Raw Material Tracktion

MIDI + Audio Sequencer For Windows

Published in SOS April 2003
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Tracktion's Edit window. The Mia 24 analogue input is selected and its details displayed in the Properties Panel at the base of the screen.
A new, affordable MIDI + Audio sequencer from Raw Material Software might be ideal for the financially challenged recording musician.


John Walden

There is already plenty of choice when it comes to MIDI + Audio sequencers, even at the budget end of the market. However, that doesn't seem to stop newer companies trying to carve a niche for themselves. UK-based Raw Material Software are the latest company to take a pop at the big boys with Tracktion. At what is pretty close to a shareware price, Tracktion boasts an interesting combination of features. Further more, the user interface is not cloned from one of the established competitors. So just how much sequencer can you get for £50?

Tracktion Action

Tracktion is essentially the work of one person; programmer and musician Julian Storer. As stated on the Raw Material web site, his aim was to provide a sequencer with a clean, intuitive and clutter-free user interface. In terms of the graphical appearance of Tracktion, the end result is an interesting combination of the familiar (such as the timeline-based section of the Edit window) and the less familiar (the filters section to the right of the Edit window). At present, the software is only available for Windows, but both Mac and Linux versions are planned for late in 2003.

The feature list also suggests a streamlined approach: the focus is definitely on 'key' features that will get used all the time. Tracktion offers an unlimited combination of MIDI and audio tracks; real-time and step-based MIDI input are included along with piano-roll editin

Raw Material Software Tracktion £50
pros
Shallow learning curve due to streamlined feature set.
Good value for money.
cons
Unique user interface may not appeal to some.
At present, no audio busses or looped audio recording mode.
summary
Tracktion offers a 'no fuss' approach to MIDI + Audio recording that has a lot of merits. If you have an unconventional streak and are working on a tight budget, it's well worth a serious look.

g. Tracktion includes a number of built-in effects and supports VST plug-ins, and if real-time playback of a Project starts to put a strain on the CPU then a track freeze function is available (haven't Logic users had to wait until v6 to see something like this?). This simply bounces down individual tracks with their effects, thus freeing up some processing power. If the track subsequently requires some further work, it can always be unfrozen. Audio can also be time- and pitch-stretched, although in contrast with the likes of Acid, this is a 'manual' process.

Direct Sound and ASIO audio devices can be used and, hardware and drivers permitting, latencies of under 10ms are possible. For the budding recording musician with a PC and suitable soundcard, it would seem that Tracktion has all the key ingredients to get the job done.

Installation And Configuration

Tracktion is available as a downloadable product only. Users can choose to download just the program itself (which is about 1.6MB in size) or the program plus a number of example Project files (4MB). Installation is simply a matter of running the EXE file, and takes just a few seconds. Tracktion will then run in a 30-day trial mo

The Settings window with the Devices section displayed.
de. Although a small number of features are disabled until the software is registered, this trial mode allows for a thorough test period. The registration process uses a computer-specific serial number system and, sensibly, registered users can be supplied with additional numbers for a laptop or second PC.

A Tracktion Project is equivalent to a Cubase SX CPR or Logic ISO file: it contains all the necessary audio and MIDI data plus the edits and so on that comprise the whole arrangement. On startup, Tracktion defaults to the Projects window, listing all the Tracktion Projects that are active. However, after you've installed Tracktion, the Settings window ought to be the first port of call. This allows the user to configure his or her audio and MIDI hardware, enabling inputs and outputs as required. Other options included within the Settings Window allow paths to VST plug-ins to be set (multiple locations can be specified) and the definition of keyboard shortcuts.

On The Right Track

Selecting a Project within the Project window displays a list of all the media clips associated with the Project. If any item within the Project is selected, its properties are displayed at the base of the window. A number of audio editing options are available from

  Coming Soon  
  The Raw Material web site gives details of some of the planned additions to the Tracktion feature list. These include full parameter automation of filters and synths, groove templates for the quantise function, improved support for tempo changes and beat slicing. The official release date has yet to be announced but the target date is March 2003. Beyond this, plans are in place for Mac OS X (and possibly Linux) support and then the addition of features aimed at those producing music for picture, such as external machine control/sync and QuickTime playback. Also of interest is the policy on updates: for the present at least, these are provided free of charge to all registered users. Further details can be found at the Raw Material web site.  
here, including trim silence, normalise, reverse and changing the sample rate, while there is also an option to set an external audio editor for more sophisticated editing.

Also within the media clip list is at least one 'edit' item. Double-clicking on this item opens the Edit window, Tracktion's take on the Arrange page. One of the potential advantages of Tracktion's 'clutter-free' feature set is that almost all song creation work is done within this single window. Despite some familiar elements, such as the timeline upon which audio or MIDI 'clips' are placed, it is also here that the somewhat different approach of Tracktion becomes apparent both visually and in its operation. To the left of the track list, some rather snazzy-looking icons are use

The Projects window.
d to represent each of the active audio and MIDI inputs. To assign an input to a particular track, the icon is simply dragged towards the track name and an arrowhead appears to indicate the input is connected. While this is simply a variation on the more usual record-active buttons found in many other sequencers, it is a neat bit of graphics programming and, in use, very intuitive.

When an audio or MIDI clip is selected, information about it is displayed in the Properties Panel. This panel also provides access to some editing functions. If a track is selected (by clicking on the track name) then the Properties Panel will display track-level settings. These include a selection box to specify the MIDI or audio output destination for the track.

However, the major functional and graphical difference between Tracktion and other sequencers is visible to the right of the track list/timeline in the 'filter' section. At present, Tracktion does not include a traditional virtual mixer (and this is a conscious design feature, not an oversight!), but much of the same functionality appears in this filter section. New filters can be added to a particular track as required, and include both built-in effects, any VST plug-ins available on the host system (effects or virtual instruments) and things like volume/pan controls, level meters and mute/solo buttons. In essence, the user has a DIY approach to building their own track mixer — although this is considerably different in appearance to most other virtual mixing environments.

Clicking and dragging on the New Filter icon allows a new filter to be placed on the required track. At this stage, a selection list of the available filters is displayed. Once a filter is in place, clicking on its icon will display the current settings within the Properties Panel. In use, for anyone coming from something like Sonar, Cubase or Logic, this drag-and-drop approach for basic mixer and effects management ap

When placing a filter, Tracktion offers a list of all the built-in and VST plug-ins available.
pears a little odd at first. However, even with a little use, it soon becomes apparent that it is both effective and simple to use. Full marks for a novel approach to the user interface! Aside from the Properties Panel, the base of the Edit window includes a collection of menu options (bottom left) and a set of the usual transport controls (bottom right).

Red Light On

Assuming you have your MIDI or audio input signal ready to go, recording MIDI or audio data into Tracktion is very straightforward. With the required input icon dragged next to the target track in the Edit wind

Controls for Tracktion's reverb filter within the Properties Panel.
ow, clicking the Record button in the Transport Panel triggers recording from the current cursor position. Punch-in/out during recording is also possible, with the in/out positions set by dragging the vertical red markers within the timeline. During testing, I experienced no particular problems in recording either MIDI or audio and, using the ASIO drivers of my Echo Mia 24, I was able to achieve latency values low enough to allow real-time soft-synth recording. Aside from the occasional playback glitch when the CPU was obviously under a little stress, both recording and playback seemed pretty solid.

As mentioned earlier, once the recording is done, the actual audio editing available within Tracktion is fairly basic. That said, the usual trimming of recorded audio is possible and clips can be looped or copied.

Controls for Tracktion's compressor/limiter filter within the Properties Panel.
One of the neatest editing functions is the very simple way in which audio can be time-stretched. For example, with the required clip selected, a combination of the 'keep original pitch' button and the length setting can be used to time-stretch the clip to fit an exact number of bars or beats, which is great for matching the tempo of imported drum loops to the Project tempo. Other audio editing features include the ability to add basic fades and crossfades, either graphically or via the Properties Panel.

MIDI editing is dealt with in a fairly conventional fashion. Clicking and dragging at the base of a track expands its vertical height, and for MIDI tracks this produces a piano-roll-style editor. The usual note and velocity editing facilities are present along with the ability to add Controller envelopes. As with audio clips, MIDI clips can be trimmed and copied. All this is straightforward and nicely implemented. Perhaps the only obvious limitation at present is the rather basic quantise function, although groove quantise is planned (see the Coming Soon box).

Effects

As indicated earlier, Tracktion's filters provide access to both built-in effects and any VST effects present on the host system. These can be applied to a track by dragging the filter to the fight-hand side of the track in the Edit window. Alternatively, a filter

MIDI editing is mainly carried out through a piano-roll style editor.
can be dragged to an individual clip so that it applies only to that clip. The effects supplied include reverb, four-band EQ, delay, chorus, phaser, compressor/limiter, pitch-shifter and a high/low-pass filter. Given the price of Tracktion, these are all perfectly acceptable, with a modest number of key parameters that can be edited via the Properties panel. The graphics for the four-band EQ are certainly novel. As might be expected, the quality of the delay, chorus and phaser is better than that of the reverb — don't throw out the Lexicon just yet!

Aside from the volume/pan and level meter filters, Tracktion is also supplied with one filter that is not really an effect: the Sampler. Once this virtual instrument is inserted into a track, it can be configured via the Properties Panel. It does not compete with the EXS24s, Halions or Gigasamplers of this world, but is very easy to use. Any suitable WAV file can be loaded into the sampler and assigned a key range. Multiple samples can also be overlaid, and although this functionality doesn't extend to velocity crossfading between samples, it is possible to create som

With a track selected in the Edit window, the Properties Panel includes settings for the output routing.
e quite complex sounds very quickly.

In testing, I found the support for VST effects and Instruments solid enough. I was able to run instruments such as Virsyn Tera and Phatmatik Pro without any obvious problems. With the exception of one freeware VST effect that went belly-up, I also had no trouble with effect plug-ins, which is pretty good considering how problematic some VST plug-ins can be.

Tracks Out

When all your parts are in place, you can render a stereo file of the arrangement via the Export menu. If any MIDI tracks are being played back via hardware MIDI instruments, these need to be recorded within Tracktion as audio tracks prior to the final rendering process. Any small timing problems that might be induced by this can be compensated for using the Advance setting in the Properties Panel of the track concerned.

As an alternative output format, Tracktion also includes an Archive function. While whole projects can simply be copied, this also allows the creation of a single archive file. In this process, the user can also chose to use one of a number of data-co

When rendering a final mix, options are provided for sample rate and bit depth.
mpression algorithms if required. In addition to simple data backup, these archives would make a useful way of moving Tracktion Projects between computers. If used with the track freeze function, then the second computer might not need to be either as powerful or have all of the same plug-ins installed on it in order for the Project to be worked upon and further parts added — very neat.

Dos And Don'ts

Tracktion includes all the basic functions you might reasonably expect in a £50 sequencer, but it's only fair that I also highlight a number of things that, at present, it does not do. Three obvious missing features spring to mind. First, the lack of a dedicated virtual mixer also means there is no obvious place within the application for audio busses. While audio tracks can be routed to other audio tracks, effectively creating a 'group' track that can share a set of effects filters, it is not possible to set up global effects (such as a high-quality reverb plug-in) which

Tracktion's four-band EQ uses a novel graphical interface.
can be shared across several tracks via a series of sends. If you want that CPU-intensive reverb on two or more tracks, then you will need to insert an instance of it on each track and hope your PC can keep up. Of course, it is easy enough to work around this using the track freeze function, but it would be a little more elegant to have the choice.

Second, Tracktion does not currently support looped recording for audio tracks. Again, this is a relatively minor irritation, but it would be very useful — I'll often use cycle recording in Logic when I'm recording vocals and just leave a verse or chorus looping until I know I've got two or three decent takes. Third, Tracktion does not, at present, offer any form of mix automation for audio tracks. Along with a number of other features, however, this is on the 'to do' list (see the Coming Soon box).

I started this review with version 1.1 of Tracktion but then received an update to 1.2 a few days before the review was due to be finished. This new release included Rewire support as a new filter that can be dragged to an appropriate track

Tracktion's Sampler filter is simple but very effective.
. As I also had Reason v2 on the test PC, I did try to get this working but, even with some assistance from Julian Storer (whose willingness to deal with questions from users seems to be first-rate), I had little success. Both Julian himself and some existing Tracktion users do have Rewire working, but I guess given that this is a new feature in a new release, there may still be a few minor gremlins to resolve. I must emphasise, however, that this was the only major problem I encountered during the review period and my overall impression is of a pretty solid application.

Conclusions

I expect almost anyone who has used a top-of-the-range sequencer will, at some stage, have been in the middle of some creative outpouring only to find themselves getting bogged down by the detail of some esoteric software function. There are many occasions when a simple working environment is just more efficient. In this regard, Tracktion scores highly; as a

  Test Spec  
  Tracktion v1.2.
Pentium IV 1.6GHz PC with 1GB RAM running Windows 98SE; Echo Mia 24, Yamaha DSP Factory and Yamaha SW1000XG soundcards.
Tested with Propellerhead Reason 2.0, Virsyn Tera and Bitshift Audio Phatmatik Pro.
 
means of getting audio and MIDI ideas recorded, it offers an efficient set of tools. It may not have all the editing and arranging bells and whistles of some of the established competition, but it is very easy to learn, modestly priced and offers its own unique take on the user interface.

Small can also be beautiful when it comes to product development and support, and it is a pleasant change to deal with the person responsible for the actual programming when contacting Raw Material with a technical query — no coding by committee here. Tracktion is most likely to appeal to those looking to take their first dip into computer-based recording. If this is you, your budget is a little tight, and you are willing to try something just a little unconventional, then the Tracktion time-limited demo is well worth downloading and testing on your own PC system.

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