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:

  1. Many of these vendors are smaller development houses serving a niche audience, so resources are limited.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

There are 8 comments on The Universal Watershed: Audio Plug-Ins on Intel:

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  1. Henri Jackson | Nov 29 2006 - 03:35

    Great article. Really puts everything in perspective. Being a Native Instrument customer myself I can say that the past few months have definitely been trying. Now that their updates have been coming out over the past few weeks I have to say the wait, while extremely painful, has been worth it. My advice both to myself and everyone else is that we all have to understand there is a pretty big technological transition going on and these are just the resulting growing pains. When all is said and done we will look back and appreciate what Apple and the music software venders have done to give us the the tools to help us make music that will continue to push boundaries.

  2. scottmc | Nov 29 2006 - 04:35

    I agree, Henri. It’s been excruciating watching the flameouts on NI and despite that earlier in the year, as a Komplete Care customer, I was a bit miffed myself, I’ve become fairly sympathetic.

    These are difficult times financially and technically for software vendors…and in the end, NI has taken quite a bruising.

    Like you, I’m thinking the new NI releases, and Sampletank et al as well, are very promising.

  3. tbirdparis | Nov 29 2006 - 09:26

    excellent article, nice to see some focused content for audio/music professionals. we’re not as mainstream as graphic design/publishing and video editing, but still the international music and audio production industry is huge and it’s largely a mac-dominated field. just think of all those albums you listen to, all that film and TV music.. most of it has heavy use of macs in its production.

    couple of things:

    I wanted to emphasize more strongly than in the article about how crucial these plug ins are to the music industry. I think when people hear the term plug in, they think of some simple effect in photoshop that renders out a colour effect or some such thing. in audio, it’s well and truly beyond that.
    I’m sure people have an image in their mind of what a music studio looks like.. the traditional big mixing desk, all those racks of boxes with flashing lights and knobs and faders all over them. and then big keyboard racks covered in different types of synthesizers, beat boxes and samplers. every one of these devices was a sophisticated, often very expensive, machine for either performing a role in the sweetening or polishing of sounds, effects like reverb and chorus, for example. or, complex synthesizers with a sophisticated architecture for generating all sorts of sounds.
    in the past 10 years or so in audio, what has happened is that all of these machines have started being turned into virtual versions of themselves, and sold as plug ins. it’s so much more than just a sumi-e filter in photoshop. we are talking in some cases, the entire circuitry of a fabled piece of equipment being analysed and recreated digitally, and then given a user interface that allows us to process and/or generate sounds in the same way as we used to do with hardware.

    It’s hard to overstate how much this has changed the industry. you absolutely no longer go into a music equipment store and ponder over which gigantic keyboard based sampler or synth or reverb unit you need to buy, spending up to 10s of thousands of dollars per unit. this stuff is all in software now, and in most cases it’s far more capable than it ever was previously despite costing a fraction of the price.

    so when an audio or music guy talks about plug ins, they’re not talking about a lens flare effect that you just flip on to something when you are after that effect. they’re more like the very instruments and professional audio processors that are used for composition and production themselves, some of which can individually take years to master above and beyond knowing how to use your audio software itself.

    also, it was made clear in the great article, but I wanted to emphasize that unlike photoshop, pretty much _none_ of these vital effects and instruments could be used _at all_ until universal binaries were/are released. it’s not a question of putting up with sluggish performance under rosetta until the thing goes native. it has just meant that bang, your entire arsenal of studio equipment and all of your electronic musical instruments just disappeared into thin air until further notice. so it’s no wonder that the audio industry has been anxious for UBs to start appearing, cos upgrading to an intel machine was absolutely not an option till that started happening.

    this is huge news for the audio and music industry, great article. thanks for putting it out there.

  4. scottmc | Nov 29 2006 - 10:33

    Excellent points, for sure. It’s certainly true that the lights went out for Intel users with a heavy investment in AUs say–unlike Photoshop, it’s not been possible to run our audio set up fully loaded on Intel even with slower performance. It has been a long wait to get the basic tools up and running again, for sure. Seeing Sampletank on screen again is like rediscovering an old friend (whose name is Patches, I suppose …)

    And I do agree that the sophistication of the software tools is indeed amazing, and yes, it might take us years to master some of these capabilities. I’m impressed with the “recreations” alone of famous old analog gear–the fact that you can buy not one but 3 pretty faithful reproductions of the Minimoog, all of them competing to be the purest software incarnation of the original.

    Couple these tools with the horsepower of a Mac Pro and yes, working in the box appears to have few obstacles outside of our own musicianship, taste, and the time it takes to use ONLY the tools required to support a well written composition.

  5. Jack | Nov 29 2006 - 10:41

    Nice article. As a composer it isn’t often that music software is talked about, even though it has been the mac’s strength. People just relate more to graphic design and such. And yes, a plug-in is more than a plug-in in audio. You can think of an audio plug-in as a painter’s paint. All in all things are shaping up; these applications are extrememly complicated. Music production is the most demanding of all creative endeavors on hardware–every cpu cycle and bit of ram helps; and yes, with audio unit plug ins, it either works on intel, or it doesn’t. And many of these plug-ins cost hundreds of dollars–sometimes thousands.

    There has been a lot of talk lately of software being behind the hardware in terms of multiple cores. Perhaps we should note that Logic express and Pro take full advantage of 4 cores now. And with its distributed processing, our “plug-ins” (which can be a whole orchestra) can be put on other macs (called nodes), so apple has really helped uleash some serious power for us.

    I’m a big fan of native instruments, and for various reasons having Kontact 2.2 is just a relief. To upgrade to the Universal Binary if you activated Kontact 2 before September is only $29, which is great.

    Anyway, thanks for the article.

  6. Tony S | Nov 30 2006 - 07:09

    The UB version of Arturia’s Minimoog has definitely been worth waiting for. For the first time in my setup, I can actually sequence using some of the more CPU-intensive settings. With NI’s Absynth 4 update, I can get by without Atmosphere.

  7. tbirdparis | Nov 30 2006 - 10:42

    tell me about it.. I just got a new MBP c2d 17″ and I think the timing was just perfect, enough of the 3rd party stuff I use along with logic pro has made the UB transition for me not to really be missing anything. and it all runs so well I can’t believe it. the arturia CS80 which used to take a big bite out of the CPU on my dual G5 hardly even pips the CPU meter on this machine, if it even shows any use at all. happy camper. :)

  8. Zed Essex | Apr 26 2009 - 03:39

    It’s always great to hear about new plugins, I am a bit of a plug pig myself!