NEW PRODUCT REVIEW
A little bit of history …
Tracktion was originally developed by UK-based designer/programmer, Julian Storer and first released in 2002 by Storer’s Raw Material Software. US-based Mackie, took over distribution of Tracktion in 2003 and continued to market it through January 2013. The software was sold in standalone, boxed retail versions as well as bundled with Mackie, Tapco and Echo Audio computer-audio interfaces and digital-capable mixing boards. I remember getting a copy bundled with a Mackie Spike Audio Interface many years ago and commenting at the time that it was very intuitive to use.
Mackie began shipping its final version, Tracktion 3.0, in April 2007 but without any official communication from Mackie regarding Tracktion and no new updates since 2008, Storer announced he was taking over future development of the software with his new company, Tracktion Software Corporation, and from 2012 onwards, versions 4 and 5 were subsequently released and the feature set and user interface were continuously enhanced and improved.
Fast forward to 2015 and the release of Tracktion 6 which is the subject of this review.
Tracktion is unique amongst DAW systems in that it sets out to allow all composing, tracking, mixing and exporting of tracks to be done from a single screen user interface. The more traditional ‘dual’ screen approach of track and mixdown screens has been combined into a single artist focused interface and there are very few pop up menus to cope with.
For the record, Tracktion 6 was easy to download and install with a modest download size of between 6.8MB and 13.3MB depending on which of the three operating systems you wish to run it on (Windows, OSX or Linus). Windows and OSX still have 32 bit versions and all three platforms are supported with 64 bit versions which is what I selected for my installation on to Windows 7. After selecting the desired install location it was a simple matter to enter the unlock code supplied and you are up and running.
There are two default system tabs which are always selectable;
PROJECTS is pretty straightforward as it’s where you can create and load projects from your project library. There’s a pretty cool feature that lists every audio and midi file which has been created for a project as you can see below. You can even monitor preview any individual audio file from the list.
SETTINGS is where you set up your audio and MIDI interfaces, physical control surfaces, and default locations for plug-ins, loops and some other system based options. There is also an extensive and configurable keyboard shortcuts menu.
Tracktion found my two MOTU audio interfaces and it took only a few moments to enable all my inputs and outputs, and to set a default stereo output pair for the main mix output. This is also where I set my desired session sample rate of 88.2kHz (44.1 to 192kHz are available) and once selected, Tracktion sets a sensible default (but changeable) audio buffer size. In a similar way I enabled my MOTU MIDI ports and my MIDI keyboard.
Once a new project has been created you are presented with the single-screen user interface as shown below.
With the default template you are presented with 8 undefined tracks and three additional control/information boxes (which can be hidden individually when required).
To the right of each track is its corresponding in-line channel control strip. This operates on a plug-in basis. When a new track is created, you get by default, level, pan, level meter, MUTE and SOLO buttons. What is novel about the system is that it allows you to drag and drop plug-ins to the channel strip in any order. Tracktion comes as standard with a variety of effects and you can add any compatible VST/AU plug-ins, either from a 3rd Party, or from Tracktion’s own plug-in marketplace.
ASSIGNABLE CONTROL PANEL
The center bottom of the screen provides detailed status and additional control options for the selected plug-in, or MIDI, or audio clip. This is very much at the heart of how Tracktion operates and is to me, quite similar to some of the assignable hardware consoles I have used in the past. This is very clever use of screen space as you quickly get into the habit of clicking an element (whether that be audio or MIDI clip, or plug-in, whatever) and you get a spacious and well laid out info/control panel in a dedicated part of the screen.
So let’s see how this all works out in practice along with a look at some of the new features in this release.
Tracktion found most of the 64 bit plug-ins I had installed on my PC, so to check out compatibility, I added an instance of Cakewalk’s Session Drummer 3 into Channel 1 and up popped the user interface. There is a really useful feature for plug-in control panels which allows you to pin the panel on the screen so that it doesn’t disappear which you click on another control element.
Unlike some other DAW’s, Tracktion allows you to drop a step clip directly into a track rather than as a pop up. This is a really nice way to work. Once a new clip has been dropped into the desired time slot, you can create a sequence or call up one that you’ve previously saved. Having done that, I tried out a couple of features new to Version 6. You can now set the level of each step within a clip individually. This can be done one step at a time or you can use the mouse to draw a level bargraph as shown above for the Ride Cymbol. This gives the sequence a more natural feel. Another great new feature is the ability to dial in a swing profile from a large pre-set library. I chose a 50% push swing. You can actually choose a different swing for each drum element but its usually best to apply the swing across the whole kit. Once you are happy with the sequence it’s very easy to extend it to the desired number of bars for this part of your song.
If like me you have a few precious hardware audio processors, then being able to use them during tracking or mixdown within your DAW software is a really important feature. Tracktion 6 now offers this feature and takes care of the timing issues caused by sending an audio signal out of the system, through your audio convertors (and audio device) and back into the system. Once the audio insert is defined, you click the insert auto-detect button which sends a brief burst of test noise through your hardware insert and calculates the send/return path delay. In my example it measured 94.52ms which I then simply clicked ‘Apply’ to accept . This is applied as a time delay to all other tracks in the project so that the timing between all tracks remain in sync. In practice it is beat perfect and allows you to apply external audio effects on demand.
So now I can apply some hardware stereo compression to my drum track!
But what happens if I want to use the same compressor on another track? No problem! Tracktion has a clever way to print an effect by allowing an already recorded track to be the record source for another channel. This is a great idea! In my case, I called up my original soft drum instrument track (Drums 1) as the recording source for Channel 2 (Drums 2) and hit record. Now I get a rendered version of the MIDI drum track BUT modified by my inserted hardware compressor. You can see the hardware insert point in the ‘Drums 1′ channel strip, just after the Session Drummer plug-in.
Afterwards, I can mute or archive the original which is still there should I need to come back and make any changes. The hardware insert and the compressor are now available to use in other tracks. In the drums example above I have also extended the step clip to a total of 12 bars (before printing the effect) which was a simple matter of grabbing the clips end marker and dragging to create the desired number of bars.
MORE ON RECORDING
Working with real audio sources is equally simple. You just select a track to record to and call up either a mono or stereo source from the pulldown selection. Audio inputs and outputs can be paired for stereo use within the settings tab. I overdubbed some electric guitar, bass and stereo piano to give you an idea of how it’s all presented on screen (above).
If you get to a point where you are running a large number of CPU intensive plug-ins, then it’s possible to freeze a track at any point within the channel strip signal path, which then releases CPU power for other needs. I found this useful when working with a very CPU intensive synth emulation.
MORE ON PLUG-INS
Working with a MIDI keyboard and virtual instrument is also easy. I called up my Yamaha CP33 piano as a MIDI source and then inserted an instance of a virtual Rhodes from my Sonar plug-ins. The nice thing about the horoizontal channel strip approach is that it makes good use of typical widescreen monitors. As you add more plug-ins to a channel strip then it simply reduces the width allocated to each plugin to stay within the allocated channel strip width. If you have a look at the screen image below, I have shown an example of adding multiple plug-ins to a channel.
My ‘Rhodes’ channel now has (from Left to Right);
- Soft Instrument Plugin
- Hardware insert (which I dragged down from my original Drums Track)
- Stereo Width plug-in
- Level and Pan controls
- Reverb plugin
- Level bargraph
- MUTE and SOLO buttons
If you find the channel strip getting a bit too squeezed to see each element clearly then you can expand the channel strip width to suit. You can also hide the left hand status/control window (as shown above) to maximise the channel strip width. There are also ‘click to fit’ buttons, to fit all tracks into the available width or height, or both. I used this feature a lot.
Multiple plug-ins can also be assembled into racks with a very flexible system for interconnecting between the individual plug-ins. These can be dragged directly from a preset library into a track or audio clip.
Whilst all tracks have small vertical level bargraphs, you can click on any channel bargraph plugin to get a high resolution horizontal bargraph displayed in the assignable control panel area of the screen. Metering can be individually selected to either peak or RMS response (with peak hold) or to Sum and Difference (M-S) metering which can be really useful for checking mono compatibility, e.g. undesirable stereo content on an LF source.
MASTER CONTROL PANEL
The master section is always accessible in the bottom right hand side of the screen. This handles the tape transport controls, facilities for looping, other useful options such as snap enable, and the master level, pan, metering, and master plug-in facilities.
In the example opposite, I have added volume/pan and level meter plugins to control the send level to a peak limiter plug-in, followed by a conventional buss compressor, which in turn is followed by fixed position, final level, pan and metering. Clicking on any of the Tracktion plug-ins brings its controls to the assignable control panel at the bottom of the screen, whilst third party plug-ins will popup and can be pinned to any desired position on the screen.
WHAT ELSE IS NEW IN THIS RELEASE?
You’ll be familiar with the usual volume fades which can be placed anywhere on an audio clip. In Tracktion 6, this type of facility has been extended to include pitch fades as well, so you can get that really nice turntable style speed up or slow down effect. To do this you apply a normal fade in (or out) as shown above but right click on the end marker and choose ‘speed up’ (or ‘speed down’) from the drop down menu. You can select a variety of the fade-in and fade-out curves from the assignable control panel. Really great effect!
RECORD PUNCH IN AND OUT ON THE FLY
As well as being able to set punch in and out times, it’s now possible to punch in and out of recording on the fly. All you have to do is to set a track to record enable and start recording. Once that track is recording you can come out and back in to record by toggling the record enable button for that track. It would be great if you didn’t have to start in record but I found a workaround by using a dummy track to force the system to start recording as shown above. This could be useful for copying the choruses of an existing track where you wanted to double them up and apply effects, or for voice over work. Simple to use and a nice feature.
Tracktion 6 now has full support for automation lanes. It’s possible to create any number of automation lanes for each track. In the example above, I’ve created two automation lanes, one for channel volume and one for the ‘side’ level of a stereo width plug-in. You can record automation in the usual way by arming automation record and then adjusting the desired controls. You then get a visual representation of the automation data for each parameter in its lane. Note that the real time value of the automation data is shown to the right of the automation lane. You can also grab and edit all the automation timeline points which have been created during the automation record run, and change the curvature between any two automation points. Of course you can create automation data directly from the automation lane by creating and editing timeline data points.
And there’s more …
Let’s say you have a nice groove and you’ve recorded a whole bunch of automation. Now you decide to change the track tempo. No problem! Tracktion 6 allows you to remap the automation data to suit the new tempo. A really powerful feature!
Another new Version 6 feature is the ability to tag tracks with a name which can be used to selectively view one or more tracks sharing the same tag. In the example above, I have tagged the Stereo Piano track AND its two automation lanes with the tag ‘Stereo Piano’. Once I’ve clicked the ‘Show Only Tagged Tracks’, I can view only those tracks of interest. The feature is additive, so I can add and remove any tagged tracks I want to view at the same time. I couldn’t find a way to add multiple tags to a track so this would be a nice feature to add for the future.
Okay, you’ve created a great MIDI based drum track and now you’ve overdubbed a bass guitar part. Only problem is that the bass has come in a fraction late on a couple of beats. You can use the new Warp time feature to set in and out points and then then adjust the in point to be on the beat. The software will automatically adjust the length of the clip to fit up to the out time. As well as correcting the odd timing problem it can also be used as a creative effect
Hopefully that’s given you an idea of how Tracktion 6 presents an attractive alternative to the other mainstream DAW software on the market. It doesn’t come bundled with many exotic plug-ins and this it reflected in its very modest purchase price, but it’s easy to bring in 3rd party plug-ins from other manufacturers. It does come bundled with melodyne essential plus two plugins from the Tracktion on-line marketplace which offers a range of plug-ins from Tracktion and a number of other third party designers, so it’s worth keeping an eye on how this develops.
Tracktion 6 is very easy to use and provides a comprehensive track recording and editing system. Time accurate hardware inserts in combination with track to track bouncing are really useful features so you can move around your treasured hardware effects to as many tracks as you want to.
The assignable control panel is well proportioned and provides a level of detail beyond most other DAWs. The horizontal in-line channel strips make good use of modern widescreen monitors and it’s easy to insert and place plug-ins at any point within the channel signal path.
There is a very extensive pop-up help system for new users and a good number of video tutorials available via the Tracktion website.
The DAW marketplace is pretty crowded these days with the likes of Cakewalk, Steinberg and Propellerhead offering very comprehensive packages with lots of plug-in effects and instruments, but of course everything comes at a price. If you are looking for a simple to use DAW focused on the needs of the musician, then I recommend trialing Tracktion 6.