Reason’s Rack, a walled garden no more. Hmmm… “reason.” “Logic.” I’m calling my next musical creation “Inanity.” Sound good? Who’s in? Photo (CC-BY) Marco Raaphorst. He’s a fan.

Users want more: that much is clear. But for years, Reason has famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) resisted plug-in formats as a way of extending its production environment. At the moment, plug-ins have been dominate largely by Avid (RTAS), Apple (AU), and Steinberg (VST), as open source alternatives have failed to gain wide commercial traction. Those formats apparently didn’t make the cut with Reason.

That changed officially tonight. Reason’s rack is open to third parties, via something called Rack Extensions, previewed and available by summer for all Reason users. What you’re getting is not so much a new plug-in format as a new set of ideas about what a plug-in should be, in the form of a way of making add-ons for Reason alone.

The ability to get more out of Reason’s rack will clearly mean more for lovers of Reason, who at last will get some favorite sonic toys and tools without switching hosts. But how exactly do the specifics work? I spent some time with Ernst Nathorst-Böös, CEO of Propellerhead, as well as other developers working on the program to try to understand what it’s all about, and trying strange new green sauces known in Frankfurt. (Non mood-altering substances, mind. Just stuff you put on potatoes; don’t read too much into it. German cuisine.)

Before we get to that, though, here are two obvious take-aways for other plug-ins. To me, the benefit for the Reason community is pretty clear. But I think even for Propellerhead, the best thing that could happen here is if other plug-in formats follow the lead. Plug-in formats in general could work better than they do. It’s frustrating that they’ve made little progress since their introduction in regards to some obvious shortcomings, over a range of years. (Don’t believe me? Ask almost any plug-in developer, anywhere.) There are two obvious elements of the Propellerhead announcement that could mean something to competing plug-in formats (AU and VST in particular). Propellerhead aren’t the only ones complaining about them.

Note that given the nature of this being a fresh announcement, we haven’t yet fact-checked this with Propellerhead, and some statements here are interpretive or speculative. And, of course, some stuff is still in the works as this is developed. We’ll cover it as it evolves.

1. Plug-ins shouldn’t bring down hosts. One of the most important point Propellerhead made was widely misunderstood. The idea is this: when a plug-in crashes, the host shouldn’t crash with it. Now, the developers of Reason are obviously very proud of the stability of Reason, but that isn’t the issue here. However stable or instable your host is, the notion is that a plug-in shouldn’t be the reason that host crashes. Some effect you downloaded shouldn’t send your whole session toppling to the ground. Various forms of sandboxing can prevent this. We’ll have to test the Reason solution in practice, but in principal, I know of no reason every plug-in couldn’t support this basic notion. And even if you’ve seen Reason crash, as some commenters have said, the idea here is that a plug-in won’t be the cause.

2. Plug-in developers ought to be able to sell their stuff right in the host. This is a no-brainer. Set aside the obvious success story of Apple’s App Store on iOS and Mac. Plug-in developers have an impossible time these days just selling their work (or, indeed, even giving it away). It’s kind of bizarre that in the Internet age, no other host makes it easy to find and try out the work of other developers. (I was going to give an exception, but … there isn’t one. Seriously. What the heck?)

It’s pretty easy to make an extended argument for either of these ideas without talking about the Reason announcement. And I’m not trying to sell Reason here: believe me, I’d like to see other plug-in formats advance, too. Reason might want that, as well, since they rely on that same developer ecosystem. (Translation: they need devs making enough money to spend the time to keep making plug-ins … for anyone, not just Reason.)

As for Reason, here are some answers to frequent questions and comments from readers.

What will it cost? When can I get it? It’ll be free for existing Reason users, available by end of Q2 (beginning of summer, more or less).

Which add-ons will be available? So far, all we know is the developer list: KORG, SonicCharge (of uTonic and Synplant fame), Peff (Kurt Kurasaki), Softube, and Urs Heckmann (u-he). I also saw iZotope in the crowd, but make of that what you will. Props aren’t saying much more than that; other developers may be involved but aren’t yet public.

Will there be an SDK for any developer? I got a clear answer from Ernst on this: yes. Anyone will be able to download the SDK and make add-ons. There are a couple of caveats. First, you have to have an established business entity (in the EU, with a VAT ID / outside Europe, just some legal entity). Second, it’s just not ready yet. What we saw today was a technology preview, but Propellerhead says they’re eager to open this up to other developers; they’re just not quite prepared to handle that process yet. We don’t yet know to what extent the store you see in Reason will be curated or how, and I wonder if free add-ons might get around the need for a publishing business. What I can say is, there won’t be a developer fee.

Will hardware DSP be supported? Not at this time, or evidently in the forseeable future. Ernst emphasized that Propellerhead feels the current multi-core engine is sufficient. So, no Universal Audio add-ons — but remember, if you really want that, you can just ReWire Reason into a host.

Will you be able to make open-source plug-ins? This seems possible, given you can run DSP code. Your code is your own. I didn’t have time to get an official answer on this; I think it’ll be easier to look at once we can see the SDK.

Can you have UI elements? This came up in the press conference. There are some limitations in the “first release,” say Propellerhead. But there was an impressive demo from SonicCharge with a nice, animated visual display for Bitspeak; suffice to say, you won’t directly port VST UI code, but plug-in devs can work with what Propellerhead is giving them. It’s not so much having to deal with having a new plug-in format as having to work with some new UI requirements – and, quite frankly, that’s a potential issue with any plug-in that has any UI at all. On the upside:

Can you use Reason back-panel routing tools and the like? Yes. You can do all the CV routing and automation and other good stuff a conventional Reason device would have.

These are just more Combinator skins, yeah? No. We’re talking low-level DSP – which also means the DSP portion can be ported really fast. Propellerhead said Softube compiled in 15 minutes – for both Mac and Windows. Most of the time you’ll now wind up investing in UI. (That chuckling sound you hear from developers is because this is generally the case with plug-ins.)

But I can do this with existing plug-in formats. Not quite. There are several elements missing. First, Reason will have an integrated store for this stuff, which also means the ability to move between users, computers, and operating systems more seamlessly. Second, existing plug-ins don’t do things like true host-integrated undo. (Ernst gave the ugly example of tweaking a knob in a plug-in, hitting undo, and undoing the last step – inserting the plug-in – making the whole thing disappear.) Third, and perhaps most importantly, you don’t get sandboxing features in any current plug-in format, meaning a misbehaved plug-in can theoretically crash your whole host.

What’s in it for developers? A 70/30 split — developer/Props — just like Apple’s iOS and Mac stores. And it’s free to join the developer program, so there’s nothing to lose but, uh, time.

But this is just proprietary tech. What experience does Propellerhead have with third-party developers? Oh, just these little things called ReWire and (loop format) REX – which, along with Steinberg’s VST really led the way as far as third-party, cross-platform formats. (REX arguably had a lot to do with the rise of looping software.) Each of these have been used in multiple operating systems and hosts, and require dealing with developers. This is much bigger, of course.

How does this help me collaborate? Propellerhead brought this up with a selling point, so I followed up. Basically, the scenario is this: you’re sharing a track with another Reason user. They don’t have the Squidoodlidoo plug-in you purchased. They can use a 30-day demo, and try it for free. (Otherwise, they have to buy the plug-in, too, naturally.) Also, Ernst tells CDM that the store will maintain every back version of every plug-in. So if you need a previous version, you can revert to that on a set. Reason itself can still open, in version 6, files created in version 1.

So, why would I use an existing plug-in format, if this is The Future? Probably because there’s a host you like better than Reason, or you have one of the many plug-ins that won’t yet support this new thing. But you knew that, right? The payoff here is clearly if you like working in Reason and want more flexibility.

Why a new format? Actually, I’ll editorialize on this one. The kind of integration with Reason here just wouldn’t work with any plug-in format – we’re talking routing control voltage in and out via the back of the rack, integrated automation, and a UI that seamlessly blends with Reason. It’s not a question of formats; you have to write a plug-in for Reason or none of that is possible. As for why existing plug-in formats don’t do some of the things Reason’s tech here does, that’s easy. No one has actually proposed a plug-in format that does that, a handful of vendors control existing formats in wide commercial use (Apple, Steinberg, Avid), and efforts to build a new standard haven’t gotten traction. So, in the meantime, if you want these ideas in practice, you have to build them in your own software, which is what Reason has done. If you want these ideas elsewhere, let’s see it.

Got more questions? I’ll append answers here if I can find them. Expect more once we hear more on what’s actually available to add onto your rack (for users) and once we’re closer to having stuff ready for a wider audience of developers (for you coders). No images or video yet – I know we still owe you a look at the new iOS app – but that’ll get posted when ready.

More details, and ugly speculation about whether or not I was wearing pants, in the live event coverage: