VCV Rack is still in a pre-release, beta cycle – but it’s already up and running with a vision of what an open platform for software modular could look like. With 0.6.0, the software integrates with your DAW and manages third-party modules more easily.

If you’re just joining us, VCV Rack is an open source platform that runs a modular synth on your computer. It’s closely modeled on Eurorack modular, down to the way signal flows and modules bolt into the virtual rack. It’s even got simulations of a lot of popular real Eurorack modules, along with new modules that only run in this software environment. You can even use it to try out those real modules before you buy them, and you can integrate the software modules with outboard physical modular gear, if you choose.

Rack isn’t alone – Reaktor Blocks does something like this (though without the front panel patching), and Softube Modular also emulates a Eurorack and includes simulations of existing hardware. But Rack is unique in its open model. Rack itself is open source software, and you can make free third-party open source modules. But without locking users and modular developers into a proprietary platform, it’s also possible to sell modules. That means that you can both support free and open software, and make sure developers have a chance to pay their bills and get compensated for their work.

And that’s why this release is important.

Right now, hardware modular is a great ecosystem. But if you want to make software modules, your choices are limited. Conventional plug-in architectures like VST, AU, and AAX aren’t suited to these sorts of modular interactions. Modular environments available for development need to be proprietary, or don’t have any clear way for developers to make back money to support their time, or even both those things. (Reason Rack Extensions are one extension, but that covers just one host and workflow.) So this offers a new way forward.

First off, a disclaimer: this is a developer release. Installing and using Rack is still a bit hack-y. If you like building software, if you’ve got some experience testing software or providing beta experience, you may well enjoy that. But if not, think of this more as a preview of stuff to come. (And you may still want to dip your toes in with our guides below.)

Plug-in DAW integration

Rack is a standalone application, and that comes with a lot of benefits. But VCV Bridge offers another way to integrate Rack with your DAW. It’s a VST/AU plug-in with support for macOS and 32/64-bit Windows. For now, you set it up as a send/return, much as you would with a modular in a real studio environment and a mixing desk. Then you can route audio. Coming soon: MIDI, DAW clock transport, and instrument plug-ins.

This is mainly a convenience; as we wrote previously, you can already use inter-app MIDI and audio options to connect Rack and other tools. But since users are accustomed to plug-ins and they offer some added benefits with saving and recalling project files in your DAW, it makes sense. Correction: I incorrectly implied that VCV Rack supports JACK. While JACK support via Core Audio will work, for instance, there isn’t native JACK audio support on Linux at the moment, though I got this user build working fine on my Ubuntu install with the binaries! Easy. -PK

More on this and where it’s going:

Expanded, easier management of modules

The whole beauty of Rack as a platform is its support for a third-party module ecosystem. And 0.6.0 shows where the developer is headed with this, both for open source and paid plug-ins. The Plugin Manager was already providing a way to manage installing extra modules; now it does a lot more.

  • Plugin Manager now works with open source plugins, too (as well as paid)
  • Browse in a new Module Browser
  • Star your favorites (yes!)

  • Add modules quickly from the keyboard

A new SDK, other enhancements

Now that the Rack API is stable, developers will want to check this out: there’s a new Rack SDK, which lets you compile plugins without having to compile the whole Rack from source. There are a lot of other relevant notes here:

Also new in this build are a bunch of UI improvements and enhanced Core modules for MIDI and audio support.

0.6.0 changelog [GitHub]

Learn more

Our friends at Synthtopia have been on top of some of the recent module additions. For instance:

VCV Router Sequential Switch Matrix

Here’s an example of how to build a hybrid system, combining a computer running VCV with hardware modular:

And amazingly, VCV Rack is a one-person development shop. Darwin Grosse interviewed creator Andrew Belt for his podcast series, also on Synthtopia:

Open Source Synthesis: Behind The Scenes With VCV Rack Creator Andrew Belt

And lastly, check our our ongoing guide to the software – see the links at the bottom of this story. We’ll keep working on that, and welcome your feedback if you find anything confusing or want to know more, in the interest of having a complete guide ready roughly as VCV Rack hits 1.0. Thanks to Ted Pallas for his work on this series.

A guide to VCV Rack, a software Eurorack modular you can use for free

Step one: How to start using VCV Rack, the free modular software

How to make the free VCV Rack modular work with Ableton Link