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Tracktion 5 Review

Ben Pitt
5 Jul 2014
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
35
inc VAT

Sophisticated recording software at a breakthrough price, but its quirky interface won't be to everyone's taste

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Specifications

System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/7 (SP1)/8 or Mac OSX 10.7.5/10.8/10.9, Core 2 Duo 2GHz processor, 2GB RAM (4GB recommended)

Tracktion is music production software with a difference. Unlike many sub-£100 packages, Tracktion 5 is no home-oriented sketchpad, but neither is it a stripped back version of a more expensive application. Tracktion 5 is sophisticated software that's up to the demands of serious use; it just happens to be sold at an extremely competitive price.

Ever since version one, a key strength of Tracktion 5 has been the conceptual simplicity of its interface. Pretty much everything happens in a single window, and the many drag and drop controls make the application easy to engage with and use. There's no distinction made between audio and MIDI tracks or different types of mixer channels. Each track performs whichever role you assign to it. The interface is never cluttered with features you don't need.

Tracktion comp

Even so, the unusual interface can sometimes be a drawback. The blank canvas may leave less experienced users struggling to know where to start. The effects bundled with Tracktion 5 are basic, there's just one very simple virtual instrument and there’s no loop library, so most people will need to install third-party plug-ins and content. Those who aren't familiar with concepts such as auxiliary sends and returns, group channels and submixes are unlikely to figure them out from first principles.

The absence of a proper Help system is disappointing. Pop-up speech bubbles are useful for explaining the things you can see, but there's no searchable Help to find out how to undertake a particular task if you can't find the relevant onscreen control. The Help section on the website includes FAQs and a user forum, but our searches largely failed to reveal the information we sought. There are some excellent tutorial videos, but they cost an additional $15.

CLICK AND PLAY

The lack of a toolbox and context menus is commendable in principle because it keeps all the available functions on the screen and easier to find. As features have grown over the years, though, so too has the number of buttons that appear on the lower panel. This area is context-sensitive and changes depending on whether audio, MIDI or automation data, a track, input, output or plug-in has been selected. On the whole, it works extremely well. Clicking the master output fader, for example, reveals detailed output metering, advanced options for the stereo pan controls and a neat system for fading the entire project in and out.

There are lots more settings for audio clips, though, and it could overwhelm some users. Frustratingly, various buttons such as Split Clips, Change Pitch and MIDI quantise aren't available when multiple clips are selected, although the relevant keyboard shortcuts still work. There are various buttons relating to pitch shifting and time stretching which are spread across two tabbed screens, and we found their behaviour slightly confusing.

Tracktion MIDI

These kinds of frustrations are relatively few in number, though. More often, we were pleasantly surprised at the attention to detail. There's support for time signature changes and curved tempo changes, for example. Track folders help to keep projects tidy by grouping similar tracks together and collapsing them into a single track height. A MIDI Learn button makes it easy to assign hardware MIDI controllers to a range of functions. Audio latency is handled extremely well, with precise control in the Settings panel and an Auto-Detect function that measures latency by emitting and capturing a test pulse and compensating for it automatically.

KEEP THE BEST BITS

New to version 5 is the ability to create nested sequences simply by dragging one sequence onto another. It also introduces a Track Freeze function, which renders audio as a WAV file to free up computer resources. It's a common feature in recording software, but this implementation is unusually versatile, with the ability to specify exactly where in a signal chain the Freeze Point plug-in is applied. This makes it possible to freeze a resource-hungry virtual instrument, for example, but still keep some or all of its mix parameters, before the Freeze Point, freely adjustable.

Also new is a feature that simplifies the process of recording multiple takes so that you can compile a montage of the best bits. Recording in Loop mode generates a stack of alternate takes automatically, but it's also possible to merge any audio clips by selecting them and clicking the Create Comp button that appears. You can then click a small plus button and select Show Takes. It's not the most obvious technique, but it's simple enough once you know it's there. Selecting bits of the various takes couldn't be easier: drag to define or refine a region and click to select an alternate take.

It's a really strong feature, but in our tests it was compromised by the way the track in question became silent for about five seconds when we made an edit. It appears that the software needs this time to rebuild the waveform, but other applications, such as Cubase and Sonar, give instant feedback to comp edits. They also allow crossfades between takes. This is something Tracktion supports for normal audio clips but not for comp edits.

It's clear that Tracktion is designed by people who know exactly what music producers want from their software. Features such as the comprehensive comping facilities are rare to find in sub-£100 software, but it's something that users at all levels can benefit from. As Tracktion becomes increasingly sophisticated, though, it starts to lose its air of streamlined simplicity. It's a credible alternative to Steinberg Cubase Elements 7 but, for us, Cubase Elements is still the better system.

System requirements
System requirementsWindows XP/Vista/7 (SP1)/8 or Mac OSX 10.7.5/10.8/10.9, Core 2 Duo 2GHz processor, 2GB RAM (4GB recommended)

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