Somewhere – tonight, even – some unknown producer is going to make some brilliant new track using software. (Seriously, this is the world we live in.) And when they do, odds are they might well turn to a popular synth like breakout-hit Serum. The problem is this: someone getting started in producing is probably unwilling or unable to shell out US$189 for a single software instrument. So that individual is likely to pirate the software.

We’ve known this for some time; what we haven’t had is much of a solution. And just how prevalent is piracy in our industry? Well, I’ve talked to plenty of people off-the-record in the software development industry who say they’ve done it (like the people whose bills are paid by software fees). Cakewalk founder and original developer Greg Hendershott has talked on the record about trading floppies.

And then there’s Serum. Plenty of high-profile producers have been caught using pirated plugs. But this probably takes the cake – someone found Kanye West with a browser tab opened to Serum on a torrent site, prompting swift condemnation by deadmau5 himself (plus an hilarious offer to set up a Kickstarter campaign to help him buy a license):
Kanye West caught visiting Pirate Bay—possibly to download music software [Ars Electronica]

Enter pay-to-own

Big suites of software have already moved to a monthly paid subscription model – think Microsoft’s Office 365 or Adobe’s Creative Cloud. (That was easier, of course, in that those markets each have one dominant vendor.)

In music, so far Gobbler has offered subscription plans, with names like Eventide and Slate. This also offers a single unified back end with support for PACE copy protection. (Before that sends chills down your spine, “PACE” no longer necessarily has anything to do with physical dongles – more often these days you’ll just store your authenticated license online.)

Online music platform Splice offers something a bit different: pay-to-own. This way, instead of paying a subscription forever, you will eventually pay off the cost of the plug-in.

In fact, this is even better than a normal payment plan, in that you can switch off your subscription on months you don’t need it. So if you’re only going to get around to using Serum in September and October, but not November and December, you can opt not to pay for those months – then switch on the subscription again in January.

You can start out with a 3-day free trial, too, to see if you like the software. Either way, whenever the subscription is active, you have full access to the software. And after the equivalent number of months, you will have successfully bought the software.

Splice are launching this service now with Steve Duda’s Serum plug-in, and say it’s the first time this has ever been offered in music software. (I think that’s largely accurate, at least in this form.)

Why Serum

Serum is actually a significant choice of launch instrument.

There are a lot of software instruments out there, and many of them really terrific, but not so many hits. Serum is something special. Its production lineage is significant – creator Steve Duda is a rare electronic music genius and EDM production guru, collaborator with deadmau5 and developer through Xfer Records of a number of terrific plug-ins to boot.

Serum accordingly feels like a truly modern take on the software wavetable instrument, complete with loads of wavetable morphing and modulation features and built-in effects. And while the other instrument looming large in EDM production, Native Instruments’ Massive, hasn’t seen much in the way of updates since its introduction, Serum has a fresher take on how visual feedback and workflow could look in the interface. (That’s not a dig at Massive, necessarily — on the contrary, given Massive’s impact on EDM in particular, it’s remarkable that Serum has been one major instrument to successfully rival it.)

And as testament to the instrument’s online following, you’ll find loads of YouTube content on it. Here is some to get you going:

Probably the best is this series of tutorials with Steve himself (with nice insights into production whether or not you use Serum):

ADSR also have some free tutorials:

Why Splice

So, maybe Serum for ten bucks enough has you sold on the idea, and you don’t need much else.

But for pay-to-own to work as a model with Splice as provider, that online platform will have to do some legwork both to attract developers and to make users see the advantage of tying software payments to their service in particular. Otherwise, we could see still more fragmentation – with every developer offering their own plans separately, rather than showing up in a unified, App Store-style market.

Splice does have a case here. The service’s features effectively cover all bases. Their service backs up your projects. And it’s version control for yourself. And it’s a means to collaborating with others (with a Web interface that shows you what collaborators are up to).

Splice is also a community, with people not only collaborating with one another, but sharing stems and songs. And it’s a platform for finding loops, samples, and sound content. And it’s a store for plug-ins.

Now, that’s a lot of different stories to explain to people. On the other hand, Splice’s angle on putting all this together is summed up in one word: data. With people uploading actual project data, they can see plug-ins that are being used, which in turn lets them potentially offer a storefront full of plug-ins – and maybe rent-to-own plans – based on what people actually like.

For now, though, I think this may be the simplest next step: offer one really good, really popular plug-in, from an independent developer (who can’t necessarily roll their own plans with the same ease). And then see how it goes.

We’ll be watching.