Reason remains one of those tools that a whole lot of people use. So, the decision by Propellerhead to allow developer access to the Rack, the virtual array of modules in which you make sound, has been one of the fastest-trending music making stories of 2012. But it’s also big news for a wider audience: music makers and developers alike frustrated with the limitations of existing plug-ins. (The video above is racking up views, but it might surprise you what the biggest referrer on YouTube has been so far – it’s the Native Instruments forum. So, interest goes beyond just the Reason community.)

Now, we get a chance to give these Rack Extensions a try, in the shipping versions of Reason and Reason Essentials. I’m finishing an overview of what’s available, which we’ll at last run early next week. As that’s becoming a big round-up, I wanted to first review some of the reasons developers are excited about Rack Extensions in the first place. (My favorite developer to show up in the list isn’t KORG or someone like that. It’s Chris Randall from Audio Damage, who has regularly griped on his uncensored blog Analog Industries about just how awful it is to develop for plug-in formats and hosts, both perpetually-moving targets.

Propellerhead surveys developers in the video above; I’ve talked to others privately, and looked at some of the details of the format, and can confirm some of the advantages here:

  • Intuitive automation, handled in the host
  • Logical integration with the host
  • Undo via keyboard shortcut, and other standard features
  • A specification that’s predictable, defined, and doesn’t change
  • Crashes of add-ons that don’t crash the whole host (and cause lost work)
  • An integrated shop with the ability to try out add-ons, and, when you buy them, associate them with your account
  • Seamless cross-platform support and backwards compatibility (at least, in terms of what Propellerhead promises – and what they’ve delivered so far in their software)

These are real advantages, and they’re really not possible in the same way with plug-in formats like VST and Audio Units, or even Avid’s host-specific RTAS and TDM. (It’s especially unfortunate that AU didn’t significantly advance possibilities here, since Apple wiped the slate clean when they created it.)

In fact, the only really bad news is that this is meaningless if you don’t want to use Reason as your host. But, on the flipside, those who are fans of Reason are likely to find this development an absolute godsend.

Indeed, the worries I’ve heard about this trend come from people who love plug-ins who are afraid that music software in general is moving away from common formats. It’s not just Reason: Apple makes their own integrated instruments for Logic Pro, for instance, and Ableton – via both Max for Live and their own Ableton Devices in Live Suite – also uses a format built for the host rather than for a plug-in.

This seems to me, however, reason to fault the plug-in formats, not the hosts that devise their own solutions to fill needs the plug-ins can’t.

So, the next question: will the rise of new options like Rack Extensions finally call attention to the need for a different direction in plug-ins? Time will tell. In the meantime, we’ll watch to see how these work for Reason users – and developers.