Reaper

While I do not subscribe to or support the mythology behind the name, and the image and symbolism thereof, I have been using Reaper 4 – a Digital Audio Workstation(DAW) to mix or edit audio for a few years.

Recently I accepted to mix a multi-tracked song, for a friend of mine. All done completely in the box.

Compared to about 12 years ago when I bought Cubase SX version 1.0 (in 2002), and needed a supercomputer to run it, while Reaper is not exactly a walk in the park, with a steep learning curve, it is truly amazing what can be achieved today.

In my recent use, my only challenges were:

1. Knowledge, especially of free plugins(effects) to apply to the tracks. Most of this was resolved by either a review of my stash of free plugins, or research on the internet. I highly recommend bedroomproducersblog.com as an outstanding source of information. Youtube was also an indispensable resource.

2. A few crashes of the application(Reaper), usually at the most inopportune time, with occasional loss of work. Most of this was probably due to poorly coded free plugins and my resorting to mix through the default audio device on my Windows laptop, using ASIO4ALL to emulate the required ASIO audio device.

In my experience a dedicated USB audio input/output interface with properly written ASIO drivers would probably have been much more stable. I’m thinking of a Steinberg UR44 at this time…. we’ll see. I will need to save up for this… I’m not happy that the UR44 does not have digital I/O.

PLUGINS

At the last count, I had 104 instances of plugins loaded, but I’d like to highlight here a few key plugins which I used on most tracks.

In order within the audio path on each channel/track, the most used plugins were:

1. Stereo Channel by SleepytimeDSP I found this really good for setting the proper gain staging for each track, prior to any other plugins.

2. SonEQ by Sonimus, which was great for filtering out frequencies and touching up the most significant tweaks at mid, low and the high end. I discovered that less is more. Other eq plugins with lots of options and bands, could lead to paralysis via endless tweaking.

3. FerricTDS by Variety of Sound, which I found great for warming up tracks, which needed that bit of magic.

4. On some tracks I tried out R2R from CDSoundmaster, which is a great tape emulation plugin. Fairly benign, but when you bypass this on a couple of tracks, the cumulative effect can be discerned.

5. For compression – Variety of Sound’s  Density came to the rescue.

One of the challenges with using plugins is the need to RTFM – Read the manual, as there are no universal standards for how plugins should present signal flow.

These plugins also had relatively simple – easy on the eye GUI’s. In the debate between hardware and digital, some of the beauty of hardware is its simplicity. I reckon that the most renowned audio hardware also has the most efficient interfaces (knobs, switches, indicators on their faceplates), which have endeared audio engineers to adopt them as staples in the studio.

All plugin developers should take a leaf from this.

Obviously I used many more features, sends, panning,  effects on sends, etc… compression on groups, but I’m trying not to bore you with these details.

APPROACH

I created subgroups (and subgroups thereof) or if I state this the other way round, the final mix was the result of grouping all tracks into a hierarchy of groups, including a pseudo master Group track which feeds 1 : 1 into the default Master channel.

I had two main windows, the track view and the mixer channel and I was constantly swapping between these two views.

Learning to use automation to introduce some “control” or “variation” as required definitely makes a difference. I have a philosophy that mixing is like packing your bags for a trip, there’s only so much you can pack in the box(also known as headroom) and the challenge is striking the balance between of tracks to support the final impression you wish to make with the music.

How many shirts to you need, how much formal wear do you pack?, How much casual wear? How many shoes? Could be this is why we have so few of a certain gender in the audio engineering profession. It would be more difficult for them to make these choices.

Mixing is like conducting, placing emphasis on audio sources, at each instant in the track.

I guess its similar to how a composer builds harmonies, applies specific inversions and develops the chordal “thickness” i.e polyphonic complexity in a piece of music. Sometimes, less is more to enable the melody to shine through.

With appropriate sub-mixing, building the mix was made much easier as it was easy to adjust the relative levels of groups of  channels, as well as the relative volume between tracks within a group. It then became a decision between – does the section volume need to change or does the volume of a specific instrument need to change?

While I did experience one bug with the sub-mixing, using groups, which was resolved by deleting and recreating the affected track, the ease with which Reaper manages sub-mixes via groups, which can be multilevel is an absolute revelation. What a life changer.

What are the alternatives to Reaper. Avid Protools 11? Cubase? Harrison Mix Bus? Samplitude?

Here’s my opinion, each DAW requires an investment in time, to learn and become proficient in its use.

What would I change?

For anything more than 12 tracks, definitely multiple screens and large ones too, with high pixel counts, for an efficient workflow. Scrolling and swapping windows on one display is such a time waster. I’d say three screens would be most efficient. 1 for the track window, 2 for the channel window, and 3 (and 4) for editing plugins.

If I consider how major studios work, in the days of hardware based mixers and effects, I can imagine that having access to all channels and effects simultaneously, certainly helped with the workflow. My reference would be an SSL board which has eq, compression, gain, at arms length and immediate visibility for an efficient workflow.

Maybe an external MIDI controller with faders, could improve the ease of creating channel volume automation especially for riding faders….

The aforementioned suggested changes would also apply to any other DAW.

Assigning item level effects which were once the claim to fame of Samplitude, was a delight.

For the hobbyist, clearly there’s only one choice at the time of this writing – Reaper….

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