Now that Macs run Intel processors, what was once unimaginable is suddenly possible. There’s certainly no shortage of plug-ins available on Mac OS, but users may still have Windows plug-ins they miss. Released as beta today from SM Pro Audio, VFX is an app that lets you host your PC plug-ins on your Mac:

VFX Mac Beta

The requirements are modest — a lowly Mac mini should work just fine, and you don’t even need 10.5. But some of the specifics get a little weird. You have to run VFX as its own host. And you actually can’t use Mac plug-ins on the VFX, which means there’s not much advantage here versus just running on a cheap PC. (Especially given that you can build a pretty decent PC for under $300 these days.) And there are various stability and reliability issues introduced, as well.

We saw the V-Machine from the same creator — a small hardware box running plug-ins on Linux — at the end of last year. But in this case, it appears you can may be able to the software minus the hardware, which would make sense. (Otherwise, the hardware becomes a rather large dongle.)
V-Machine: Dedicated Hardware for VSTs, for US$599?

Basically, what VFX is is a nicely-packaged rendition of a Windows host running inside the open source, multi-platform WINE translation layer. WINE is actually a ground-up “translation” of Win32 — it’s not emulation or a virtual machine; it actually runs Windows apps as if they were native. (Thank Microsoft for keeping its APIs relatively open, even if the OS itself is closed as Mac OS is.) The discussion of whether or not this could work has come up before, as recently in a thread on KVR. VFX is proof that it can work, and I could imagine it’s even good news for some people. You can read the manual addendum at the link above and decide if it’s for you.

Here’s the irony: Mac users arguably don’t have it as good as even Linux users, let alone people just running Windows (and, one might add, on cheaper PCs).

On Linux, there’s the superb dssi-vst, which also uses WINE but allows you to run 32-bit Windows plug-ins inside the host of your choice. Add the fact that Linux can take advantage of extreme low-latency performance using a low-latency kernel, a handful of rock-solid open-source audio drivers, and sophisticated inter-application routing of MIDI, audio, and sync that isn’t even possible on the Mac, and you have a pretty potent combination. See also solutions like the Muse Receptor, whose users use it as a hardware solution to run primarily Windows-native plug-ins. (Major advantage of the Receptor: it eschews a GUI, which is the major source of compatibility and stability problems.)

dssi-vst isn’t perfect, either: sync doesn’t work (oops), for one. And in all of these solutions, you can run into issues with copy protection schemes. (If you want to use the plug-ins legally and they use software authorization, it’s usually not such a big deal — though you do have to burn through one authorization.)

Bad as this may sound, I have to admit, when I have run some of these solutions, I’ve been really impressed. Kore and Reaktor, for instance, both run beautifully inside Linux. If you didn’t see the standard title bar, you’d think you were on XP — except that, under the right setup, you can sometimes get better performance. Plus, if you’re running the host under WINE, the sync problem is erased.

Bottom line? Native always wins. But there are nonetheless interesting times ahead. I’d love to get more compatibility reports, which is more than I could take on alone. If you’re interested in contributing on Linux or Mac, I’d be glad to hear it. And if, on the other hand, you’re perfectly happy on Windows running natively, more power to you. (There’s certainly nothing wrong with the easiest solution to this problem.)

Disclaimer: I still need to try out VFX, and the compatibility picture in general is complex and technically involved – in other words, your mileage may vary. But then, part of why I write this site is to get corrected on stuff and learn, so please, those of you with some WINE experience, we’d love to hear from you!