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Software Tech: Is Modular Software the Future?

By Craig Anderton. Software’s “next big thing” could be modular software that allows mixing and matching elements from various programs.

In a way, this is a follow-up to last month’s column about Cakewalk’s demise. Although many users plan to stay with Sonar until it breaks, others are evaluating different hosts and being reminded of a harsh reality: No single program does it all. One might have better MIDI functionality, another better video support, or there could be unique, program-specific functions. So you can either choose one program and accept its limitations, or become facile with multiple programs and deal with transferring projects.

As a potential answer that could also be software’s “next big thing,” consider modular software that could mix and match elements from various programs. This already exists to some degree: Plug-in standards allow effects from different manufacturers to be compatible with hosts from other manufacturers. There are also examples like the integration between Studio One, which doesn’t include notation, and Notion, which is all about notation.

ReWire is another excellent example of modular thinking. For programs based on a traditional studio paradigm such as Pro Tools, rewiring a program like Reason Essentials into the host provides virtual instruments, effects and tempo-synched possibilities (e.g., step sequencing). This adds some attributes associated with programs like Ableton Live and FL Studio that are based more on beats-oriented music. Also, because music production is incorporating an increasingly nonlinear approach, ReWire allows veterans to supplement their existing skill set so they can work fluidly with today’s musical styles while leveraging the expertise they’ve gained over the years—expertise that those raised on a beats-oriented program haven’t necessarily acquired yet.

Lessons We Can Learn from Cakewalk’s Demise, by Craig Anderton, Pro Sound News, Jan. 11, 2018

Although ReWire is a success story, some attempts haven’t survived the test of time. Yamaha’s Open Plug-In Technology (OPT) specification, which integrated synth editors tightly within a host, was introduced at the turn of the century and embraced immediately by Cakewalk and Sonic Foundry. But it had more potential than simply editor integration; Sonic Foundry implemented OPT in Acid 4.0 to allow MIDI editing in a previously audio-only program. Using it was awkward compared to programs that started with MIDI, but it nonetheless hinted at the possibilities of modular software.

Today’s DAWs are mature and somewhat interchangeable. They all cut, paste, copy, run plug-ins, handle ReWire and so on. However, each one also has unique functionalities. For example, only Sonar and Acid Pro can create Acid-format stretchable files. Although the format’s usefulness has diminished somewhat with improvements in DSP time-stretching, “acidized” files remain an ideal solution for some projects. I don’t know coding, but it seems like there could be a standalone Acidization module one could call up in another program. Some programs already do this kind of functionality by fencing off particular modules from a flagship program to create “light” versions. Loading complete modules from a different manufacturer doesn’t seem that different.

Or consider video editing. Most DAWs provide only the basics, but Acoustica’s Mixcraft has unusually sophisticated video functionality. Maybe the video section could be its own module that other hosts could load.

The big and perhaps insurmountable problem is that host programs would need to be designed with “hooks” to accept these modules, just like they have with plug-ins and ReWire. But if the modules could inherently be standalone, it might not be that difficult. Nor would it need to be an extensive effort. The main modules that come to mind are MIDI editing (OPT showed it’s possible), creating Acidized or REX files, video, notation and step sequencing. It may even be possible to use different mixing console modules (Harrison Mixbus, anyone?) or hooks for effects chains that could load like a regular plug-in, but host plug-ins—and may the best FX chain implementation win.

Aside from the benefits for users, this would provide more income for DAW manufacturers. Someone who uses Ableton Live might not buy Cubase for its notation, but they’d probably be willing to buy the Cubase Notation module. Rather than use a DAW’s proprietary stretching option, users might prefer to load an Acidization module so they could create clips readable by any DAW.

Yes, this would take an industry-wide effort, but MIDI has proven industry-wide efforts are possible. It could start small, by coming up with a ReWire variation for seamless notation integration into programs that don’t have a staff view. And if modular software means a better experience for users and more potential income for software companies, that’s an incentive to investigate the concept further.

Author/musician Craig Anderton updates every Friday with new tips, links, info on his latest products, and more, as well as tweeting at