3. Reaper – DAW
Being an IT professional, I foolishly assumed that getting up to speed with DAW software without any previous experience and without any help from books will be a walk in the park. I tried Ableton Live that came with Focusrite Scarlett and Cubase LE from Komplete 6 package, when it hit me – I had no clue what to do. None of the icons, buttons and menus made any sense to me. I was hoping that working with portable digital recorders I owned before would be similar but it was not. DAW software is a world of its own where conventions and general UI design rules from the rest of the software world don’t apply. It was particularly annoying that installing both of them took several GBs of disk space and a lot of time. I was stuck with bunch of software I don’t know how to use and probably don’t need at all. It was a very frustrating experience.
Of course, my ignorance doesn’t make those DAWs bad. It’s just a matter of how much of your precious time you want to invest in getting to know the software before you’re able to use it productively. I do not plan to switch to audio engineering, so to me it’s a waste of time trying to get into that world just so I can play (and sometimes record) my guitars. I’d rather just play instead :).
So what software is made for “the rest of us”, people with decent computer proficiency, who want to play and record guitars without having to be freaking studio wizards? The answer – REAPER. It’s lightweight – less than 10MB and doesn’t load your computer with stuff you’re unlikely to ever use. It’s (relatively) inexpensive – you can evaluate it for two months and if you choose to purchase it, $60 for a discounted license is not too much. And most importantly – it makes sense. I was able to figure out major features fairly quickly and could start playing and recorded in almost no time.
The rest of the article assumes you are using Reaper as your DAW. Concepts are the same in all DAWs, but mechanics of how things are done may be a bit different.
Configuring Audio Interface
Installing VST Plugins
Reapers comes with some really nice effects out of the box, but for a fully fledged guitar rig, we’ll need more. After you’ve found and downloaded amps and effects, you will need to install them, so Reaper can load them. Most free VSTs are distributed as a ZIP file that contains a self-contained DLLs. By default, Reaper monitors a couple of folders (\VSTPlugins\ and \Steinberg\VSTPlugins\) under c:\Program Files. You can either place the extracted DLL files there or you can configure Reaper (Options -> Preferences… -> VST) to monitor additional folders where you keep the DLLs. If you are running a 64-bit Windows, as the best practice, try to keep 32-bit VSTs in c:\Program Files (x86)\ and 64-bit VSTs in c:\Program Files\. Commercial plugins typically have installation wizards that will do the job for you.
My typical project setup is to have a stereo backing track living in one of the tracks and one or more mono guitar tracks that I play with on top of that. Because I’m lazy, sometimes I’ll stuff a bunch of backing tracks in the same project and have only one of them unmuted at the time. It’s not very convenient for recording, but when I just want to play over backtracks, it’s convenient to have songs with the same, or similar set of effects, at the same place. For example, I would create a project with a bunch of Richie Kotzen songs and my guitar track would be setup to sound right for those songs. Then I can toggle between the backing tracks and play over any one of them in just two clicks (mute/unmute).
In order to hear what you are playing in real time you will need to enable Record Monitoring on the guitar track (shown above) and arm the track for recording (the round red button left from the “Guitar” label on the first track). All other tracks should be disarmed. If you still don’t hear anything on the monitors with Record Monitoring turned ON, make sure that the correct track input is selected. Most interfaces have multiple inputs, so it’s important to select the one that has the guitar plugged in.
Recording and Rendering
Using Envelopes for Effect/Channel Switching
Suppose that we have a song we want to play and it needs different guitar tones for chorus, verses and the solo. How can we achieve that without having to use additional equipment, like expensive MIDI controllers? Reaper (and probably most other DAWs) have a nifty feature called “Envelopes”. Envelopes let us change almost any parameter of a track over time by creating a curve in the timeline that represents how the parameter should behave each moment. Besides the basic track parameters, such as pre-FX and post-FX volume or panning, Reaper also allows creating envelopes on all parameters exposed by each individual effect that is added to the track. By using envelopes creatively, we can effectively simulate channel switching, but we can also do so much more. Chanel switching is normally done with an on/off switch, but having an envelope can do on, off and potentially everything in between and we can control parameters that are very rarely switchable in real-life amps and effects. The only requirement for envelopes to work while we play is that we know beforehand exactly the moment we want to switch, so we can program envelopes in advance. That shouldn’t be a problem if you are playing over backing tracks or previously recorded drums, you will know exactly when you need to change from one sound to the other.
- Solo boost: starting with a simple one. Say that we need just more volume for the solo without changing the tone or saturation. We can create an envelope on (Post-FX) Volume for the track, add four control points – two at the time we want to activate the boost and two at the time we want to deactivate the boost and then we can drag the part of the envelope between the inner points upward to increase the volume.
- Switching effects:
Using Stem Tracks to Optimize Performance
Sometimes we work with multiple instrument tracks, each with its own set of effects. If the computer is not powerful enough, processing all tracks in real time can slow things down and make latency go up, making playing in real-time very uncomfortable. Luckily, there’s a way to deal with the issue other than buying a faster computer. Since we are typically working with one or two tracks at the time, there’s no need to process all the tracks in the project in real time. To save resources, we can render tracks that we are done with into new “stem” tracks and temporarily mute the original tracks. That way we are preserving “raw” tracks with bunch of effects on them, but for playback we are using the track that has all the effects already “baked in”, so no additional effects are processed in real time. That leaves only the track we are working on to have effects. When doing the final rendering of the project you can always mute (or completely delete) stem tracks and use the raw tracks ones that have all the effects. The ones having the original clean signal are important to keep!
Consider the following example – two tracks for doubled rhythm guitar are already recorded and we’re working on the lead guitar track. That makes a total of three tracks with effects to process in real time, which can be a lot to process for some computers (like my old laptop).
Since we only really need effects on the track we’re currently recording, we can render the two rhythm tracks to stem tracks and mute the original tracks. To do so, follow the context action shown below.
What we’ll end up is 5 tracks, two of which are muted. But compared to the previous setup, only our lead guitar track will have real time effects applied. We’ll still hear our rhythm tracks with all the effects, but they will be pre-processed, saving precious CPU time.