Reaper, the digital audio workstation (DAW) from a tiny California company with big dreams, has come a long way since its 2006 launch. Reaper delivers live audio and virtual instrument recording, a full mixing console, and real notation editing, and it supports scoring for video. Unlike many competing DAWs, Reaper lets you build your own menus, toolbars, and macros, as well as changing the entire look and color scheme of the interface. Reaper is a complex program that requires study—making it perhaps the complete opposite of something like Apple’s GarageBand. But put in the time, load it up with some free (or paid) third-party plug-ins, and it pays real dividends in power and flexibility. Reaper covers nearly all of the bases of a Pro Tools or Cubase-equipped workstation at a fraction of the price.
The first time you open Reaper, you’re greeted with…not much. The opening screen indicates what is arguably the biggest roadblock to getting started with this program; it’s essentially a blank slate. The left side shows your track list, and the main arranging window is to the right. Along the bottom is the mixer, with the transport sitting above it and to the left; so far, so good. But a large part of the window is completely empty. The transport is smack in the center, as if it were a bad cut-and-paste job. The tiny icons at the top left resemble those of a 20-year-old Windows 98 application.
It turns out creating tracks is simple; you can just double-click the left side, or press CTRL-T (Command-T on Macs), though you’ll need to hit the Track menu to make virtual instrument tracks. The dated feel extends further as you start digging into the menus and customization options; you’re faced with dialog box after dialog box, all of which contain system-font-like text, plenty of sliders, and extraneous white space. The various mixer layouts all look mostly the same. The stock plugins, like the compressor and EQ, look like Settings dialogs instead of tools you use to shape sound (with the exception of a few radically different-looking, bundled third-party plug-ins, which is jarring from a UI-perspective). Naturally, the tiny installation size means there’s no room for fancy graphics.
The good news: If looks matter to you or help boost your creativity, you can enhance the UI with skins and layouts. Reaper includes plenty of layout examples in the program, and you can download free themes from the company site. Installing a new theme is just a matter of downloading a file and dragging it into an active Reaper project. I gave Apollo4 a whirl, and it’s a nice improvement over the stock look. It doesn’t affect the dreary built-in plug-ins, but it does change up the main UI in surprisingly thorough ways otherwise. There are themes that make Reaper look like analog mixing consoles, as well as some that come as close as possible to duplicating the UIs of popular DAWs like Pro Tools, Cubase and Logic.
Despite its difficult-to-grasp interface, Cockos Reaper is an excellent value. On a PC, it’s almost a no-brainer. It’s probably the least expensive way to get a full-featured DAW for recording live instruments, running VSTs, and making finished recordings without limitation. Alternatives include the low-cost versions of big-name DAWs, such as PreSonus Studio One Artist, Cubase Elements, FL Studio Fruity Edition, and so on. These generally have more mature interfaces, much more in the way of included sounds, and (in my opinion) clearer and easier workflow. But they’re all purposely feature-limited in a way Reaper isn’t, in order to get you to spend more money on the top-of-the-line editions. And most don’t run as well as Reaper on older PCs.
Reaper’s dedicated online community, combined with all the features, the lack of copy protection, and the low entry price, make this program a tempting proposition, particularly if you’re tired of the bloat from other DAWs or just want something affordable that realizes your creative vision. It’s a question of how important the ability to tune the tool itself is before you get onto the business of making music, or while doing so; if that concept appeals to you, you’ll find a lot to like in Reaper. It’s the underdog DAW, but it’s also not much of a sacrifice at all to use it.