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Reaper DAW

By Mike Jones

Much like video editing systems, the tools for crafting, mixing, and multi-tracking digital audio projects - be they music, audio or sound for video endeavours - have reached a very mature stage in their development and evolution as technologies. The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) market has grounded itself in all-digital workflows and common production practices whilst, at the same time, diversified into an array of major players. Each major software DAW has its own strengths and weaknesses, each has an established market share and there is consistent (albeit too often tentative) innovation pushing ever forward.

From ProTools as a staple of professional audio multi-tracking, to the music, composition and MIDI strengths of Logic, Sonar and Cubase. Into this mix we also see the likes of AcidPro, Digital Performer, Audition and even the synthetic power of Ableton Live, as well as the light-weight but highly effective integrated production-suite tools of SoundtrackPro and Soundbooth. It's a dense and mature market with each of these apps more than capable of professional work in a variety of different contexts.

And then there's Reaper


Like the others above, Reaper presents itself as a multi-track DAW but before we get into the nitty gritty of what Reaper can do and how it works there are three elements of Reaper that need to be stated up front. The first is that it costs just $250 to buy and can be used indefinitely as a 'trial' without ever timing out or being disabled in any way. The second is that the entire application is less than 7MB (the PC version is just 5MB!). Yes, that's not a typo. The entire application to download and run is less than 7 megabytes. The third is that there is no system 'install'. The program does not insert any files into your operating system what so ever, it just copies itself to your hard drive clean and simple. Reaper is an entirely self-contained and executing application. It can, as a result, be run from a memory stick on any computer almost instantly without any traditional install process.

Now, the above three features are not particularly impressive if the application they are attributed to is a simple, entry-level and rudimentary tool. If Reaper were the equivalent of Garageband then the fact that its just 7MB and doesn't need to install would make a large cohort of gung-ho music mixing teenagers happy but raise no eyebrows amongst professional audio producers.

But let's imagine a fully comprehensive DAW -- one able to hold its own against any pro audio multi-tracker on the market - one that is cross-platform and works with both audio and midi tracks with powerful recording tools and a highly advanced routing system of unlimited tracks, busses and sub-mixes. Imagine that system with the above properties; Cost = $225, Size = <7MB, No Install required.

On the surface the interface of Reaper appears to lift a lot from the pages of the venerable Sony AcidPro. The way tracks and audio waveforms are laid out and the position of their controls for fade curves, gain level, envelopes mute/solo buttons and region selections will all be very familiar to Acid users. Similarly, Adobe Audition owners will also find the GUI familiar but those coming from DAW's with a more traditional 'sequencer' background such as Logic, Cubase and Sonar may find themselves not so familiar. Still, it's a largely logical layout as far as DAWs go and you shouldn't find yourself lost for very long. All the expected windows and functions are there; a built-in media browser for internal drag and drop importing, a navigator pane for seeing a color-coded macro-view of your sequence arrangement, large timecode display, virtual keyboard for MIDI instruments and an undo history palette similar to that employed by Adobe applications.

As an audio multi-tracker, Reaper delivers a highly functional and detailed toolkit. Waveforms are drawn instantaneously and accurately and can be zoomed and scaled freely without any lag. Reaper is an exceedingly snappy program to use and in regard to sheer efficiency it blows away any other DAW on the market. Envelopes are applied much as they are in Apple's Soundtrack Pro with envelope sub-track beneath each audio track that can be used to control and shape automation for volume, pan and plugin fx, As a recording system Reaper delivers a quite remarkable level of flexibility. The usual 'arm-track and record audio with waveform' drawn on the fly is standard fair in any DAW and works superbly well in Reaper. But Reaper goes further with the ability to record wet or dry; lay down the signal directly from the input or record the signal after its passed through any effects, gates and busses associated with that input. You can even record different tracks at different sample rates and in any audio format you want - MP3, OGG, WAV, etc - within the same project and timeline. Whilst the use of these kinds of options might not be common, or even best-practice, it certainly speaks volumes of the robust, ultra stable and highly flexible engine under the hood of Reaper. Dare I say it puts most other DAW's to shame for being so inflexible by comparison.

Routing matrix

Where Reaper comes into its own is the superb routing system it possesses for patching multiple tracks, busses and effects together in complex arrays. Using a surprisingly easy to follow matrix-grid, Reaper quite literally allows you to push a signal around the DAW in any fashion you can possibly imagine - track to track, through busses, split signal across external hardware, the master output and any combination of fx plugins. It's arguably the most fluid and infinitely configurable routing system on the DAW market. Such routing of course is only really useful if Reaper can take advantage of a variety of plugin formats and soft-synths and it certainly does just that. Reaper can seamlessly work with VST and DXi plugins and virtual instruments as well as JS and AU fx. Reaper is REX compatible and supports ReWire, allowing other virtual instrument engines like Reason to be plugged straight into Reaper and be routed in any way you wish. 

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