The Music of Kelly Van Shaar

My quest for new music writing software ~ 2015-07-08

At the start of June I got fed up with the PowerTracks music writing software I've been using for the last 10 years because I upgraded to the new version, and the list of bugs I sent them a year ago had not been fixed; not a single one of them! In fact, some of them were worse! They also changed some things and made them harder to do than they used to, and did not make any improvements on the things that mattered to me.


I wrote them a nasty letter and to their credit they gave my money back (or maybe that was just easier than fixing the problems) and I spent the next week or so researching every possible program I could find that did what I wanted. I wanted something that was strong in MIDI editing and was very capable with vst plugins for various types of instruments and effects, but I also wanted something that could print sheet music and had a notation-based editor (where you actually look at sheet music on the screen while you're editing).


The best program I could find was Cubase, and even it actually didn't have a notation based editor; it can just print notation. If you buy the $549 version it prints notation really well. But, they are psycho about their copy protection (you have to buy a special lock device that plugs into your usb port if you want to run the TRIAL VERSION of Cubase Pro! THE TRIAL VERSION.)


Now, if I really needed that software for a paying job, then I would spend the money and get it. But since my music writing is pretty much just a hobby for which I HOPE to someday be paid, I gave up and went back to using the old version of PowerTracks.


Last week, though, I hit the wall again and really needed to do some stuff with instruments that PowerTracks couldn't do (I wanted to play with a VST MIDI arpeggiator). Once again I started my search, but this time I decided to let go of the requirements for notation-based editing and sheet music printing. After all, if I need to print sheet music it's not that hard to export the music as a MIDI file and read it into pretty much any notation program. I found many cheap or free ones out there that work just fine for this purpose, such as the open-source MuseScore.


So once again I tried a bunch of programs, and finally found one called Reaper. Reaper is a rock-solid program (as in, I've only crashed it twice over the last 2 weeks [which is pretty good for me] and both times were due to glitches with third-party plugins, not the program itself) but what really caught my attention was the attitude of the developers.


Reaper is non-crippled shareware with no expiration and costs only $60 to register (But in my opinion it's worth many times more than that!)


While PowerTracks (which sells for $49... but it used to be more) was barely capable of doing what I needed, Reaper can do many times more that what I need. Reaper answers questions that I haven't even asked yet!


The interface looks good and functions the way you would expect it to. Everything is configurable, from hotkeys to mouse actions to layout. Multiple-monitor support is great, and it remembers all your window positions on BOTH monitors when you exit and restart.


The track system is completely flexible, allowing you to put audio or MIDI on any track (even on the SAME track!) You can even nest tracks, so that a set of tracks can be expanded or controlled together. Track automation is beyond... well, beyond. You can automate any control of any track or any VST effect on that track. Seriously. You pop open an automation window, and it has pages and pages of checkboxes for every available control, so you can create an envelope for that value. Incredible.


DXI/VST support is great and completely flexible, allowing you to chain together as many instruments and effects as you like and assign them on a track basis, or have multiple tracks share the same subset of effects. And if there's anything that's not built in to Reaper, there's a VST somewhere that does the job. Reaper comes with a bunch of them, and then of course you can use whatever others you've collected.


Routing is... well, more than I can see myself ever using. The output of any track (audio, MIDI or both) can be routed to any other track.


Reaper has full support for loop-based editing, such as is common with programs like Acid, FL Studio, Logic and many more.


There are so many things you can do with Reaper that they didn't put a lot of them on the menus. I'm serious! You can open up a searchable list of every action Reaper can perform and then do that action from the list, assign it to a hotkey, or make it part of a collection of actions to run as a macro, for automating tedious or often-repeated tasks. If you are super-geeky, you can also do Python based scripting in Reaper.


The price of all this flexibility, of course, is a little bit of a learning curve. Just plan on referring to the manual or looking up answers online for the first few weeks. But in my experience, there's almost always a way to do it in Reaper, so it's worth the effort to look for the answer. And along the way you'll find out how to do a lot of things you might never have thought of.


For instance, in composing, I often need to compare one track to another, so see what chord I wrote so I can make the parts fit together. In Reaper you can open multiple piano roll windows and position them however you like. But my favorite way to work on multiple tracks at once is is not even enabled by default, and you won't see it on any of the menus. You have to go into the preferences to enable it, and I learned how from a YouTube video! When you enable this feature, any MIDI clips you have selected can open in the same piano roll window, layered directly on top of each other. Now you can see exactly what notes are missing from a chord, or which instrument is playing the note that sticks out.


Reaper is not just for music writing, though. It's a full-fledged multi-track audio editing program with more capability than you will probably ever use. It's much more capable than the well-known and completely free audio editor, Audacity (Other than a few quirky and seldom-used features in Audacity).


Reaper is being actively developed by a small group of dedicated people, and when you register, you free upgrades for the next two full versions of the program!


Reaper has an excellent 450-page manual that you get as a PDF with the download, and for the last two weeks I've just kept it open while I've been working. Unfortunately, 450 pages is not nearly enough to talk about everything that Reaper does. That's more like a quick-start guide, and the authors are clearly expecting that you have some experience with music and audio already (or that you know how to use the internet) and so they just jump right in with "here's what it does" and don't spend a lot of time telling you why. But in addition to the manual, though, Reaper is supported by a large, friendly user base via the online forum.


So, with all these benefits why haven't you heard of Reaper? Probably because they don't put any money into advertising, other than having a web site. They spend all their time developing the software, and count on word-of-mouth promotion from raving fans to let people know.


So here's my contribution to that effort. If you're interested in music writing and you're tough enough to do some reading to figure things out, Reaper is probably that inexpensive, well-written, capable underdog program you've been looking for, made by a couple of really smart, dedicated guys and not by a corporation.


Reaper is available for download at www.reaper.fm


* * * MARCH 2017 UPDATE * * *


Guess what? A few months ago, Reaper introduced it's own notation-based editing option! This is awesome, because it's one of the things I wanted most to hang on to in my new music software search. But guess what else? I love piano-roll based editing so much that I almost never use notation view. However, the notation view does have great value, for instance, in adding lyrics to a melody line and getting things all nicely formatted for printing. And it supports all kinds of fancy symbols and articulations, but get this: it's still absolute crap for printing, because it doesn't do intelligent spacing. In other words, you've got one measure with nothing but a whole note and one measure jam-packed with 16th notes, and both measures take up exactly the same amount of space on the printed page. All you can tell it is how many bars per line you want to print. BUT GUESS WHAT ELSE? It doesn't matter, because you just get it to where it's good, then export it as MusicXML, then import it into MuseScore and BAM! It's automatically formatted intelligently and ready for printing.


I'm sure that one day soon the awesome Reaper folks will get this feature added, but in the meantime this is a really easy workaround, and the ability to view and edit in notation mode is a valuable addition.


P.S. In my opinion, you NEVER want to do any composition in MuseScore. The developers see this only as a music printing tool, and it is extremely unfriendly to the composer that might want to, say, change a rhythm here or there or do a little cut and paste. I got into it with one of the support staff on their forums and was blown away by their ignorant attitudes towards computer-based composition. They told me (yes, they actually said this publicly) that if you're composing you should be sitting at the piano with pencil and paper, and you should only commit the music to print once you've done all your composing. That's 'the right way.'


The 1700's called... they want their composers back...