Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
For years, lots of accounting, business, and data-related software products have been available, not as one-time purchases, but by subscription instead. In other words, users can avoid chunky up-front costs, use the up-to-date digital tools they need, pay lower fees for month-to-month or year-to-year access, and unsubscribe whenever they need to.
Recently, music software companies have been getting more and more into the same game — with compelling results for virtual instruments and music plug-ins.
My first hands-on intro to subscription services for music production was Musio, an “endlessly-growing catalog of instrument collections developed by Cinesamples in a modern, intuitive sampler plugin,” as described by the service’s website. I started using Musio to access its Cinesamples Piano in Blue — a wonderful, responsive virtual piano sampled from a hallowed Steinway concert grand — but I’ve started using Musio’s virtual cello, percussion, and other sounds as well.
Expanding access to sounds and textures
I wanted to get the Piano in Blue for my ongoing project, Current Dissonance, a newsletter where I send out fresh solo piano improvs in reaction to daily news stories. A producer friend recommended it as one of the most musical and subtle virtual pianos he’d ever played, and after using it, I had to agree.
Downloading and installing the Musio player was easy, and integrating it into my Logic sessions was simple as well.
More fun came when I began exploring other options available through Musio. With little effort, and without having to install or integrate additional software, I was able to access a wide variety of sounds and textures — including the aforementioned cello and percussion — and Musio’s catalog of offerings and music plug-ins continues to expand.
Musio isn’t alone in offering significant sonic possibilities by subscription. Major companies in the music production space like Universal Audio and Roland have their own subscription services which let users access hefty libraries of sounds, tools, and instruments — and there are many other options as well. Most of these services offer free two-week trials, so I recommend experimenting far and wide and seeing which (if any) work for you.
Depending on the context — and especially if you’re often delving into new sonic territory and unlikely to tread in the same place twice — subscription services can provide access to a wide array of sounds and instruments while saving you significant cash.
Let’s say you’re working on a production that needs zither and African marimba sounds. If you’re already a paying annual Musio subscriber (at $99/year), you can access their versions of those instruments for no charge beyond the regular subscription fee.
If you’re not a subscriber and need the instruments just for a short period, you can pay $9.99/month to subscribe and then call it quits when the project wraps; chances are, you’ll end up paying far less than the hundreds it might cost to purchase similar virtual instruments outright.
Similarly, if I were to outright buy the Musio instruments I use most — Piano in Blue and various Tina Guo virtual cello instruments — I’d be spending well over $500. If I were only to need those sounds for a limited period of time, Musio’s subscription model would be a smarter way to go.
Ownership has its priviledges
While the kind of subscription access Musio offers is a blessing for some, it can be seen as a liability by others. I’ve spoken with a few producers who won’t touch subscription services, simply because they like to fully own every tool they use.
There’s certainly merit to this argument, especially if you think there’s a possibility of wanting to thoroughly rework a production decades down the line. If you can afford the full purchase price of all your tools, and if you don’t want to lock yourself into paying perpetual subscription fees, owning the software has merit.
That said, Musio and a good number of other services also offer lifetime licenses (Musio’s lists at $999 — but they are offering 50 percent off through 5/24/23), which gives you forever access to the current offerings and any updates to their tools that come along.
The future of music plug-ins is here
Every subscription service I’ve checked out has clear, simple, straightforward pricing options, and I recommend taking advantage of free trials to hear if any particular library of tools inspires you and lifts your music making. Then find the best subscription or purchase option that’s right for you.
For sounds and other software that you’re going to use for years and have the budget to purchase, buying software outright is likely the way to go. But if you’re looking to experiment with a wide variety of fresh and regularly updated music plug-ins, get easy access to new production tools as soon as they’re released, and not over commit yourself financially, subscription services can be enticing and worthwhile.
Just like other forms of digital technology, subscription services for music production evolve rapidly, with new services and plug-ins always arriving. Keep an eye out for the latest options that might be the right fit for you and your creative process.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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