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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Napier

Learning Reaper, Part One

Updated: Dec 25, 2021

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m giving Reaper a try. This has been both hard and easy...

The “hard part” has to do with the fact that Reaper is extremely customizable. You can, of course, use it out of the box just the way it is. If Reaper is your first DAW, I think it’s actually an easier experience as you don’t have any expectations about how things “should” work. But if you are coming from another DAW, some of the conventions are quite different and adaptation can be awkward and a bit frustrating in the beginning.

The “easy part” comes down to one guy: Kenny Gioia. He has created the single most amazing repository of tutorial, “how-to,” and “why-to” videos that I have ever seen for any DAW software. All of his videos are available here or here. I know this sounds crazy, but he has so much content available that he recently posted a video entitled “How to Watch My Reaper Videos” to help new users figure out the best order in which to watch them…!

So what have I been doing? I’d say about half of my time has been spent customizing the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) and the other half of my time has been used to customize functionality and workflows.

I’m going to talk about a few UI and UX changes in this post. I’ll talk about the functionality tweaks in my next one.

UI, UX, and Screensets

As I said, I've spent about half of my time working on UI and UX. I’ve moved on from the theme that I showed in my first post on Reaper to one called “Echolot” by mawi and found here.

I really gel with this theme. It’s well-designed and clear, pleasant to look at, and offers a number of great options and layouts. In addition, I’ve also created screen sets (e.g., mixer view, midi edit view, etc) for different stages of production . Between this theme and the new screen sets, I have some great workspaces for composing and producing. Here are a few examples:

Main Work View

This is my main work view and where I spend a lot of time. The majority of it is taken up by the track headers and the arrange area. It has a dynamic channel strip on the far left. By “dynamic” I mean that the displayed channel strip is in sync with the selected track. This makes working on the totality of a selected track (from its mixer and efx settings to the content of the track) very easy. This view also has the master track and large output meters permanently displayed on the right. This makes keeping an eye on levels and tweaks to the mastering chain easy. Notice also the tabs at the very bottom of the arrange area. Each tab displays tools or other info and these tabs are persistent across screen sets.

This view has more than a passing similarity to Logic’s main window.

I can also expand the track heights of course:

Two Screen Mixing

The next two screen shots are used in combination. On one screen I have the mixer…

…and on the other screen I have an arrange view.

One Screen "Studio One" Mixing

Another screen sets collapses the above two screen mixing set up to just one screen…and in the process recreates a layout that I use a lot in Studio One:

Midi Editing

Of course, there is the obligatory MIDI edit screen. (This appears on a second monitor.) There’s a lot I have not figured out about the midi tools in Reaper yet though, so I anticipate that this view will undergo some changes.

And finally, there is the nerd-tastic view that I have named “Admin.” This appears on a third monitor and makes available a lot of administrative tools for dealing with project resources, routing, media files, etc.

All of the above are available via function keys or simple hot keys (i.e., ‘1’ ‘2’ ‘3’).

Reaper can be customized to behave in almost the exact same way as your old DAW if you want to invest the time to make it do so. Better still, you can cherry pick layouts and workflows and approaches from several DAWs and incorporate or adapt them into Reaper as I have done above in a couple of cases.

This is wonderful! But you have to take care: With such power comes great temptation. This can become a real time suck. You can end up constantly tinkering (and not creating), or you could create a real muddle of a UI/UX if you overreach…

Something that I am finding to be interesting: As I interact with, customize, and “build” the Reaper that I want, I have become more “invested” in it. I am tweaking the interface in very particular ways. I am adding a set of workflows specifically tuned to my needs. I am setting up views that make sense for how I work, etc. As I do this, I feel more “ownership” of the tool I am creating.

I don’t get this same feeling with the big DAWs (Cubase, Studio One, Logic, DP). Sure I can customize them somewhat, but often that extends to customizing key commands or creating macros (if I’m are lucky). Bitwig and Waveform (and to some extent Ableton via MAX4Live) can invoke some of this “invested” feeling. But it’s really coming through strong with Reaper as I go through this process.

I’m not saying this is good or bad. I’m just noting it.

One Last Thing

As I write this Christmas Eve is coming to a close and I've got to get things ready for the kids and tomorrow morning. Wherever you are, whatever end of year holiday you celebrate, I wish you and your family peace, rest, and good tidings. Let us hope that 2022 brings more joy and happiness to all of us.

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