Modularity in plugin design

A few of our recent blog posts have discussed of minimalism in the design of the Valhalla plugins. Minimalism is a big goal for us at Valhalla DSP. It’s reflected in the GUI style of the plugins, and increasingly in the design of the algorithms themselves.

The drive for minimalism for the Valhalla plugins goes hand in hand with the concept of modularity. Modularity, for plugin design, is the idea that a plugin should focus on the task it is best at, leaving other tasks to other plugins. A plugin can be viewed as a module, that is used as part of a larger system.

Plugins are used within a DAW, or within some other form of plugin host. Most DAWs come with a fairly extensive suite of plugins: EQ, compressors and limiters, simple delays, utility modules; all that good stuff. In addition, the average plugin user owns a fair number of plugins from different companies.

We’re Focusing On What We’re Good At

From our perspective, it makes sense to continue to work with and improve the things we are good at. My experience largely lies with reverbs and delay based processing, as well as modulation effects. I’ve been designing these every working day for the past 18 years. I’ve designed compressors, limiters and EQs in the past, but I don’t consider myself an expert in these types of effects. Meanwhile, there ARE folks who have worked with compressors, limiters and EQs for several decades.

This is where modularity comes in. The Valhalla plugins are designed to focus on the things we are good at. We don’t include EQs, because you already have an EQ. Probably a ton of EQs. And many of these EQs are designed by people who are as fanatical about equalization algorithms as we are about reverbs and delays. Same thing with compressors and limiters. Lots of smart designers out there.

Modularity Aligns With Our Core Beliefs

Our belief in designing plugins as modules for a bigger system ties into several other core beliefs of Valhalla DSP:

  • We don’t think that this is a zero-sum world. Just because you use the Valhalla plugins, doesn’t mean that you won’t use plugins from other people. We feel that if we focus on our specialties, we can happily coexist with other developers that are as equally as passionate about what they do. As we say to each other around here, we don’t need to be the only or the versus. We want to be the AND.
  • DAWs and other plugin hosts are usually designed around the concept of modularity. The plugins included in your favorite DAW are expected to be used in a modular manner, as are 3rd party plugins.
  • People digest ideas easier if they are broken up into smaller chunks. It is tempting to write the Grand Unified Theory plugin, that wraps everything up into one singularity of All Powerful Do Everythingness. These sorts of plugins are fun, but it is often hard to figure out what is going on. It’s like reading a giant run-on post with no paragraphs or punctuation. By breaking out plugins into more atomic units, things become easier to use.
  • Stomp boxes are AWESOME. I love love love effect pedals. Part of this love stems from the simplicity of using effects pedals, as they usually have a small number of controls. Another part of this comes from how using discrete stomp boxes splits up different concepts into different pedals (see above for why chunking up ideas is often a good idea).
  • Send busses are AWESOME. The idea of sending part of an audio track to one or more sends, and running one or more effects on these sends, dates back to the reverb chambers of the 1950s. By running effects on a send bus, you can balance your levels better, send different amounts of different tracks to the same send bus, and use EQ and dynamics processing to shape the sound to your heart’s content. Don Gunn has a great video, showing how to use the Valhalla reverbs on a send bus. This video is useful for ALL reverb plugins, and is also a great illustration on how using several sends to the same reverb can create a better drum sound.

There are limits to modularity. Some signal processing blocks can’t be broken out of the higher level algorithm. For example, many of the Valhalla plugins have filtering blocks (low cut, high cut, damping) that are part of the feedback paths of the plugins. These couldn’t be parted out to external plugins without including an external feedback loop, which would make things far more complicated than just adding a few tone controls.

In general, though, the Valhalla plugins try to keep things as minimal as possible, with the assumption that other functions can be shouldered by other plugins.

About the author:

Sean Costello is the "algorithmic reverb plugin wizard" [citation needed] at Valhalla DSP.

Comments (11)

  1. I don’t agree with the premise of this article. The “Grand Unified Theory” plugin you speak of is exactly what saves time. When the inspiration hits I cannot afford to skip a beat. When you need something, you have it right there, just turn a knob. At the end of the day, we need a mix of big and small, not one or the other. But I guess I am mostly thinking of digital synths. For that, I want every feature, every fx, ready to go.

    You say “These sorts of plugins are fun, but it is often hard to figure out what is going on.” I again disagree. The stomp box with a few knobs is the most ambiguous. A well-designed tool does not shy away from splitting up controls into multiple parameters where needed.

    Digital “stomp box style designs” are the worst offenders, giving you a small set of controls that offer little flexibility. The stomp box concept encourages laziness. The creator often locks you into their intention. What I mean is that a stomp box lacks a scientific approach to interface design/workflow. A scientific approach means that the creator, for example, thinks of how to extend the functionality of the original design by offering higher parameter ranges or allowing bypassing of features or being able to type in values for a knob, or my favorite often overlooked feature: allowing the user to change the knob/parameter smoothing speed. Extendability, tweakability, scientific exploration, that’s what this article fails to address.

    1. Modularity and simplicity in design work precisely because they eliminate the thought process.

      Thinking about what you are doing at every instance, adding parameters, adding features, covering all bases at once – these are behaviors that often distract from the creative objective, rather than propelling a person towards it.

      1. Alfred North Whitehead said, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

        A more elegantly stated version of what I was saying.

        1. I think my last statement still holds true

          “Extendability, tweakability, scientific exploration, that’s what this article fails to address.”

          You just don’t have those things available in simplistic designs. To say you NEVER need those things would be… wrong. But I would agree that to say you ALWAYS need those things would be wrong too.

          1. I’m not arguing ALWAYS or NEVER in this article. Just talking about what we are doing at Valhalla DSP, and the directions future plugins will take.

            There will be other developers that will create complicated plugins with tons of parameters in the future, and I figure that these developers will take care of musicians who want to work with complicated plugins with tons of parameters. MY focus will be on making plugins with simple interfaces and powerful sounds.

  2. Well done. I am also a big fan of the minimalist modular school of thought, as well as focusing on what one does well. There are far too many integrated-suite-swiss army knife plugins these days with mostly unusable effects and/or settings, with ARP2600-looking muddled UI designs. Minimalist UIs are an art and a balancing act of exposing useful features in the UI to allow flexibility without overwhelming the user with minutia.

  3. Focusing on what you are good at is fundamental, but you also can hire people making awesome compressors to release a channel strip together for instance. That way, you may go beyond your artisan niche shop and offer more value to more users based on a quality standard and not only a current expertise.

  4. i think the sound and look of your plugins is awesome….perfect mix of not too many parameters, flat design and mostly what’s important….killer sound.

  5. Ubermod is my fav Valhalla plugin because it allows so much flexibility, and you can get so much out of it. I never wind up at a place where I want something slightly different but can’t seem to get there. Even though there are many parameters, it winds up being intuitive.

    On the other hand, many times when I’m using Plate, I feel like maybe there are really some parameters in the code that I’d like to be exposed rather than jumping from mode to mode so much. Maybe there aren’t and I’m just left with that impression but there are some aspects of the different modes, such as whether they are smoothed out by a chamber or how the mono/stereo works that I just wish could be turned engaged or disengaged across all of the modes. That said, the sound is very good.

    I really dig your UI style and have used a similar aesthetic for years when making visuals generating apps.

    1. ValhallaPlate has hundreds of parameters under the hood, that are REALLY tweaky. A lot of them are being changed according to reverb time, in order to get a realistic model of the decay time at different frequencies. Most of the parameters are not intuitive, and don’t sound all that great when taking away from the “Platonic” ideal settings for a given plate model.

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