When Mackie's Tracktion first appeared a couple of years ago, the program looked like another handy, low-cost aide for the entry-level recordist — an interesting, one-screen, do-it-all piece of software that could help the novice make music but certainly couldn't stand toe-to-toe with heavyweight audio applications. Those who spent time with the program, however, began to appreciate its wealth of features and, more important, its thrifty, no-nonsense approach to handling MIDI and audio.
FIG. 1: Tracktion''s main window (the Edit screen) provides access to practically every function that the program controls other than file management and interface settings.
With version 2.0, the program capitalizes on a growing fan base by adding, according to Mackie, more than 100 new features. After taking the new version for a spin, I increasingly like it as an alternative to the bloated RAM hogs that the major software DAWs have become.
To be sure, Tracktion still has quirks to go along with its improvements. (For example, Tracktion offers no controls in the Windows or in the OS X menu bar. All disk I/O, interface settings, and other functions are accessed from within the application's windows.) For the new features, a host of new plug-ins and loops, and some much better documentation, you'll pay a new list price of $199. Considering the program's ease of use and robust feature set, Tracktion is still a bargain.
Kicking the Tires
Tracktion requires a Pentium III (or better) PC with 256 MB of RAM running Windows 2000 or XP. The Mac version requires a G4 (or better) with 256 MB of RAM running OS X (10.3.9 or higher). I tested the Mac version on a dual 2 GHz G5 with 1 GB of RAM running OS X (10.3.9).
I described Tracktion's original user interface in a sidebar to my review of Mackie's Spike recording system, with which the program was included (this sidebar is available online at emusician.com). Tracktion differs from audio applications that add new windows for every new function and emphasize realistic graphics for items such as mixing-board windows and plug-in front panels. With Tracktion you get one main window (resizable in the new version) that displays audio and MIDI tracks in the traditional way, stacked vertically with horizontal timelines (see Fig. 1).
FIG. 2: Icons are dragged into the area at right to apply filters (which range from EQs to software instruments) to the track. The icons represent (from left) a -compressor, an EQ, a volume and pan filter, a level meter, and a mute and solo filter.
Everything else in the window, however, departs from DAW convention. You drag-and-drop a filter icon onto a track for any process that affects it (see Fig. 2). For a MIDI track, you drop a MIDI input icon onto the beginning of the track. For EQ or a compressor, you drop those icons into the appropriate area at the end of the track. Any time you select a filter for dragging-and-dropping, a pop-up window lets you select from options that now include IK Multimedia's AmpliTube SE and SampleTank SE, LinPlug's RM IV drum machine and FreeAlpha synthesizer, and reFX's Slayer 2 guitar processor and Claw single-oscillator synth.
Mackie's own plug-in suite features the Final Mix mastering plug-in and a slew of dynamics processors and keyboard emulations, including the M-Clav, a Hohner Clavinet knockoff, and M-Pad, which Mackie likens to an ARP Solina or Crumar Performer. (In Macintosh versions of Tracktion, the M-Clav and M-Pad go by their original names of Ticky Clav and CheezeMachine, respectively. Both are freeware plug-ins developed by Big Tick Software.) There's also a SoundFont player and a drawbar organ, called the ZR-3.
Back again are several plug-ins from Maxim Digital Audio (mda) and Raw Material Software, the company of Tracktion's creator Julian Storer. Owners of the PC version also get sound manglers from Big Tick. Hundreds of freeware VST plug-ins can be used with Tracktion, and ReWire is implemented for communication with other programs.
The enhanced plug-in set is a welcome addition, and Tracktion's design allows for its faster and virtually seamless use. Although third-party plug-ins appear in their full graphic versions as they do in other audio applications, their panels can be hidden while you control them from Tracktion's Properties panel, the central area at the bottom of the main screen, where all in-progress adjustments are made. The Properties panel contains all the settings for the currently selected parameter. If you're working on the EQ of track 7, for example, you don't see the graphical knobs and faders of other tracks.
Tracktion requires a slight reorganization of your thinking about DAW layout, but once you realize where everything is and that almost every control has a keyboard shortcut or is visible in the main screen, it can free your mind of clutter. The working action takes place in the Edit screen, one of three tabbed windows (as in a tabbed Web browser) that are always available at the top of the screen. When the program launches, you get tabs for the Projects screen, in which you select or initialize a project, and a Settings screen for communicating with your interface and setting overall preferences.
The Projects screen displays Tracktion's unique filing system, which keeps track of MIDI, audio, and edit files within a project or even shared among projects. All “open” projects displayed are considered to be works in progress. If a project has been closed, it won't appear in the list until it has been opened. The window provides a search box to locate, for example, samples from one project that you wish to use in another. The filing system takes some of the hassle and duplication out of the process of keeping all of a project's associated sound files on the same folder, a must with most other digital audio applications.
As with the Edit screen, the Project screen's control area is the Properties panel at the bottom of the window. This convention ensures that every control for every screen always pops up in the same place. In the Project screen, for example, waveforms of selected samples show up. You can launch a separate waveform editor here or perform basic operations (rate convert, normalize, truncate, and others).
FIG. 3: Tracktion''s extensive pop-up help system, which covers virtually every aspect of the program, can be delayed and disabled as a user becomes more familiar with the -program''s operation.
One of Tracktion's more noticeable features is the “rollover” help system. A pop-up screen is available for almost every area a cursor can reach (see Fig. 3). Those screens enable you to understand how Tracktion works the first time you use it. As you become more familiar with the program, you can delay the time at which the screens pop up and then turn the system off altogether.
Hitting the Road
As I found when I worked with the original version of Tracktion, the program offers an abundant feature set that confounds expectations. Version 2 proves that the original design can handle enhancements that more advanced users expect. For example, the program's new MIDI editor is more flexible, allowing notes to be entered at a fixed velocity and length regardless of zoom level. You can now use the line tool to repeat notes at a set velocity and duration. Step Entry mode allows more accurate note placement and editing.
FIG. 4: When filters such as a soft sampler are dropped into a track and selected, the filter''s controls and settings become visible in the Properties tab at the -bottom of the Edit screen.
Mackie has also made improvements to Tracktion's onboard sampler (see Fig. 4), and finally added studio basics like external sync options, including MIDI Time Code (MTC) I/O, MIDI Clock output, and MIDI Machine Control (MMC) commands. The new Tracktion also has eight aux sends and returns for sharing effects and providing headphone mixes.
Mackie, with its 64-bit, 192 Hz — capable mix engine, has shown a commitment to forging ahead of more-established DAWs by addressing the widespread hand-wringing about “summing bus” design in DAW software. Tracktion's 64-bit math mixing option (the program also handles 192 kHz recording with compatible audio interfaces) worked well and flawlessly rendered every mix I reduced with it.
The only flaw worth mentioning is that the program has too many new features, when Mackie should have spent more time enhancing existing ones. In addition to those features I've mentioned, Tracktion now also supports QuickTime playback, MIDI controller mapping, and the control surfaces Mackie Control Universal and C4. There's also loop recording, full-screen input metering, and many more that put Tracktion in a more-advanced category of digital audio application than before.
Gripping the Pavement
Tracktion's user interface continued to be a source of amazement as I built projects and played with the ones supplied by Mackie. Glitches and flaws that I thought would sink my opinion of the program usually turned out to be my own fault. Playback became distorted and garbled because I had set latency too low (under 1.4 ms) on the Settings page. A failure to record audio was similarly caused by having the wrong mixer channels assigned on the Onyx 1620, with which I tested Tracktion.
Timing issues were not a problem. No communication issues sprung up with the FireWire audio or USB MIDI interfaces I used. As a guitarist who still likes to use MIDI for traditional piano parts, I wished that Tracktion's quantizing scheme had some of the humanizing features of more-advanced sequencers. But the expanded editing capabilities made my keyboard clams easy to fix.
In terms of pure audio quality and capabilities, Tracktion's supporting cast of plug-ins made the overall output of the program first-rate. I have always been able to get usable tones from AmpliTube SE for my projects, and SampleTank SE's library is full of worthy instrument sounds that users at any level can take advantage of. I also liked the presets in Slayer 2, especially its over-the-top metal textures.
There's not enough space here to go into all the extras that Tracktion supplies, but its collection of dynamics, EQ, and effects plug-ins are serviceable at worst and inspired at best. More important, they can be auditioned with almost no lag time because of the program's efficient management of resources and ease of use.
It's unlikely that longtime users of high-end audio applications will abandon their workstations for Tracktion — even its improved version. But users from novice electronica buffs to grizzled veterans with earlier-generation RAM-starved laptops should check out Tracktion as it gets more established. Mackie provides a functional demo on its Web site. There are many programs for creating complex audio tracks these days, from the underpowered to the overdressed. For most projects, Tracktion gets the job done with power to spare.
Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. You can email him email@example.com.
MACKIE Tracktion 188.8.131.52
music production software
OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 3.5
PROS: Many new features. One-screen interface. Comprehensive help screens. Extensive and well-balanced assortment of plug-ins. Unique file system. High-resolution mastering at 192 kHz.
CONS: Limited audio editor. No Windows or Mac menu bar options. Unfamiliar naming conventions.