A professional DAW for Linux

Fat Beats

© Lead Image © panupong_lithkai, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © panupong_lithkai, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 257/2022

Linux users looking for a professional digital audio workstation can now take advantage of Reaper's large feature set.

While no digital audio workstation (DAW) can do everything, Reaper [1] offers an extremely comprehensive feature set without compromising on quality. Reaper's strength lies in its attractive pricing, flexibility, low resource consumption, and possibly the largest DAW feature set on the market.

Until recently, Cockos, the development team behind Reaper, resisted the temptation to launch a Linux version, instead pointing to useful performance with Wine. However, with the Reaper 6 release, an unsupported alpha for Linux unexpectedly appeared. With the following minor release, Reaper now offers an official Linux version.

Fat Beats for Linux

Because Cockos does not bother with advertising, Reaper's price is low. A normal license costs $60; if you make more than $20,000 per year with Reaper, the identical program version costs $225. One license is valid for two major versions. So, if you buy Reaper 6 now, you will also get Reaper 7 later on. Before you purchase Reaper, you can try out the program for 60 days without any restrictions or newsletter sign-up obligations.

The Linux version supports VST, VST3, and LV2 plugins, as well as Alsa, PulseAudio, and Jack. In principle, PipeWire is also compatible with Reaper, but there are some peculiarities. Reaper's interface seems quite rudimentary with a large amount of text and few effects or useless elements, which is another reason why the program is very frugal in terms of resources. The installation only occupies about 100MB on your hard disk. Alternatively, you can install the software on a USB stick as a portable Live DAW.

Reaper doesn't come with a full feel-good package of plugins and virtual sound generators like Apple Logic Pro. Instead, Reaper offers a handful of VST plugins (Figure 1) and JS effects, Reaper's own plugin format (usually without a graphical interface).

Figure 1: The plugins included with Reaper look fairly functional.

Although Cockos offers some programs under a free license (GPL), Reaper is not one of them. According to lead developer Justin Frankel, who co-developed Winamp many years ago and then sold it to AOL, Reaper won't be offered as a GPL in the future either. For the core team, managing third-party code would involve a huge amount of extra work. However, Frankel also fought against a native Linux version for many years, so anything still seems possible.

Despite the non-free license, Reaper can be customized by the user more extensively than any other DAW on the market, without the user needing to master a programming language. While other audio programs may at most let you change the colors, Reaper lets you develop or exchange the complete theme yourself, including different views for the mixer and editor. You also can assign your own keyboard shortcuts to features and adapt them to your own preferences with macros and scripting.

The Reaper development team also responds to requests from the community. The development team usually implements feature requests and bug reports quickly, as long as they are reported via the in-house forum [2]. It's not uncommon for several decimal point updates to be released in one day, and rarely more than a month passes between two updates. If you are having trouble using Reaper, the multilingual forum is usually the first point of contact. Much like the Ubuntu Users community, the Reaper community is large, helpful, mostly friendly, and accessible around the clock due to Reaper's international distribution.

Unique Selling Points

Reaper does a few things differently while retaining the classic work approach or basic user interface that may be familiar from Ardour, Pro Tools, Samplitude, or Cubase. In other words, the track control elements are located on the left in the editor, and the usual channel structure in the mixer remains. The workflow and look can be customized more comprehensively than in any other of the well-known DAWs. In addition, Reaper supports macros and several scripting languages (the native ReaScript/EEL, as well as Lua and Python). For this reason, Reaper has the reputation of being the "Linux of DAWs" in the audio world.

Unlike other DAWs, Reaper only uses one track type. Both audio and MIDI items can be stored and recorded on a track. Keeping the types separate still makes sense, but you don't need to choose the type up front. Each track can become an audio, MIDI, instrument, FX, bus, VCA, or folder track – this takes some time getting used to. From my point of view, this artificial separation of track types in other DAWs only causes unnecessary worries anyway. Freely assignable track and item colors, track icons, and names give users a clear overview. There are also no separate areas for audio, MIDI, or instrument plugins in the mixer's respective plugin slots.

An item can be an audio or MIDI event that can be provided with item effects (FX). This way, you don't have to link effects to tracks as track FX, although you can if necessary. Once you get used to item FX, you won't want to do without them. Also, each item has its own volume setting, in addition to automation (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Media Item Properties dialog lets you adjust item effects.

Reaper's resource consumption is comparatively low. When installed, Reaper occupies hardly more than 100MB; you can also set up a portable installation on a USB stick as a mobile DAW if required. When running, Reaper also consumes less RAM and CPU power than its competitors – which is definitely due in part to the no-frills interface. Plugins can also optionally be run as separate processes. If you are experimenting or using alpha versions, a buggy plugin won't take the entire DAW down with it.

All of this makes Reaper an excellent DAW for less powerful hardware or older systems. Even a 15-year-old laptop can easily handle less challenging audio work. The Linux CPU architecture choices include x86-64, i686, AArch64 (ARM64), and Arm7l (ARM32). Reaper even runs on a Raspberry Pi 4, with some limitations due to the lack of compute power. Multitrack recording works better than overdubbing with real-time monitoring.


You control Reaper in the usual way with single clicks. Alternatively, you can improve the workflow experience with "new" methods like drag and drop. To do this, hold down the left mouse button and simply drag the mouse pointer over the corresponding controls. You can enable Solo, Mute, and Record Ready in the Editor or Mixer, while you can fade tracks in and out in the Track Manager (Ctrl+Shift+M). You can quickly set sends to the buses in the Routing Matrix (Alt+M) (Figure 3). Tracks that are selected together can also be controlled simultaneously, for example, using the volume or pan controls. In the end, this leaves you with more time for the creative process.

Figure 3: Routing and tracks are quickly set up thanks to drag and drop.

Reaper either launches directly into the last project, displays a selection box, or loads a new project. For a new project, the DAW records the tracks directly in a temporary directory. When you save, Reaper then dumps or copies the files into the desired directory. It is no problem to drag audio files with a 44.1 or 48 kHz sample rate into a project that is defined for some other setting – Reaper resamples on the fly in the background.

You can use modifier keys to make operations even faster. Other DAWs also use Shift, Alt, or Ctrl. Reaper, however, is more consistent and assigns at least one additional function to each control element, often even two or three. One of my favorites is Alt plus a left-click to delete markers, FX plugins, or automation points and enable the eraser in the MIDI Editor. Ctrl temporarily enables the pencil and draws empty MIDI items in the editor, manual curves in the automation tracks, or changes the velocity in one fell swoop in the MIDI Editor.

Right-click also offers a context menu for virtually all functions that are otherwise hidden in the menubar. Controls such as the play button, solo button, or toolbar buttons let you choose from a number of additional functions. In this sense, the motto for getting started is: Just try everything out and be surprised at what happens.

Reaper also has a very clever solution for tempo changes. An item's playback rate can be set manually in the item preferences by double-clicking or by pressing F2. Alt plus a left-click at the edge of an item lets you smoothly stretch or compress the item. Depending on the magnet function's setting in the standard toolbar in the upper left corner, the item is then glued to the visible grid, which can be temporarily deactivated via the Shift key if required. Once again, freedom of choice is paramount here.

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