The latest major update to Reaper brings with it a complete overhaul of MIDI functionality, improved automation, and much, much more.
By dint of a continuous blizzard of incremental revisions and additions since its birth in 2005, Cockos's Reaper DAW application has built up both an enormous feature set and an enviable reputation for direct interaction between the developers and the user base. I was first alerted to the application by Martin Walker's review of v1.828 in SOS June 2007, which he followed up by covering v2.44 in January 2009. Since then, another load of new features has come on board to bring us to v3, so I'm going to take a look at how this recent evolution now positions Reaper amongst the more established DAW choices.
If you want a detailed picture of how Reaper works, it's worth checking out Martin's two previous reviews, but let me just give a quick overview for now, in case you don't have those to hand. As a MIDI + Audio sequencer, the purpose of Reaper is roughly the same as that of Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic, Pro Tools, Sonar or whatever: to record and edit MIDI and audio data, host virtual instruments, and mix down projects with access to plug‑in effects and dynamic automation. A wide variety of audio and video formats is supported (including, as of version 3, multi‑channel surround files), and all audio editing is non‑destructive within the program's main window. Both VST and Direct X plug‑ins and instruments are supported, and there is a range of facilities for communicating with other applications: ReWire support, bespoke ReaRoute drivers for ferrying audio between ASIO‑compatible software, and a wide range of transport synchronisation options.
What sets Reaper apart from the other programs I mentioned, though, is that many of its functions are very open‑ended, allowing the user lots of control over how they work. The headline feature here has got to be the fact that there is only really one kind of track or channel, which can carry multiple streams of audio and MIDI simultaneously and route them to any other audio/MIDI stream in any other channel. This means that you determine whether a track is an audio track, a MIDI track, an instrument track, an effects return track, a group track, or whatever, simply by virtue of how you cable it up. Plug‑ins can then be applied to separate MIDI and/or audio streams within a given track to create complex matrixed effects that in other applications would take multiple tracks to implement.
A huge library of audio and MIDI plug‑ins is bundled with the software, including a convolution engine, an automatic pitch‑corrector, and an insert utility to incorporate hardware into the software chain. All have sophisticated automatic delay compensation, and you can reduce native CPU load by farming out specified effects chains to other computers on a network. If the standard plug‑ins don't do what you want, you can actually script your own via a built‑in development environment, debugging and recompiling your code while Reaper is running. Further mixing power is provided by the innovative Parameter Modulation function, a kind of adjunct to the dynamic automation system that can control any effects parameter on one track according to signal levels on another. The look and feel of the program can be changed extensively by virtue of GUI colouring and skinning, while keyboard/MIDI‑triggered shortcuts (respectively Themes and Actions in Reaper‑speak) and screensets are available to speed up your work rate, too.
Now let's get down to the main business of this review: the most interesting new features introduced since v2.44. For a start, there has been a bunch of updates to the way tracks work, the first of which was, in my opinion, rather overdue: nesting track folders. Folders in Reaper work like audio groups, so this now means that you can much more quickly group, say, the top and bottom mics on your snare for common processing and then pass them on to a further 'all the drums' folder track. Also something of a catch‑up with other sequencers is the option to add track icons and select which tracks are visible in the mixer window on a per‑track basis.
The most important new track feature, though, is that you can now transfer controls from any of a track's plug‑ins directly onto the track panel itself, both in the main tracks and mixer windows. You can add individual controls one at a time, or a whole plug‑in's complement in one go, and they all appear as rotary controls with parameter name and value read‑outs. Double‑clicking the track control label opens the respective plug‑in window for further editing, which is great, and you can also rename parameters to make them more comprehensible, or differentiate between, say, the Gain controls for three different plug‑ins. In the track list, you need to be vertically zoomed in a fair way to see these controls (there wasn't room for them once I had more than about eight tracks showing), and if there's not enough room on the track panel to show all the controls you've created, buttons automatically appear allowing you to scroll through looking for the one you want.
I liked this feature a lot, and it worked well for me with a variety of plug‑ins, but there are a few refinements to the system that I'd have liked. For example, it would have been nice to control channel sends from track controls in a similar way, and to re-order the controls by dragging and dropping. Plus, for certain plug‑ins it would be nice to have specific controls parked on the track panel by default as soon as you loaded the instance. Reaper can already save other per‑plug‑in defaults, so I'd hope that the last, at least, wouldn't be too difficult to implement in an update.
I suspect that many computer musicians never even take the lid off the can of worms labelled 'VCA‑style grouping', but if you're the kind of user who relies on this kind of control, Reaper's implementation, introduced for v2.5, is something special. A dedicated Grouping display, somewhat resembling the existing routing matrix, gives you access to 32 groups, and any channel can be master and/or slave with regards to volume, pan, mute, solo, record arm, polarity and automation mode; you can even reverse the volume and pan control laws. There's no restriction as to how many groups any specific channel can belong to, either as master or slave, and you can specify whether any given master channel in one group passes on movements to its slaves when it's operating as a slave in a different group. This means that you're free to tie your grouping into the most Gordian of knots if you care to, so it's handy that you can usually hold down the Shift key while operating any control, to temporarily defeat the grouping.
The automation system has had something of an overhaul since v2.44, and in particular it's great to see Reaper now offering the option of separate automation lanes, bringing it into line with most other DAWs. However, if you preferred the previous method of 'over the waveform' automation display (which has the advantage of using less screen real-estate), you'll be glad to know that you can freely swap any of the automation envelopes for any track between the two display styles. Where the new lanes score well is in providing dedicated controls for each automated parameter, but as with the track controls, I couldn't find a way to re-order these lanes by dragging and dropping.
Looking past this primary upgrade, though, there are various other nips and tucks to the automation which will probably have just as much impact on usability. For example, you can now filter and highlight available parameters within the envelopes window, which is a godsend if you've got several parameter‑heavy plug‑ins all in the same channel. An elegant new automation data‑thinning function has also been introduced: just select a set of envelope points and bring up the thinning slider (which displays the total number of points after processing) to reduce their total as much as you need. Reaper shows a preview of the thinned result while you're doing this, and it's clear that there's a good deal of intelligence in the way the algorithm works. It performed really well for me in practice, but what was really great was that on the odd occasion where I disagreed with its interpretation of the best points to remove, it was simply a case of removing the disputed points from the selection to settle the argument!
A final nice automation feature is the availability of volume, pan and mute automation envelopes for individual Items (Reaper's name for the audio or MIDI regions in its main arranger window), although I did wonder to myself why Cockos hadn't gone the whole hog here and allowed automation of Item‑based effects settings as well. And while we're on the subject of feature wish‑lists, I'm still waiting for a proper 'relative trim' automation mode, whereby you can have any fader moves you make applied as offsets to existing automation data on a given track. There's no decent way to build up detailed automation for a lead vocal in multiple passes unless you have relative trim, and any automation system without this mode (or some viable workaround) is still in the teething stage, as far as I'm concerned.
One of the areas most frequently criticised by newcomers to Reaper is the extent of its MIDI functionality, which has been slower to develop than the audio side of the application, so I'm glad to report that Cockos have recently made significant strides forward in this area. You can now, for example, edit multiple MIDI Items within the same editor window, even combining drum‑grid and piano‑roll display styles. However, while this is certainly useful, I was personally much more excited by the new in‑line editing mode, where you can edit MIDI data directly from its track in the main arranger window, alongside any relevant audio waveforms.
Whichever MIDI editing mode you're in, you'll find that MIDI notes and velocity representations are now colour‑coded, while controller data is coloured during multi‑Item editing to distinguish foreground data from background data. Within the dedicated MIDI editing window, you now get decent MIDI view filtering options, allowing you to focus not only on any specific type of MIDI message, but also on a specific value range for that message type. I'd still like to see some kind of overarching MIDI selection/processing module within Reaper (something like Logic's Transform Window or Cubase's Logical Editor), but in the meantime the upgraded filtering and existing Note/Event Properties dialogues cope confidently with all the more routine data adjustments you're likely to need.
Full SysEx support is now included, which will please users of hardware synths in particular, and various specialised General MIDI format messages also come on board, along with the means to export a project's MIDI data as a Type 0 or Type 1 Standard MIDI File. This latter feature is particularly handy in the case of Reaper, because it has no built‑in score notation, and dedicated notation packages are now getting pretty good at generating the bare bones of a score directly from a MIDI file.
Beyond the in‑line editing, there are a couple of other important MIDI facilities now available within the main arranger window. The first is that you can apply MIDI effects to individual MIDI Items, exactly as you would audio effects to audio Items; and the second is that you can now create 'ghost copies' of a given MIDI Item which automatically reflect edits to the original MIDI Item they're ghosting. You can freely convert any of these into real, independent copies as circumstances demand.
While regular Reaper‑based MIDI musicians will doubtless be pleased that the transport and scrolling in the dedicated MIDI editor window can now be linked to the main arranger window, newcomers are unlikely to notice anything about this other than that it now responds fairly intuitively. What is likely to rub some refugees from other platforms up the wrong way, though, is the apparent absence of any node‑based option for editing MIDI controller data. In other words, MIDI controller data always appears 'stepped', so it looks like you can't create a ramp just by inserting two controller values. However, this is because you can now work in this way by driving a newly minted MIDI plug‑in, ReaControlMIDI, via Reaper's automation system.
ReaControlMIDI is clearly aimed at reproducing the typical facilities most other DAWs build into their tracks as standard, allowing you to select a destination MIDI channel and then send Bank Select, Program Change, Pitch‑bend, Continuous Controller and SysEx messages from the plug‑in's controls. As you'd hope, the status of all these controls is sent when the project is loaded up, to make sure your sounds are always set up appropriately as you swap between projects. Preset patch name lists can be loaded from INS files, as used by Sonar, for example, or you can enter your own fairly simply. Because ReaControlMIDI is like any other Reaper plug‑in, you can save it as a default plug‑in for all MIDI tracks if you like, make any of its parameters available as track controls and, as I've already mentioned, automate its sliders to effectively give you node‑based editing of almost all types of MIDI controller data.
The control of DAW parameters over MIDI has seen some important updates too. The built‑in MIDI Learn function already made fairly light work of assigning hardware controls to plug‑in and instrument parameters, but you can now use game controllers as well if you like, and can configure parameters so that they only 'latch on' to their assigned hardware control when the controller is moved through the underlying parameter position. Easily the coolest improvement, though, is that you can save default controller assignments for each plug‑in, and then Reaper will automatically switch between them as you switch focus between plug‑in windows. This means that once you've set up your plug‑in defaults via MIDI Learn, your hardware controls will automatically remap to tweak the settings of the plug‑in you're currently working with — in effect providing one of the excellent features of Novation's proprietary Automap system, but without your having to swap MIDI hardware.
That pretty much wraps up the main new features, but alongside those there have also been lots of smaller featurettes and tweaks which have further refined the usability of what's there. There are too many to go through in full, but my favourites are the text search box for finding what you're looking for amongst the program's packed Preferences dialogue; the display in the menu bar of the last Action you triggered, so you're aware of what you're going to undo before you undo it; and the improved legibility of Item labels.
I've been using both Steinberg Cubase and Apple Logic for many years, but if you forced me to work exclusively with any single software package, I'd choose Reaper any day. However, I should qualify such a provocative endorsement by pointing out that it probably says as much about me as it does about the software, because I just happen to be the kind of user that Reaper is perfect for. I love the fact that there are several different ways of doing everything, and that I can dream up ridiculously involved audio/effects configurations (custom band‑splitting effects, complex parallel processing, even chaotic in‑channel feedback loops) or push plug‑ins beyond their design limits through scripting tweaks and the wonders of Parameter Modulation. It's the kind of freedom that I'd previously only ever associated with large analogue studios and overflowing buckets of patch cords. I'm also dead keen on moulding software to suit my own idiosyncratic ways of working, so naturally I'm a total sucker for the advanced implementation of Action macros, GUI Themes, and plug‑in MIDI controller assignment.
I am aware, though, that the very aspects of this software that I personally find brilliant can also be viewed from a less favourable alternative viewpoint: the flip side of the functional open‑endedness is that the user has to take much more responsibility for deciding how they want to work and for setting up their own defaults, which means that the performance you get out of Reaper is very closely linked to the time and effort you can put into learning how it works. Other, more rigidly structured DAW environments, by contrast, are easier to navigate on a surface level from first principles. For example, in Cubase you have a standard EQ on all your audio channels, so you don't need to open a plug‑in for it, whereas Reaper provides no standard channel EQ, instead offering facilities to set up your own default channel processing chain, comprising any combination of effects and your own preferred start‑up settings.
Reaper is rather less inclined to hold your hand in use than other applications, and you can easily get yourself into an unholy tangle if you get too carried away with its routing capabilities early on. If you ask Reaper for rope, it'll cheerfully give you enough to hang yourself with! There is a good introductory user guide to help you getting started with the program, as well as an on‑line wiki‑manual with further details about specific aspects of the software, but I've often found the latter rather sketchy on specific details. To be fair, most software doesn't have the machine‑gun update speed characteristic of Reaper; this makes maintaining the usual expectations of documentation trickier, and if you head over to the company's active web forum you can usually get answers to specific queries pretty swiftly. But I still miss a comprehensive reference manual.
If you are moving to Reaper from any other sequencing platform, the program's unusual implementations of many common software features can take quite a bit of adjusting to, and this often leads people to an erroneous impression that Reaper is missing some key feature they're used to. For example, Cubase or Logic users might complain that chopping audio around is so much easier with a dedicated Scissors tool, and that Reaper has no separate tools like this. Strictly speaking they're right, but what Reaper does have is an Action that will split any Item underneath the mouse cursor's current position, which is an almost identical way of working. The lack of a dedicated audio editor window counts as an omission for other users, but in practice most of the functionality of a separate editor (sample‑level waveform display, adjustable crossfades, and independent Item‑based plug‑in processing) is accessible within Reaper's main arrangement window, so I've never really felt that there was anything missing, personally.
That said, there are things that Reaper does genuinely lack at present compared to the big DAW names. There's no scoring, for a start, and it should be pretty obvious that the miniscule 4.4MB installer doesn't include sound sets, loop libraries, or convolution impulses. The built‑in synthesis and sampling, useful though they can be, are also very basic. Reaper's price does need to be taken into account here, though, because for the price of Cubase 5, for example, you could supplement Reaper 3 with Make Music's Finale 2010 notation package or Native Instruments' Kontakt 3 software sampler and sound library. Finally, while Reaper's MIDI functionality has improved no end in recent versions, you still don't get groove templates or a proper Logical Editor, and a relative trim automation mode remains relegated to the wish‑list too.
The latest version of Cockos Reaper has significantly expanded the company's refreshing reinterpretation of how a studio DAW should operate, and the rate at which it is developing continues to impress me — indeed, if my previous experience of making feature suggestions to the manufacturers is anything to go by, you may discover that several of the issues brought up in my review have already been resolved by the time you read this. It should probably be clear that Reaper has thoroughly won over this particular reviewer, and while I don't expect everyone to take to it quite as readily as I have, I think most recording musicians, especially those on a tight budget, would be a bit dotty not to give the free 30‑day trial a razz.
I find myself using REX2 files quite a lot, so I was delighted when REX2 support finally arrived in v2.5. Import a REX2 loop into Reaper and it simply creates a new audio Item for each slice, puts them in the correct layout, and then sets them all to lock to their bar/beat positions in the event of a tempo change. The Items are also set so that the whole of each audio Item plays, irrespective of whether they overlap, which can produce more natural results, and gets around the potential danger that editing crossfades at the starts of Items will dull drum transients.
What's even better than the REX2 support, though, is Reaper's native beat‑slicing algorithm, called Dynamic Split. All you do is select the audio you want to dice and then adjust settings in a little dialogue box, watching a real‑time preview in the main arranger window of how the Items will split. The algorithm works with a user‑definable combination of Reaper's existing transient detection (already seen in the Tab To Transient editing Action) and standard threshold‑based gating. It worked really well for me, and where it inevitably missed a few hits here and there on longer sections of audio, it was only a case of reselecting any insufficiently fragmented Item and reprocessing to sort things out.
This isn't the end of the story with Dynamic Split, though, because if you examine its setup options carefully you'll discover hidden talents. For example, you can ask it to produce a chromatic scale of MIDI notes timed to match the detected slices, which is brilliant for sound layering and drum‑replacement tasks at mixdown — especially now that the in‑line editing lets you easily tidy up the odd mis‑trigger right alongside the audio track. Dynamic Split is also handy for automatically detecting and removing unwanted areas of audio Items, along the lines of Logic's Strip Silence.