rack ’em up

I think the current stand situation is going to be okay, for now, once I put the anti-slip mat between the Minibrute’s guitar stand and the metal base of the laptop stand. I may still go for the KVGear stand eventually though.

I tried VCV Rack 2 standalone. Of all modular software, it is probably the closest it comes to Eurorack. But it inevitably just doesn’t feel the same, and I would generally rather patch the hardware.

However, using it as a plugin inside of a DAW changes the story. After reading a few users’ experiences (positive and negative) I went ahead and got the full version at its intro price.

I feel that its role is different not just from the hardware, but from Bitwig Grid.

Bitwig, without Grid, is still mighty. You can route audio and control signals around not quite willy-nilly but more flexibly than in other DAWs I have used. A very handy part of that is that the audio and control signals can cross over: if I want to modulate one of the drawbars in an Organ device with the output of a Eurorack oscillator coming in on hardware input 5, I can do that. If I want a tempo-synced LFO in Bitwig to modulate something in my Eurorack gear, I can do that too.

Grid sort of coalesces that into a view where you mostly connect inputs, modules and controls, and outputs a little more directly. There are still a few invisible hands turning virtual knobs, where in Eurorack you’d have a patch cable. And there are a few places where you need somewhat silly workarounds to get signals between Grid and elsewhere in Bitwig.

Some of Grid’s big limitations:

  • Feedback patching is disallowed under most circumstances. You can work around it with some of its routing tools (though this adds an unknown, if small, amount of latency.)
  • Grid can’t generate MIDI. You can work around this (imperfectly) using the Replacer device.
  • Grid’s audio outputs within the DAW are limited. This too can be worked around. (However, the hardware I/O is wide open, which makes it great for working alongside hardware modular.)
  • Getting modulation sources out of Grid to control other things can be a little awkward depending on where those “other things” are, but again: there are workarounds.
  • Grid cannot host other VST plugins… although (again!) there’s a workaround. A very awkward workaround which gets worse if you want stereo.
  • Only Bitwig can create more Grid modules, there’s no third-party development.

And VCV:

  • Allows feedback patching. There are matrix mixers and so on. There’s one sample of latency in feedback, which is as tight as digital can get.
  • Can generate MIDI — convert V/OCT pitch signals and gates to MIDI note on/off messages, or CV in general to CC. It’s pretty cool having Marbles and Stages playing Aalto!
  • Can assign VST automation parameters to knobs, or use MIDI CC to CV conversion.
  • Its audio I/O is limited to whatever the host DAW allows — no direct hardware access. Unfortunately in Bitwig, this means a total of four audio inputs (two if stereo). This limits just how much weaving back and forth between hardware and software one could do within a single instance.
  • VCV can host other VST plugins inside itself as a module, but that’s an additional $30. With that I suppose one could use ReaStream or Senderella to work around the previous limitation. And yes, you can host an instance of VCV inside of VCV if you want to. Unless I find a specific need for it though, I won’t go this route.
  • There’s robust third-party development. Not without some community issues which I’ve mentioned before, and not without more than a few ugly designs, weird panel layouts and kind of pointless things (but the same could be said in Eurorack to no small extent).

There are definitely some gems in VCV’s free library, and that’s before some of the major players like Instruo and Alright have updated their modules to work with version 2. If I want 8 parallel instances of Rings, now I can do that. Supercell, with its very different vibe from Beads, is back on the menu. Two Befaco spring reverbs for stereo — why not? The kind of garish-looking Plateau delay/reverb sounds impressive, I’ve found some tasty waveshaper/distortion options, and there are some microtonal quantizers I’ll definitely be making use of.

So VCV isn’t a “replace my hardware” option nor as much of a “shore up the weak spots in Bitwig Grid” as I might have thought, but it’s going to pull its weight.

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