Newfound At Tracktion
The Tracktion Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) has had a chequered history. It had humble beginnings in 2002 when Julian Storer revealed his creation, but in 2003, music giant Mackie saw it’s potential and took it on, seeing it as the perfect partner for some of their digital studio hardware.The software grew a modest but hardcore fanbase, but in the bust years it seems as though Mackie shifted focus to their core products, and the software stagnated. It was quite a surprise then when the software resurfaced in 2013, with Julian at the help of the newly formed Traction Software Company. My understanding is that this new incarnation was a complete rewrite of the software.
Getting To Know You
The first thing that strikes you about the software is how the GUI is built for productivity. The interface is clean, and packs a lot into one screen. There are no menu bars with masses of dropdowns and flyouts to overwhelm the noob (I’m looking at you, Reaper!). The software is lightweight and an agile development approach means updates are frequent. While I was testing, a new version was released to fix a number of bugs identified by users in the immediate aftermath of the release.
Another very cool thing about Traction is that it runs on Linux. The general assumption up to now is that Linux geeks don’t pay for software, but the Steam gaming service has proven that this is a fallacy, and Traction has a core demographic of hardcore Linux fans who are grateful for a commercial alternative to some of the other free and underwhelming alternatives.
The default dark theme (they call it Blue Steel) emulates a trend seen in many of the other major DAWs, that started with FL Studio. Studios tend to be softly lit windowless places, and bright GUIs cause eyestrain and headaches. The Traction UI is easy on the eyes.
Here’s One I Made Earlier
When reviewing a DAW, the acid test is to make a song and see how far you can get without recourse to the manual. I quickly found out that there was no manual to refer to, unless you’re willing to work with the version 4 manual which can be found on the website, or pay for the endorsed 3rd party manual which is linked to from the training section in the website. Not having a manual as standard is a big omission, in my opinion. If Reaper can ship a DAW with a complete PDF manual for $60, I see no reason why Traction can’t. In a complex application like a DAW, a manual is not optional. At this point, I almost wrote to the Tracktion folks telling them that I don’t have the time to figure it out, but then my ego took over. You see, I’ve been using music software since the mid 80s when I would spend days programming my Spectrum to play songs, by programming it in BASIC. I wasn’t about to be beaten by DAW which is hailed for it’s user friendliness.
I decided I’d put together a wee ska ditty, and set to work. When working with songs the bottom panel is context sensitive – it has different options, depending on what you’ve selected further up the song window. Tracks, midi clips and audio clips all have a full suite of options here, The individual clips have their own limited set of controls for common actions, and tooltips help the noob figure out what they do. I found that when I couldn’t figure out how to do something, a little experimentation helped. Horizontal scaling? Right click and drag. Vertically navigating the MIDI roll? Alt revealed the ubiquitous grabby hand icon, so I knew I could drag to scroll.
I soon figured out that the basic song screen layout is made up of the main song window, the browser panel for file management on the left, the mixer panel on the right and the options panel on the bottom. Any of the latter panels can be hidden to allow more screen real estate for the song.
I didn’t get to try recording, as I didn’t have access to my audio interface, but arranging and mixing are quite straightforward. When working with MIDI, you can enter piano roll direct from the MIDI clip. I did find this a little fiddly on a laptop screen, but this is made up for by the convenience of not having to flip between song mode and piano roll mode. The mixer area is similarly straightforward. You drag plugins onto the mixer and the built in plugins can be worked with in the control panel, while third party plugins open in their own window. The built in plugin suite is serviceable, and features the usual suspects
It took me a while to get my head around bussing. Tracktion uses send and receive filters which are assigned to busses. It seems a little convoluted compared to other DAWS, but it worked well enough.
As for new features in version 7, clip layers allow a complete mix on a per clip level. Automation patterns offer the ability to create automation LFO patterns using basic waveforms with choice of tempo synced frequencies.There are LFO modifiers which do much the same thing in a different way. For both I’d have like to have seen some programmed patterns too, for rythmically interesting volume gating and other applications where a simple waveform cycle is just too basic. There are some other new features like multi-browser sync, useful for being able to access multiple folders of loops at the same time, when trying to build a song from loops. Mostly though the remaining updates are incremental
How Was It For You, DAWling?
As I mentioned earlier, the lack of a manual almost ended the review before it started. However, it’s a tribute to the software that I was able to work most of it out myself. In fact I really only needed the manual to figure out bussing. That said, a beginner may not fare so well. My ska song was a dead loss, but that was down to me, not Tracktion!As a first time user of Tracktion, I could see myself using it everyday, if I hadn’t already spent so long getting to know my current DAW. If I was on a Linux box, this would definitely be my weapon of choice, Traction strikes a good balance between amount of functionality and ease of use, and the user interface can be a very productive space once you’re up to speed with how it works. It’s not a huge upgrade from V6, but then the upgrade price is a paltry $30 (full price is $60).