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Why instrument plugins in IT/XM aren't necessarily a bad thing

People like talking bad about ModPlug's IT/XM format hacks, and quite often they are of course right - ModPlug shouldn't extend these formats to add features that will either crash the original program or that simply make the file sound completely different. But is this true for all new features?

I wouldn't say so. One feature where I feel that quite the opposite is true are, surprise, instrument plugins (VSTi)! Why would I say that, given that VSTs are probably the most criticized feature addition? Especially VST instruments, which stay completely silent when played in any other player? Well, that's because those other players simply don't implement one of the most interesting features of Impulse Tracker and Fasttracker 2: MIDI output.

Let me give you an example. Do you hear anything apart from a drum beat when playing this with your favourite IT player? No? You don't hear an organ? Well, sorry to disappoint you, but that's not ModPlug's fault. This file was saved in Impulse Tracker. It plays correctly on Interwave and AWE soundcards, since those are the only two drivers in IT that can have sample playback and MIDI output at the same time. Instrument plugins are just a layer on top of this MIDI mechanism, and instead of having to tell people which synth they have to hook their computer up to, you can simply store a reference to a softsynth and all its parameters in the module file, making this awesome feature of IT and FT2 way more portable. If you compose a song with VST instruments in OpenMPT, you can, in theory, load it into IT, use one of the two MIDI drivers and play it there as well! The additional information that's required to store the VST references won't interfere with IT or FT2, so it's no problem really.

I do agree, though, that effect plugins are slightly more critical than instrument plugins, but keep in mind that there's worse - like IT's AWE32 driver which could enable hardware reverb and chorus, but the settings for those two effects were actually not stored in your IT files. This is just like adding a chorus or reverb plugin to your song, except that with plugins, you can also store the exact settings. I do not necessarily think that it's a good idea to spread such IT files with embedded plugin settings, but the same is of course true about IT files written in Impulse Tracker that make use of AWE32 effects or IT files that make use of Impulse Tracker's MIDI output. And the same holds for XMs, of course.

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1 response to "Why instrument plugins in IT/XM aren't necessarily a bad thing"

barryvan says:
April 28th, 2014 at 12:40

Interesting argument!

Another thing to bear in mind -- and quite separate to the whole notion of the "purity" of a format -- is that without these extensions, MPT wouldn't have gained the traction it did -- which would mean that tracked music as a whole would have suffered a pretty bad blow. As (one of?) the first Windows trackers, MPT opened the door for a lot of the great tracker-like DAWs (inc. OpenMPT!) that have come since -- and plugins were a big part of its success. I know that my music certainly wouldn't be at the point it is now if it weren't for OpenMPT allowing me to "abuse" the IT format with plugins.

At the end of the day, if it bothers you that MPT has "extended" the XM/IT formats to allow plugins, then the simplest way to deal with it is to simply not consider them to be XM/IT formats any more -- think of them as "extended" formats -- "XMX" and "ITX", if you will. If you think of it that way, then it's great that there's some measure of backward-compatibility -- something which is very often not prioritised in software.

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