Percussa micro super signal processor

Times are tough, and folks are turning out those pockets for free… wear. Photo: Bert Heymans.

There’s a strange debate going on over the free software (as in freeware, not necessarily open source) issue of Computer Music magazine. After seeing the magazine’s top 10 reasons to use free software, commercial developer IK Multimedia got surprisingly defensive, and issued a rebuttal:

Why you shouldn’t use free software – a commercial developer’s view (at Music Radar, the online site for the magazine’s publisher)

Now, there’s probably a much simpler way to put this.

Why to use free software: It’s free.
Why to use free and open source software: It’s got source that’s free and open.
Why to use commercial software: It’s supported, and you probably can’t get exactly the same thing as free and/or open source.
Why to use a combination of all of the above: Because then you get a combination of all of the above.

(For more of the above, stay tuned for “Peter says not very interesting and obvious things Special Issue,” not coming to newsstands soon. The bonus disc includes a 2-oscillator virtual analog synth that has no interface and produces no sound.)

Why is this a Debate?

Obviously, most of us use a combination of different kinds of software. If you’re serious about using commercial software, you pay for it, because you’re serious about support and you’re smart enough to understand that if you don’t send the developer money, they won’t make any more software. If you love plug-ins, you try free plug-ins, because it gives you more tools, and if you believe in the power of communities and sharing for technology, open source software is at least part of your setup, too. I find even people running Linux passionately often use some proprietary software, like the recently-released EnergyXT for Linux or any combination of software they’ve bought inside the Windows compatibility environment WINE.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that, despite the rebuttal from IK’s UK representative, commercial developers were not calling Future Publishing to cancel ad accounts when they heard about the free software. They don’t host ritual burnings of Computer Music’s cover disc, nor spit on newsstands when these issues come out. Presumably, they instead assume the obvious, that these discs generate interest and get more people involved in the computer music market, which is good.Native Instruments, for instance, supported the issue and involved their own free Kore Player instrument.

But forget NI for a moment — how about IK? IK Multimedia have themselves long used free software editions to promote their for-fee tools; I included not one but two free instruments from IK on the cover disc of my book Real World Digital Audio. It was actually IK’s idea.

Now having said the obvious, there are elements of the software development landscape that are anything but obvious. If you work for a proprietary developer, you had better be thinking about some of these issues. When does it make sense for something to be free? How do you get people to pay for software, if that software requires money for development and you require money for rent? As musicians, when do we benefit from software being proprietary versus open source, and when to we benefit from paying for it versus getting it for free?

What really struck me last year when we interviewed Greg Hendershott, founder of Cakewalk, was the way the company started. Greg wanted his own sequencer, so he made his own when his budget and desires didn’t fit what was available. We’re talking the largest US-born sequencer maker, and that’s how it began — one programmer with an idea. Greg talked about how he understood being on a budget, having been there himself; he certainly wasn’t available to invest much money in technology when he got started. Likewise, the transition to a business model was as important to the development of the software as it was for financial reasons. You probably wouldn’t have wanted to use Greg’s first sequencer as your primary software, even in the 80s when it came out. He was just learning to code, and it was the first draft of an idea. When the feedback loop between customers and developers grew, with customers paying for the product and software updates trying to satisfy those customers, that’s when Cakewalk matured into the tool we know today.

With that in mind, here are my own lists of why each of these kinds of software matter.

CDM’s (Alternative) Top 10 Reasons to Use Free Software

CM’s Special Issue, as photographed by neonarcade.

First, it’s worth reiterating some of things CM already said.

1. Because they’re free. Duh.
2. Because they’re different. CM used the term “cutting edge,” but suffice to say there are some bizarre and unusual plug-ins and software out there that would never make it as commercial products.
3. Because they’re labors of love. I absolutely agree with CM on this one.
4. Because sometimes simple is better. CM describes this as “ease of use,” but more to the point, free software is often absurdly simple, because they’re quick projects and not big commercial projects and because they don’t have to add features to justify a purchase price. I love software with lots of features, but sometimes you want something stupidly simple to aid your creative process.
5. Because it’s great for collaboration. This is a practical matter; CM’s dead-on on this one and there’s no room for argument. (See also: free and open source tools.)

Now, some reasons CM didn’t mention:

6. Because some freeware is unstable and sounds awful. Nope, I’m not being ironic. Sometimes software is too pristine and sounds too predictable. One excellent reason to go find oddball freeware plug-ins is because they’re organic, unpredictable, and make awful sounds, and the love of those three things is part of why music is fun.
7. Because you’re running Windows. For whatever reason, almost all of this free software is on Windows. Some Mac users complain at the press about covering the Windows-only stuff as if it’s some sort of anti-Mac bias, but they should ask the developers, not the writers. Anyway, let’s flip this around: if you’re running Windows (or Linux with WINE and a PC-compatible VST host), you’ve got access to this stuff, so you’ll probably want to use it. Again, um, duh.
8. Because this isn’t a zero sum game. Can you buy boxes of instruments and effects on top of the instruments and effects you got with your DAW and still check out KVR Audio every day looking for more? Absolutely. These aren’t mutually-exclusive categories; you run what you want. Which brings us to reason #9:
9. Because you’re an addict, and you’d need a six-week recovery program with nothing but a ukulele to recover, and then you’d probably relapse anyway. Some of us have a madness, a madness known as plug-ins. We’re a lost people, beyond any hope of rescue by the civilized world. You’ll know us by the 1000 effects in our VST plug-in folder. It’s not normal. It’s not advisable. It’s a sickness. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make another pot of coffee because I have more synth programming to do.
10. Because top 10 lists are arbitrary lists of things that require you to make up filler so you hit the right number. Cue Letterman-style rimshot here, with laughter/applause.

Rebutting IK’s Rebuttal, and the Real Debate We Need

I don’t think a big debate of free vs. commercial plug-ins is going anywhere. But I do think you’ll be hearing more about open source software and what it means for commercial software for music. One sign: more people running proprietary software (here, NI’s Guitar Rig) on open source systems (here: Linux, Ubuntu, JACK). Photo: sonium.

Curiously, CM did mention support and updates as one reason to use freeware, and that I do disagree with. They also implied that freeware had an edge on commercial software when it comes to innovation, and that also seems unrealistic — the bottom line is, freeware/donationware development, larger-scale commercial development, and open source development produce different results. One isn’t necessarily better or more cutting-edge than the other; they’re simply not the same. I can point to examples of commercial, free, and open source tools that each have no equivalent in the other categories.

I expect what IK meant to say was that commercial software is likely to be better-supported and can produce tools with a sophistication, depth, and polish that’s not available elsewhere. Guitar Rig and the like might compete with AmpliTube, but I haven’t seen an open source or donationware guitar effects package that could. At the same time, you’ve got braniac kids building bizarre guitar effects in a college course in SuperCollider or ChucK, and that’s pretty cool, too.

Instead, IK said this:

Commercial plug-in developers, such as IK, are under huge pressure from several fronts: outright piracy (ie. theft) of our products from cracks, torrent sites or casual swapping between friends; the increasing trend of hardware and DAW manufacturers to bundle many plug-in products in the box with their own packages, thus reducing the motivation to look further afield; and magazines who give away free plug-ins on their cover discs even at the expense of their own advertiser revenues.

And that’s just silly. Comparing legitimate freeware, bundled plug-ins, magazine cover discs, and (by extension) free and open source software to piracy is wrong, IK. It’s your problem, not the writers or readers of a magazine, to figure out how to make your business work. Some of IK’s own products speak for themselves, so this just doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ll leave out the part where IK talks about how they have to buy glossy ads and go to trade shows, as that’s really their concern, not yours. (I get some of my income as a result of those glossy ads and I go talk to these folks at trade shows, but many of you don’t, and trust me, you’re not necessarily missing that much — this is for the industry to sort out, not you.)

Obviously, a lot of you buy IK’s software, and rightfully so — not so that you can support their appearance at NAMM, but because you think the software is worth it, even if some tools out there are free.

More importantly, IK attacks “quality, reliability, stability” and “compatibility” of free tools, while never mentioning open source software. Ironically, part of what IK says here is an argument for free and open source operating systems, drivers, and plug-in formats:

It is a constant battle for commercial developers to stay ahead of the latest changes to operating systems, DAWS or hardware many of which are out of our control. Product maintenance is a serious issue that can take up almost as much time as developing new products.

I’ve just spent the last couple of weeks working with Indamixx and spending more time researching Linux. I’ve also talked to users of the Receptor, a Linux-powered rack module that’s available running IK’s software, among others. Part of what I’m seeing is that commercial software and open source software can benefit one another and be musically powerful. It’s not as simple as everyone switching to Linux by any means — but I wonder why virtually no one is even talking about these issues.

So I think we need to be having an entirely different discussion here. Commercial software has value, as do freeware and donationware and open source software. Most customers aren’t making an either/or choice here, so that’s a fruitless discussion.

But maybe it is time to start talking about just how much development time is spent sorting compatibility problems instead of innovating. Why aren’t operating system vendors (I’m looking at you, Microsoft and Apple) working harder to work with developers instead of against them? Why, about a decade into the plug-in revolution, are the three leading native plug-in formats (VST, AU, RTAS) proprietary specs instead of open standards? Is there a way to harnass some of the potential power of community-based support on an open-source operating system (Linux) to improve the performance and flexibility of computer music?

Here’s a terrible reason to advocate commercial development:
“Because it’s so hard to write software for current computer platforms that you need to subsidize a massive development effort just to constantly iron out new bugs introduced by upgrades from other vendors.”

And here’s a terrific reason:
“Because the results can be so musically compelling that you will save every penny you’ve got to make the investment.”

I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone, least of all commercial developers, when the former becomes the dominant argument instead of the latter. We’ve had long, tired arguments about piracy, and now IK is wasting time talking about free plug-ins and bundled cover discs. But I think there are discussions that would be good uses of time — and it’s time to start that conversation now.