Using MIDI with Reaper Digital Audio Workstation

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Reaper is a shareware multitracking application with a quickly growing user base. Learn the basics of using MIDI with this quick tutorial.

Reaper Digital Audio WorkstationReaper is a unique DAW application, not only due to the fact that it's a very full featured multitracking application for a very reasonable price, but also regarding some of it's usability quirks. Some are refreshing, even if confusing due to commonly accepted conventions we have all grown used to. Like with most software, it's not much of a question of what is right or wrong, it's just knowing how that program works and selecting the application that works most like your brain does.

At the root of all multitrack recording applications is one common theme, the concept of "tracks" that are mixed together to create music. What one does with these tracks is up to them. One thing somewhat unique about Reaper is that when a track is created, there is no real concept of whether that track is audio or MIDI. It isn't until you create a "MIDI item" into a track that it becomes a "MIDI track". In many applications one creates a MIDI or audio track specifically during the creation of the track.

Reaper Insert MenuSo, to begin working with MIDI, start by creating a new track. To do this, go to the "insert" menu in the menu bar and click on "Track". After you create a track, go to the menubar and open the "Insert" menu and click on "New MIDI item". Once you do that it will create a one measure block of MIDI.

It should be noted the inserting of track can also be done via right clicking within the track column on the left side of the application or pressing "Ctrl - t", as well as from the insert menu. The inserting of virtual instruments can be done from the insert menu or right clicking in the track columns on the left side of the application. Likewise, there is a single insert menu item, and right click menu item, that will create a track with a selected virtual instrument in one click.

After that, click on the FX button to select and assign a virtual instrument to the track. In addition you may have some work to do pertaining only to your composition, such as assigning channels to the MIDI devices or other routing options. These options are available in the I/O configuration options within each channel of the mixer view.

If you need more than a single measure of MIDI, which I presume you will, you the track highlighting and highlight however many measures you need, then select the "New MIDI item" option and the full length of selected measures with one large block of MIDI data. A "MIDI item" can be thought of in riffs, or pieces of music, that can then be easily selected, copied and pasted as the composition takes shape. If you create a 4 measure "item", and you drag the end of the item to make it longer, it will actually start repeating the item. So your 4 measure riff can be dragged to being eight measures long, which will be repeating the 4 measure riff twice. If you drag it to 6 measures, it will play the riff once, and the first two measures of the second time through.

After creation of the MIDI item, should you decide you need more or less measures in it, you can always right click on the item and select "item properties". Uncheck "Loop source" and then drag the item as short or long as you need. Leaving that same checkbox unchecked will also prevent the default behavior of looping the MIDI content in an item from being repeated as it's dragged longer.

Should you choose to keep your entire MIDI track in one long "item" that covers your entire song, let's discuss. My argument, for strictly composition purposes, having it in sections that matches your songs sections allows for easier copy and paste, verse one to verse two, chorus 2 to chorus 3, etc...which is a nice time saver for the purposes of making a decent demo or practice copy to share with bandmates. If in one long "item" you still can do the copy and paste of notes and measures, but it's not as quick and easy. So I would suggest that planning out the arrangement and dicing up MIDI tracks accordingly in beneficial, at least, up until the time you want to start adding unique fills and such things to set the track apart and make it completely random and original.

Working with Reapers Piano Roll

Reaper Piano RollFrom this point, you can double click on the MIDI item to open a piano roll, in which to step time place MIDI notes, adjust velocity and whatever else you need to do, or, you can record MIDI in real timer via a MIDI controller.

There are other usable options and features you should be aware of when working in the piano roll. The "F" keys are shortcuts for an entire octave for placing notes. When you enter the piano roll, you will notice one note is highlighted at any given time. To place a note in that space, right where the playbar currently is, click F1, from there up to F12, each key will insert a note a 1/2 step higher from the highlighted note. Or, if you prefer, double clicking at the beat you wish to fill with a note. Double clicking an existing note will make that note go away. Right clicking on an existing note will present option for working with that note including editing velocity, splitting them, changing the exact position and length and other various tweaks. Clicking and holding on either end of the note will allow you to lengthen the note, and clicking and holding on the center will allow you to move it up and down the scale by a simple drag and drop.

In the footer of the piano roll window are also play controls which can playback just the MIDI in the window which can be handy, as well as options for controlling the basic properties of the piano roll grid regarding the beat pattern and beats per measure. There is also the option to change the scale of the piano roll and a few basic options for changing MIDI parameters of the notes being placed.

Final Thoughts

Reaper is a little bit different in how it works with tracks and MIDI than the applications I have worked with over the years. After using it for a little bit, it's grown to actually seem more logical to me. Hopefully this little tutorial of the basics of MIDI in Reaper will help you get up and running with MIDI quicker than I did.

Rock on...

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