If I had spent as much time composing as I've spent tweaking Reaper, I'd be a master composer by now. There's an unlimited amount of tweaking you can do to make Reaper fit your hand like a glove - that is, if it doesn't fit already.
Reaper is the most affordable DAW. It's also the most powerful. In this article I will walk you through my own customizations to it. Some of them are simply neat, and some of them are super handy. Some of them are only possible to add through the SWS extension, so you may want to get that. Please enjoy ~
Envelopes are super important both for mixing and composing to automatically control your VSTs through time. However, they also make quite a mess of your project when you have a lot of them. Here are some handy short cuts you can set up to deal with this:
Ctrl + H – Show track envelopes
Ctrl + Alt + H – Show track envelopes for all tracks
Ctrl + Shift + H – Hide track envelopes
Ctrl + Shift + Alt + H – Hide track envelopes for all tracks
Here are some short cuts I've set up for functions I use a lot:
Normalize to -18 dB RMS / Normalize to -10 dB Peak – Gain staging done in 3 seconds by Ctrl + Alt + Shift + N.
Import track templates – Usually reverb and delay auxes or my piano with all its effects ready on Alt + Shift + 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. I also have track templates for parallel processing.
Plugin shortcuts are a blessing too. Need an EQ? Select the track and Ctrl + 1 to load it in. This requires SWS to set up.
Project structure is also important. It helps you move around your project faster and saves you mental energy by not having to think about what you're looking at - you simply know.
Renumber Region IDs – just to keep my neatness compulsion at bay (this button I pinned to the default toolbar).
Color Children Tracks by Parent Color – to quickly add color to any additional tracks during a project (requires SWS).
Auto-Color Regions by their Name – so every time I add the name "Chorus"/"chorus" to a region, it will automatically become a red region. Verses will become yellow etc. Requires SWS.
MIDI tools can also save you a lot of time, especially if you work with virtual instruments as a matter of course. I put "Transpose selected MIDI notes by octave" on Ctrl+Up/Down and "Copy selected MIDI notes and transpose by octave" on Ctrl+Alt+Up/Down. These help with testing out arrangements quickly.
Screensets and layouts
My most used feature by far. I have screensets for:
a completely dock-free space.
mixing, with mixer covering 1/3 of the screen with a plugin window docked on the side to pick from and with no sends shown, only plugins.
a clean-up workflow window, with only level meters from the mixer shown + a track manager docked to the side.
a full mixer workflow with all sends all plugins shown in an almost fullscreen mixer window.
I shift between different screensets with the F keys (F1, F2 etc.). Fullscreen mode on F12.
And in case you don't know how handy screensets are yet, here's a video demonstrating how it works:
It's PRETTY handy, wouldn't you say?
Since I have an ultrawide screen, I decided to use the extra screen real estate to set up an extra docker with all the other windows I usually use.
In this docker I have four tabs:
The Track Manager where I can assign colors, name tracks, hide or show tracks and some other functions.
The FX browser where I drag my plugins from and onto the tracks.
The Media Explorer from where I can find all my samples and recordings and easily drag them into the project.
The Region Render Matrix, which makes it easy to render multiple files for a concert recording with multiple songs.
You can see it in the template picture further down in the article.
I'll briefly go through my mixing template to give you an idea of how I've come to set it up. Templates are always good for saving you time in setup.
As you can see, there are mainly two branches of tracks here. One for the FX and one for the audio, under Mix.
The audio branch is further divided into groups, one for each instrument family or compositional role that I feel is worth seperating from each other because I predict I will likely need to group process them.
The FX auxes are placed outside of the Mix structure so they won't be affected by group processing. As I mentioned in my article on grouping, the FX parent track also works as a VCA master so I can easily dampen the FX tracks regardless of where I end up placing them in the project structure.
It's on the Stereo Bus I put all my master plugins. Beside it, I have a group where I can put my reference tracks.
Finally, on the Master I have a couple of utilities. A brickwall limiter to protect my hearing from feedback or any unpredictable peaks and mistakes. A frequency analyzer where I can look at my mix and spot problems. Finally a simple gain plugin with -15 dB dialled in that I can activate to easily switch between different monitoring levels.
Notice how almost all my plugins are in red color. This means they're "offline". In other words, the plugin isn't yet loaded, saving computer resources. I activate them with Ctrl + Shift + Click. Note that "offline" is a different state from "bypass". In "bypass", the plugin is actually loaded into the project, just, well, bypassed.
Solo in Front: This means that when you solo a track, the other tracks aren't completely muted, only dimmed. This way you can make contextual decisions in solo and hear the track better at the same time. You can activate solo in front under Options. And deactivate it when you don't need it ofc, like when rendering stems.
Tape Record: This is a fun one. Reaper has a Tape Record function where you can record some audio, and then record over that audio again while dimming it, so it's like an imperfect overwrite. Can make for some interesting creative effects.
FX VCAs: I link all my FX tracks (reverbs, delays, others) to a VCA master so that regardless of where in the projects my FX are, I can turn them all off with one button, or solo them if need be. This could also work for the parallel processing busses you may have.
There are lots of subtle tweaks I've done in the preferences as well. Things that will ultimately make things flow smoother.
Since I have the FX browser docked to the right side of the screen, I don't need to open the Track FX window every time I add a plugin, so I turned that off.
If you work with video games, turning off render tails will make loop creation easier for you.
Tracks in the mixer panel are set to smallest size.
My preferences tweaks are too numerous to mention all of them, but everyone should go through the settings a couple of times to tweak them and think about their implications.
With that, you should have a lot to play around with. I hope you enjoy it!
Cover picture from ReaComics.