What is it?
Reaper is a DAW for Windows (Mac PPC and Intel versions are currently in Beta testing). DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation, and if you haven't used one of these before the terms can be overwhelming. The basics of any DAW is that it allows you to record not only audio but MIDI from a variety of input devices and then edit them as you like. You can also layer many tracks of audio and MIDI to create entire sequences, and is the most common way songs are created in studios around the world.
This isn't going to be an exhaustive test of Reaper because it has so many features it wouldn't be possible to cover them all here. It does all the expected basics any modern DAW will do, so we will concentrate on the things it does well or not so well. Reaper has been around about four years since its original inception but may well be a new name to you when it comes to DAW software. In those four years, it has steadily gained many users and praise from various reviewers. Let's take a look at what all the fuss is about.
The first thing you have to get used to when you first start using reaper is the fact that it isn't particularly laid out like every other DAW. It has a lot of the standard things you will be used to like left to right arranger and piano roll for MIDI and so on but it does not use tools as such. It is based around actions and a quick look in the action list will show you exactly how many actions it has (1636 as of this article). This can be daunting at first, but it has a nice search and filter engine so that you can find any action you want and either activate directly or assign it to a short cut key or MIDI command. If you plan to use it a lot, additional actions can be created by coders using the SDK which is unique in the DAW arena and there are a couple of users who have already created hundreds of very useful add ons. On top of this actions can be linked together to create macros, and again these can be assigned to a short cut key or MIDI command. This isn't to say that everything in Reaper is achieved by actions far from it, but a lot of its power is hidden in actions and short cut keys.
Routing and Tracks
The second thing you will find with Reaper is that some of its routing seems a little alien at first if you are used to other DAW. This is an area in Reaper that contains a lot of hidden power. Once you get used to the routing you realize that any signal can be sent anywhere and most signals can be used to modulate FX parameters and such. For instance, a single track doesn't have to have only one or two channels - it can have up to sixty four. This may not seem so useful but in use it is extremely powerful and makes things like side chaining an absolute breeze. You will also find that a track in Reaper has no natural state so it can be used for MIDI or audio or both at the same time. This includes multi take layering within a single track and free item positioning within those layers. Also there are no dedicated sends in Reaper. You just create a track and use it as a send whenever and however you like. Sends can send to sends and so on and as you can see the routing is very very powerful. This power can cause confusion if you are used to other systems but once you get this paradigm working, it becomes second nature.
The only downfall with the tracks behavior is that you have extra tracks in your arrangement for things like sends, and at first this seems like a huge issue because it is going to take so much screen space. But luckily there are things like folder tracks with unlimited nesting and minimizing. In reality, having those extra tracks for automating the send FX parameters is actually a huge time saver, so it isn't at all bad.
The automation options are quite vast. You have LFO and audio based modulation with modulation shaping and MIDI learn all recordable into editable automation lanes. Most of the usual editing tools and recording modes are here, including using a plug-ins interface to record the automation directly. When editing in the automation lanes, you can change a points shape from a list and this includes bezier curve. However, you can not adjust the bezier curves with handles like in a drawing application which is a sorely missed feature. You can view any number of lanes for track controls and loaded FX parameters, and hide them and minimise them and so on. Automation data can move with an item but it is still linear along the length of the entire track, and is lacking somewhat in this area. An interesting feature here is the ability to overlay the automation data over the original track, or view it in a separate lane with a ghost of the track over it, which is very useful for lining up the automation with media items. The automation works well enough, but things like automation items and bezier handles would be nice options.
Audio editing is very powerful in Reaper, especially when you set up actions that you will use a lot. Once you have memorised your short cut keys, it is blindingly fast for all the basic editing found elsewhere. However, there are areas at the moment where Reaper is behind other DAWs including comping takes and dynamic slicing. The comping doesn't have the outright speed of some other DAWs, but everything can be achieved with a few extra steps. The dynamic slicing however is very lacking at the moment and it is much quicker to use an external editor to do this. There are multiple time stretch algorithms available including Elastique and Elastique 2 Dirac and Soundtouch and interestingly a very low quality mode that is perfect for DnB vocal stretch FX.
Stretching loops to fit tempo is as simple as holding alt and dragging the edge of the loop, and if the loop contains BPM info it will automatically fit to the tempo when loaded. Previewing and loading via the media browser is painless, and again if the audio file has BPM info it will be previewed at the song tempo. REX2 files will also preview at song tempo and be loaded into the track fully sliced ready for mangling. While previewing in the browser, you have the options to send the audio to different outputs including Rearoute (more on Rearoute later) and also the option to loop and auto play. Besides the comping takes and dynamic slicing downfalls, Reaper's audio editing is as good if not better than any other DAW currently available - and that is high praise indeed when you consider the competition. The developer of Reaper has informed us that comping takes and dynamic slicing are high priority in the v3 release cycle so they will be looking into this soon.
MIDI editing is not Reaper's strong point at all, but it has all of the bread and butter features you would expect to find in any modern DAW. In the main MIDI editor you will find three modes namely piano roll/named notes/event list. There are also three note views namely rectangle/diamond/ triangle, and combinations of these will give you the usual piano roll view with note lengths and a drum editing view with nameable notes and folding so that you can hide unused notes. There are way too many configuration options to cover here but most views can be achieved. The quantise and swing are basic and work well enough, but don't expect swing patterns and presets There isn't anything in the way of interpretative or compositional tools like many other DAW have, and this is an area of Reaper that needs much more attention from the developers.
The in-line MIDI editor is a little painful to navigate at first, and uses a combined zoom and scroll slider. It's all too easy to go exactly where you didn't want to go and make your notes too big or too small, and takes a little getting used to. It has most of the features of the main editor and serves as a great way to match MIDI to audio directly on the time line. Loading and previewing MIDI via the browser works well, and if you have a track selected with an instrument loaded the MIDI will be previewed through it. The preview options are the same as with audio previewing. There are various sync modes and latency modes for live MIDI input and output from hardware, and the performance is just about on par with most other DAW available. The developers have spent a lot of time trying to get the maximum performance here, and the difference between the last stable release and v3 is somewhat of a huge leap.
One area where Reaper is sorely lacking is the maximum allowance of combined MIDI inputs and outputs. It is currently 32 but unless you are running a lot of external hardware then this wont be an issue - and again the developers are looking into this.
The built in plug-ins are somewhat of a mixed bag. The FX are totally outstanding in audio terms but the GUI are very basic and can be somewhat off putting to a lot of new users. It would be pointless to cover each one here because all the standard effect types are there including a semi modular convolution reverb - and the quality of all are amazing. The instruments are very low grade in comparison to the rest of the package. There is a sampler that is close to being useless in all but the most simple of tasks. The synthesiser really doesn't even qualify as much more than a test tone generator. And a drum instrument that is again not much use at all really, I don't think the developers have too much interest in creating instruments so needless to say don't expect much here.
A rather clever feature of Reaper is that it has its own built in plug-in language, and you can code plug-ins in the JS format directly in the application itself. Reaper ships with hundreds of JS plug-ins and you can click the edit button on these and look directly at the code and make any modifications you want. On the forum, users are releasing these plug-ins daily and this gives you one big bunch of FX possibilities right out the box. This does however bring up an issue, because plug in organisation is not the best in Reaper and it does not follow the folder structure you may have created while using other VST capable applications. You will need to create favourites folders within the FX browser in Reaper which is very time consuming. But there is a silver lining - Reaper allows you to save chains of FX that you may have created while working and insert these in various ways. A chain may be any number of chained FX that you have used to create a specific effect. The plug-in organisation is an area where the developers need to have a rethink though because like it or not people will use other VST capable applications, and this does tend to feel like some reinventing the wheel is going on.
I have one particular native plug-in I want to cover with much more depth here and that is the Ninjam plug-in. This plug-in is by far and away my favourite in the entire package. You place it on the master channel and connect, and you will be presented with a list of rooms and once you enter a room you will find yourself in the middle of a live jam with other users from around the world. So turn on your tables and get cutting folks. You can save everything that you hear - not only at your end but from the other users too - as multi tracked audio at full quality for editing later. And it has a rather ingenious timing system that allows for nice interaction without drop outs. If you look into Ninjam a bit further on line, you will find there is a community around it and you can set up private rooms and your own server and so on. But needless to say that once you turn this plug-in on you will be gone for hours. Many a day has been lost here jamming with others around the world.
Connection to other applications is catered for by Rewire and Rearoute. The Rewire implementation works well enough and I tested using Reaper as a master with Acid/Reason/Renoise/FLS all slaved to it at the same time - and didn't have any issues. Much more interesting however is Rearoute. This is a faked ASIO driver that opens up so many possibilities. Imagine opening your DVS application of choice and it being fed straight to your DAW as an input... Basically anything that uses an ASIO driver can be seen by Reaper as an input or output, Not only that but multiple applications at once can be used via this driver. This feature alone is so powerful it is surprising many DJs haven't picked up on it already. Want 2 different DVS applications running on one ASIO card? No problem. Want your DAW of choice and DVS application at the same time? No problem. Even if you don't like Reaper as a DAW, it is worth checking this out as an ASIO mixing desk.
How Does It Feel?
Overall, the looks and use of Reaper is up and down. There are so many themes available that finding one you like is not hard. And in my case, I just created my own pictured above. The range of options on context menus and so on can be daunting to a new user and looking at the action list could leave you a gibbering mess. The developers really need to look into user context menus because it really can be scary at first. Steps have been taken in this direction with user definable icons on the tool bar at the top, so time will tell.
There are plenty of options for saving track templates and FX chains and such, so once you get into creating a set up around your needs, you can really start to fly. Plenty of areas in Reaper are starting to look antiquated and hopefully they will soon become part of the theme system - the separate FX and media browsers spring to mind here. But having said that, Reaper is the fastest booting DAW around and if the shinier new looks in a few areas are going amiss to achieve that boot speed then plenty of users will happily forgo the extra bling. Once you get used to the layout of Reaper it very quickly becomes second nature, so maybe the initial shock factor is simply just being too used to an old and outdated paradigm.
The cost/license side of Reaper was confusing for many people too up until recently. A lot of people believed that Reaper was actually free, but this is not the case. Reaper's demo comes fully operable and never times out with no missing features, but after your 30 day demo period it reminds you for a few seconds when you boot into it that you aren't licensed yet. On top of that there are two pricing structures - these are non commercial use and commercial use. A commercial license is $225 and a non commercial license is $60. The non commercial license covers you up to earnings of $20,000 a year though and it has to be said this is very very generous of the developers.
It is hard to fault Reaper at its current price point. No other DAW in this price range has so many features and the non commercial license is simply a steal. There are plenty of niggles here and there, but in reality most of those get taken care of in the comprehensive and frequent builds (normally weekly). The surrounding community is somewhat of a joy and if you have any questions about anything to do with recording you will be talking to some of the top guys in the world at the forum - and no question goes unanswered. If you join the real time chat any question big or small is normally answered in at most five minutes, and you can even chat to the developers of Reaper too. The whole paradigm including the updating the licensing and the community is a breath of fresh air. And even though there are some issues as pointed out in this review, Reaper is a solid application that works well and comes highly recommended.