Just Like the Real Thing!
[We interrupt my usual development-related content to bring you an audio-production blog post. Thank you.]
One of my hard drives bought the farm recently, taking with it my entire audio plugin collection and a bunch of samples and loops I had built up over the years. Now, before you chide me for being stupid with my data, I did back everything up (you’re a lifesaver, Backblaze). Once I got everything restored and all my plugins where they should be (at least path-wise) I discovered something curious: Windows, and somewhat by extension Studio One, tracks audio plugin locations not by device path but by device ID path, meaning that although because the plugins themselves were where they should be (
I:\Plugins x64\), they kinda weren’t. Seriously inconvenient but also an opportunity to make a fresh start on my ever-expanding plugins collection. So I dove in.
The internet is awesome, by the way, in case you haven’t figured that out. There are a gazillion free VST plugins available, and a good portion of those are excellent. Another good portion of those are absolute trash, just like the ones I made in SynthEdit, but lets not talk about those. Despite this glut of free plugins there are still some very large and very excellent “premium” plugins out there. My favorites right now are the Slate plugins for which I’ll happily fork over $15/mo for, considering comparable plugins go for in the $1k~ range (seriously, if you don’t have the Slate Everything Bundle yet, you’re doing it wrong). But while I’m going about the route of re-installing everything, I decided to take a gander around the plugin world to see what else was out there, and I found the Eventide Ensemble collection.
If you’re unaware, Eventide made a name for themselves in the 80’s and 90’s with their studio hardware — notably their H3000 Ultra-harmonizer that was a staple of studios for decades — but lately with the home-studio revolution I feel their reputation and sales have fallen off a bit. That’s not to say they don’t make some incredible stuff, their reverbs and delays are legendary in their own right. But while I was browsing the page for their $30/mo (!) plugin subscription service I came across this bit of marketing:
“Eventide plug-ins sound exactly like the original hardware”
This annoys me. Maybe its because my development background is outside the digital audio realm, and my audio experience isn’t from a large studio where Eventide hardware was king back in the day, but no matter, it still rubs me the wrong way. For the twenty or so engineers who are still around engineering and have made the transition from hardware to software this might be a good marketing tactic. Not only do you not have to pay the ridiculous sums of cash for the real thing, but you also don’t have to maintain it or annoy your wife by having racks of outboard gear in your office. For guys like Dave Pensado, Andrew Scheps, or the Lords-Alge this is awesome. But what about for the rest of us who have never used the original gear? Are we going to know what the original units sounded like? No. For the rest of us this means almost nothing.
But there’s a second level to this idea that digital audio plugins have to sound like their physical counterparts. I understand that there are some iconic pieces of gear out there that have unique musical characteristics — the Urei 1176, Teletronix LA-2A, and just about everything that API and Solid State Logic ever made come to mind — but at what cost are we devoting all of our time and energy to recreating these and other pieces? Analog audio has always been bound by the laws of physics, electricity, and the patience of the electrical engineers that design analog hardware. But digital audio has no such limits. To say that the possibilities for digital audio are endless would be a legitimate fact, but we’re stuck in the past, trying to bottle the lightning that struck back in 1967, 1962, 1968, and 1975 (respectively) when we should be focusing on the future.
What is incredible to me is that there are so few audio engineering related cloud services. In every other sector of consumer products we’ve seen an explosion of SaaS offerings, everything from backups and storage to video chat and recipe trading. But digital audio’s SaaS offerings are a vast empty desert, complete with 1990’s era tumbleweeds blowing across the arid ground. And that’s not the only thing that hasn’t progressed in the last 20 years.
The VST architecture, created by Steinberg in 1996, is arguably the most popular audio plugin format but it has remain relatively unchanged through versions 2 and 3. While there have been improvements to VST over the years, probably the best being the ARA extension that allows plugins to integrate with the DAW more fully, what we’re in need of is a complete re-write or alternative standard for audio plugins, one that is cross-platform (VST is Windows-only, Apple uses the AudioUnit format).
What is it going to take to get audio out of the 90’s and into the new millennium? I don’t know, but I think the first step is to realize that while digital audio engineers are playing in our little sandbox that there’s a whole desert’s worth of sand we can build stuff with.