Alas, poor Pluggo! I knew him, Horatio…

It was announced late last week that Cycling ’74 has discontinued Pluggo and related plug-ins. Since I had a hand in the creation of Pluggo, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect and reminisce a little. My own involvement with Pluggo ended six or so years ago when I left Cycling ’74, but I was there at Pluggo’s conception and birth.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by the decision. According to Harmony Central, whose memory is better than mine, Pluggo was originally released just over 10 years ago. 10 years is a long sale lifespan for any software product. Pluggo was a particularly complex product since it not only contained over 100 plug-ins but was also based upon the Max/MSP runtime engine. Getting this runtime engine to run within various plug-in hosts as a VST, RTAS, and MAS plug-in was a pretty remarkable feat of engineering in the first place. Maintaining it across all of the changes that have taken place in the hosts and the operating systems during those 10 years must have been something of a nightmare. (To put it in historical perspective, consider that the first release of Pluggo listed Mac OS 7.5.3 as a minimum requirement, and that I did much of my work on Pluggo on a “Wallstreet” Mac laptop which had a 266MHz G3 CPU.)

On top of that, Pluggo has a lot more competition now than it did 10 years ago. There are many more plug-ins on the market now and the standards for both user-interface sophistication and sound quality have risen substantially. Pluggo must look pretty long in the tooth nowadays. There are also other ways to build plug-ins without writing code. One of the selling points of Pluggo was that it–in combination with Max/MSP–let anyone build their own plug-ins, without having to know the intricacies of programming in traditional text-based languages. That was a unique claim at the time, as well as being part of Pluggo’s pricing strategy (i.e. sell Pluggo for cheap to get people interested in Max/MSP). Since then other graphic development systems for building plug-ins have come along. SynthEdit is probably the most well-known but there are other examples.

Of course, there’s the most obvious reason: Cycling ’74 has shifted its attention to Max/MSP’s integration with Live. Merging Max/MSP with one other program is obviously a much simpler task than what Pluggo set out to do, which is to merge Max/MSP with any program that can host plug-ins.

In short, it makes complete sense from a business perspective. But it’s still a little sad.

Pluggo was in part an embodiment of a couple of noble ideas. One was to put a whole lot of signal-processing power in the hands of lots of people who couldn’t afford it otherwise. At its initial offering of $74 for 74 plug-ins, Pluggo was a bargain. Sure, not everyone was going to love all 74 plug-ins, but I suspect most people thought they’d gotten a damn good deal. $74 got you a bunch of delays, a couple of reverbs, a vocoder, several filters, and dozens of other things that defied categorization.

Another idea was to provide tools for building plug-ins to people who wouldn’t otherwise build plug-ins. If you could afford Max/MSP and afford to spend a bunch of time learning it, you could build your own plug-ins. At the time this was also basically unheard of. Plug-ins were created by a few mysterious companies who charged as much as several hundred dollars apiece. Suddenly here was Cycling ’74 not only telling you that you could buy plug-ins for a buck each, but you could build your own and use them with whatever host you preferred.

Another idea (or class of ideas) was some of the technology in Pluggo itself. Pluggo could pull off some amazing tricks, thanks to the fact that it was actually Max/MSP behind a curtain. Pluggo did tempo sync well before most people even knew they wanted it. Pluggo plug-ins could talk to each other, sending audio and control data back and forth. Pluggo could convert audio to control signals and vice-versa back when host sequencers were just starting to have parameter automation. Pluggo could wrap itself around other plug-ins, so that those plug-ins could in turn be controlled by Pluggo’s controller plug-ins. Pluggo was rather like a huge modular synthesizer that lived inside your host.

Developing Pluggo was a hoot. For better or for worse, all sorts of odd ideas ended up as plug-ins. The selection criteria was, “is it worth a dollar?” That opened the door for a huge outpouring of creativity. Any idea for processing a signal that anyone could dredge up became a plug-in. Some of the results were quite traditional, some were brand new.

For the record, jhno contributed the largest number of plug-ins to the collection in the 1.0 release. I think I wrote the second-largest number, and I wrote most of the extremely ill-conceived Pluggo-the-Month collection. David Zicarelli, Les Stuck, and Joshua Kit Clayton wrote the rest. Lilli Wessling did the packaging and other production and probably had much more to do with it than I was aware of at the time. (She basically ran all of the company operations then–anything other than actually making software was pretty much her domain.) I think that Gregory Taylor must have had a hand it in also by the time Pluggo 2.0 came out. The pluggoBuss routing system was my idea. I did the RTAS version of Pluggo, thus putting Pluggo in the hands of ProTools users. I also wrote the Plug-In Manager, an auxillary program that let you turn plug-ins on and off since some hosts (and some users) became somewhat confused when confronted with so many plug-ins. Richard Dudas drew the Pluggo character. Upon seeing it, jhno remarked that “this whole thing will be worth it just to see that box on a shelf in Guitar Center.” I don’t know whether or not that vision ever came true.

Pluggo was well received. I don’t know how many copies Cycling ’74 sold; I wasn’t privvy to that information even before I left. But the magazine reviews were glowing. Keyboard magazine gave it some sort of annual award, it got at least one Editor’s Choice award from Electronic Musician magazine, and was nominated for a TEC Award by Mix magazine. We went to the awards ceremony but Antares won with their mic modeling plug-in–not at all a surprise, considering that Mix is read and written by microphone fetishists. (Ironically that product was discontinued long before Pluggo’s demise.) But it was fun anyway and at least I can say I was once in the same room as Herbie Hancock, Roger Nichols, Glen Ballard, T-Bone Burnett, and a bunch of other extremely talented folks.

In my understanding, Pluggo developed a cult following, thanks to its price and its vast collection of tools for making odd noises. It’s nice to think that something I made was used by so many people over such a long period of time. I know that a few musicians whose work I enjoy very much used Pluggo, which in itself is very satisfying. One successful film composer wrote to me a few years ago because he used one of the plug-ins I built and subsequently discovered that it had been dropped from the installer when he had to install Pluggo on a new computer. Fortunately I still had a copy which I could send him, if I remember correctly.

But now, “the never-ending plug-in” has come to an end. Neither jhno nor I work for Cycling ’74 any longer, nor does Richard Dudas. (I’m not sure about Les.) We’ve gone on to other things, and so has Cycling ’74. So it goes.

My favorite Pluggo memory comes from a night in San Francisco. I was staying at jhno’s home and studio, both housed in a South-of-Market warehouse. We were taking a break from working on Pluggo. It was dark and rainy. We watched lights dance on the puddles on the street below as raindrops made ripples on their surface. Afer a few quiet minutes jhno stretched, smiled, and said, “I have a new idea for a plug-in!” He went back to work and a little while later there was a new plug-in named Raindrops.

That was Pluggo at its best: have an idea, turn that idea into a plug-in, just like that. Pluggo was “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” I’m proud to have had a hand in its creation.

By adam

Go ahead, try to summarize yourself in a sentence or two.


  1. that was an excellent read, really interesting to hear inside stories of something i used and loved *So much*.

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