I had never heard of Cockos Reaper when EM asked me to review it. Reaper's developers don't pay for big advertisements, and the program hasn't been around for as long as Cakewalk Sonar, Steinberg Cubase, and the like. But after installing it and seeing a set of features rivaling those of the established players, my first reaction was “Wow, where did this come from?” (For the answer, see the sidebar “Don't Fear the Reaper.”)
Reaper is a no-nonsense, full-featured digital audio sequencer. You won't find any trialware for third-party products or splashy eye-candy graphics. What you will find is a reasonably priced multitrack recording and production application that's just over 3 MB in size and has no copy protection. It's currently for Windows only, but a Mac version is in beta and should be ready by the time you read this.
If you want to try Reaper, you can simply download it. Its small size means that the program downloads quickly and is lean enough to run in nearly any version of Windows while residing on a USB flash drive. If you want to keep using it, just pay the registration fee — only $50 for noncommercial use. Like I said, there's no nonsense here.
FIG. 1: Cockos Reaper offers many capabilities of more established digital audio sequencers at a fraction of the price. With its astounding flexibility and no-nonsense approach, the program excels.
Weed 'em and Reap
A glance at the program reveals that Reaper follows the same paradigm as most other digital audio sequencers. A main screen contains a Track view to assemble Media Items on a timeline, and a Mixer view is available to facilitate mixdown (see Fig. 1). You can open additional views as floating windows or attached to a Docker that presents each of them in an uncluttered, multitabbed pane. You can turn the Docker into a floating window with varying levels of transparency, which is a really nice touch.
Reaper furnishes a palette of tools for common operations, and the usual set of transport controls attaches to the main window or floats freely. Associated with the transport controls are controls for changing the playback rate (like a varispeed tape drive), tempo, looping, and the selected time range.
Right-clicking is the name of the game in Reaper. Nearly every element of the program offers up a contextual menu or other meaningful behavior when you right-click on it. Left-clicking usually performs the action that Windows users would expect, such as making a selection or activating a control. Some of the context-sensitive menus get rather verbose, but I found this approach to be intuitive nonetheless. Typically, the action I was hoping to perform was right there under my nose.
The program supports a wide variety of Media Items, including WAV, AIFF, Ogg Vorbis, MP3, MIDI, and the audio portions of AVI, WMV, MPEG, and MOV files (MOV requires that QuickTime be already installed on your computer). A window shows the first video file that you open, but unfortunately, the Track view has no filmstrip display to help you align audio to video.
I like the fact that Reaper supports so many formats without an importing or conversion step. Bring an AVI file and a few MP3 files into your project, record an additional track in WAV format, and everything will play together in perfect synchronization — even if the files have different sampling rates and bit depths. There's no need to clutter your hard drive with redundant copies of your source material that have been converted to a common format.
One interesting paradigm that is not common in other sequencers is a lack of track types. In Reaper, a track is a track is a track, whether it contains audio, MIDI, a vocal performance, or shared effects from other tracks (I'll discuss Reaper's flexible audio routing in a moment). The available operations on these tracks are identical, no matter what the contents.
Each track supports multiple takes, which you can display in separate lanes within the track. It's easy to mix and match the best performances to create a composite track, but even more noteworthy is the fact that MIDI and audio can exist together within a single track. I connected a soft synth and instructed Reaper to record my MIDI performance. Then I played back that performance and instructed Reaper to record the output of the soft synth instead. I ended up with one take of MIDI and a second take of audio on the same track.
FIG. 2: Reaper''s audio routing allows you to connect nearly any source to any destination in an intuitive manner.
Follow the Route
The example I cited hints at a philosophy that is pervasive in Reaper: mind-boggling flexibility. When recording, you can choose whether to record what is arriving at the track's inputs or leaving via its outputs. You can choose whether to record audio or MIDI. When recording audio, you decide the file format (be it MP3, WAV, Ogg, or whatever), as well as the sampling rate and bit depth of each track. You can compensate for latency if you want. MIDI can overlay or replace what is already there, and it can be quantized during recording.
Each track has its own effects bin, and Reaper supports DirectX, VST, and Jesusonic effects (Jesusonic is Cockos's own format). A substantial number of VST and Jesusonic effects come with the program, including several that process MIDI. The audio effects cover the spectrum from delays to sideband compressors to convolution reverbs, and the ones I tried all performed their intended functions with satisfactory audio quality.
DirectX and VST instruments are also supported, as is ReWire. You can insert effects in any order and mix and match any of these technologies; for instance, I connected a DXi instrument to a VST chorus, followed by a Jesusonic delay. You can save your favorite effects configurations into chains for use in any other track (in the current project or others).
Per-track effects bins are nothing new, but Reaper really starts to shine when you start routing audio across tracks. In Reaper, an effects bus is no different from a track; the key is in how you configure it.
Click on the IO button on a track, and you'll be presented with every routing option imaginable (see Fig. 2). You control how much of the signal goes to the master, how much goes to additional hardware outputs, how much goes to other tracks, and how much comes from other tracks. These send levels are also available in the Mixer view. You have control over panning, phase, pre and post effects, and MIDI as well. You can even map MIDI to other channels as you send it to other tracks. An example will help clarify the capabilities here — see the online bonus material at emusician.com.
FIG. 3: Though Reaper isn''t necessarily a comprehensive MIDI-sequencing product, it has enough of the basic editing tools for most jobs.
What About MIDI?
Some programs designed for recording audio suffer from minimal MIDI capabilities. Although Reaper certainly isn't a MIDI powerhouse, it does contain enough MIDI-editing capabilities to get the job done. The basic views are there, including a MIDI event list, two piano-roll views (one offering named notes), and graphical controller editing (see Fig. 3). However, Reaper can't display MIDI events as standard musical notation.
You can apply basic MIDI quantization during recording, but you can't do groove quantization or quantize to triplets (although the Swing slider provides a similar effect). During playback, several MIDI effects help you with Velocity adjustments, keymapping, and even arpeggiation, but you won't find much to help you out with offline MIDI adjustments of entire tracks at once (other than the individual event editing you can perform in the piano roll and event list).
Reaper has support for certain control surfaces from Mackie, Behringer, and Frontier Design, though I wasn't able to test those capabilities. Even if you don't have one of these controllers, you can associate MIDI events with any action that responds to a keyboard shortcut (and there are many, many such actions). You can also map MIDI Control Changes to effects parameters. Though I'm happy to see support for MIDI hardware, Reaper could go a little further. I found myself trying to right-click on a Track Volume control and immediately associate it with a MIDI controller of my choosing.
However you move Reaper's controls (whether using the mouse or a supported control surface), you'll be glad to know you can automate those movements. The program supports envelopes for volume, pan, effects parameters, and sends for each track, and it provides you with the tools you need to manipulate those envelopes. You can record changes to the envelopes using their respective onscreen controls. In addition, you can choose how and when recording occurs using one of five automation modes, including Touch (which records changes only while you're making them) and Latch (which starts recording as soon as you make the first change).
The remaining Reaper features are almost too numerous to mention. Check out the online bonus material for details on performance monitoring, productivity aids, and extra bells and whistles.
Reap What You Sow
Make no mistake: Reaper is a deep program. It's easy to get up and running with basic recording and mixdown, but using the program to its fullest potential requires a bit of a learning curve. So with all this depth, how is the documentation? For starters, the PDF User Guide has several hundred pages to cover most aspects of the program, and the Cockos Web site maintains a wiki and an active community forum for the rest. Cockos usually releases a new version of Reaper every few days, so it's understandable that the documentation might lag a bit behind the application.
Reaper is a powerful program at a great price. I love the no-nonsense style, the power-user capabilities, and the gracious pricing that lets hobbyists use the application without breaking the bank. If you have a Windows PC, a desire to work with audio, and an Internet connection, you have no reason not to check this program out.
Allan Metts (sonicbids.com/allanmetts) is an Atlanta-based musician.
PRODUCT SUMMARY digital audio sequencer$225for noncommercial use$50
PROS: Extremely flexible audio routing. Comprehensive features at a low price. Deep discount for noncommercial use. No trialware or code bloat. Extensive customization and productivity aids.
CONS: May be difficult for novices to use. Lacks advanced MIDI features such as a notation view and offline bulk edits.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
Don't Fear the Reaper
A quick Google search for Cockos's founder, Justin Frankel, reveals that he was one of the key players in the launch of the Gnutella file-sharing network. He also founded Nullsoft, which makes the popular Winamp media player. AOL purchased Nullsoft for an impressive sum in 1999, and Frankel founded Cockos after leaving AOL. In 2004, Rolling Stone called him “the world's most dangerous geek.”