Welcome to the alt-DAW scene. Last week, not only did Renoise continue its rebirth of the forgotten “tracker” genre of music making software with ReWire support, but we saw a big new version of REAPER, the beloved lightweight audio production tool from the original creator of Winamp.

What makes an “alt DAW”, or “indie” production software? To me, it’s:

  • small development teams of a few people
  • tightly-integrated communities directly involved in feature requests
  • trusting users instead of adding significant DRM, returning to the traditional “shareware” business model of old
  • affordable pricing

That’s not to take away from some of the bigger players – I was struck this week with the (unsurprising) ubiquity of Ableton Live at MUTEK; it’s a real testament to what they have accomplished. But choice is essential, and looking at the history of music technology, it’s in the periods of real choice that the most interesting things have happened. It makes everything better when developers really have to compete.

Cockos REAPER has spread almost virally as an underground DAW, partly because you can download the thing and get started with without any restrictions, then buy it for as little as US$60 for personal use.

http://www.reaper.fm/index.php

It’s not just for Windows people any more, either – the Mac version is now officially supported. You can run on Windows 7 or Windows 2000 or even 98 (with limited support). You can run on 10.4 Macs, or even PowerPC (though Intel is recommended). You can even run on Linux with official WINE support, though I’d still like to see a native Linux version, especially as Linux on netbooks is getting so lovely.

Version 3.0 came out this week. There are a huge number of improvements:

  • MIDI editing with inline editing, event filtering, Sysex, controller automation – finally, REAPER is getting as good with MIDI as it is with audio
  • Automation lanes
  • Unlimited folder nesting
  • Multichannel audio support
  • User-created track and mixer control panels and macros
  • Game controller support, including joysticks and even Guitar Hero controllers, which you can integrate with existing MIDI and macro facilities
  • New graphics engine, new theming

And that’s just a few examples; see the full changelog:

http://www.reaper.fm/whatsnew-300.txt

You can script your own audio and MIDI plug-ins using JS, and use 64-bit plug-ins included with the package. And all of this is a 4MB download. And there’s no DRM.

While some software increases memory and resource consumption with new versions, REAPER reverses the trend: it’s getting more lightweight and faster as it develops. That’s something we need more of; it’s absolutely possible with the right development approach, and is a welcome change from the “get fatter as computers get faster” approach that infected decades of software development.

Upgrades are $149 if you bought Reaper after September 1, $199 otherwise, or EUR249 for Europe, or $99 if your favorite color is blue, or $123.5 * PI / 2 if you had LE, or $999 for REAPER Suite, or $699 for a Grande REAPERccino Latte, unless you don’t want all the plug-ins, in which case you can get Tall as an upgrade for $119.3587 plus a $150 fuel surcharge, unless you bought your license on a full moon…

Oh, okay, actually, upgrades are free for two major upgrades – meaning if you buy now, you’re covered through 4.99. And there’s one version, called REAPER, which includes… REAPER.

You’re seeing what this hype is about, right? And, if you’re like me, you’re wondering why, you know, other things can’t be a little more like this?

Updated: Sorry, I lost my mind and wrote “JavaScript” instead of the unrelated scripting language JS. Here’s a good explanation from the JS Programming Reference to what this is.

JS is a scripting language which is compiled on the fly and allows you to modify and/or generate audio and MIDI, as well as draw custom vector based UI and analysis displays.
JS effects are simple text files, which when loaded in REAPER become full featured plug-ins. You can try loading existing JS effects and since they are distributed in source form, you can also edit existing effects to suit your needs (we recommend if editing an existing effect you save it as something with a new name–if you do not you may lose your changes when upgrading REAPER).

JS Programming Guide

There’s also an extensions SDK in C++ and an LGPL-licensed SDK for control surfaces. You can contrast this with Ableton, which will charge extra for its Max for Live runtime and has no officially supported or documented API for control surfaces, which means that support for more exotic devices routinely breaks, and trying it yourself is harder.

  • pyramind

    Reaper rocks so hard that people avoid it thinking it is a joke.

  • http://friendfeed.com/dmlandrum Darren Landrum

    If REAPER ever released a native Linux version, I would be the first in line.

    The world of Linux audio is such a shambles right now, with half-finished projects, tons of competing standards, and essential functionality missing (session saving for JACK, anyone?), that I'm ready to give up all hope and jump back to Windows.

    And then I think about being beholden to the whims of a single corporation, and my blood boils. So, the choices are, a platform that works but is closed off and controlled by people who don't care about my needs, or a fragmented community of developers at odds with each other who… don't care about my needs.

    Either way, I'm screwed.

    The solution might be to have the quality software available on the Windows/Mac platforms become available on Linux. An open platform with well-supported software that actually works could very well be the way out of this mess.

    This post is just a rant, and some parts might be unsubstantiated. I can't help but feel the way I do about the (sorry) state of Linux pro audio right now, though.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, look:

    Ardour 3 is coming.

    Pd, SuperCollider are both exceptional software.

    JACK is utter brilliance.

    energyXT and Renoise are both Linux native.

    LinuxSampler is fantastic.

    WINE can often be pretty close to being native.

    There's a huge, huge signal to noise problem on Linux, but if you focus on the best stuff, it is a workable platform.

    I think the short-term solution if it doesn't work for you is to stick to really good stuff on Mac and Windows that you know will be portable down the line – and Reaper fits that category.

    Peter

  • http://ruaridh.marciablaine.com ruaridhTVO

    yep, in my experience people assume that cheap/lightweight must = limited/unstable/buggy.

    I swore I would never get involved with the Cubase paradigm again but Reaper has completely changed that view.

    In particular, ReaRoute – which alone had my jaw on the ground – has made integrating PD/Audiomulch/Max/whatever your flavour of more 'perfromance' aligned software into a post/final-production environment an absolute dream.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    I'm a proud user!

    I am trying to migrate from the big seq I use.

    I love the idea of a small and portable app that I can carry with me, and work with all the amzing vsts that I love.

    Right now, a DAW is almost an empty shell, for virtual instruments and effects, with nice automation tools.

    I don't want to work with software that needs 4.5gb of hd space. Because I know it is not necessary. Reaper fits in just 4mb.

    Now we just need a similar tool for live playing. Anyone?

  • http://ruaridh.marciablaine.com ruaridhTVO

    For me there's no sense in spending multiple hundreds/thousands on software when there are amazing low-cost alternatives that in many cases do a better job and where you can often have a direct line into the development process (feature requests, betas etc). Spend the money on better hardware or fancy production plugins if you must but I've been releasing records with just Reaper and Audiomulch (connected via ReaRoute) for a while now. With Mulch 2.0 almost out of Beta (and amazing it is too) and Reaper 3.0 things are looking brighter daily.

  • http://www.professorwhimsey.com Dr. Apostrophe X

    I actually started using Reaper (v1) as my exclusive DAW two years ago, when I got tired of trying to play keep-up with Cakewalk's SONAR versions (yes, they add a lot of stuff each year, but as a hobbiest $240 even every two years is too rich for my blood for a host application).

    It's definitely the most rock-solid in terms of performance when it comes to audio and I'm really excited to start playing around with the MIDI and automation enhancements. To me, the key features revolve around the MIDI and audio routing, and Reaper has undoubtedly the most flexible and intuitive (to me, anyway) audio routing environment I've ever seen.

    Even though my v1 license doesn't cover v3, the nice folks at Cockos automatically extended my v3 license through the first part of August, which will give me enough time to re-up at the regular non-commercial license price of $60 (which is incredibly reasonable).

  • http://www.basementhum.com Basement Hum

    "You can script the DAW with JavaScript,"

    I couldn't find any mention of javascript in the manual or in the changelog, anyone know where to find more details about this?

  • Andreas

    Ok, I've been hearing way too much about Reaper lately not to take it for a spin. Off I go, bye bye sleep.

  • http://www.basementhum.com Basement Hum

    I'm now wondering if the 'JS' plugin format was mistaken for javascript. The JS langauge allows the creation of plugins, but no scripting of the DAW as far as i can see (http://www.reaper.fm/sdk/js/js.php)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Sorry, I'm not quite sure what possessed me to write "JavaScript" instead of the unrelated scripting language in Reaper, JS.

    There is also an extension SDK and a control surface SDK. So, in other words:

    * JS lets you make your own audio and MIDI effects.

    * The extension SDK allows you to plug in functionalities like file import, control surface support, and access some DAW functions.

    * The mini-SDK makes it fairly easy to support control surfaces – and it's LGPL-licensed.

  • lematt

    wow reaper is impressive !

  • http://lumma.org/microwave Carl Lumma

    As far as I'm concerned, REAPER is the best DAW in the world.

  • http://www.combatdave.com combatdave

    This JS stuff sounds awesome, specially when combined with native Guitar Hero controller support. I've been working on something similar (using Processing – it's on my website if anyone is interested), but I'm always open to alternatives.

  • http://www.3amnoise.net/runagate runagate

    I bought Reaper just to support the developer long ago despite having next to no use for it until quite recently.

    As to Linux what about this clone of a popular sequencer host?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMiGjaTKdG4

    The reason it caught my attention is that it's cross-platform.

    http://lmms.sourceforge.net/

    "What is LMMS?

    LMMS is a free cross-platform alternative to commercial programs like FL Studio®, which allow you to produce music with your computer. This includes the creation of melodies and beats, the synthesis and mixing of sounds, and arranging of samples. You can have fun with your MIDI-keyboard and much more; all in a user-friendly and modern interface.

    Features

    Song-Editor for composing songs

    A Beat+Bassline-Editor for creating beats and basslines

    An easy-to-use Piano-Roll for editing patterns and melodies

    An FX mixer with 64 FX channels and arbitrary number of effects allow unlimited mixing possibilities

    Many powerful instrument and effect-plugins out of the box

    Full user-defined track-based automation and computer-controlled automation sources

    Compatible with many standards such as SoundFont2, VST(i), LADSPA, GUS Patches, and full MIDI support

    Import of MIDI and FLP (Fruityloops® Project) files"

    I've not tried it myself.

  • Zoopy

    I can't seem to pry myself away from ableton.. it's just completely changed my workflow that I would never want to go back to that typical ugly DAW screen.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    LMMS is interesting, but it's not FL – nowhere close. Looks, let's be honest here – your choices on Linux are limited compared to what's on Windows and Mac. I think for most people, if you don't want to be disappointed, you use mature tools, and a lot of the Linux tools are not, plain and simple. The key is, if you focus on the ones that are — think Ardour, Reaper in WINE, Renoise running native, energyXT running native, and then tools like Csound, Pd, and SuperCollider for those who know how to use them — you can have a positive experience.

    You really shouldn't use any OS because you have to, you should do it because it works for you, so really you do have alternatives.

  • dan

    the best part about reaper is how damn fast all these new features get added. it's come from a standing start to doing lots of thing better than any other DAW in basically 18 months. of course, that's also the main criticism – there's SO MUCH STUFF in there that it can be a bit much if you don't know what you're doing.

    i've noticed beginners tend to get really thrown by it. people who've built up skills in other DAWs either use it for 5 minutes and never touch it again, or get totally converted and start evangelising straight away (i'm one of the latter).

    bloody good bit of software, very keen to see what they do with it next.

  • dan

    oh, and the JS processing can also generate and process MIDI. or take audio and emit MIDI. or whatever. it's very powerful.

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk/ gwenhwyfaer

    I was interested to see that Cockos have formalised the terms under which they expect you to "go pro" (commercial use with over $20k turnover). Is this new with 3, or has it been that clearly stated for a while now? (I should say that I like these terms a lot! and I welcome the clarification.)

  • http://www.isle-of-avalon.co.uk/ gwenhwyfaer

    dan: Funny you mention the beginners thing; I've never really got to grips with DAWs as a species (I like Psycle), and the first time I tried Reaper (way back when) it threw me. On the other hand, when I gave 2.5x a quick go at the tail end of last year, I very quickly found myself going "Oh! I get it now!" Didn't keep it installed (I still like Psycle ;-) , but I certainly didn't find it that intimidating.

  • http://nwrecords.com gbsr

    reaper+ableton live = sex.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    Actions and Extensions allow you to customize the program to any extent. Actions are Macros totally integrated with the environment.

    Extensions are developed with Reaper's SDK.

    Take a look at Xenakios Extensions, an add on from a power user with amazing power!

    (http://sites.google.com/site/xenakios/)

  • http://www.myspace.com/noou (noou)

    @Peter: what do you mean for "There’s a huge, huge signal to noise problem on Linux"? Do you mean literally?

  • graham

    reaper 3.0 is amazing. finally an affordable/stable mac platform that lets you use all your vsts and audio units! i'm in live

  • dan

    rad, psycle is cool. i was putting some beats together with it last night after having not touched it in ages (i was using it exclusively for years though).

  • rondema

    v3.01 is now available :)

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  • snav

    I use logic on my mac but i need something for my pc, and ive been using cubase se for years.

    I'm sick of the problems with cubase se and just d/loaded Reaper

    I have yet to get get midi working.