Much has been made of the delays in getting Adobe’s mission critical pro apps, including Photoshop, onto the Intel platform, a gating item for many PowerPC Mac users considering the move to Intel. The other software category experiencing major delays for MacIntel ports, perhaps slightly less mainstream, is that of audio plug-ins and software synthesizers.
Audio plug-ins are programs that run inside a host program, such as Logic or Garageband, and in many cases in “standalone mode” as well. Without major contortions, it’s fairly impractical to run PPC plug-ins inside an Intel-based host program and nearly impossible to run both PPC and Intel plug-ins in the same host at the same time (see this discussion thread on BigBlueLounge for a workaround that involves some third-party software). Plug-ins typically generate audio (by making sounds), transform audio (e.g., by adding delay or compression), or both, and represent a substantial after-market for the big audio programs
Plug-ins are also where much of the audio fun is at, and audio geeks usually have dozens or even hundreds of plug-ins to call on for specialized tasks. Garageband supports plug-ins, e.g., as instruments in the “Generator” selections or as effects in the other parameters inside the Details pane in the Track Info window.
With the Intel Mac platform, plug-in developers have faced some substantial difficulties getting their code onto the Intel Mac:
- Many of these vendors are smaller development houses serving a niche audience, so resources are limited.
- The large majority of plug-ins are cross-platform–a business necessity for products with such a small and specialized audience–and thus not as likely to be on an XCode code-base. Harder job to port.
- Plug-ins present a labyrinthine support matrix, with multiple machines running multiple OS versions, both multiplied again by the number of audio host programs (Garageband, Logic Pro, Digital Performer, Cubase, Ableton Live, Pro-Tools, etc.). Users expect the plug-ins to work in all their host environments, which can represent a formidable challenge to smaller developers and their QA teams.
- Standards for plugins have been chaotic, often driven more by vendor needs than user needs. There are numerous revisions to the VST spec, and incremental updates to Core Audio by OS/X version to contend with as well. VST was a stronger cross-platform standard before Apple released Core Audio, but these days many vendors now choose to support VST on Windows, AU on OS/X, and RTAS format (for Pro-Tools users) on both. All these support options mean more code and more testing.
- Plug-ins push the envelope for both computational complexity and user interface. There’s some amazing innovation in these products, and they can be surprisingly complex. E.g., plug-ins may do “pitch correction” on vocals that perform very elaborate calculations on audio waveforms, and software synthesizers may precisely reproduce the user interface of legacy hardware such as old Moog and ARP synthesizers, right down to the funky knobs and patch cords. Plug-ins are different from other applications, and those other applications appear to get off much easier.
Apple beat its predicted Intel transition timetables to the street by months, and upgrading Mac users are of course an impatient lot. The “big hosts” have been ready for some time now. Logic and Garageband were updated quickly of course, but Universal versions of Ableton Live, Digital Performer, Pro-Tools, and Cubase 4 have been out for some time, ready and willing to take advantage of multiprocessor support on the Core Duo megamachine of your choice. So the move to Intel has been a customer relations challenge as well.
The plug-in vendors, however, still have some work to do. A small Canadian developer of software synthesizers, Applied Acoustics, recently posted a plea for patience to customers on its web forum: “These Universal Binary updates are so much work it’s unbelievable. We can’t wait to have this technology change behind us…” Their initial estimates in March called for Summer updates. Now they are aiming to release some updates by the end of the year, and won’t ship an update to their superb Tassman modular synthesizer until 2007.
German synth maker Native Instruments has struggled to meet its predicted dates as well, to the point of generating violent revolt in its customer base. NI’s plug-ins have also been delayed from original Summer 2006 timetables, and their delays have been timed with other marketing program decisions that have generated some rather awe-inspiring customer dissatisfaction on their own discussion boards and around the web. NI’s just this month made some peace offerings to its customer base, and has begun releasing UB versions of their products in a steady stream over the last few weeks. So far these new versions are looking strong on the Intel platform, and the company appears to be on a roll, with new Universal versions of Reaktor 5, Kontakt 2, and Kore 1.1 out in just the last 2 weeks, and its new products such as Massive having shipped Universal at launch.
Other vendors have fared a bit better. FXpansion, which makes percussion plug-ins such as BFD and Guru, as well as converter programs that, e.g., allow you to run VST plugins in AU hosts, has decided to narrow down its support matrix gradually over time, still offering broad, but less of the insane number of support options in current versions, in an attempt to deal with the proliferation of standards. Several of their programs are available in Universal versions today, with more in beta.
IKMultimedia just released the Universal version of its Sampletank software sampler and Amplitube guitar processor products, and expects the rest of its product line to be ported by early 2007. Waves plug-ins are rolling out with Intel compatibility over the year. Arturia is now shipping many universal versions, and Cycling ’74 announced that its entire line of plug-ins is Intel compatible as of September 22. Linplug has most of its plug-ins Universal, including the very wonderful Albino 3. Even Cakewalk, which has focused on PC audio software such as Sonar for over a decade, has shipped UB versions of two software synthesizers, Dimension Pro and Rapture, its first products ever featuring Mac compatibility. (Dimension Pro sounds great by the way…I think the Mac music community should reward a vendor for venturing into new territory like this…download the demo and see what you think).
A few vendors are still missing in action: one noteworthy example would be PSPAudioware, which announced Universal support in March as well, but offers no date commitments yet. But in general the vendor support is lining up, slowly but surely, on Intel compatibility. This last quarter of 2006 seems to represent the watershed moment for plug-ins. By early 2007, the holdouts will be ready to move to Intel, and Mac Intel users will have the majority of their plug-ins supported natively on Intel. If you’ve been waiting for your favorites, it’s been an exciting few weeks watching these new versions go native, one by one. The toolbox isn’t quite complete yet, but the vendors seem to be making progress and working very hard. Here comes the flood.