FRONT AND CENTER >Mackie Tracktion 2 sets itself apart from other DAWs by consolidating most common audio and MIDI functions within a single streamlined interface.
Getting started with multitrack audio and MIDI recording used to be a fairly substantial undertaking that required thousands of dollars of hardware and software. Thanks to the advancements of modern computers, operating systems and streamlined DAWs such as Mackie Tracktion, it's easier than ever to get started. Tracktion is an excellent way for DJs, beat programmers and neophytes in general to get into multitrack recording. And it's no coincidence that Mackie has bundled a serious drum machine, several samplers, a bunch of soft synthesizers and a virtual arsenal of plug-ins to make this a full-service, one-stop platform for beginning producers. It is also worth noting that all of this comes for less than 200 bucks.
So how does Tracktion, currently in version 2, stand up? It's not perfect, but it is fresh, fun and easy to use. It not only is a serious-enough tool to make a record with but also includes some features that you would be pressed to find anywhere else. The software runs on just about any hardware you might have in terms of MIDI and I/O, and it's equally at home on a Mac or a PC. The program also supports VST plug-ins (of which there are about a gazillion available on the Web). With that said, it's time to get down to it.
I tested Tracktion with a couple of laptops: a Mac G3 PowerBook Pismo with a 400MHz processor and a Hewlett-Packard Pentium 4 laptop with a 1.6GHz processor. Both machines had half a gig of RAM and ran various other audio apps quite happily. I used an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, an Alesis Photon USB keyboard as a second audio and MIDI interface and my good old Digidesign Mbox, as well as each laptop's built-in I/O.
The basic Tracktion install includes an extensive set of plug-ins, soft synths and samplers (including a wild set of MDA plug-ins), but it also comes bundled with a two more discs worth of stuff: LinPlug's RMIV (a cool drum machine with many sets of different kit, synth and percussion samples) and IK Multimedia's SampleTank 2 SE and AmpliTube LE. RMIV also includes nearly 1 GB of drum samples. The IK plugs are dope, and they are probably worth the price of Tracktion alone.
When you first launch Tracktion, you are presented with the Projects page, which lists all of the Projects you have opened or created, with the respective contents of any folder or Project you select in the big central window. Clicking on any audio or edit file in this window in turn fills a good-size box on the bottom of the screen with info and controls, including one that allows you to audition the file. One of the many cool things about Tracktion is that when you click on just about any object on the screen, the box sitting on the bottom displays various types of information and function options related to the file, filter, track, Project or whatever else you may have highlighted.
From the minute you launch Tracktion, you will see that this application does not conform to either Mac- or Windows-style look and feel. The bloated protocols for both of these venerable operating systems are designed for layers of menus, submenus, windows and so forth, which can take up real estate and divert you from the job at hand. From the first look, Tracktion shows you where the rubber hits the road. You click on an item, and all of the related data and parameters appear, on the same page, without taking you on a detour. And the Project window is the first of only three tabs that can be selected to determine the complete layout of your screen; the other two are the Settings and Edit windows.
The optional Help settings are quite useful, as well. You can configure Tracktion to show pop-up windows every time the mouse touches any item on the screen, which makes learning everything fast, and you can also set the Help windows to delay until you've parked the mouse over an item for a few seconds — very cool and useful as you progress. Of course, you can also open the extensive User and Reference Guides, which are searchable and hyperlinked in Acrobat, at any time. A printed copy of the smaller User Guide is also included, and it is definitely worth printing out the comprehensive Reference Guide, which is written in somewhat idiosyncratic British vernacular. There really isn't much to complain about in terms of accessing explanations for anything in Tracktion.
One useful utility on the Projects page allows you to search for audio files (including a filter for searching within selected Projects only), which can be very useful when looking for that nasty loop you used last week; it is also a fluid way to quickly audition samples or audio files as you go along. You'll also find all kinds of archiving, importing and exporting capabilities; a Find Orphan Clips button; and the ability to jump out to a user-selected sound-file editor, such as BIAS Peak or Steinberg WaveLab, to trim a loop or tweak an audio file — and return seamlessly. The Projects page also includes a Library Projects category for any folders and files that are not part of an active Project that you might nevertheless wish to search or have immediate access to, such as collections of samples or loops, audio files ripped from CDs and so on.
In the Settings window, you configure your I/O options and parameters, assign or edit keymaps and determine various other things ranging from auto-save options and number of undo levels to meter ballistics and the enabling of external controllers. Depending on your computer's horsepower, you can work at as high as 24-bit, 192kHz resolution. Buffer sizes are continuously variable from roughly 0 to 6,192 samples (it varies for each type of hardware or soundcard) for each input and output, with the respective latency indicated in milliseconds.
Creative flow is the name of the game with Tracktion. One of the reasons this software shines is that the entire process of recording and mixing has been completely rethought. The focus is more about getting the ideas down and flowing from one to the next than it is burdened by an attempt to emulate old analog days. The ability to continuously tweak latency the moment you click on the input or output device on the Settings page is a good representation of how Tracktion works overall and why it's a great tool for putting together a groove. The parameters are also right at your disposal on the Settings page the minute you click on your input or output — there are no other pages or layers of menus to wade through to get there, and it's just one click on a tab from either the Edit or the Projects page.
I'm stressing this point because it really does sum up the Tracktion user philosophy. I use Digidesign Pro Tools and can get around quickly in that application, but to configure basic hardware I/O in Pro Tools requires numerous steps and different menus. And regardless of how accustomed I've become to the program, there isn't nearly the flexibility or tweakable control that I have in Tracktion.
When I connected my audio interfaces, they appeared immediately in the Settings window when I selected Audio Devices. I was able to easily switch among devices for playback; Tracktion has you select one as Default Wave Output at any given time, and you can use one I/O for input and another for output. One thing that would have been useful, given the continuously variable buffers, is the ability to save buffer settings for different devices and different configurations of soft synths — hopefully, this will be a feature in the future.
Finally, I arrived at the third and final page of Tracktion, the Edit page, which adopts its name from whatever Edit is open at any given time (and disappears when no Edit is open). An Edit is the same as a session in DAW parlance; various sample Projects are included with the installer, and it was fun initially to open each one and watch Tracktion in action. The Edit page is familiar, at least superficially, to the standard tracks, inserts and transport controls found in most audio-recording apps, but after creating a new Project and recording a few tracks, I began to see how different the work flow was going to be.
Enabling a track was easy and intuitive in Tracktion: Whether I wanted to record audio or MIDI, I simply dragged the appropriate icon on the left side of the screen to the track I wanted to record to, and it was ready to record. Setting up a click track with a preroll count off was also easy to configure, as were the various operational parameters provided by the many buttons on the lower-right corner of the screen, which brought up all kinds of options at a click. The output was already determined on the Settings page when I selected a default, and I could even get a huge meter bar to stretch across the screen to let me see what was really going on in the top 3 to 5 dB below 0. Next, I tried a soft synth, and it was as easy as dragging my controller icon to another track and dragging a Filter (more on this later) to the right side of the track and selecting an instrument from it in the process.
In Tracktion terminology, a Filter is basically anything that you might find in the course of traveling through a recording console's channel strip, from faders to meters to inserts to sends. Filters encompass plug-ins, of course, as well as things like meters that are not built into every track — again, with the intention of saving screen space and CPU power. Each track has volume/pan, meter and mute/solo Filters by default. Clicking and dragging the Add Filter button on the upper-right corner of the screen places a Filter wherever you want it in the signal path and prompts you to select one from the excellent set of registered VST plug-ins. It is fast and painless, and clicking on an existing Filter gives you instant access in the bottom window to all the settings and controls, just like with anything else you click on. Finally, a function called a Rack allows you to configure and save chains of Filters. This is a powerful way to work and yet another of the many innovative ideas that are all part of Tracktion's desire to see you flow.
KEEP PLUGGING AWAY
The Tracktion 2 plug-in selection is really quite amazing. A usable reverb is provided along with Mackie and MDA versions of just about any typical effects-processing plug-in one could ask for. The selection of soft synths, including electric pianos and Clavinets, is more than generous, and the Slayer guitar synthesizer is cooler and more usable than I would have expected. Tracktion users are definitely set up from the jump with all the tools needed to get loops, beats, grooves and textures going with little energy expenditure.
Mackie's own Final Mix plug-in has two 6-band parametric EQs, before and after a 3-band compressor, and is further augmented by a gate, a soft limiter and graphical representations of the EQ and compression curves. An extensive PDF manual is included to guide users through the complexities of this high-powered plug-in, and a large selection of presets provides a starting point for anyone intimidated by all the graphs and buttons. From my tests, it sounds comparable to similar Waves plug-ins, though dithering is a notably missing feature.
And this brings up an important issue: Many writers, including myself, have touched on the controversy about mixing in the box, and Mackie claims to have made a leap forward in dealing with the deficiencies of typical DAW-summing-bus quality by adding a 64-bit processor option for mixing. Although it definitely uses more CPU power, it was easy to hear — by comparing playback with the option selected and without — that using 64-bit math when mixing tracks opens up the sound, adding spaciousness and sweet clarity, especially in the higher frequencies. This is indeed a significant step toward making a computer-based mix sound more like it's going through an actual console without the muddiness, muffling and other undesirable artifacts of summing-bus strangulation.
Because you have so many options available in terms of plug-ins, routing, I/O and this 64-bit mix business, it is easy to load up an Edit with CPU-chomping Filters and configurations. Thus, Tracktion includes a simple Freeze Tracks function that creates a temporary file made up of whatever track you have chosen to freeze at any given time. Simply clicking on a button when any track is highlighted renders and disables all automation and Filters, thereby freeing up horsepower.
The fact that Tracktion is a relatively new program suggests hope for even more evolution. Overall, it's tough not to love this program. While most DAWs continue down the path of rising learning curves and rising costs, it's refreshing to find a program that simply delivers the goods and doesn't get in the way of creativity. And if you are reading this magazine, you owe it to yourself to check out what you can do with Tracktion.
TRACKTION 2 > $199
Pros: Host of new features. Tons of plug-ins and included third-party extras. Simple, intuitive interface. Freeze tracks. Continually variable latency.
Cons: Different from regular DAWs. Unfamiliar names for common elements.
Mac: G3; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3 or later (including Tiger)
PC: Pentium III; 256 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; Windows-compatible soundcard