something new for the rack?
The cat is out of the bag. Propellerheads just announced their newest technology initiative. It's called 'Rack Extensions' and you can find out all about them on Propellerheads web site. Rack Extensions are stand alone Reason devices that you can buy and integrate into your Reason Rack. Rack Extensions have knobs on the front, audio and CV plugs on the back, support undo, automation, and won't bring down your system if they crash. There will be a dedicated store and every extension comes with a demo period so you can try them out. Why did they do this? Are there any downsides? Do I REALLY like the idea, and what can we expect?
Why they did it (maybe)
It makes a lot of sense for the Propellerheads for a number of reasons. First, they have limited resources to devote to maintaining the core application let alone creating new devices all the time. This is way of giving users more devices while applying resources to the core application. We'll also see a lot of devices that the Propellerheads maybe never would have thought of. Another huge advantage is new devices can be rolled out by them or 3rd parties anytime.
What I like about it
This is a huge deal.
First, I love the way they will implement this. What they really did was open up the Reason API's for developers so that they can make Reason instruments and devices that are first class members of the Reason rack. You get true Reason instruments that work and behave just like anything else in the rack.
Second, I like that fact that instead of waiting with baited breath for the next release for the new devices (and then inevitably complaining about what they didn't do) we will have access to new devices all the time. Third, there are instruments that the Propellerheads would never have thought of, or if they did would never have created just because the audience wasn't there to justify the development cost. This is a question of priorities. We will see more and more varied types of devices.
The rack extension solves a problem that has always bugged me about the Combinator. The Combinator UI is flexible with 4 knobs and 4 on/off switches, but it is also somewhat limiting. The advantage of Rack Extensions is that the UI can be completely customized to the type of device you are creating. Look at the Alligator processor in Reason 6, for example. There are like 30 knobs on the Alligator. You couldn't implement that as a Combinator, but you sure can as a Rack Extension.
Why it makes me a little sad
One thing I always liked about Reason was the fact that I wasn't perpetually looking at the next new thing or looking for yet another plug in. There was something comforting about the rack as an unchangeable box of devices. Everything was in the box, and you could not go out of it. The limitations really forced you to make do with what you had, programming and tweaking to get the sound you wanted. This world is now gone. Perhaps the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but I wonder if instead of trying to make a sound with Malstrom or Thor, I will be thinking in the back of my head "if I only had the 'fatSynth3000' rack extension..."
What we can expect
I wouldn't be surprised if Reason becomes something like Reason Essentials -- the core application with the basic devices to get you started, and everything else offered 'a la carte' from the Rack Extension store. They might even convert Thor and Kong into single offerings for Reason Essential owners. Reason would be priced very low, at which point you can personalize your rack with whatever devices you want from the Rack Extension store.
We may see a lot of what used to be ReFills, implemented as Rack Extensions. For example, we will probably see a guitar or string Rack Extension. Maybe in the past these would have been implemented as ReFills, but they might now be Rack Extensions. Is this good or bad? Probably good because these types of single purpose devices can now have user interfaces that are geared specifically for that one use.
We may also see a lot of niche devices from smaller developers. I would love to see a crazy CV processor. Will we finally see a physical modeling synth for EWI players that can go head to head with the VL70m? Maybe, and with Rack Extensions it is certainly possible.
Reason has changed dramatically with this announcement, but I think it is for the better. It makes the software more personal and offers the musician a lot of choice and customization. Hopefully, we will see some dedicated EWI Rack Extensions, and wouldn't that be cool?