Tracktion

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I am taking a look at this very unique multitracking application from Raw Materials Software and distributed by Mackie.

TracktionWell, to just start this look at Tracktion, a new multitracking application, I have to say that I have not yet seen a multitracking application that hasn't included, somewhere in it's initial marketing collateral, something that states how their application takes a totally unique approach to the recording process. They all say that, yet, they still operate very much the same, so I never really take notice when anyone says it.

A couple of weeks ago an HRC member brought Tracktion to my attention for inclusion in our "Gear Bag" section and gave me a link to it. I checked it out, added to the gear bag, then went back and checked out the site a bit closer. It is made by a company called Raw Materials Software. Recently Mackie acquired exclusive distribution rights to it, and are also taking an active role in the future direction of the application as well.

It looked like it actually was pretty different from your typical multitracker, so I decided to contact Mackie about it. Now, that in and of itself should say something because I rarely if ever contact manufacturers regarding their products, as they usually end up finding me, but something about Tracktion peaked my interest. The guy I talked to was really cool, we rapped a bit about HRC, about Tracktion and the hardware it ships with, their soon-to-be-available audio interface, "Spike", and just music production in general. After the conversation I got hooked up with a copy of Tracktion to check out.

The 10,000 foot fly-over

Tracktion is not designed to be a replacement for The big players like ProTools, Cubase, etc. It is meant for people either new to home recording on a PC or to someone that just does not need (or want) all the bells and whistles of the big players' apps, which often make for an increased learning curve.

It really doesn't take very long to realize that the "unique view" of recording holds true with this app. Upon first opening the application it became very apparent. Not only does the application use none of the typical O.S. level interface components, such as the windowing system, buttons and such, but the first window you see is a file-management system in appearance. It is really a collection of all the projects currently available within Tracktion, click on one of the projects in the left pane and the right pane displays all the pieces of the project, plus the project file.

Along the very top of the application is a couple tabs, the first tab is the project management window I mentioned, the second tab is the application settings. Taking a quick look at that window is all the preferences for the sound card, plugins and other aspects of the program.

After setting all the preferences to your liking, we bounce back to the project management view. Touring around it can be done with the mouse, rest the mouse pointer over any button or frame and a help-bubble will popup explaining a little bit about what that button or frame is for and how to use it.

While it took me a little bit to figure it out, if you go up to the top of the right pane and double click on the main project file, it will open up the more comfortable and understood track view.

The track view will be the most "familiar" of any of the interface components to any seasoned computer-based multitrack user, but it will still take some getting used to for sure. It does consist of all the tracks, the lower center has a detail window that displays various information about whichever object is highlighted at the moment (track, effect, volume, panning, etc), and at the end of each track is the effects chain, panning, volume, etc. The lower right hand corner has the transport controls and the lower left is all the function buttons.

OK, Get On With The Details

Tracktion requires, for Windows, 98, ME, 2000 or XP, a 750Mhz or better processor, at least 128 MB Ram (256 preferred) and a DirectSound or ASIO compatible sound card. For Macintosh OSX 10.2 or better and 128 MB Ram (256 preferred).

Some of the more impressive features of Tracktion are these:

  • Very complete and very useful context sensitive popup window help system
  • Preferences can be imported and exported...cool idea!
  • Supports ASIO sound cards as stated above
  • Samplerate limited only by the hardware you are using
  • WAV, AIFF and Ogg-Vorbis format file support
  • Depending on the hardware, Tracktion can support latencies under 3ms!
  • records and playback of multiple channels, again, limited only by the hardware
  • 32-bit floating point internal processing
  • Unique project management features which allow quick browsing of clips and even has a search engine to search the clip library
  • Unlimited undo/redo
  • Built-in effects including reverb, EQ, delay, chorus, phaser, compressor, low-pass filter, and pitch-shifter.
  • Full VST plugin support including automation of plugin parameters
  • Rewire 2.0 support
  • Full MIDI sequencing including step time and realtime recording, quantizing, piano roll editing and full event editing
  • A price tag of only $80(USD) certainly doesn't hurt!

Much of this dictates that any limitations your PC-based recording setup will have are likely due to hardware limitations much sooner than Tracktion will be the limiting factor.

A Closer Look At Project Management

TracktionAs previously mentioned, the project management screen is where Tracktion starts. This view look much like any file management application, such as Windows Explorer, the left pane is the top-level hierarchy and the right pane is the contents of the left pane directories and projects. Expanding the "Active Projects" directory in the left pane will display a list of currently available projects (or songs if you would rather call them). Highlight one of the projects, the right pane will display a list of all the audio clips, MIDI clips, edits and any other file that is used in that project. If you highlight one of those elements, the details of the highlighted project object will display in the bottom center frame, which includes the name of the object, the project, the name of the actual file, optional notes about the clip and it will display and play the clip in a wave view. These clips can be used in any number of projects, so one clip might be used in several. And you can also view a history of each clip.

The Project Management window also has a search engine that allows you to search all projects for importing into your current project. You can import files in a variety of formats including all the common formats.

The lower left corner of the screen also has buttons which can be used to create a new projects, open a current project, get to the help documentation, access to the clipboard and the "about" dialog with application version, credits and the like. The lower right corner shows a list of what is currently in the clipboard.

Diving Deeper Into The Track View

TracktionThe track view is where all the magic happens. While this is probably the most familiar looking ground to any veteran PC-based multitracker, it is also where some of the most unique implementations of the app lie, you just don't see them at first glance.

For starters, a track in Tracktion is not labeled an audio track or a MIDI track, they can be all things to all projects. Secondly, and what is really cool, and presumably would be very handy for newbie's (I find it hard to think like a newbie any more so I can't be sure) is that all editing of any clip, plugin, volume, panning and everything else, is done in the one window. This saves the user from having dozens of windows piled up on their screen and makes for a pretty neat and tidy workspace. Whatever object is highlighted, be it an audio clip, MIDI clip, effect, track property or whatever, the necessary details and editable parameters of content appear in the lower half of the work space. When another object is selected the bottom half changes to suit that object.

While this is handy for people that may be relatively new to multitracking, or those that are not "power users", I saw this is a drawback at certain points. There are times, especially when working in a dual monitor setup, where I want to see the interfaces for two or three effects at a time and watch how they affect each other through the chain, or quickly edit them in real time while listening to the playback. Going from object to object to change that bottom frame can be more time consuming then going from plugin window to plugin window such as you can in most other apps. Though, this is strictly a power user complaint, and may very well not affect all users.

To peak the interest of these power users, Tracktion has recently added to the program, filter racks. These filter racks will be covered in a little more detail in a bit further down, but, suffice it to say, that these rack offer incredibly easy access to control the complete signal path of each track going in to and out of each plugin and other processing unlike any application I have personally ever worked with. Very impressive.

TracktionLastly, the track view also contains the transport controls. In addition to the usual playback controls, it also has the toggles for snapping, looping, punching and the click track, as well as the outbound processing for the main output bus. The main output bus has a full filter chain as each track does. The transport section also contains the ever-handy CPU usage meter.

Creating My First Project

Due to the unique way that this program works, I figured the best way to demonstrate my personal experience with my thoughts and opinions about it, was to briefly document the experience.

OK, I open the app and end up at the project management screen like usual. From there I click the "create project" button and get prompted to enter a name for the project. I enter "Demo" in the prompt. It creates a new project in the left pane and a single Demo track project file in the right. Proceeding to double click the project file I am then brought to the track view page to begin work.

TracktionThe first thing I usually do is search track 1 for some sort of properties dialog to select the input I wish to use to record. Well, Tracktion displays a list of your usable audio and MIDI inputs in the left column beside the tracks. The way you pick the input is to drag the input you wish to use up to track when, when beside track one, drag it to the right until an arrow appears pointing at track 1, the track is then enabled for audio recording or for MIDI sequencing. From there you just go ahead and record or sequence to your heart content.

TracktionAfter all the tracks are recorded and sequenced it's all about the right side of all the tracks. Off to the right is all the processing for each track on its way out. That's volume, panning, effects and level meters. Most of that should be very self explanatory. The effect plugins might not be. In the upper right corner of the screen there is a button that says "New Filter"...click on that and hold your click, then drag that to whatever track, where ever in the output chain you wish to add a plugin. After releasing the click and dropping the plugin it appears in the chain and the bottom center of the screen shows its properties. Go down to the properties and set it as you wish. Go back and forth highlighting any effect and the properties will change to the selected effect. Continue to drag and drop the plugins, volumes, pans and anything else in whatever order you wish for each track.

While, as mentioned earlier, I sometimes found this implementation limiting in regards to not being able to see and manage more than one plugin at a time, I do find it to be a very clever and easy to learn and use way of handling plugins and the pathing of the outputs signal.

TracktionHowever, before calling this a finished project, they throw yet another neat little feature in there. Filter Racks. Up in the upper right hand corner of the screen, next to the "add a new filter" button, is a small button that says "rack". Click on that and little boxes appear in the middle of the screen. Highlight one of the boxes and it shows little nodes for each in and out that you system has for audio and MIDI. Then, go up to one of the tracks and select a plugin filter and drag it to the rack and see what happens...patch cords appear from ins to outs. You can click on and move these patch cords, add affects and completely customize the routing that the signal in the track will take going into and out of all the filters and other outboard processing...now THAT, my friends, is total control.

And, In Conclusion...

Well, for the dozens and dozens of times I have heard and/or read "We take a unique approach to the process of multitrack recording...", one application has actually come through on it. Tracktion does take a very different approach to the process. Not only is the interface unique in appearance, but the way you see your projects through its interface and the process by which projects are created and managed is unique.

However, there are some downsides to the unique approach. Personally, as a veteran of the computer-based recording process, found it difficult to adjust my thinking and was frustrated every now and then. The single-window layout I found limiting at times as well. That said, for somebody that comes from a less experienced or less technical background I can see this program being much quicker to get up to speed with than many of the more common applications in use today due to it's simplicity and straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to the process.

With a price tag of only $80 USD it is certainly well worth a look for anybody getting in to computer-based recording for the first time, as it is a simple, yet high quality and feature-filled application that can get a newbie set up and recording very quickly.

Bottom line, I feel Tracktion is a worthy product for beginning and intermediate level hobbyists, but due to the limitations incurred trying to keep it simple, I can not see it being attractive to the seasoned power users in the business. Thankfully, that is exactly what Raw Materials Software and Mackie are trying to do, and they have succeeded with flying colors.

I do give it a big thumbs up for stepping back and looking, with an unclouded mind, at multitracking and finding an interesting, simple, yet still effective way to approach multitracking on a computer for the newbie and hobby home recording enthusiast that does not want to spend all their time learning the software, but just making music.

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User-submitted comments

Daniello
Sep 18, 2005 08:42 pm
Nice Review
This is great stuff. thanks


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