Bargain Rack

You ever find yourself wanting to run out  into the street, grab the nearest passerby, get right up in their face and say WHY ARE YOU JUST WALKING DOWN THE STREET WHEN THERE’S THIS GREAT OPEN SOURCE APPLICATION?? No? Just me? Kind of feel that way sometimes about MuseScore, a music notation application (free, open source, cross platform, and excellent). Last night I discovered VCV Rack and it’s street grabbing time again.

Rack simulates a modular synthesizer, and if that name doesn’t mean anything to you, maybe Switched On Bach does, or “Lucky Man”, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The original Moog and Buchla electronic music synthesizers of the 1960s were modulars. There were oscillator modules, filter modules, envelope generator modules, and so forth and so on; a bunch of modules would be mounted in a cabinet, and then you could connect them together with patch cords to create a system of audio and control signal paths resulting in… some sort of a sound.

Later synthesizers usually were semi-modular, meaning they used a fixed set of components connected together in a standard way but with the possibility of overriding those connections with patch cords, or preset, meaning… well, the same thing, but without the patch cord capability. But modulars have never really died out and in fact are probably more prevalent today, due to lower prices, than ever. I mean, look, a while back you could have bought a replica of Keith Emerson’s Moog synthesizer (one of, I think, three, maybe four they made) for a mere $150,000. You still can get a re-creation of the Moog System 35 for just $29,999, payable, they say, in “3 easy payments”. [Narrator: They are not that easy.] No? All right, here’s a modular for $404.30. You have to built it yourself though. In between there’s a gazillion boutique companies selling modules and modular systems (mostly priced upwards of $1200) out there.

Or you can install a [software simulation of a] modular synthesizer on your Windows, Mac, or Linux system for free.

When you start up Rack you find yourself looking at, well, a rack. An empty rack. There’s a few icons on the upper left, no menus, no Clippy saying “It looks like you’re building a modular synthesizer system. Would  you like help?” There is a manual online, though. It doesn’t go into lots of depth on everything but it’ll get you started. It does assume you have some understanding of how synthesizers work.

Basically you click on the rack and up comes a dialog from which you can select a module to be added. You can create patch cords by clicking on an input and an output jack. You can use the mouse also to turn knobs and push buttons. One type of module lets you connect the synth’s output to your speakers or other destination. Another lets you connect to a MIDI device, so you can control the synth with a keyboard. Pretty soon you end up with

or something, playing music. You’re not limited to that size, though. You can zoom out, and you can scroll infinitely down or right. At least visually you can make Keith Emerson look like Schroeder from Peanuts, although you might run into system performance limitations.

It’s open source but I’d be afraid to look at the code. The thought of what it takes to simulate and coordinate all these modules is frightening.

Rack comes with a pretty extensive set of modules, but then there are dozens of plugins available that add more of them. There even are some plugins containing software representations of available real world modules. Some plugins are free, some cost money (typically $15 to $30); the non free ones from VCV help fund the project. A recent ($30) plugin allows Rack to host VST instruments and effects.

It’s all pretty wow. There is, I should add, another modular simulator called Softube available that looks even nicer. But it’s not open source, there’s no Linux version, and the basic package sells for $89, or $499 with a collection of plugins. For a cheap amateur like me, Rack’s the better choice.

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