It used to be the case that digital recording and mixing was the preserve of the moneyed few. I recall being in a studio back in 2000 (not really all that long ago) and the manager showing me his pride and joy – a state-of-the-art rig running the then mystical ProTools in a dedicated lab. One of his engineers was proudly pitch and time-correcting audio tracks one at a time.
It felt like a tour of NASA. Well, no nay never no more. Hardware and software have advanced so much in the intervening few years that you can now do all of that (and much more) on a moderately powered laptop – and the software isn’t going to bankrupt you either.
These systems can sit at the heart of everything from the most bedroom-style home studios right up to professional setups. Personally, I still prefer to record in an actual studio – you get their room, piano, kit, booths, microphone collection and the services of an engineer. I do value the presence of a good engineer, as I prefer to be 100%-focused on playing. There’s also something of a sense of occasion. But I usually get the tracks dumped onto media for me and mix at home. And I use a program called REAPER.
THE PERCEPTION OF DAWS
I think it’s fair to say that most professionals are a bit snobby about Digital Audio Workstation programs (DAWs) – ie, if it’s not ProTools, Logic, DP8, Studio One or Etcetera-Tron AdInfinitum™, it’s a toy. Amateurs are even worse. The internet is alight with indignant fury about how they sound different (they don’t) and one is better than another (it isn’t). And most people who reckon they can hear the difference can’t. It’s the noise not the toys, the ear not the gear, the sounds not the pounds.
I’ve demonstrated REAPER to a high priest of Logic and he was mightily impressed with it. After some persuasion – “Ah yes, but can it do this?” I did it. “Well, what about this?” I did it… “But can you side-chain…” Yes. We had a bet about it, then he had to side-chain me a scotch in the pub afterwards…
Now there’s something to be said for using the “industry-standard” tools. For one thing, different programs have slightly different interfaces and working methods; for another, it’s easier to transfer entire project files between users. Furthermore, if you want a studio career, it doesn’t pay to be an iconoclast. But bear in mind that today’s punchy little upstart is often tomorrow’s champ…
And all DAWs work in essentially the same way – they’re just ways of recording and playing back lots of different sound files at once, with the facility to alter them in real time in all kinds of ways. There are only so many ways to invent the wheel.
So what if you could achieve exactly the same results with software that is instantly downloadable and comes at about 1/10th of the price?
Or even free? This is a moot point. Personally, I bought a REAPER licence (for the small-business price of £38), but the program is uncrippled honourware. That is, it comes fully functioning but will eventually start nagging you for a few seconds on startup – then continue to be fully functioning. The honour part of the deal is up to you, of course.
If it’s not expensive, it isn’t any good? Well, that reminds me of the old gag about how to make a bad band sound good – charge more on the door. But I digress.
ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…
The big boys come bundled with tons of virtual instruments, samplers, beat stations, looping thingies – all the stuff that is used for modern production.
You can run all these kind of things as plugins within REAPER too, but you have to acquire them separately. It’s recently been making some modest strides in this direction, but I’d say that, straight out of the box, this program is probably better suited to a more old-fashioned, less “samples and loops” style of production. I’d also say that if your thing is playing in parts on vast templates of sample libraries, something like Digital Performer is probably more suitable for the purpose.
Not that REAPER can’t handle MIDI production very nicely. I’ve used it hooked up to Sibelius, EastWest and Garritan sample libraries for mixed contemporary and orchestral scores synced to video. It zipped along perfectly well on my old i5 system, and purrs its way through on my new i7. (It’s available for OS X too.)
And to answer a common snub from the big-boy purists, yes REAPER does come with pitch and tempo correction. In fact, I reckon many people used to the more established DAWs think REAPER is lacking various functions because it works in a slightly different way (for instance, the program has its own philosophy about track types). So they often assume that because a certain functionality isn’t where they’re used to finding it, it isn’t there at all.
The other thing that appeals to me (as a programmer from way back, in particular) is that REAPER was coded from the ground up with ruthless efficiency. No bloat, no legacy, no agenda. In fact, another reason people tend to be dismissive of it is that the download is around the 8Mb mark (current release 4.76). Yes, do not adjust your screen – just 8Mb. Download and install takes about four minutes (you can even run it from a memory stick). And that includes dozens of native FX plugins. Everything from compressors, gates, a basic sampler and parametric EQ, right up to surround sound (not that that’s my bag). Pretty much everything you need – what you may want is another question entirely.
Incidentally, there’s a treasure trove of free plugins out there. I often use excellent freebies for multi-FX, convolution reverb and Mid-Side simulation. All sorts of things, really. It’s the noise, not the toys…
Another thing to love is that patches and upgrades are driven by user feedback and come at the rate of two or more a month. Updates are fast and hassle-free. There’s an enthusiastic user forum too, so if you hit a snag someone will be along with advice pretty quick. Or you could RTFM… (actually TFM is friendly and very well written.)
Worth a try, surely? You might also want to get a codec pack (I recommend K-Lite) to allow you to work in most of the major formats and maybe something like Audacity (to serve as an associated waveform editor) – both are free.
Get the REAPER and Audacity downloads from the source sites and they’ll be clean and safe. The links given above are trusted. Neither of these programs hook you – try ’em, don’t like ’em, uninstall and you’re totally clean again.
But be careful generally when downloading freebies. A lot of freeware distribution sites assume you’ll just keep clicking the “yeah yeah” button during installation, and if you’re indiscriminate you can wind up with all sorts of unwelcome software hitchhikers. These programs aren’t always malicious, but even the ones that aren’t can be really annoying, and sometimes very difficult to get rid of. So be careful and always do a full system backup before downloading from those pop-up laden “your download will begin in X seconds” sites.