Pro Tools has reigned as the dominant DAW for over 20 years. It’s a flexible piece of software that’s become an industry staple due to how powerful it was years ago.
However, that time has come and, maybe, gone. Pro Tools’ hold on the audio industry is slowly slipping because of disappointing software updates and a high price tag.
Of course, this means a slew of other competitors is at the ready to take the helm from the DAW master. One such competitor is Reaper, an inexpensive DAW that aims to provide a professional audio experience without the cost.
However, Reaper’s youth still certainly shows through, with an unattractive interface, especially when compared to Pro Tools. Despite that, it’s still comes loaded with professional features, so many, in fact, that it may be worth it over Pro Tools for you.
We’ll dig into the history of each of these DAWs and compare which each are good and bad at so you can decide for yourself.
Reaper is one of the newer DAWs that still has a massive following. The name is an acronym, which stands for Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording. Honestly, though, that just means it’s a DAW.
The software was written by Justin Frankel, a software engineer who cut his teeth creating Winamp, an early MP3-playing software, that released in the late 1990s. After some time of using other software to play and record music, Justin decided to write a piece of software for himself.
This was some 10 years after Winamp first released, but made perfect sense as Frankel and his partner, Dmitry Boldyrev, sold the software to AOL in 1999 to the tune of $80 million. Some other Winamp coders, including Christophe Thibault who worked on Winamp 5, jumped to aid in the develop of Reaper.
The first public version of the software released back in late 2005 as freeware. It was in beta at the time, the first official release coming less than a year later. Reaper 1.0 released on August 23, 2006, as shareware, keeping the free moniker, but distributing through file sharing websites.
It caught on quite rapidly as well, with completely new versions of the software being released nearly every year. For a good reason, too. Reaper implemented a generic track type that allowed users to route any signal (audio, MIDI, whatever) to another channel. Additionally, it was a quick install that users could set up in minutes from a desktop, or load on a USB stick for a portable install.
Since then, the software has gone from a free model to a paid one. You can still download it for a 60-day evaluation period, after which you’re required to purchase a license key. The commercial version currently runs a little over $200, with a discounted version (for non-commercial use) coming in at $60.
It’s partly this inexpensive price tag and partly the customization options that make Reaper so attractive, for both newbies and veterans. The interface itself can be completely changed to fit whatever you’re comfortable with, open at both ends. That leads directly to the strengths of Reaper as well.
What Reaper is Good at
Reaper can turn into whatever DAW you want it to be. The passion of the developers shows through, with the software being completely open from end to end. Ultimately, this is one of the greatest strengths of Reaper, that you can fine tune it to your tastes.
The base of this is with the layout. Many user developed layouts are online, allowing you to change the look of Reaper to fit your liking. In many cases, these designs mimic other DAWs, such as Pro Tools.
However, you can do much more as well. This includes creating custom toolbars, menus, macros, mouse actions, and much, much more. The software is a bit of a chameleon this way meaning that, if you’re switching from another piece of software, you can change it up to feel right at home.
Which brings the question of why you’d want to change. This open source nature is a big reason why, as well as complete VST support. Reaper isn’t the only DAW to support VST plugins, of course, but it gives it an advantage over Pro Tools in particular that only operates with AAX plugins.
Essentially, you can download Reaper and change to function as close to Pro Tools as possible, but still, have access to the many niche plugins that only come in the VST format. Additionally, there are layouts for Cubase, Logic, and just about any other DAW, so that’s always an option.
It’s not just the layout, though. Reaper is written incredibly well, meaning it’s highly efficient with you system’s resources. It can maintain a much higher track count with lesser hardware over other major DAWs, a huge advantage, especially for those on a budget.
That carries into the included plugins as well. Editing tools are some of the best around, easily manipulating audio without artifacting (within reason, that is) and the stock lineup of plugins is quite good. However, all of that comes at a price.
What Reaper is Bad at
Reaper, even with all its options, takes quite a hit because of it. The interface can easily become cumbersome to use, overcrowded with options that may be of little to no relevance to you. Additionally, the included plugins, while useful, look horrible, making the audio process feel more like a chore.
Of course, that doesn’t impact the sound of the plugins. It does, however, impact the usability. While there are plenty of people who swear by the stock plugins with Reaper, it’s a bit disheartening to see the unattractive interface when you first boot up the program.
This theme continues into just about every other area of the software as well. Sure, there are a boatload of options for tricking out Reaper to your tastes, but that’s also a problem; there are too many options.
Newbies will undoubtedly feel lost, but so will veterans switching from another DAW. While any piece of audio software takes some getting used to, the learning curve with Reaper is especially deep, requiring hours upon hours of practice before the solid workflow can be set in place.
You can change the theme to fit a piece of software you’re familiar with, but that process is already difficult enough. There is so many community made themes, many of them missing features, so tracking down the right one is half the battle, not the mention setting up the proper shortcuts and commands to make it function properly.
That isn’t to say that it’s impossible, just clunky. Above all else, the major thing that Reaper gets wrong has nothing to do with its audio quality or ability to make professional sounding recordings. It comes entirely down to ease of use and, in some cases, preference. While this con is quite a large one, it’s not one that’s concrete.
Pro Tools has quite a long track record, much longer than Reaper’s decade or so of exposure. It starts back in 1983 with the release of E-MU’s Drumulator drum machine. It was a companion the Emulator sampling keyboard, one that sparked the interest of two University of California graduates, Evan Brooks and Peter Gotcher.
The couple set out to create new sound libraries for the machine, founding the company Digidrums. Flash forward about six years and Digidrums changed into Digidesign with the goal of upgrading sample editing into a full computer-based audio recording a processing solution.
This came in the form of Sound Tools, released in 1989 with the accompanying 16-bit sound accelerator card. The Macintosh II couldn’t handle the software, so using the card allowed the software to draw power from DSP instead of the computer’s CPU.
The stereo audio from Sound Tools was a step in the right direction, but the next logical step came in the form of Pro Tools, a full, multitrack recording software. It released in 1991, requiring nearly $6000 worth of investment between the hardware and software. Even so, the DAW quickly caught on due to its raw power level in the digital recording space.
As technology progressed, the hybrid system hurt Pro Tools quite a bit. It was expensive and large, despite being an incredibly consistent way to record. Soon, Avid would buy up Digidesign and release Pro Tools native, a DAW that used just the system’s resources to run the software.
What Pro Tools is Good at
It’s no surprise that Pro Tools is an industry standard piece of software. It’s incredibly consistent, providing a workflow that the entire recording industry has sculpted itself around. It may not be for everyone, but it’s hard denying that learning Pro Tools is an important skill in the recording industry.
Mainly, it’s because it’s so good at doing just that: recording. Pro Tools handles this process very well, allowing multiple recording modes, quick access to the punch-in settings and plenty of comp features. You can easily throw up a row of tracks and get to work, which is partly why Pro Tools seems to shine so bright.
Editing is quite good too. Features like Elastic Audio and Beat Detective work surprisingly well. While there are other DAWs with more advanced algorithms, Pro Tools’ lineup works in the majority of editing cases. For Beat Detective in particular, there are few who can provide what this tool does on drums.
For mixing, things get a bit strange. The process of mixing itself is excellent but limited by the AAX exclusivity. The plugin area is well organized and saving presets is as simple as it would be in any plugin. One feature that’s lacking is a way to save a chain of plugins, but many DAWs don’t have this feature.
All of this comes at a cost, though. Pro Tools native isn’t too expensive, but an HD rig can run over $10,000. It does, however, come with some of the best hardware you can get. Avid’s AD/DAs are overpriced but work extremely well, allowing you to record with nearly zero latency, even on a session stacked with plugins.
What Pro Tools is Bad at
That brings up the downside of Pro Tools as well. The entire system is very expensive and the native software loses its luster when not paired with a good converter. If you have the coin to flip, a Pro Tools rig is excellent, but, unfortunately, many do not.
Buying into Pro Tools used to be next to buying into the industry. Anyone who could get their Avid certification and send out enough resumes could probably land a job as an intern (or maybe even an assistant). However, that’s slowly unraveling as software is getting cheaper and cheaper and recording hardware more accessible.
What’s left is a largely overpriced piece of software that performs well, but certainly isn’t perfect. Pro Tools has a good amount of flaws, not the least of which are crashing Windows systems, conflicts with certain hardware, and random wiping of all previously stored settings.
Yes, unfortunately, these things do happen with Pro Tools. Additionally, you lack the options of a DAW like Reaper both regarding look and usability. You cannot change the look at all outside of track colors, and the shortcuts are locked in, and likely always will be.
Compared to Reaper, the software is pretty easy to use but attempts to accomplish the goal of recording alone. For some, that’s no issue, but it can pose a problem to those who want an adaptable DAW that can fit many different circumstances.
Pro Tools used to be an industry standard, but it’s becoming apparent day by day that that’s no longer the case. If you’re just starting out and Pro Tools doesn’t do anything for you, there’s little to no harm in choosing another piece of recording software.
Even though these two DAWs are currently at the top of the game, there are still plenty of other options to choose from. Many companies provide a free trial, or even just a free version of their software, so it’s best to download and try out each for yourself.
Pro Tools is excellent if you intend to record, edit, mix, and master music. However, you must accept some of the limitations the software imposes on you. If you’re not scared of a steeper learning curve and want something a little flexible, though, Reaper is a great contender at an inexpensive price.
At the end of the day, though, the choice is up to you, so which DAW do you like better? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.