The Discrete Charm Of The VCV Rack

Every so often I discover a piece of music software that makes me giddy with the possibilities it presents. That’s what I feel about VCV Rack. It presents the on-screen equivalent of a Eurorack modular. It has a large number of useful modules, some actually based on popular Eurorack hardware modules. It has a community of 3rd Party developers who are constantly adding new modules to the collection. And the application and most of the modules available for it are open source, supported by an enthusiastic developer community.

We don’t really need VCV Rack.  There’s Reaktor, Max/MSP, Pure Data, and a number of other tools. Propellerhead Reason also uses a rack & wires visual design, but most of it’s rack devices are higher-level objects than those presented in an actual modular, real or virtual.

What makes VCV Rack fun to work with is that it doesn’t have (as e.g. Max & Reaktor) a distinction between programming and presentation. There’s no “under the hood.” You insert modules and wire them together. There’s nothing wrong with Reaktor and Max, they just require more actually programming and debugging to get something working. I write code for a living, so when I want to make music, I don’t want to think like a programmer any more.

I’ve also found it very stable, though the documentation on using the user interface is lacking. Some tips:

  • To wire an output that already has a wire plugged into it, hold down Ctrl (Windows/Linux) or Option(Mac)
  • When you right click to add a module there’s a search box at the top of the dialog, something I missed completely.
  • To learn different manufacturer’s modules, try making an instance of each of them and play around with them.

A lot of exciting things are happening in the VCV world in the near future. The main developer, Andrew Belt is continually improving the user interface and making new high-quality modules. He’s also hinted at adding a ‘package manager’ so that you don’t have to manually download plugins and unpack them in the Rack directory. That’s the biggest drawback to VCV, that it hasn’t really been ‘productized.’ You can be a computer musician without knowing how to to do manual installs, and Belt is putting some effort into making it more of a polished product.

As a demonstration of the sort of thing one can do with VCV rack here’s an experiment I did today:

There are two Oscillators driven by JW-Modules GridSeq. The Gridseqs are stepped through randomly (and periodically randomizes the notes), but it more or less adds up because it quantizes the note values to a scale. So the 3 GridSeq instances might be constantly spewing more or less random notes, but they all fit in the same scale and key.

The other technique I use is to use logic modules and comparators such that if a note is playing on one of the oscillators, it won’t start a note on the other. This was an attempt at emulating what I hear in Autechre’s music of late, where there will be 2 or more parts that alternate chaotically, but stay out of each other’s way.

All the notes (and drum hits) are triggered or not triggered based on chance, but they are on a steady 16th note grid. So it wonky but there is a constant pulse in there somewhere. I muck that up a bit by having effects that are not tempo synced, but hey, that’s what the cool kids do these days.

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