Unlike most DAWs, Reaper can be run from an external drive without leaving a trace on the host machine!
Boiled down to its simplest definition, a portable application is one that can be run without being installed on or modifying the host system. Many applications, on both Windows and OS X, leave a trail of file dependencies, libraries, registry entries, configuration files, plug-ins and other binary detritus all over your system drive. A portable install reins in all of these assets and keeps them within its own folder structure so that it can be run without affecting or relying on any external files.
Reaper only leaves fairly shallow digital footprints on your system, but it does place things like configuration files, track templates, plug-in settings and so on in the user folder by default. (You can find this folder easily in Reaper by going to the Options menu and selecting ‘Show REAPER resource path in explorer/finder’.) But unlike many other digital audio workstations, Reaper is designed in such a way that you can also install it very easily as a portable application. There are a few things to be mindful of if you’re looking to get the best results, but before we get into the how, let’s consider the why.
Calling it a ‘portable app’ tends to suggest that you’ll be taking it somewhere — it’s right there in the name — and this is indeed a popular use for such software. Not every studio you visit is guaranteed to have Reaper installed, and while Reaper’s famously tiny download makes installing it a relatively simple affair, some people are understandably reluctant to let guests instal new software on their precious studio machines. In any case, you’d still be left with a ‘vanilla’ installation, lacking any custom themes, keyboard shortcuts or actions sets you might have set up on your main system.
A USB drive with a portable version of Reaper ‘installed’ means you can bring your fully customised and configured recording and editing environment along in your pocket. Install it on sufficiently speedy storage and you may even be able to run your whole multitrack session from the same drive. As long as your host computer supports ASIO or Core Audio you’re in business. When you leave and take the USB drive with you, then, like the perfect crime, you’ll leave absolutely no trace on the host system.
A portable installation also allows you to set up what’s known as a ‘sandbox’ — a safe, isolated area in which to try out configuration options or new software versions without jeopardising your primary installation. Cockos run an open alpha/beta testing program on their online forums, with access to experimental builds as they’re being developed. It’s a great way to help steer the development of the program, as well as gain early access to new features and tweaks before they hit the regular release schedule. In practice I’ve always found these alpha versions to be extremely stable, but occasional pre-release versions have been known to temporarily break existing functionality, or create RPP files that aren’t entirely compatible with earlier versions. With this risk in mind, a portable install allows you to mess around with new features without risking the stability of your primary working installation. This version doesn’t even have to be on an external drive — it can just as easily go in a folder of your choosing on your system drive. Somewhere like Applications/Reaper Portable (OS X) or Program Files/Reaper Portable (Windows) will keeps your test version neatly cordoned off.
A less orthodox use for a portable Reaper installation is to run two independent Reaper versions side by side in a master/slave configuration, with software MIDI and audio links between them. OS X has its own IAC implementation for linking MIDI applications, and you can use the third-party Soundflower driver (https://rogueamoeba.com/freebies/soundflower) for routing audio back into the master. On a PC you’ll need a virtual MIDI driver such as the free virtualMIDI (www.tobias-erichsen.de/software/virtualmidi.html) and Cockos’ own ReaRoute can deliver the audio. I use this method to host large sample libraries in a portable ‘slave’ version of Reaper. Plogue Bidule used to be the go-to software for this task, and many media composers now use Vienna Ensemble Pro to achieve similar results. The latter definitely has its advantages, but if your master/slave requirements are relatively modest, a Reaper portable slave can get the job done very effectively with no additional outlay.
Why bother? Well, it takes quite a few minutes to load the several gigabytes of multi-sampled instruments in my template, and over the course of the typical working day I’ll often switch back and forth between projects dozens of times. It doesn’t take long for those minutes to add up to hours — a huge waste of time. Historically I’ve used project load time as an excuse to get up and get a hot drink, but as instruments and templates have become larger, this has become an increasing time suck. There are only so many cups of coffee you can make! With the resource-heavy template instead hosted in a portable Reaper slave, I just open it up once at the start of each working day. Jumping between projects in the ‘master’ version then only takes a few seconds — it sometimes saves me hours in a day, not to mention the frustration at having to wait. When combined with Reaper’s ‘Project in Project’ feature (I’ll cover that another time) it forms a formidable music-for-picture setup.
When it comes to creating your portable Reaper installation, Windows users have it super easy: just download and run the latest installer (https://reaperaudio.com/download.php), select the ‘Portable Install’ tickbox on the location dialogue, and nominate a location to install the portable version. You can use an external drive if you want to travel with your installation, but otherwise just select any sensible location on your hard drive or SSD.
On OS X it’s slightly more fiddly but still relatively simple. Download and open the latest installer as usual but, instead of dragging the Reaper app to your Applications folder, copy it to wherever you’d like your portable version installed. Don’t run it yet, as there’s one more step. Open up TextEdit, save a blank plain text file into that same folder, then rename it ‘Reaper.INI’, being sure to remove the .TXT suffix. Now run the Reaper application; the folder will populate with all the subfolders required for the portable install and you’re up and running!
Following the simple steps above will get you a completely stock portable Reaper install. This may be all you need, but you may well have created some custom keyboard shortcuts, track templates, custom actions and other modifications that you’d like to include in your portable installation. You could manually track down the various folders where these configurations live but, thankfully, Reaper offers a handy way to export all these assets and more into a single ZIP file, which can be imported.
Working in your primary Reaper installation, open the Preferences panel, select General and press the Export Configuration button. You’ll be presented with a series of tickboxes. Choose which portions of your configuration you’d like to export, hit ‘Save’ and select the folder you’d like to export to. By default it’ll use the ‘configuration’ folder within the default Reaper user path, but you can put it anywhere you like — just don’t forget where, as you’ll need to know this for the next step!
Now close down your primary installation and open up your shiny new portable version. Once again go to Preferences/General, and this time select Import Configuration. Then choose the file you saved in the previous step. It’ll give you an opportunity to double check which configuration settings you’d like to import, and that’s handy if you only want to incorporate specific parts of your previous installation. After a restart, your portable installation should be fully synchronised with your ‘standard’ one.
Unfortunately, not all plug-ins are portable-friendly. After all, they’re just little applications running within your DAW, and as such they can be almost as varied as the host software in terms of where they decide to put their files. But many plug-ins will work quite nicely in a portable context. As a rule of thumb, VST plug-ins that come distributed as a bare DLL (Windows) or VST file (OS X) are more likely to work, whereas those that have libraries of content, or which rely on copy protection schemes, may not be portable-friendly. You may need to use a little trial and error to see which plug-ins will successfully move around along with your portable install.
On Windows, just copy the VST files into the Plug-ins/FX subfolder of your portable installation Reaper folder. On OS X it’s a tiny bit more complex: right-click (or control-click) on the Reaper application icon in your portable folder, select ‘Show Package Contents’ and open the ‘Contents’ folder. Then you can navigate to Plug-ins/FX and place the files. The next time you launch Reaper the effects should show up in your plug-ins list.