Intro from Jay Allison
The reign of Pro Tools has been a long and frustrating one for radio producers. It’s not really designed for us, but it’s become the industry standard, so we use it. Every upgrade causes mass confusion. If, in the middle of the night on deadline, you forget one of the arcane commands or solutions to one of the dozens of error messages, you panic. But you keep coming back. Partly because the good parts are really good. Transom championed Pro Tools at the turn of the millennium, because there was a free version. There isn’t any more. And there are some worthy inexpensive competitors now.
Tools Editor Jeff Towne and Guest Tester Nick van der Kolk got together to review one of the top contenders: REAPER. Their good cop/bad cop approach is fun, and they have great little narrated videos of the software in action. Even if you’re going to stick with Pro Tools until the walls come down, you should at least check this out.
Intro from Transom.org’s Jeff Towne
It’s a persistent question: which computer-based audio editing program is best suited for making audio documentaries? There are lots to choose from, and each has advantages and disadvantages. The primary focus of most of them is on music production, that’s where the largest user-base is, but those applications are quite useful for other kinds of audio production, like editing dialog, and building layered mixes with music or ambience. In our little corner of the audio world, Pro Tools has become a defacto standard.
We at Transom were early supporters of Pro Tools, largely due to the availability of Pro Tools Free in the late 1990s. We saw that as an empowering technology, a tool for working with audio without the daunting financial hurdles presented by most editing software. Digidesign eventually stopped supporting Pro Tools Free (it won’t run under any current operating systems) but their promotional tactic seems to have worked: many users who started on Pro Tools Free upgraded to Pro Tools LE, which has greater capabilities, but also requires purchasing and using a Digidesign hardware interface. Pro Tools LE, and the similar Pro Tools M-Powered, still offer a relatively affordable entryway to digital editing. It’s a powerful program, one that offers a great deal of control and excellent audio quality. Most of us here at Transom still use Pro Tools, and find it to be flexible and, mostly, efficient.
But Pro Tools has significant quirks and annoyances, and there have always been alternative programs, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. As computers get faster and more powerful, and developers refine their applications, more and more options present themselves.
Nick van der Kolk – a community producer for Chicago Public Radio’s Vocalo, – had enough of the Pro Tools drama, and has switched to REAPER (Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording). Here’s why:
Nick’s REAPER Review & How To
“Cameron has never been in love. Well, nobody has been in love with him. If things don’t change for him, he’s going to marry the first girl he lays. And she’s going to treat him like &*%#” – Ferris Bueller
Like Ferris Bueller, do you have that friend? The one who stays in that crappy relationship because that’s all they’ve ever known? Even though they’re smart and talented. And then they ask you to say some nice things at their wedding and even though you don’t approve you feel kind of obligated to? And it’s totally awkward and horrible?
Well, people of public radio, I’m here to tell you YOU’RE THAT FRIEND. And you’re romantically entangled with Pro Tools.
And, like someone suffering from Helsinki syndrome, you’ve begun to mistake non-abuse for kindness. How many times have you told me, “sure I get H/W buffer errors sometimes, but that’s just because I had my wireless network on”?
Or maybe, “well, yeah I don’t like being tethered to hardware all the time, but they DID release that fancy new iLok thingy!”
Or “well, I haven’t upgraded to Snow Leopard yet ’cause my version of Pro Tools isn’t compatible with it. But that’s okay, I don’t really need the extra speed.”
Honey, please. It doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t HAVE to wait 59 minutes to bounce a 59 minute piece you’ve been working on. This is 2010, for God’s sake.
I was like you once, but then I started seeing REAPER. We began using it here at Vocalo because we needed an inexpensive program that ran on both Macs and PCs, so our community collaborators had the option of working on their own computers. But it’s quickly become my mainstay for all things audio.
REAPER is the flagship product of Cockos, which is run by Justin Frankel of Winamp fame (ie: iTunes before iTunes was iTunes). In 1999, Justin sold the company that developed Winamp to AOL for (I’m guessing) a gazillion dollars, and given that he can now bathe in hundred dollar bills every morning, he doesn’t seem all that concerned with making a ton of money off REAPER. In fact, in an incredibly ballsy move, REAPER is offered not as crippleware. That is, if you download the trial version of REAPER, you get the whole thing, and it doesn’t lock up at the end of the trial period. Payment is completely based on the honor system. And, if you’re honorable, a noncommercial or personal license sets you back just $60. A commercial license is $225.
Another reviewer wrote, “I expect some would be more convinced of its excellence if Cockos significantly raised the licence cost, but those in the know … simply regard it as a bargain.”
It’s hard to argue with that statement, which appears on the front of REAPER’s homepage. When I explain REAPER’s pricing structure, folks will often ask, “cool, but how does it compare to Audacity?” But there really is no comparison. Don’t get me wrong, Audacity, which is free and community developed, is a worthy project. It’s saved me a number of times in a pinch when (surprise! Pro Tools conked out on me). But REAPER is a professional (if inexpensive) digital audio workstation. Audacity just isn’t.
The philosophy behind REAPER’s radical business model permeates the whole project. Using the program, one doesn’t get the sense that features and fixes are being delayed in order to convince you to shell out an extra $80 every year for a shiny new version. In fact, if you notice a bug, chances are it will be fixed in the next couple weeks. I’m not kidding, Cockos releases new versions of REAPER at a staggering pace. There were four new releases in June 2010 alone.
While REAPER is pretty intuitive, it does take a little getting used to, especially for someone more familiar with Pro Tools. While there are plenty of personal editing styles, a lot of Pro Tools users in the radio realm will make edits by selecting then deleting different parts of regions. You can mimic that kind of workflow in REAPER, but it’s a little clunky.
REAPER is more focused on splicing (it’s very similar to Sony Vegas, and plenty other DAWs). If you hit the ‘S’ key, a region will be split into two. Hit it again on another part of your audio, and now you have three regions. Delete the one you don’t want and you’ve made an edit. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll get into a rhythm of splice-splice-delete, splice-splice-delete in no time.
Another tool worth noting is Ripple Editing. It’s somewhat similar to Pro Tools’ Shuffle mode; it snaps together regions after you make a deletion. But that’s where the similarity ends. You can’t pop a region into the middle of others without moving them out of the way first. But Ripple Editing will move all the regions to the right of wherever you select. That might not seem that significant, but it saves a lot of time when you’re restructuring sentences and stories.
I won’t bore you with more of the nitty gritty on how to make fades, envelopes, rendering, and the rest. For that, I direct you to these shiny videos which, hopefully, will give you a basic overview of how it all works.
All that said, as much as I love spreading the gospel of REAPER, it’s definitely not perfect. For a radio producer, just about everything you like in Pro Tools has an equivalent in REAPER, except for one big thing: a region list. In Pro Tools, every single region, including sub-regions you’ve created during your project, will appear as an ordered list in a little bin on the right. Even regions you’ve deleted can be brought back to life out of the region list. I never used it that often, but it definitely saved me a couple times after accidentally deleting some key phrase or other important audio detritus. In REAPER, if you delete a region, you’re going to have go back into the raw audio to find what you were looking for.
You may have also already noticed that REAPER’s default color scheme is kind of drab. Thankfully, its appearance is totally customizable and there are tons of pretty themes you can download, but figuring all that out takes extra time. You can also set tracks to different colors manually, but I find the process overly cumbersome (right-click on the track, select ‘change to custom color’, set custom color, and hit OK). I’ve set a hot key to select a random color for a selected track, but it would be nice new tracks to be born with their own colors automatically ala Pro Tools.
Finally, and it pains me to admit this, but REAPER not being an industry standard is probably its biggest drawback. If you’re working on a story for a show, and their engineer asks for a copy of your session, you’re going to get a quizzical phone call. Some stations have eschewed Pro Tools in favor of other software, but I don’t know of any (aside from some parts of Chicago Public Media where I work) who use REAPER as their standard solution. For now, at least, it’s still worth it for new producers to at least get comfortable working in Pro Tools.
That said, REAPER is a beautiful program. And smart. And talented. And my friends aren’t going to feel awkward at the toast.
Got questions? Leave them in the Discussion section.
* Wicked cheap
* Remarkably low resource consumption & fast load time
* Depending on what version you download, the entire size of the program is just 4.9 – 9.2 megabytes (and no, I didn’t misplace a decimal there)
* Not run by a giant, uncaring corporation
* EXTREMELY frequent updates (like, every couple of weeks)
* Downloadable themes
* Works on both Mac and PC
* No region list
* The Cockos forums are full of helpful and dedicated REAPER users, but there is no direct tech support line
* Default color scheme is pretty drab, and coloring individual tracks is kind of a pain
* The frequent updates mean editing behavior may change slightly with each new version
* Not industry standard
Nick van der Kolk is a community producer for Chicago Public Radio’s Vocalo, the co-founder and co-director of the Megapolis Audio Festival, and Love + Radio (which is returning for a second season this summer).
Further Thoughts on REAPER from Jeff Towne
Using Nick’s helpful video tutorials as a starting point, and trading a few emails for additional tips, I took REAPER for a spin, to see how a dedicated Pro Tools user would find it. For the most part, I have to agree with Nick’s central premise: REAPER does pretty much everything that Pro Tools does, without most of that program’s major downsides.
The Pro Tools downsides include:
- Unlike most audio editing programs, users MUST buy one of the company’s interfaces and keep it connected to the computer when using the program.
- Specific updates of Pro Tools will only work with certain versions of one’s computer’s operating system, and updating one’s OS could make the program stop working, or necessitate a paid upgrade.
- The company announced in the spring of 2010 that future updates of the software would no longer support the original M-Box, which could require long-time users to purchase new hardware, rather than simply upgrading software.
- The central function of the software, the final mix-down, or “bounce,” can only happen in real-time, while many similar programs can perform that function much more quickly (not to mention that Pro Tools is notorious for mysterious errors that abort the bounce.)
- The learning curve or Pro Tools can be steep: it’s a complex program with a wide range of capabilities.
Even comparing the pros and cons, I’m not abandoning Pro Tools in favor of REAPER quite yet. I’ll admit that it’s probably partly that irrational devotion Nick references at the beginning of his review, but another part of it is just the basic feel of using REAPER. That experience is going to be different for every user, and someone starting with REAPER as their first serious editing program will likely have none of the issues that someone switching from another application will.
I find many of the functions of REAPER to be unintuitive and even a little clumsy. That’s likely to decrease, even go away, as I get used to the keyboard shortcuts and the most efficient ways to move around the screens, but my early impressions are that I’m doing more multi-key maneuvers or going to menus or dialogs more than I’d like. I find the inability to simply highlight part of a soundfile and delete it to be very disorienting. Yes, there are several ways to do the same thing, but they all seem to require an extra step, which feels clunky for such a fundamental process.
The Pro Tools crossfade dialog, and its adjustability of fades in general, provide a lot of flexibility that’s missing in REAPER. That may not matter to most users, as I look at other people’s Pro Tools projects, I rarely see much tweaking of fades, so REAPER’s provision of a few common shapes will likely be enough for most people.
REAPER’s ability to automatically crossfade overlapping audio can be very useful, and the option to view the overlapping audio in different ways is testament to the flexibility and sophistication of the program.
REAPER’s lack of a region bin changes the way one has to think about file management. In order to keep track of the soundfiles used in a project, it would be best to collect all one’s audio sources into a specific folder before starting. Happily, REAPER does have a Save-As function that can facilitate collecting or copying all the audio sources that appear in a project, much like the Pro Tools “Save Session Copy In” function. I highly recommend using that process to make copies of all files, and place them in their own directory, before giving the session to someone else to work-on, or when archiving the project.
It’s limiting that one can rename regions in REAPER’s editing window, by editing the region’s properties, but that process does not rename the actual soundfile, so, as Nick mentioned, searching for a specific clip, especially if it was not ultimately used in the project, can be a challenge. It would likely be useful to name regions and then just keep them in the project, perhaps on a muted track, or well “downstream” to the right in the edit window.
REAPER’s track grouping controls are in some ways much more sophisticated than Pro Tools, providing a complex matrix for what attributes will be assigned to what group, but this track grouping does not include moving or editing regions as a group. Grouping the regions themselves (by highlighting them and clicking the G key) does create groups that move together and get edited together, but this could get tedious in projects with many regions. In some cases the Pro Tools track grouping model, which WILL cause all elements on those tracks to move or be edited together, makes it easier to keep all one’s elements in-synch.
REAPER’s “ripple” editing, analogous to “Shuffle mode” in Pro Tools, is implemented in an interesting way, it can be turned on for the entire project or individual tracks, which is nice, but it also behaves a little differently than in most other editors, which just takes some getting used-to.
Highlighting a region then clicking F2 opens an impressive “Media Item Properties” dialog that provides much more flexibility than any Pro Tools function. Defining start position is like the Pro Tools “spot mode” (although there’s no provision for snapping the end of the region, or a defined sync point, to a specific time. but moving the right edge – done via selecting the segment “Edit>>Nudge Selected Items” then adjusting the settings of three dialog boxes… – is a little cumbersome. Nudging should be easier too. ) Being able to adjust fade in and out, level, playback speed and many other attributes of a region from one easily-accessed dialog is a great idea.
Despite some reservations, REAPER provides a viable alternative for someone who needs all the tweakability of Pro Tools, but does not want to buy their hardware, and would like to use the program without an interface attached. REAPER is not nearly as picky about what version of your computer’s operating system you use, most versions of Windows and Mac are supported. The program’s ability to render a mix at much faster than real-time is a real help to folks working on deadline.
It’s worth considering that REAPER, like Pro Tools, is primarily aimed at musicians, which means that there are many layers of the program that someone making audio documentaries will never use. If one is making radio shows, or audio productions in that vein, it might be worth looking at software purpose-built for THAT kind of production, like the soon-to-be-released Hindenburg Journalist.
REAPER’s price is right: $60 for a non-commercial user is more than fair. If it turns out that you’re making enough money as an audio producer, and you’re not a non-profit, go ahead and spring for the $225, that’s still pretty inexpensive.
Price comparisons to Pro Tools can be misleading: yes, it’s annoying to HAVE to use an interface, but if one is doing any real-time recording, not just importing files recorded elsewhere, it does help to have a good quality external interface. The price of Pro Tools includes such an interface, so it’s important to compare apples to apples when weighing prices. It’s increasingly common to only import files as files, not to record real-time audio signals, and in that circumstance, interfaces are mostly moot. But some functions, like critical listening to the final mix, are much improved by having a high-quality external audio interface, rather than using the computer’s own soundcard. REAPER can use most soundcards or external interfaces as input or output devices, just remember that you may need one to get broadcast-quality audio into your computer.
There should be no doubt that REAPER is a very capable multitrack audio editor and mixer, available for a good price, and free of many of the problems that bedevil Pro Tools users. And perhaps as more people use it, it will eventually become common enough that sending sessions to an editor will be just as easy as it is now with the ubiquitous Pro Tools. If you are not required to share the session and underlying soundfiles with anyone, it doesn’t matter what program you use, and REAPER may be the right choice for you.
There’s a fully-functional 30-day trial version of REAPER available for download.