Summery: Check out the videos below. This has been one of my harder posts. Usually I tackle a smaller subject and go into lots to detail. There really is no way to be comprehensive when comparing DAWs. Hell, Reaper’s manual has 400 pages. It’s a good manual but it doesn’t cover everything.
So I started thinking about these DAWs holistically not piecemeal. What is Reaper’s personality? Can I give specific examples? How does it’s approach differ from other DAWs?
I really like Reaper. It has lots of thoughtful things that make day to day use pleasant. It has a helpful community, a good manual, and devs who seem to be responsive. At $60 it’s a great value.
Contrary to what you might read on the interwebs Reaper is a pro product (or has been since I first tried it at version 4). I use it as much as I use Samplitude now.
Where I’m coming from: If you don’t know much about an author it’s had to evaluate what they’re saying. So…
I started with Protools. I was pretty handy with it and took some certification classes. I left briefly for Sonar. Flirted with Nuendo. Then chose Samplitude for the last 5 years. Samplitude is not well known in the US. It’s a very sophisticated DAW with a huge feature set.
I use DAWs for recording, editing, mixing, and some virtual instruments. I don’t use midi heavily.
My DAW Philosophy: Software won’t make you a better mixer. It won’t give you great ears. It won’t improve your musical taste. Most modern DAWs can accomplish the same things one way or another. So why even compare DAWs?
My philosophy on DAWs has changed over the years. I use to look for sonic quality and feature set. I didn’t give documentation, user interface, or intuitive organization much thought. If the DAW could do the job I was happy. It didn’t matter that it took 20 mouse clicks or had strange keyboard shortcuts.
But if you spend a lot of time with a DAW these little things start adding up. An extra click here, a reference to the manual there, pretty soon your workflow slows. So does your spontaneity. After a while mixing is less fun.
I appreciate the little things more and more. Here is the plugins window in Reaper. On the left you have all of Reaper’s stock categories. On the bottom left I’ve added a costume folder called “Favorites”. It’s where I put the few plugins I use 95% of the time. Big time saver. By default there is also a “Recently used” folder. You can search your plugins. See the “Filter” field in the lower left? You can re-scan you plugin paths directly from this window. You can access your plugin preferences via this window. When you close and re-open it remembers the last state. So if you had Favorites active it’s active the next time you open the window. All good.
True you can get to your plugins with any simple window but Reaper makes this frequently used task much faster. It’s very easy to accumulate a few hundred plugins. Navigating through a windows style list of them is a needless hassle.
Comparing Reaper and Samplitude: I initially got interested in Reaper because Samplitude 11 Pro (32 bit) was having trouble with some VSTi memory hogs. Samplitude Pro X has since been released and is 64 bit. So I can’t compare both DAWs at 64 bits. However I’ve used Samplitude long enough to know the general nature of the program. I doubt tons has changed with version X.
I’ll point out what I appreciate in one program and is lacking in the other. One man’s opinion. To each there own. Here goes.
Documentation: You may be saying who cares. You’ll probably start caring when something isn’t intuitive and you spend 20 minutes figuring it out. A feature you can’t use isn’t a feature at all. This is especially important when your DAW is “deep” like Samplitude and Reaper.
Reaper has a well written and frequently updated manual. There is a great video tutorial series here. It’s not free but it’s definitely worth the money. I’ve actually read most of the manual and I’ve watched the full tutorial series. There are some other books here and a site devoted to Reaper video tutorials here with some free content. The Reaper forum is friendly and active. Cool.
Samplitude’s manual is lot harder to use. I suspect it’s a so-so translation of the German (Samplitude is made by German company Magix). The Forum is helpful but frequented by technical people which is good and bad. The single most helpful resource I’ve found is Kraznet’s videos. I don’t know what his motivation was for putting together all these video. He may be one of the nicest people on the planet.
I was hoping to show examples of the translation issue in Samp. I found these gems yesterday using the FFT filter.
Move over engrish.com.
User interface. For me Reaper is more intuitive. Things are where I expect them to be. Here is an example. Reaper has bouncing under the file menu. Samplitude puts it under tools. I consider bouncing to be a part of import/export and so expect it to be in the main file menu.
Samplitude has an irritating habit of not remembering your last preference page. For example if you were trying out several buffer settings you have to navigate to them every time you close the window. Reaper, from what I see, always remembers the last place you were in preferences, project settings, and a few other complicated windows. No reason to switch DAWs but it’s very nice.
Both DAWs have context menus like crazy. Start right clicking and you’ll find you can open preferences, lists of processing effect, windows for other setting. This is very handy. For example the playback options in Samplitude are 3 layers deep if you go via the main menu but you can easily right click the play button on the transport to open them.
Perhaps because Samplitude is… deeper…more complex it’s UI is busy. It does have workspace settings where you can pick subsets of the full UI. But even paired down to “easy” I find Reaper a cleaner read.
Plugins: Samplitude comes with a great set of plugins. There is an analog modeling suite. It contains my favorite compressor/tape saturation (Am-track), a sophisticated mastering compressor (Am-munition), a transient designer (Am-pulse), and an amp simulator (Am-phibia). Outside of the suite there is one of the better guitar sims (Vandal). Since I bought my Fractal Axe-Fx I’ve pretty much abandoned using guitar software sims. But you can still do useful things with them like adding a bit of distortion to a kick drum. There is also convolution and algorithmic reverb, more compressors and dynamic processors, and a linear phase eq.
For me the bundled plugins make Samplitude a one stop shop. I don’t need to use 3rd party plugins to mix.
Reaper’s plugins. When I first started using Reaper’s plugins I admit I was disappointed. They are so stripped down. For example, the mastering compressor (JS LOSER/masterLimiter) has 7 parameters. Compare this to Samplitude’s Am-munition with 3 stages (compressor, limiter, clipper), sidechain, filters, stereo linking, MS processing, saturation/clipping setting, parallel compression ratio, etc. The extras on Am-munition aren’t useless either. I use the filters between the compressor and limiter stage all the time. I use the bypass monitor to level match and compare the signal with and without the compressor.
At first I was going to say something like, “Samplitude’s plugins kill Reaper’s”. But after spending some time with Reaper’s stock plugins I warmed. Simple parameters, stark graphic design, quick and useful. There are quite a few stock plugins between the Rea-plugins (ReaComp, ReaEQ) and the JS plugins (Jesus Sonic).
The stock Reaper plugins cover your basics mixing needs. So what do I miss?
Samplitude’s stock EQ allows you to quick save via the plugin window 3 settings for fast comparisons. These are like presets but much faster. They live and die with an EQ instance.
Like most DAWs Samplitude has EQ on the channel strips by default. You can hide or show them. After you dial them in using the plugin window you can make final adjustments via the mixer. It’s much faster then opening 15 windows. A Reaper channel strip has nothing on it by default. If you want to see EQ knobs you have to set it up and then save it as the default channel strip (track). After that every new channel strip will have EQ knobs on it. It takes a little extra time to set this up bu there is a perk. You can add knobs for ANY plugin to Reaper’s channel strips. Save them as default and when you add a new track it will open with, for example, an EQ and an LA2A compressor’s knobs.
I’d like Reaper to come with a hi-resolution spectrograph for looking at the low end and fixing resonance problems. Reaper does have a spectrograph built into it’s stock EQ allowing you to see your EQ in action. That’s nice. But it’s not as configurable as what Samp offers. You can’t set peak holds, decay times, or choose the number of frequency bands.
Reaper has a very basic algorithmic reverb. It sounds pretty good. And it has a convolution reverb minus impulses. Today I’m told there are good online sources for impulses (SoundonSound just did an article on Reaper’s convolution reverb and where to get quality impulses). Reaper also has a tuning plugin that does tuning based on midi notes. This way pitch correction software does not need to guess.
Samplitude and Reaper both come with pitch correction software. I actually prefer Reaper’s. It’s an unimpressive GUI but I find it easier to use. Even with it’s lack of parameters if gives good results and that’s all I really care about.
I think everyone should at least try a linear EQ. They definitely sound different. Samplitude includes one. Reaper does not.
Intuitive Keyboard Shortcuts: In either DAW you can customize shortcuts but I really prefer not to invent my own system. That takes time and you have to deal with all the conflicts that arise (what? I already used “m” for mixer?). I’d prefer that the stock set of shortcuts only requires a few customizations.
Maybe it’s my own persona taste. Maybe Samplitude’s shortcuts are derived from the German. I find Reaper’s shortcuts much more intuitive. One thing I do a lot is make a range selection based on a clip of audio. Then I zoom to that range. Samplitude requires a custom keyboard shortcut to select the range from a clip. The keyboard shortcut to zoom to the range is control+alt+down. Not my first or second guess.
Speed and Efficiency: Both DAWs launch a new project fast enough. Reaper at 3.5 seconds and Samplitude at 5. No big deal. And I can’t fairly compare a 32bit program (Samp 11 Pro) to a 64bit one (Reaper 4) when dealing with hoggy VSTs like BFD2.
Removing the VSTs what do things look like? I took a look at two comparable projects. One in Samp. One in Reaper. Both were just tracks and bundled plugins. A few UAD plugs ran in both sessions but I believe the UAD card does that processing.
Ohhh, which brings me to Reaper’s performance meter. This thing really shows where your horses are going. Here you can see how much data is being read from your hard drive, your ram use, your available ram, and your CPU use. There is a list of tracks with the number of plugins on them and what CPU (as a percentage of total) they use. You can even right click on the tracks to mute, bypass, or bring up their FX dialog. Muting also stops processing on a track. Cool.
Here we see Reaper is at 3.01% of FX CPU use with 37 tracks and 88 plugins. Samplitude was 11% CPU with 24 tracks and 19 plugins on a comparable project. I remember the first time I pulled up an intensive mix in Reaper and was shocked to see it wasn’t above 7% CPU usage.
Samplitude has a simple resource display in the main (timeline) window. It’s shows disc usage and MDSP. I don’t know what the “M” stands for but according to the manual it is a measure of processor usage. In my experience it’s equivalent to CPU usage. This simplified display is better then nothing but it makes trouble shooting a lot harder.
If I believe these performance meters Reaper is significantly more efficient. This is consistent with my experience. Reaper has fewer resource related issues, faster response, fewer clicks and dropouts.
It’s Small – Install: When I first started using Reaper the download was around 5 megs. Wha? Today it’s still under 10 megs for the 64 bit version. It’s a fast download and install. Cooler still you can do a “portable” install to a USB stick with all your customizations and take Reaper anywhere. You can only use Reaper on one machine at a time but you can do multiple installs.
Samplitude is much bigger. I downloaded the trial for Samplitude Pro X suite. It was 340 megs. Bummer: Unlike Reaper Samp uses a USB dongle.
Insert FX: I find Reaper a lot more consistent when inserting FX. For example, in Reaper I can add 3 instances of an EQ. I can change FX order anyway I like. Samplitude is not so straight forward. In Samp you can only add 1 instance of it’s advanced dynamics or it’s linear EQ (EQ116). And once you add these the order is fixed. Advanced dynamics always comes before the linear EQ. You can work around these things if you put your mind to it. You could route the track to a buss with another instance but that’s a lot more work.
I’ve never seen a good explanation for this? Is it some legacy thing? Is it so the math works better? Does it produce better sonic quality? As Fox Mulder says, “The truth is out there.” But I haven’t found it yet.
Aux and Submix Bus Routing: Reaper has a nice approach to buses imo. There is no such thing as a buss track in Reaper. Any track can send to or receive from another. You add a track, add some fx to it like reverb, and then route to it. Routing is drag and drop. Yay! Each track has a list of every other track it send to or receives from. This is very nice. For example, you can adjust all the send levels to an aux buss in one place.
Reaper also has track folders. They are essentially buses with a few perks. You can organize them better then buses by expanding and hiding them. You can nest them. And each folder track has a visual display that is the sum of it’s audio. This works out great when you are trying to align things.
I couldn’t take a screen grab of this. Reaper stops displaying waveforms when it’s not active (when screen grab software was active). Here is a shot from my iphone. The top waveform is the folder track with summed waveforms. The bottom 2 are drum tracks in the folder.
Here are some videos I made on routing buses in Reaper.
Samp has a more traditional set up. Submix and Aux buses are their own class of track. You need to add each specifically. You can’t drag and drop routing. You can’t adjust all the send levels on an auxiliary bus from the bus itself. Samp has folders but I find them more difficult to implement the Reaper. On the plus side you can create aux buses fast but only in a limited context. In a new project simply dragging out the aux send level on any track will automatically create a new aux bus. Things get more complicated when you already have several aux buses set up though.
Here are some videos I did about routing in Samplitude and Reaper.
I would like side chaining to be implemented differently in Reaper. To duck the bass when the kick hits you first split the kick track. Now you have an extra stereo channel available for the kick. You insert a compressor on the bass track. Choose axillary for the detector input on the compressor. Axillary is in fact the extra stereo channel you created from the kick but there is no way to know that from inside the plugin. You’d have to open the tracks I/O window to know what triggering the compressor.
Here is the quick version of side chaining is Reaper.
Here is the longer explanation of how Reaper does side chaining:
For me Samplitude does a better job of this. Set the compressor for sidechain and then pick from a list of tracks. Now you can easily see where the input is coming from. You can also choose 2 or more sidechain signals. For example, you could duck the bass from the kick and snare track. I can imagine how to set this up in Reaper (using submix buses) but it’s a lot more work.
Here is how it works in Samplitude:
I will say Reaper’s channel splitting allows you to do some extra stuff. For example you can put a reverb on a vocal as an insert then have a compressor on the same track duck the reverb based on the vocal level. Normally this takes two extra tracks. One aux send for the reverb. Then buss the reverb to another track where a compressor is feed a sidechain from the vocals. That’s the way I set it up in Samplitude. But reaper’s sophisticated and compact routing can be a double edged sword if you don’t know what you are doing.
Searchable: The more complex a DAW the more searchable it should be. Says me! You can spend a of time looking through preferences and a few other menus if you don’t know exactly where you are going.
There are several large areas of Reaper that are searchable. I may be leaving a few out too!
- Preferences: Which includes a section for editing mouse behavior (mouse modifiers) in various contexts.
- Actions: Reaper’s library of custom and stock commands. Here you can search by keyword or keystroke shortcut.
- The Media Explorer: Where you can search, audition, and import media into Reaper.
- The Project Bay: This allows you to search a project for project specific media. Things that won’t show up in you OS like all the tiny clips of audio you’ve created, plugin instances, takes. You can search the open project or the library of any other project without closing the current one.
- The FX Browser.
- Region and Marker Manager
- Track Manager
I find all this very useful.
Samplitude has some searching available.
- You can search keyboard shortcut and mouse-wheel modifiers. But this is a one way search by keywords. You can’t search by the actual keyboard shortcut.
- Under the manager you can search media files, objects (clips), tracks, markers, ranges, and takes but only in the open project. You can’t search other projects without opening them like in Reaper.
There are two kinds of media searches. An external one much like an OS would do and an internal one for assets that just occur inside a DAW like markers, takes, FX, clips. Samplitude combines these in it’s manager. Reaper keeps them separate more or less. Either works for me. But I do prefer Reaper’s Media explorer (the OS style media browser). It’s shows a waveform giving visual clues. You can start playback anywhere. And you can loop any selection. With Samp you can only start playback from the beginning of the media. This is a real pain when tracks have nothing recorded for the first 20 seconds.
Automation curves: I’ve been able to accomplish the same things in either program but I prefer the way Reaper deals with automation. Here is a video of the differences.
Here is a summery of what’s in the video.
Reaper displays automation in lanes. These are like tracks for automation. Because they can take up some serious real estate on the timeline you can easily hide them. You can also choose to display the automation on top of the audio. I prefer working with lanes. It’s cleaner and easier to edit.
Samplitude displays automation over the track (not in dedicated lanes like Reaper).
Editing automation in Reaper is convenient. Editing Automation in Samplitude is… less convenient. Sorry I’m skimping on details here. The video does a god job of showing the specifics.
Most of the time when you move audio you want the automation to move with it. Both programs do this but I experienced some bugs in Samplitude.
Tempo mapping: Many DAWs offer a way to determine BMP of simple consistent percussion. None I’ve used can map complicated drumming by a real drummer with tempo changes. Having a map of a real drummer can be very useful as a reference when editing, using timed delays, or adding midi for virtual instruments.
I consider tempo mapping fundamental. So far I haven’t found a DAW that does it well. I would like to drop bar markers as the song plays. After that you can drag the bar markers around to get more precise. This is the fastest way I’ve found to work. Get good at it and a 3 minutes song takes 3 minutes to tempo map!
In Reaper you can drop regular (not tempo) markers on the fly while listening, edit the markers, then run a script that converts the regular markers to tempo markers. Now listen with the metronome. If it’s good you’re all done. If it’s not you’ll have to delete the problem tempo markers, insert regular markers, re-run the script, and listen again. Because these markers define tempo and not the beginning of a bar you can’t drag them around without putting the metronome out of time.
Samplitude lets you drag bar markers around. That’s good because it will automatically adjust the BPM around the marker based on the bar lengths. But you can’t drop them on the fly while listening. This means you have to zoom in and add each marker. This takes a lot longer.
Neither is what I’d like but I do prefer Reaper’s method.
Customizable. So far I haven’t changed much in Reaper… a few keyboard shortcuts and a custom macro. But if I wanted I could. You can edit the main menu and toolbars, write custom macros, add plugin controls to the channel strips, change mouse behavior. There is a lot and it can really speed up your workflow. For example, the custom macro I added for tempo mapping is about 10 times faster then doing it by hand.
After you have everything customized the you can install it on a USB stick and take it all with you! (Start menu entry “Install Reaper to USB key or removable media”)
Although Samp allows some customization it’s not as flexible as Reaper.
Reaper’s Actions: Reaper has a main menu called actions. It lists all the “actions” Reaper can do: Saving a file, moving a midi note, normalizing, start recording. It’s a huge list but in typical Reaper form it’s searchable. You can search by name such as “save file” or keyboard shortcut if you’ve forgotten what Reaper calls the command. This is also where you can edit and assign keyboard shortcuts. The coolest thing imo is the way you can create custom actions (macros). You build these out of Reaper’s existing actions.
Queuing up Render Jobs: Sometimes I have lots of little things I want to render at different settings. In Reaper you can add them all to the render queue. Then walk away while it renders. Here I am rendering the same file at 4 different sample rates. It would be nice if the rendering dialog stayed open after you added your selection to the queue. Then you could quickly change settings on the same audio.
There is no render queue in Samp. Wah! I’m spoiled.
Intuitive Mousing: A mouse can be many tools. Some DAWs have dedicated mouse modes. You change the mode and then then do specific tasks. Samplitude’s pitch shift/time stretch mode is like this. You change the mouse mode to pitch shift/time stretch then go about stretching audio. But it’s easy to forget you are in this mode and stretch audio when you think you are changing it’s ends. Yes the mouse cursor does change when in pitch shift/time stretch mode but I’ve still done it many times.
I prefer the mouse behave contextually or hit a modifier key. That’s how Reaper works. In Reaper you hold the alt key to temporarily go to pitch shift/time stretch mode.
Samplitude has at least 7 mouse modes. I guess the idea is to tailor the mouse for each group of specific tasks. It sounds good, but Reaper has no mouse modes, and I don’t miss them.
Sound Quality: There was a time when the sonic quality of DAWs was talked about more. But for several years I’ve read all modern pro DAWs are indistinguishable. So do different DAWs sound different? Some use fixed numbers. Others floating point notation. The algorithms for summing and plugins can’t all be the same. There is a lot of complicated math going on in even a simple mix. But can you hear any of it?
I have no problem with Samplitude or Reaper’s sound quality. But I’ve never constructed a way to do a useful comparison either! Perhaps a good topic for another post here. Until then I’m not going to sweat it.
Closing windows: This is another point that may sound trivial until you do it 50 times. Reaper allows you to keep many windows open and still return to the project window.
For example, in Reaper you can open preferences, change something, return to the main project window, play it, all with preferences still open. Think about how this works when you need to try out 6 different buffer settings.
In Samplitude you need to close the preferences window every time you want to return to the main project. And, as I said before, when you open preferences again (because that wasn’t the right buffer setting!) it’s lost your place. You need to navigate back to buffer settings.
Takes: Every Daw I’ve used has a system for managing takes. It comes down to how well this is implemented. Without doing another video let me say Reaper’s implementation is better. Better for comping, better for organizing, better for auditioning. Samplitude requires you select from a pull down list of takes or open it’s take composer. The take composer is similar to Samplitude’s timeline. It’s an extra layer of clutter and confusion that isn’t needed imo. Reaper displays takes as stacked clips in the track. You can easily hide all but the active take. You can step through them when auditioning. Just better.
Bugs and Performance: If I knew I’d be writing this up I would have kept some notes. It would have been nice to site some specifics. Even without them I have a firm opinion. After using both programs for a good long time I’ve had far less trouble with Reaper.
A long time: It’s been a long time since I started working on this post. It still holds up for my money. I will continue to use both DAWs. Perhaps Samplitude will be my mastering and CD burning software and Reaper my mixing/tracking software.