Remember netlabels? They were those upstart outfits that made a big show of using the internet to distribute their music, usually for free or with licenses that originated in the software industry and encouraged sharing.
That connection between electronic music and the ethos of the Free Open Source Software (FOSS) movement has always been a strong one, and continues to this day. Netlabels were the most obvious manifestation. And though the word has fallen into disuse, netlabels really haven’t gone anywhere – probably half of bandcamp is made up of labels that follow the original netlabel ethos of free or name-your-price sales, more interested in finding and connecting with an audience than making the hamburger money one often sees as a reward from Beatport.
Some of that spirit is still around, in groups like the Sonoj Convention (dedicated to exploring music production with entirely open source software). It is also present in VCV Rack, which is not the first but certainly feels like the most ambitious free and open source virtual modular synthesizer to make it to launch. VCV Rack is modeled on the eurorack system, and is the engine that powers VCV modules: “add modules, connect cables, edit parameters and save/load patches.” Essentially: a virtual mock-up for sound synthesis that mimics and extends hardware synthesizers.
Many people reading this may have only noted the word “free.” Maybe just as important are “open source.” VCV Rack has a head full of steam right now for a product that just launched in Chicago in September; the developer was for a time making almost daily commits to the source code (which anyone can download and compile from github – one reason why this project may have significant staying power); binaries ready to install are currently available for Mac, Windows and Linux.
All of those commits make this something of a moving target, but an exciting one, especially for producers or aspiring ones who have never used a modular synthesizer before. Just since its launch, VCV Rack has moved a decimal to version 0.4 and has seen its first module collection released by an artist named “Autodafe.” The documentation is lacking, though a rather enthusiastic and proactive userbase of early adopters seem to be filling the gaps with that, and with patches. (And for absolute beginners this is part of the fun.) Not so fun is the lack of a VST/AU plugin, though this is promised to be arriving shortly and already has a name, “Rack Bridge.”