Tracktion's designers have given the program a thorough overhaul and added some significant new features. But have they succeeded in retaining its freshness and ease of use?
A year or two back I found myself exchanging tetchy emails with a software developer who'd been working for some time on a MIDI and audio sequencing application. He'd been annoyed by a previous reviewer's comment that his software had 'too many dialogue boxes', and was determined that the same thing shouldn't happen in any review I might write. I could understand his concern. He'd invested countless man-hours developing the software, adding features, flexibility and options, and all the reviewer can find to say was 'too many dialogue boxes'. It must have been more than a little frustrating.
However, I could also sympathise with the reviewer. Complex applications do sometimes seem to require the user to search for parameters among a wearying profusion of boxes and windows. It's all too easy to end up with a screen littered with the things, often partially obscuring one another, and generally placing unwelcome layers of abstraction and obstruction between you and what you're trying to do.
Mackie's Tracktion aims to overcome — or at least reduce — these problems with a user interface designed to be cleaner, more intuitive and freer of clutter. "It won't," Mackie tell us, "pretend to be a mixing desk or show you panels with pictures of screws that are accurately copied from a real piece of hardware." And why should it? Tracktion has been around for a couple of years now (see John Walden's original review in SOS April 2003), and was first released as a download-only package by independent developers Raw Material Software. Since then it has been adopted by Mackie, and version 2.0 sees it transformed into a fully fledged boxed product.
To recap, Tracktion is an audio and MIDI sequencer for Windows and Mac OS X, offering as many tracks as your CPU and hard disk will allow, supporting sample rates up to 192kHz, and boasting a variety of other features, including Rewire and VST plug-in support, a useful track 'freeze' function, a built-in virtual sampler, and more. A range of new features has been added for version 2.0, including an improved MIDI editor, new sync capabilities, Quicktime video playback, enhanced MIDI controller mapping, and support for the Mackie Control and C4 hardware control surfaces, among other things. All this, Mackie hope, has been achieved without compromising that intuitive user interface.
Installing Tracktion is reasonably straightforward. The installer program (under Windows) auto-runs when the installation CD is inserted, and the familiar installation wizard begins. A couple of mouse clicks later, and all the relevant files and documents have been copied to their proper places. Running the application for the first time, you're presented with a handsome blue splash screen, followed shortly by a dialogue box explaining that the software is running in 'demo' mode, and inviting you to 'unlock' it. Unlocking requires a serial number, which is supplied in the box, and ideally an Internet connection (although there's a workaround for machines without one).
You're asked to supply an email address and choose a password for your Mackie.com account, and to enter your serial number. Having done so, one more mouse click completes the process and you're ready to go. It would be nice not to have to go through this little procedure, but by the standards of software copy-protection systems, it's quite straightforward and trouble-free.
Tracktion is quite well documented. A brief but helpful printed user's guide is included, which tells you everything you need to know to get started. This is duplicated as a PDF file for on-screen reading, while a more detailed reference manual is included in PDF format only. One ironic drawback of Tracktion 's somewhat unconventional user interface is that, if you've spent time becoming familiar with more the conventionally laid-out MIDI and audio sequencing packages on the market, you may initially have no idea what you're looking at!
What you're looking at, it transpires, is the Projects page, a kind of 'file manager' showing your currently 'open' projects and all their associated files. It's worth noting that when Tracktion talks about an 'open' project, it doesn't mean in the sense of a file that's open for editing. Rather it means a project that's been marked as a work-in-progress, and not filed away as finished. How 'intuitive' this is is arguable, but once you've got used to it, it can be quite useful.
Tracktion 's different 'pages' are accessible from tabs arranged along the top of the main window. The Projects page has its own tab, while a Settings tab takes you to a page where you can make all the necessary settings to get things working, select your audio and MIDI devices, nominate a plug-in directory, edit shortcut key mappings, set up external hardware controllers and so on. Another tab allows you to access the Edit page. An Edit, in Tracktion terminology, is essentially an arrangement. You can have more than one Edit within a project, but you can only have one at a time open for editing. Again, we could argue about how appropriate a name Edit is in this context, but once you get used to the convention, it's no problem.
The Edit page is where you'll spend most of your time, and Tracktion is designed with the intention that you'll rarely need to look elsewhere in order to accomplish ordinary music-making tasks.
While the promotional literature makes claims about a 'revolutionary' user interface, it would probably be fairer to describe Tracktion 's Edit page as 'evolutionary'. It doesn't, in my opinion, represent an enormous departure from conventional sequencer design, although it arguably does a better job than most of presenting the standard features we've come to expect from an application of this type.
Most of the Edit page is occupied by horizontal tracks running left to right across the screen, and calibrated with vertical bar lines. Pan, volume, mute and solo controls appear at the right-hand end of each track rather than in a separate mixer window. This arrangement will be more or less familiar to anybody who's worked with Sony's Acid loop sequencer, although in that case the controls reside at the left-hand end.
New 'filters' (Tracktion 's term for VST or other plug-ins) can be assigned to each track by simply dragging and dropping the 'new filter' icon to the end section of the appropriate track. When the icon is dropped, a menu appears from which you can choose from all the available filters. When you've chosen a filter, an icon will appear, and the icons of any other filters will shrink to make room for it. Quite complex chains of filters can be set up quickly, and rearranged simply by dragging and dropping as required. A number of useful filters are provided, including a four-band EQ, a reverb, delay, chorus, a compressor/limiter, a low/high-pass filter, and (new in Tracktion 2.0) aux send and receive busses. Rewire slaves are also accessed in this way, by dragging the 'Rewire Device' filter to a track. See the 'Bundled Plug-ins' box for more about some of the other filters included with Tracktion.
It's worth pointing out that the volume and pan controls and level meter assigned by default to each track are themselves implemented as filters. They can be deleted if you don't want to use them, and you can assign more than one set of volume and pan controls to a track, if you feel the need to.
Select a filter by clicking its icon, and all its associated controls and parameters are displayed in the Properties panel beneath the main arrangement area so that adjustments can be made without having to open a new window. If the filter is a third-party plug-in with its own graphical user interface, this will 'float' in a new window above the Properties panel. This somewhat defeats the all-in-one-window design paradigm, but there's an ingenious workaround. You can optionally tell Tracktion to automatically hide VST plug-in interfaces from view whenever the mouse pointer isn't over them, having them reappear only when you move the mouse pointer back over the Properties panel. A nice touch.
The Properties panel doesn't only apply to filters: input devices (audio and MIDI interfaces) also have their own icons, and selecting these causes various associated parameters to be be displayed there. Input device icons live at the left-hand end of the tracks, and assigning an input to a track is as simple as dragging and dropping to make a connection. A connected input shows an arrow pointing to the relevant track.
Similarly, when an audio or MIDI 'clip' within the arrangement is selected, the Properties panel shows a number of controls and parameters, allowing you to adjust offset, start and end times, quantise and groove (for MIDI clips), pitch-shift and time-stretch (for audio clips), and more.
The remaining controls on the Edit page consist of a set of fairly conventional transport controls in the bottom right-hand corner, accompanied by a CPU load meter, a master output section with volume and pan controls, and a level meter. Filters can be added across the master buss in much the same way as with ordinary tracks. In the bottom left-hand corner, meanwhile, are a dozen or so buttons covering straightforward things like importing, exporting and saving files, clipboard functions (cut, copy, paste and so on), and various other functions.
Tracktion 's Edit page certainly provides a comfortable environment in which to work. Audio and MIDI recordings can be made quickly and easily, mixing with filters is straightforward and intuitive, and regular glances at the Properties panel allow you to keep track of numerous different parameters without getting bogged down in menus and dialogues. Revolutionary or not, it's clean, logical, easy to learn, and a lot freer of clutter than certain other sequencers I could mention.
Just as I was beginning work on this review, I stumbled across a couple of threads on a couple of different web forums, describing what sounded like quite a serious bug in Tracktion 's audio file rendering code. Several Tracktion users had been reporting what seemed like essentially the same problem. Where files were exported containing sustained periods of low-level sound (long decaying reverb tails, for example) a rising hiss or similar noise could apparently be heard, followed by an abrupt truncation before the sound had fully decayed.
Initially I was sceptical, assuming that if such a bug did exist, the chances of it going unrecognised and unreported for so long were minuscule. Nevertheless, a couple of people seemed adamant that something was wrong, and had even posted sound files which they claimed demonstrated the problem. I decided I had better look into it. I tried creating my own test files, using a sampled snare drum and Tracktion 's default reverb filter. I exported a number of different files, using various different combinations of options in the 'Rendering' dialogue box, and prepared myself for the worst.
After 15 or 20 minutes playing the files back at increasingly high volumes, on speakers and headphones, I was none the wiser. Everything sounded OK to me. Certainly nothing leapt out at me as 'wrong'. Puzzled, I contacted Mackie, and asked if they could enlighten me. A couple of days later I heard back from Tracktion 's product manager who confirmed that, yes, a problem had already been found, and fixed, and a patch was undergoing testing as we spoke.
The problem, it turned out, was a fairly minor one. Essentially, Tracktion was applying its dithering algorithm whenever it rendered an audio file, regardless of whether or not the user had enabled the dithering option. Dither works by introducing a small amount of noise into a digital recording, in an attempt to improve subjective sound quality when reducing bit depth, such as when going from 32 to 16 bits. A few sensitive-eared users had picked up on the fact that dithering noise was present even when dithering wasn't supposed to be enabled.
Mackie have devised a fix for this, and in future Tracktion will only automatically employ dither when exporting 32-bit tracks. A patch should be available around the same time this review appears in print.
One of the improvements Mackie are keen to advertise is an enhanced MIDI editor, and it does deserve a mention. In keeping with the all-in-one-window idea, Tracktion has no special, dedicated MIDI editor window to open or close. Rather, any MIDI clip that is displayed at a sufficiently large size will automatically appear with a 'piano roll' style editor superimposed on it, much as MIDI regions do in Pro Tools. Tracks can be resized by dragging vertically. Double-clicking a MIDI clip automatically increases its height by the amount required to view the piano roll.
When the mouse pointer is positioned over any MIDI clip large enough to display the piano roll, a set of tools and controls instantly appears, floating above and to the left of the clip. These remain visible until the mouse pointer is moved away. The controls include a miniature piano keyboard up the left-hand edge, which can be used to audition notes, and pencil, eraser, selection and line-drawing tools for all the usual editing tasks. There are also two buttons labelled 'velocity' and 'control' which allow you to choose whether to have MIDI velocity values or MIDI controller data displayed (and edited) beneath the notes on the piano roll.
This system of floating and disappearing controls may sound peculiar, but it's actually quite intuitive and very easy to use. Although very detailed editing may require you to zoom quite a long way in on a clip, it's still nice not to have to obscure your arrangement with a whole new window (which would then need to be closed or hidden). It may be only a subtle refinement, one less window and a few less mouse clicks, but it makes a big difference to the feel of things.
Also new in Tracktion 2 is a step entry mode for MIDI data, which allows notes to be entered one at a time from a MIDI controller connected to the active track. A new note appears at the current play marker position, after which the insert point jumps ahead to the next snap position. Chords can be entered as well as single notes, and are recognised appropriately. Straightforward and, yes, intuitive.
Another new feature is the ability to load and play Quicktime movies in synchronisation with your track. The implementation is basic, but nonetheless useful for anybody wanting to score to picture. However, while movie playback works, is straightforward and certainly usable, I found that there were one or two quirks associated with it.
First of all, movies are displayed in an entirely separate window. This is understandable, since there's no way anything but the smallest of video players could have been incorporated directly into the Edit window. Even so, having a separate movie window — which disappears from view the moment you click anywhere in the Edit window — is a bit of a pain, and perhaps not the kind of thing you'd expect from an application with a revolutionary user interface. The movie window does at least have a 'Keep window on top' option, which solves the problem of it disappearing, and ought to be enabled by default, but isn't. (This may seem like excessive nitpicking, and it perhaps says something about how smooth and well designed the rest of Tracktion 's user interface is that this one little quirk seemed quite so noticeable. In a different application, I might not even have mentioned something so small.)
Another, stranger quirk concerns showing and hiding the movie window. The 'proper' method for doing this is to click the 'options' button, then either check or uncheck the 'show Quicktime movie window' option in the pop-up menu that appears. This works perfectly well. However, if, like me, you make the mistake of closing the movie window either by right-clicking its title in the Windows taskbar and choosing Close, or with the standard Alt + F4 keyboard shortcut, you may find it then becomes impossible to get the movie window back. Even reloading the file afresh didn't provide a fail-safe cure for this. Mackie have confirmed that they are aware of this problem, and expect to have a patch available soon.
Tracktion 's box proudly announces that 'more than $500 worth' of plug-ins are bundled with the software. These include IK Multimedia's Sampletank LE sample-based instrument and Amplitube LE amp simulator effect, and Linplug's RMIV drum machine, along with a good selection of freeware plug-ins.
The RMIV drum machine is an impressive VSTi, which marries flexible drum synthesis with sample playback, and makes a valuable addition to the bundle. Similarly, Sampletank LE and Amplitube LE are both well worth having, the former being a very usable sample-based virtual sound module, the latter a useful source of good guitar (and other) sounds.
Mackie also bundle their own 'Mixing Suite' of plug-ins, including a de-esser, mono and stereo side-chain compressors, and Final Mix, a powerful mastering plug-in combining six-band parametric EQ and three-band multi-band dynamics. Various other effects and instruments are included, many of which will be familiar to anyone who's ever gone browsing for freebies on the web. These may or may not be useful, but are at any rate a thoughtful addition, and will save new users the bother of having to go looking for extra gizmos to play with.
Less problematic is the new loop record function for audio clips, which works faultlessly and is very nicely implemented. To begin looped recording, simply place Tracktion 's punch-in and punch-out markers around the section of the arrangement you want to loop, activate loop mode in the same way as for looped playback, and click Record. Tracktion records a new file for each looped pass, and when you've finished recording these are all 'layered' into one clip. The layered clip appears with a '+' symbol in its bottom right-hand corner, which can be clicked to reveal a drop-down menu where you can choose which of the recorded files you want the clip to play.
If you copy the layered clip to another track, the copy will contain all the same layers. So, for example, you might record four or five passes of a vocal, copy the resulting layered clip onto an adjacent track, then select your favourite take in the first clip and your second favourite take in the second clip. Assembling double-tracked choruses couldn't be easier!
There are a number of other new features in Tracktion 2, including the option to import files in both the 'Broadcast' WAV format and the proprietary format used by Mackie's HDR, MDR and SDR hard disk recorders. Integrated support for Mackie's C4 and Mackie Control hardware control surfaces is also included. Sadly I didn't have access to either a Mackie hard disk recorder or a control surface, and so I wasn't able to test these particular developments.
External sync is another new addition. Tracktion can now send MIDI clock, MIDI timecode and MIDI machine control (MMC) data, and can be slaved to MIDI timecode and MMC. My brief experiments with slaving a hardware drum machine via MIDI clock looked promising, before I got distracted by the RMIV virtual drum machine (see the 'Bundled Plug-ins' box).
Also new is an option to 'use 64 bit math' to optimise sound quality when mixing arrangements containing lots of tracks, although this comes with a health warning attached, as it makes fairly substantial demands of your computer's processor. A nice bonus for the really obsessive audiophiles though.
If the primary goal of Tracktion 's developers is, as the promotional literature suggests, to develop an intuitive user interface with everything visible in a single screen, then they may be fast approaching a problem. Tracktion is already complex. Presently, it succeeds in allowing easy and comfortable access to a large number of parameters, mostly within one window. However it's hard to see how very many more features could be added without entailing some deviation from the everything-at-a-glance philosophy embodied by the current design.
The trend among most software developers seems to be towards adding ever more gadgetry to their applications; more options, more choices, more technical possibilities for the user to consider. Since many software companies depend upon paid upgrades for a proportion of their revenue, this is hardly surprising. However, if Mackie want to preserve the cleaner user interface that they've identified (correctly, I think) as Tracktion 's unique selling point, they'll need to proceed with caution from here. To add very many more options would be to run the risk of diminishing the very advantage that Tracktion currently has over many of its competitors. Extra parameters would have to go somewhere, almost inevitably spilling over into new windows and dialogue boxes, or cluttering the already rather full-looking edit page.
I personally hope that Mackie will resist the temptation to allow Tracktion 's future development to degenerate into a race to match their competitors gimmick for gimmick and gadget for gadget. Tracktion already boasts a feature set that could reasonably be called 'comprehensive', and isn't obviously lacking anything an 'ordinary user' (whatever one of those is) would often require. How much more interesting it would be to see what further simplifications and ergonomic refinements could be dreamt up for future revisions, instead of simply struggling to squeeze more options into the existing layout. Rather than adding new features, could still better ways of organising and presenting the existing features be devised? It would be no small challenge, but if successful, it could really put Tracktion in a class of its own!
Oh, and Tracktion doesn't have too many dialogue boxes. Yet.