Cometh the Reaper?
I've never liked Cockos Reaper.
I have owned a non-commercial license since 2011. I've tried several times in the last decade to "get into" the DAW. But it's always been confusing, peculiar, and just ... damn confusing. (And this is from someone who thinks Tracktion's Waveform is accessible no less.)
"You can customize it to YOUR particular needs!" they say. "It's infinitely configurable!" they proclaim.
It was a confusing mish-mash of options and preferences to me. I loved the themes! But I hated the customization and preferences and set-up rabbit holes you could quickly spiral down.
However, as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm looking for something that allows me to recreate my rather simple Raven-based editing workflows AND is compatible with Big Sur and up. That means it's a full featured DAW, has scriptable workflows (that a regular Joe like me can script), and the interface doesn't "get in the way" of getting work done. So I took a look at Reaper with these things in mind. Here's what I found...
"Full Featured DAW." That's a loaded statement that means different things to different people. Here is a list of some of the things that I look for in a "full featured DAW"...
Comprehensive audio recording and editing features including
a flexible mixer and signal routing
robust overdub to takes/layers
easy to use punch in/out
capable beat detection, time stretching and tempo warping
flexible fade and cross fade tools
simple and effective audio file management and export tools
Comprehensive plugin support (extra points for plugin sandboxing) with reliable and accurate plugin delay compensation
Powerful song arrange capabilities
Fantastic automation creation and editing
Solid support for integrating hardware or hardware controllers
Extra points for robust built-in tools for scoring video
The above is not all inclusive but does, in the main, capture the stuff that a DAW should offer (at a minimum) to be usable.
Cubase, Studio One and Logic are all supported by Slate's Raven macro creation system, and that increases my efficiency with these DAWs quite a bit. Reaper is not supported by Raven, (that is one of the reasons I'm looking at it after all), and without Raven's macro system, Reaper either stands or falls on the merits of its key command library and the ability to string things together into multi-step macros. So I have to consider: How extensive are the available key commands? How much of the DAW does it expose? How easy is it to script basic actions like "rewind 30 seconds" "select the previous item", etc?
The answers to questions like that are at the heart of trying to recreate my Raven-based workflows in a non-Raven supported environment.
I can't work in poorly designed, ugly looking software. Period. End of story. The UI/UX has to do two contradictory things simultaneously: Inspire Me and Disappear.
A well designed, attractive interface that facilitates what I am trying to do is a joy. I will happily work on a project for hours if I don't have to struggle to understand the interface or spend a lot of mental energy trying to figure out how to do a simple thing. And, odd as it may sound, in delivering that type of user experience (UX), the user interface (UI) effectively disappears. It gets out of my way. I stop thinking about it and instead focus on what I am trying to accomplish.
A few DAWs do that really well. Logic comes to mind. Bitwig and Waveform are very attractive DAWs (although Waveform's approach is a bit non-standard). Cubase works well I think. Studio One is...effective. I wouldn't say it's attractive or particularly inspiring, but the interface is logical, and the overall UX is superb.
Cometh the Reaper?
So, given these three factors - feature set, scriptability, and interface - how does Reaper stack up?
Feature Set - √+
From Reaper's website (emphasis added):
REAPER is a complete digital audio production application for computers, offering a full multitrack audio and MIDI recording, editing, processing, mixing and mastering toolset. REAPER supports a vast range of hardware, digital formats and plugins, and can be comprehensively extended, scripted and modified.
The words in italics are important: Reaper has been added on to, modified, and extended by the user community in ways both incredible and inane. Reaper's feature set is extensive. I mean really, really extensive. Intimidatingly extensive.
Did I mention it is extensive?
Scriptable Workflows - √++
Reaper's native Key Commands are legion. Folks have used ReaScript to extend these massively. Something called SWS Extensions adds even more macros and actions. Reaper is as scriptable and extensible as you could want.
But the real test is: Can I build a macro workflow in it that is useful? So I decided to find out by trying to create one. From scratch. Cold.
A really useful production/editing workflow when creating an audiobook is called "punch and roll". You use this when you flub a line. Punch and Roll entails rolling back a short way into a recording, playing the recording and then punching into it to record over the mistake. (It's helpful because you will have less editing to do later.)
It's a multistep process though: First, you stop recording, rewind to the mistake, set the punch in and out points, set the record mode to "punch in", rewind a bit further, then hit play. Doing this each and every time I make a mistake gets very old, very fast. Setting up a macro to execute these steps (and attached to an onscreen button) is a HUGE timesaver. So, I set out to create a macro in Reaper that does this.
I'm happy to report that not only was I able to set up the Punch and Roll macro in fairly short order, I was able also to recreate many of the macros that I use in Raven plus some dodgy looking custom icons to go with them! (Reaper's Macro editor offers some facilities that I hope Raven will add to theirs in version 4.)
Interface - √-
Reaper is famous for the gazillion themes floating around out there. It also recently began offering ways to easily modify these customized / alternate themes.
Some of these themes look beautiful...until you actually try to use them. I find that my preferences are changing in regard to DAW themes anyway. I don't need or want things to be skeuomorphic. I prefer a cleaner, more stripped down look. Reaper offers a lot of those, but most did little for me design-wise. But I eventually settled on a theme called LCS_SESSION-6_NIGHT:
It's simple, utilitarian, and to the point. It doesn't "rock my world," but it is certainly usable.
Another thing I really like about Reaper's interface is that it is organized around tabs. At the very top of the picture above, you can see that I have two projects open. At the bottom, I have several tabs for things that I use a lot. These bottom tabs are available across the open projects too. You can also have tabs on the side if you want them. Again, this is part of the huge flexibility Reaper offers.
Too much of a good thing?
And, as I mentioned, that flexibility has always been one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me when it comes to Reaper. There are just too many options. I am an inveterate "tweaker." Give me the chance, and I'll try to set up things in my DAW just because I might - one day far in the future - need it.
Fortunately, there's only so much of that you can do in Logic or Live or Bitwig. But Reaper? You can jump down that rabbit hole of customization and tweaks with both feet, and that's exactly what I've done in the past: Get lost down those rabbit holes and then get frustrated.
So how do I choose where to start or what to tweak...? I think this time I've figured out the answer ... and it's a blazingly obvious one in retrospect:
Customize and tweak the things that you use or need. Leave the rest alone until you need to use them.
Pretty damn simple, no?
What made my experience with Reaper different this time is that I had a particular objective: Set Reaper up for audiobook and podcast production. Period. That made it a lot easier to identify neat, interesting, and helpful tweaks while avoiding the unimportant ones.
Once I was past those distractions, I could focus more on the DAW and the workflow. And you know what? It's pretty nice. It's not radically different from any other mainstream DAW. It really does offer comprehensive and competent tools for performing just about any function you can want, and it is rock solid code wise.
So is Reaper my new "go to" DAW?
No. It's damn well worth exploring more however. It could supplant Studio One as my audiobook / podcast production DAW...I have to produce a few more things in it before deciding.
The jury is still out on the creative side of things. Reaper works really well with external hardware and effects (a particular interest of mine at the moment), and it offers some creative midi and audio routing capabilities. But Logic and Studio One (even Cubase) offer more creative / compositional tools as far as "traditional" DAWs go.
But, what the hey, check back with me in a few months. The point is that Reaper is no longer this huge, frustrating mystery anymore. That can only be a good thing.