Review: Reaper

REAPER 4.0

My main motivation for trying out Reaper was curiosity. I had heard of it from several sources: several audio web portals, fellow instructors at Lansing Community College and my students. At LCC, we use Pro Tools 10 for the entire audio production sequence, as it is the audio industry standard. A significant number of my students, however, use something else besides Pro Tools. Popular programs include Ableton Live, Cubase and Garage Band, most of which come with audio interfaces or other studio gear. Of my students who had actually tried Reaper, most said they liked it in general, and that it was a fairly easy to use program. One of my sharper students  thought it was a very good home studio software suite and merited a look. So I did.

I was able to find the Reaper web site (http://www.reaper.fm) via Google search. Reaper is published by Cockos Incorporated, the same folks who published WinAmp, the venerable alternative to Windows Media Player.  I was treated to several pleasant surprises when I started digging through the Reaper web site. First of all, Reaper supports Windows 2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8 and MAC OSX any. Pro Tools 10, on the other hand, requires Windows 7 or OSX Snow Leopard on a dual core computer with a recommended 4GB of RAM. Reaper only requires the Windows XP minimums: 512MB RAM and a 800Mhz CPU. The second surprise: the downloadable installer was only 6MB, resulting in a 61 MB installed folder. I put Reaper on an HP/Compaq nc6220 laptop with a 1.8GHz Centrino CPU and 1GB RAM. Not the best PC in the world, but this old warhorse won’t run Pro Tools or Cubase, either. The last surprise was the price. A personal use license (home studio, student or even a very small business) was only $60 USD! ($240 for a commercial license) Bonus: you can download a fully functional 60 day free trial, which is twice that of Pro Tools. Reaper does require a production class hard disk drive- 7200rpm spin speed, Oxford chip set, USB interface- the same as any other DAW. The last crucial bit of hardware is the audio input/output interface. I have an Alesis iO2 Express USB interface and an AKG P3S microphone which I really like.

My first piece of advice for this or any other Digital Audio Workstation program: Read the Manual! The Reaper manual is pretty good as manuals go. It’s pretty hefty, a 12MB PDF, and well indexed, which is a major plus if you are looking for something specific. The manual does a nice job of walking the reader through the installation process. One of the installation options that I thought was really cool was one which allows the user to install Reaper on an external drive and take the program with you and use it on any computer. I thought about that long and hard before deciding to confine my install to the laptop. (Most places where I have computers available to me are in noisy environments, e.g. server rooms, and not conducive to recording voice overs.) The user should pay close attention here, as the manual covers such critical topics as where project files get saved, where media gets saved, where to store downloaded plugins and virtual instruments and where to store the LAME MP3 encoder. Knowing where everything is stashed is crucial to production success; it’s very painful to run out of hard disk space because you’ve recorded to the wrong drive. If the user is using an ASIO compliant device, the user may also tweak RAM and CPU use settings to reduce recording latency, a big necessity for multi-track recording. All user adjustable settings are found in the Options menu; the user is advised to review program settings thoroughly.

I found the setup process to be very straightforward, although time consuming. It took about 30 minutes to set up my installation and preferences. I chose to store project files & media files in my external drive to conserve space on my main C drive. Plugins and virtual instruments went in the program folder on the c drive per the manual.

Time to Record!

Reaper 4.0 GUI

Reaper 4.0 GUI

For my test project I dusted off an old DMAC120 project script from the Ad Council that promoted the Peace Corps. To record the voice over, I had to create a mono track, select Mic Input on my I/O device, then arm the track. Press record and play on the transport controls and voila! I was recording. I recorded two takes – about par for the course for me – and chose the best one. I edited for time and pacing and tightened things up a bit. A note about editing with Reaper: it will allow you to use another program such as Audacity to do editing. That struck me as odd, as the interface is straightforward enough. There are two edit modes in Reaper: ripple and free item positioning. Ripple will automatically splice together audio clips on the timeline, and free item positioning allows the editor to freely position clips on the timeline.

Reaper comes with a large plug-in set that allows the producer to process audio. I used the built-in parametric EQ to shape my voice – I have a great voice for silent film – and a little bit of compression/expansion to brighten it up and add some punch. Reaper accepts VST, DX, AU (Mac), Rewire and JavaScript plug-ins. Tweaking the VO took a couple minutes at most.

Next, I had to choose some music to complete the project. Reaper can import 23 different audio and video formats, both compressed and uncompressed. I found Micro-Composition 9  by Jared C. Balogh for my demo project on the Free Music Archive, http://www.freemusicarchive.org. Mixing was straightforward. I used my mouse to draw automation data on the music track, allowing me to craft my mix quickly and easily. Reaper will also work with hardware control surfaces, but I was not able to test this.

Once the mix was to my liking, I had to export my completed project. Reaper can export BWF, WAV, MP3, CD-ISO, AIFF and a few others. The export process was straightforward, just choose your file type, parameters and location for the exported program, then click OK. You can download and listen to the completed project here: http://sdrv.ms/YZgl5L

I very much enjoyed test driving Reaper. The multi-track interface is clean and easy to work with, and would make a very good production platform for a  music demo projects, audio podcasting or radio style voice work. The Cockos programmers have designed a software platform that works well with older computers, removing a significant barrier to entry for the audio hobbyist or home studio professional. The manual is pretty good, and the Reaper web site hosts an active support forum. Like all DAW software, the user will need to understand the ins and outs of sound and signal flow before they can bring their audio creations to fruition. Reaper is definitely worth a look… and listen.

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