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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The Next Step

This article is really not about music, which I use here, only as a metaphor, and be encouraged to apply the principles to any other personal opportunities.

I discovered a while ago that I was driven by curiosity and excited by discovery.

Growing up with parents who enjoyed singing and my early years listening to music on vinyl records, on the radio, and in my adolescence, learning to play violin, the undying seeds of affinity with music were sown.

My first professional ambition was to be the best brown-skinned violinist, in the world. I played a violin, almost every day for about 1 and a half years, but I had to drop the violin, when the family relocated.

More recently, God gave me the opportunity to be able to play keyboards, and I’ve been on a journey to find the best piano and piano sounds, to accompany, inspire and fulfil this interest, amongst other interests in the wide spectrum called music.

If I go back in time, we could liken this to the young violin student, who obviously did not have the very best violin to start off with, but who with enough time, practice and ability could one day merit a Stradivarius violin of the finest quality and audio tone.

I’m reminded that the beginning may not be the most exotic, and the quality of the piano I have today is irrelevant. It’s what I am able to do with this that matters.

I digress. Many years ago, I had the privilege of playing all night till the next morning, a Yamaha digital piano in one of Shirley Bassey’s homes. An amazing experience.

My first keyboard was a cherished present from my cousin, but much as I had the desire, I did not know how to play it properly.

The first piano I bought was a simple but good quality Yamaha home keyboard, which I bought for another member of the family, and ended up playing, which had pride of place in my home. I still have fond memories of this keyboard. That was really one of my many beginnings on the piano, from one level to another.

Nevertheless,  I must start where I must start, with what I have today, which is a whole lot better than what I had many years ago, which was nothing. We all start with nothing.

I realise that skilful musicians excel on any instrument, and especially with pianos, after a search of at least a few years, I’m aware that there is no perfect piano, each one sounds different, especially on recordings where so many different factors affect the sound of the recorded version. The pianist finds as good a piano as is available, and makes the very best music that they can on what is available.

The same applies to music, none is perfect. Perfect music is the music that is created and expressed, with consistency it becomes perfect through practice. It becomes even more perfect as it is shared and inspires others to create or listen, to other music, fulfilling its purpose the more.

There is no perfect place to start, no perfect ambition. Where we are today is the perfect place to start.

With lemons make lemonade. With oranges make orange juice.

Do with what you have what you can. Do with life what you can.

Whatever I do next positively, towards my positive ambition is perfect, just by doing it, it becomes perfect.

And on another hand it’s never perfect. Music has been played for at least 2000 years, as the bible indicates that David played on a musical instrument, yet mankind still has new songs yet unborn.

May the new song that is in each of us be sung. By this I refer not to music alone but to anything that we know we can start.

Lets not bother about the end, which must be preceded by a beginning.

Let’s not be intimidated by those with great accomplishments, the maestros, the renowned, the experts, and those more qualified than we are, or who have had more opportunities, the wealthy, for they once were just as we are, beginners, and they only remain great by remaining humble beginners, ever searching for more.

Let’s start doing the things wherein we have been given ability, however small or insignificant it may seem in our eyes or in the eyes of others.

Each of us has our own valued experience and discovery to contribute to this human universe, by being all that we are, and becoming all that we should.

Sometimes we may not be the ones to play the music, we may start off being listeners only, which in itself is a beginning, which was how I started.

Start by appreciating and loving who you are, and giving some thought to who created you and why you exist.

Dimensions

Variety is the spectacle of our music, like our lives, we go through shades between the extremes of human emotion, from the premeditated morbid to the spontaneously ecstatic. With the music and words being an external resonator and sometimes a catalyst for how we feel. The melodic intertwined with the atonal. The predictable and the seemingly unrelated.

What is the origin of energy?

If there was a big bang, where did all the energy and mass come from?

What is time?

What precipitated all the interactions of matter, light, and the other forms of energy?

What’s the basis for gravitational energy, why should one object be attracted to another?

Space (height, length breadth), Energy(heat, light, electromagnetic, gravitational, etc), Time(Life, Events, Change of State, Death), Consciousness(Awareness, Emotions).

Did these dimensions also evolve, like the species on earth, or have they always pre-existed?

Music

I am glad that I can experience many wonderful things, and probably the most profound has been music. I am amazed at the profound ability of musicians and singers and creative audio related artists, to touch hearts and minds.

The technology in my time has taken the potential quality of recorded audio to truly impressive levels, with a variety of media, including streamed.

Ultimately I am amazed at the undisputable inference of this experience to a God who has created so much for us to enjoy.

If Youtube is still available when you read this (an assumption) kindly listen to these recordings by India Arie and Isreal Houghton

Boundaries

A few years ago, I wanted to learn how to play the piano and keyboard instruments, and express the ideas in my head, as well as play music composed by others. My breakthrough came when I recognised that all the music I needed to play lay within a boundary of 12 notes per octave. In other words, what I sought was right there – somewhere on the keyboard.

The confidence that what I sought, could be found somewhere, could be attained, was approachable, was awesome. I knew where to look, right there on the keyboard, no where else. In my own self taught imprrovisational style, I then began to make a lot more progress. Fear and confusion were eliminated. The only thing which I needed to overcome was getting the fingers, brain and related muscles connected to the specific keys that produced the note I wanted to hear. It was not effortless, but the effort was directed, and the search was almost over.

Whenever I play a keyboard instrument, this profound knowledge that what I want to hear is somewhere on the keyboard is comforting, as it significantly reduces my angst, and I am no longer perplexed. I know where the answer is. Oh yes there are the touchy subjects of practice, feel, music theory, mastery, scales and improvisation, inspiration, and ensuring that my humiliation from mistakes in the process of learning is done in private, to be overcome. These further domains in themselves boundaries, which, with focus, I can see, that given enough time, opportunity, effort and discipline, could also become resolved.

Focus is closely related to boundaries, the narrowing of a search or effort, within a bounded domain. If we can find the right context, the appropriate vocabulary, the contact person, the idea, the next step is achievable.

If we can break the big problems down into smaller, more manageable, well bounded domains, with further actions and concepts, our major challenges can be achieved.

The account of Jesus the Christ, as recorded in the King James version of the Bible, in the book of Matthew, Chapter 6, verse 34 indicates:

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day [is] the evil thereof.”

Could this be an example of the application of the boundary principle, where we are encouraged to take this complex journey of life, and become better able to manage it by partitioning into with boundaries, such as each day?

Purpose

To discover who we are and become all that we should.

Olakunle Odebode

9th February 2013