveal my ignorance, but it's long seemed to me that modular synthesis is meant to be free. You're just plugging together a bunch of known, individually simple DSP functions. It takes work to find good configurations, and no shame in paying for that, but the basic idea is just too easy not to be available to everyone in this computer age.

In the form of things like PureData this has in fact been available and free for a long time. The problem is that those versions tend to be oriented toward a more technical user, with lower-level components and a dearth of the slightly prettier/friendlier interface design you need to really make things available to everybody. Plus once you get into complex webs of audio-rate modulation it can require either some clever thinking or a ton of processing power to get the DSP to sound good/right so I think we're only recently reached the point where you can do some of this stuff at high quality in software.
posted by atoxyl at 2:28 PM on December 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


This cannot redeem 2017, because nothing can or could. But boy howdy is it a balm and a succor. Thank you.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:29 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


I will say (because I do a lot of midi interface programming inside Reason) that VCV having midi to CV routing is nice, but it doesn't compare to having a system where the knobs and faders in the rack can be midi controlled and additionally automated in a sequencer. From what I've seen VCV is never going to be able to achieve this, nor is it meant to.

Not even once there's a VST/AU version? Blocks does support this, doesn't it?
posted by atoxyl at 2:49 PM on December 30, 2017


I'd have really liked something other than empty racks on startup

I find the blank slate refreshing, though I'm admittedly in a minority category for my habit of immediately wiping out all the stored patches in anything I buy with patch storage so that I'll be working from a blank slate and not just adapting the work of others. I'm told this is a cranky sort of view, but I'm a cranky sort.
posted by sonascope at 5:01 PM on December 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


You're just plugging together a bunch of known, individually simple DSP functions.

That doesn't at all describe the experience of using a Eurorack synth. A lot of it isn't DSP at all but analog. Even digital modules are at least partially analog, and rarely are the digital parts as simple as one might think.
posted by Foosnark at 6:30 PM on December 31, 2017


I believe that one major advantage of VCV Rack over Reaktor Blocks going forward is that VCV Rack supports multiple cores, something that has been lacking in RB for a long time.

Would it be useful to do some of this work on the GPU?
posted by grobstein at 8:21 AM on January 1


Anyone else playing with the Audible Instruments modal synthesizer (based on "Elements") and find the "Strength" CV input does not behave as documented?

According to the Mutable Instruments manual, "A positive CV will boost the signal, a negative CV will attenuate it," within a range of -5V to 5V.

I seem to be getting something like the opposite behavior, though: high negative signals boost the sound, and high positive signals make it lower.

I can't really read the synthesis code, but the interface stuff has this line which, if I'm right, is in error:

performance.strength = clampf(1.0 - inputs[STRENGTH_INPUT].value/5.0, 0.0, 1.0);


Am I just grossly misreading the manual, or is this a mistake?
posted by grobstein at 3:28 PM on January 7


Seawrack, an ambient soundscape I made with Rack.

What a fun piece of software, what a great post!
posted by grobstein at 8:20 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


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