I have been struggling for some time with the question of what Digital Audio Workstation to use for music production and for podcasting. My needs are different then a lot of people and the quality of a DAW is somewhat subjective so this is a hard thing to pin down. The truth is that most of the big names do more or less the same thing, however, their work flow is a bit different as is their compatibility with hardware (controllers, sound cards) and software (operating systems and plug ins). I’ll tack on a little list of these differences at the bottom of the post. I wrote it as response on Google+ to an inquiry on DAW recommendations.
Up until recently I primarily used CuBase and Ardour. CubBase came with my Alesis Firewire mixer. I took to it pretty quick. In the past I have used Pro Tools to a limited degree as well as many other tools that aren’t necessarily DAWs, but have a lot of overlap. These include CakeWalk, Reason, Sound Forge and Audacity. My open source brethren may be sad to hear I am now (almost) 100% using the proprietary DAW Reaper.
In wanting to move 100% to Linux I have invested a lot of time in getting to know Ardour, which I really like and think is as capable as just about anything else out there in most respects. One of it’s primary strengths is the phenomenal routing options enabled by JACK. Up until version 3 which will shortly be released Ardour’s midi capabilities have been extremely weak. That and it’s less than perfect support of Mac and not being able to run on Windows are my primary issues with using it full time.
As a side note, we are very close to eliminating Mac OSX in the house so we’ll only be concerned with Linux and Windows support. Our Macbook is still limping along on 10.4 Tiger. To be fair, “limping” is a harsh term. It is still a very capable machine and has survived being submerged in soda and dropped several times. It has actually been the best laptop I’ve ever owned. The only physical limitation is that the battery finally gave out, which would be a minor investment.
My problem with it is largely Apple’s philosophies. The way they artificially force the upgrade cycle as well as their lock-in and controlling ways. Because of how they structure things, I cannot run Firefox 4, Chrome, or a number of newer applications simply because I am on Tiger. With the launch of Lion they have signed the machine’s OSX death warrant as Lion will not run on it’s processor. Sure it’s, what, five or six years old but hardware honestly hasn’t changed all that much and when running off a Linux CD everything (including newest Chrome and Firefox) run superbly.
I have been hearing about Reaper for years. I even installed and played with it a little bit back in version 2. I was impressed but wasn’t looking to change DAWs, so didn’t look very closely. Now is the time to make a complete change. Either upgrade to the latest version of CuBase or change to something completely different.
For a number of valid reasons Viv wants to stick with Windows and I want to stick with Linux, so our DAW either needs to be cross compatible for our podcasting and audio production work or we need to pass the large digital working files back and forth, which is inconvenient and time consuming. This means that a tool that runs on both Windows and Linux is ideal. Reaper does this very well. Currently this is accomplished by running the Windows version in WINE, but they are working on a Linux native version and the progress sounds promising.
I’ll get to the features in a second, but the company that produces the software is just as compelling to me. First off, they have a funny name: “Cockos”. Second it is an extremely small, focused team – currently only 3 developers. This runs the risk of them burning out and ceasing the project, but I have a feeling that if that were to happen, they would go open source rather than abandon it. The small team means that they have minimal overhead. It also means that they do whatever the hell they want in regards to engineering a rock solid product (the thing never crashes!) and don’t have to kowtow to stock holders, investors or a marketing department.
Cockos was founded by Justin Frankel. He’s the guy who created Winamp which AOL bought. He got about $59 million out of the deal. He stayed on at AOL for a long time, but was quite subversive. He released software as open source (NSIS) and/or open standards (SHOUTcast) as well as creating and releasing such controversial software as Gnutella which went on to become the largest peer to peer file sharing protocol on the planet (Limewire uses it)… as in, the network that his employer’s parent company Time Warner tried to get shut down because of all of those dirty heathen pirates stealing their treasures.
He also created NINJam which is a very cool tool that allows musicians to play music together over the Internet. NINJam is open source and runs on Linux, Mac and Windows.
A statement from their website:
“Our goal is to develop software sustainably while preventing profit rationale from forcing engineering compromises. By doing so, we can keep our product visions intact, giving maximum benefit to our users.
We lovingly craft the software that we would want to use. ”
Reaper’s business model:
“We offer a good product at a fair price. We don’t spend money and effort on marketing, complicated piracy protection, or other things that do not directly improve REAPER and the user experience. We think the good will generated by playing fair and being responsive to users is more valuable to our business than short-term profits. ”
True to that model you can download, install and run the full product free for 30 days. No DRM, nothing crippled. You are encouraged to pay the license after 30 days, but it will keep on working whether you pay or not because they are trusting in you to do the right thing and they have such a reasonable price that you really should. In short, they rock, and I trust them.
So, what about the features? At the core is everything you expect from a DAW. Non-linear, non-destructive editing; works with most plugins (VST, VSTi, DX, DXi, AU and their own JS format); capture, edit and route both audio and midi; built in mappings for major midi controllers, bla bla bla… it’s all there.
Things that make it stand out include (in no particular order)
- Rock solid performance. The thing is a tank and just never crashes
- All audio is processed from input to output in 64bits with any sampling rate your hardware supports
- You can mix any source files without conversion – mix and match bit depths and sampling rates seamlessly. So one track could be a 16bit, 44.1kHz AIFF, one could be a 128kbit mp3, one could be an mpeg dump from a DVD with 24bit, 48kHz audio — and they will all “just work” without waiting for conversions or having any lags/chipmunk sounds
- Audio routing comparable to Ardour/JACK. This means you can plug the output from any track to the input of any other track quickly and have complete control over where it inserts (pre fader, post fader, pre FX, etc) how it pans and the amount of volume. You can also route the input/output arbitrarily to hardware devices – so you could create a special mix that goes to a headphone amplifier and one that goes to the main speakers
- Sidechain any plug-in, even if the plug-in does not natively support sidechaining!
- Comes with hundreds of excellent plugins including:
- Multi-band compressor
- Unlimited multi band EQ
- Graphical FFT-based EQ and dynamics processing, a flexible tool for surgical EQ/compression, noise gating, and more
- Noise Gate
- Pitch shifting
- Pitch correction (auto tune)
- Basic software synthesizer
- Beat finding/matching
- Layer midi and audio data within the same track (in Reaper there are no track “types”. You can put anything in them – even video)
- Drag tracks into a “folder”. Any operation you perform on the folder happens to all tracks (effects, etc.) – very intuitive way to view bussing
- Surround Sound mixing
- Select multiple tracks and have every operation affect them all (pan, volume, create sends, copy/cut/paste audio)
- Act as a ReWire master or slave
- Plugin memory and processing sandboxing so a buggy plugin can’t bring the DAW or other plugins down. You can assign how much memory the plugins get to use
- Run as a portable app from a flash drive or external hard drive. Take all of you presets and preferences with you on the road or to another studio (the whole installed app is under 40 megabytes!)
- Network to other computers running Reaper. The other machines can act as DSP banks for real-time network effects processing, leaving your CPU free
- Record all tracks directly to MP3, OGG, or most of it’s other supported formats so you don’t need to render the whole file if no edits are needed!
- Export stems and/or the final mix at the same time
- User interface and key binding templates to make Reaper look/act like the DAW you’re used to. Greatly eases down time while you’re behind the learning curve
- Import and export just about every file type you could ever want
- Import: WAV, AIFF, MP3, FLAC,OGG, MIDI, BWF, W64, AVI, MOV, MPEG, QT, WMV, CDDA, ACID, APE,EDL, KAR, MOGG, RADAR session, REX2, SYX, WAVPACK
- Export: WAV, AIFF, MP3 , FLAC, OGG, BWF, W64, CD ISO (CUE/BIN), MIDI, APE, MOGG, WAVPACK);
That is just a small sub-set of features. I’ve been actively using Reaper for a few months now and every time I’ve run into a problem I need to solve a simple Google search not only shows me that Reaper can do that thing, but shows the menu item/default key to make it happen.
As promised, here is a snippet from a Google+ post that categorizes the most popular Digital Audio software:
The following list shows some audio products grouped together by their primary designed purpose. Of course most of them can do a little bit of everything, but will excel at their primary purpose and have limited features or a more difficult workflow for everything else:
Single Track Recording, editing, audio correction
Music/audiobook production (multi-track editing, processing, effects)
Music Sequencing and production (heavy on midi and virtual instruments)
Audio Production for Video (edit, sync, correction)
Apple Final Cut Pro
Sony CD Architect
BIAS Peak Pro
Quick and dirty music production
Finally, some software is more suited to the hardware you have. Steinberg is actually owned by Yamaha, so works best with their stuff. AVID owns M-Audio so works with that best. Ableton doesn’t own Akai or vice versa (as far as I know) but they are integrated tightly together. This holds true for sound cards, midi controllers, and various other gear.
Linux tries to work with everything, so Ardour, Qtractor, Jammin, JoKosher should be able to use most interfaces. That said, there are a couple companies (like RME-audio) that go the extra mile to ensure Linux support of their products and Linux versions of their software.