Review – Tracktion 6 from Tracktion Software Corporation
Last year Tracktion Corp breathed new life into a long-neglected DAW franchise after re-acquiring it from Mackie and releasing version 5. Now, less than a year later, along comes yet another major release.
by Dave Townsend, July 2015
Note: This review pertains to Tracktion Version 6 specifically. For a broader look at Tracktion, see our previous Tracktion 5 review here:
How We Got Here – A Brief Historical Recap
Tracktion is a general-purpose digital audio workstation (DAW) that originally came to life in 2000 and quickly acquired a cult following. In 2002 it was taken over by Mackie, which didn’t turn out to be exactly a match made in heaven. Mackie pretty much botched its stewardship, letting Tracktion languish while competitors’ DAWs continued to evolve. That all changed in 2014, when Tracktion’s creator, Julian “Jules” Storer, re-acquired the product and set about making up for lost time.
Version 5, the first post-Mackie release, was a major step forward. It incorporated many ideas from user wish-lists as well as introducing a lot of forward-thinking features that in some cases leapfrogged other DAWs.
Although still one of the easiest DAWs to learn, it’s not been dumbed down. In fact, it’s an environment that even the most technical-minded übergeek will appreciate for its nuts ‘n bolts features. Case in point: being able to quickly see which plugins are eating your CPU cycles and freezing them right from the CPU usage report screen. Brilliant.
Now along comes version 6 (6.1 at the time of this writing, with 6.2 currently in beta) less than a year later, and it continues to impress us with its breakneck pace of development, innovation and software quality. You won’t find much purely cosmetic dressing-up in this update, but rather solid meat ‘n potato features such as improved automation, comping and time-stretching.
These are the major new features in T6, each of which will be expanded upon in the remainder of this review.
- Dedicated Automation Tracks
- Assignable Comp Groups
- Enhanced Step Clip Editor
- Time Stretching and Pitch Automation
- Tag Editor
- Real-time Record Waveforms
- Retrospective Record
- Versatile side-chaining
- Browser sync-to-playback
- Hardware inserts
- Plugin Manager
Most of these are not entirely unique to Tracktion. But neither are they merely catch-up me-too features to tick off a marketing features matrix. Most of them add a little something extra to what might at first glance appear to be pretty standard capabilities.
Meet Bill Edstrom
Bill Edstrom is an independent technical writer and creator of tutorial videos. He has made a series of short videos demonstrating Tracktion 6’s new features, which I’ll link to throughout the text below. A complete list of Bill’s T6 videos can be found in a sticky on the official Tracktion KVR forum .
Bill has also written a print guide to Tracktion 6, creatively named “Bill Edstrom’s Guide to Tracktion 6”. At the time of this writing, it’s currently only available for pre-order from Bill’s website .
Dedicated Automation Tracks
Putting automation envelopes into separate tracks/lanes for clarity isn’t anything new. Most DAWs do that nowadays, but it’s been missing from Tracktion until now. And as of version 6 you can now automatically stretch automation to match tempo changes, something many other DAWs don’t do. Automation was already one of Tracktion’s greatest strengths, and now it’s even better.
As before, you can still show automation envelopes as overlays atop an audio waveform or MIDI data if you prefer. My own preference is to display volume automation superimposed over the audio waveform, but to move most other envelopes into a separate automation track. It’s nice to have the option of doing it either way.
Bill Edstrom’s tutorial on automation tracks can be seen here .
Assignable Comp Groups
“Comping” is the process of stitching multiple takes into a single performance, otherwise known as a “composite” track. It’s an especially common practice for lead vocals: the vocalist sings the same part multiple times, and you take the best bits from each take to build a composite performance from them.
This can be a time-consuming task, entailing either muting the bits you don’t want or dragging the bits you do want into a new track. Tracktion 6 introduces “comp groups”, which allow you to select any number of tracks for inclusion in the comping process and then simply drag your mouse across the sections you want to include in the composite. Afterward, you just bounce the comp group to a new track and you’re done.
Here’s a comp group consisting of three tracks, where we’ve highlighted the parts from each take that we want to use for the composite:
You really have to try this yourself to appreciate how much it streamlines the process. It can easily cut the time it takes to do a comp in half. The time savings are even greater when you have a large number of takes to choose from.
I have only one minor complaint: there is currently no easy way to remove a region from the composite other than by selecting another track to replace it. When you select a portion of one track, it automatically de-selects that region from all the other tracks in the comp group and inserts a short crossfade so there are no clicks. That part’s wonderful. But if you want to de-select a region from ALL tracks, you have to add a blank track to the comp group so that you can select silent regions from it. I’d like to see a future version let you do an ALT-Drag or something to erase portions of the composite. But this really is a very minor complaint. All in all, this implementation is quite well thought-out.
Bill’s tutorial video is here .
Enhanced Step Clip Editor
A “step clip” is a portion of a MIDI track that has a step sequencer embedded into it. A track may contain many step clips, each with its own mini sequence. These clips can then be copied or moved around to build a complex MIDI sequence. Each step clip can drive multiple virtual instruments, so you can, for example, build a custom drum kit from two or more sample libraries and/or synthesizers.
Step clips aren’t an entirely new feature, having been introduced in version 5, where they were referred to as “step sequencer clips”. However, version 6 adds new capabilities for editing them. For example, you can now easily randomize each step’s timing and velocity. Also new in version 6 is the ability to adjust velocities independently for each individual event in the step sequence.
Bill’s how-to video is here .
Pitch-Shifting and Time-Stretching
“Time stretching”, which Tracktion calls “Time Warp”, refers to the ability to stretch (or compress) an existing audio clip to match a desired playback time. This can be accomplished with or without pitch changes. The stretching algorithm is provided by the highly-regarded Elastique Pro software from Zplane .
Let’s say you have a clip that needs to be exactly 10 seconds long to match up with a video cue, but as recorded it’s only 8 seconds in duration. Time-stretching lets you drag it out to the desired length while retaining the original pitch.
Similarly, you can keep a clip the same length while raising or lowering its pitch, or to stretch/compress it while allowing the normal pitch shift to occur.
Yes, many other DAWs do pitch shifting, but Tracktion is the only one I know of that allows you to automate it. Consider the classic “tape stop” effect, where audio is ramped down in pitch to emulate the sound of a tape reel being slowed to a stop during playback. In Tracktion, you can draw an automation envelope to precisely set the tape stop’s start and end times, as well as the rate of change and final pitch. Tracktion refers to this as a “Pitch Fade”.
Mr. Edstrom shows you how that’s done in this video .
This simple feature may be the most practical and useful addition in Tracktion 6, especially on large projects. Once you’ve started using track tags you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them.
A tag is a piece of metadata that you can attach to clips or tracks to help identify and group them, not unlike the MP3 tags you add to your music collection to organize tunes on your iPod. Like MP3 tags, Tracktion makes no assumptions about what any given tag symbolizes; they are entirely user-definable.
For example, you might tag each background vocal track with a “BGV” identifier. This makes it easy to find and select all the background vocal tracks, even if they’re not contiguous nor contained within the same folder. Tags can therefore be used as an alternative to track folders for organizing tracks by function.
A clip or track can have more than one tag attached to it. Multiple tags may be chosen to quickly create a track grouping. For example, you might have a tag for Drums and another for Percussion. Click on both tags to instantly create a view consisting of only drum and percussion tracks. With a single click you can then temporarily add bass guitar to the view, or remove percussion tracks from it.
“Create Submix Containing”
Sub-mixes aren’t new, of course, but version 6 gives you a new way of doing it that’s fast and convenient.
The traditional method for creating a submix is to insert a bus and route some tracks to it. The downside is that you can’t easily tell at a glance which tracks are going to which bus. For maximum flexibility it’s still the way to go, but much of the time simplicity trumps maximum flexibility.
Some DAWs, including Tracktion, let you treat track folders as if they were busses, providing an easy way to tweak volume for a group of related tracks, such as all the individual instruments in a drum kit. The main limitations of track folders, compared to traditional bussing, are that you cannot include a given track in more than one folder, and you cannot insert effects into a track folder.
Enter a third option: the “Create Submix Containing” feature. Select some tracks and click on the “Create Submix Containing” button down at the bottom in the Properties window. It’s every bit as convenient as a track folder, but this way you actually create a full-featured bus that you can insert effects into. Adding to or removing tracks from the submix is a simple matter of drag ‘n drop. It’s still limited to one bus per track, but nine times out of ten that’s OK.
You can have multiple submixes within a submix, and a submix can include track folders, too. However, a given track, submix or folder may only belong to one submix. If you need to send a track to multiple busses, you’re still going to have to go the traditional route.
Here is Bill Edstrom’s how-to video.
Real Time Record Waveforms
Tracktion can now draw waveforms in real time as audio is being recorded. While not unique to Tracktion – most DAWs can do this – it’s a welcome addition. It also helps make the next feature easier to use: on-the-fly punch in/out.
On-the-fly Punch-In/Punch Out
You can now toggle the Record Arm button to turn recording off and on during playback.
Not all DAWs can do this. Most make you set punch-in and punch-out points on the timeline, and usually only one set of punch points at a time. Being able to start and stop recording at any time means you can make multiple additions to a track in one pass.
Bill’s video on real-time punch-in can be viewed here .
This one’s really novel. I haven’t yet made up my mind whether it’s merely a very clever idea or the greatest DAW innovation of all time. Either way, it’s new, unique and potentially extremely useful. Here’s how it works…
When Retrospective Record is enabled (which it is by default), Tracktion continually records any active input in the current Edit (view) into memory, whether you have any tracks record-enabled or not. This ongoing audio history can then be easily retrieved and turned into permanent clips with a single click. This occurs whether you are in playback or not. If there’s live input, either audio or MIDI, Tracktion will be silently capturing it all in the background, all the time. (I wonder if any secret agent spy-types will ever use this for surreptitious purposes.)
Maybe this has happened to you; I know it’s happened to me many times: I’m rehearsing a part over and over until I can play it flawlessly, and while I’m practicing I happen to nail the performance – but I hadn’t been recording. Rats!, I think to myself, I should have been recording.
Well, now you only have to click the little clock icon in the upper-right corner of the screen to make that last missed-take appear as a clip in your session.
Audio data is written to an in-memory buffer, so this won’t slow down your disk access, although it will eat some RAM. However, you decide how much memory to allocate for this purpose by specifying how many minutes’ worth of history to buffer. Click on the Options button and choose “Retrospective Record” from the context menu. A submenu gives you the option of 0.5, 1, 2, 5 or 10 minutes, or to disable the feature.
Note that the feature is enabled by default, with a 30-second buffer. You might want to disable it if you rarely or never record live audio or MIDI input, such as those who compose entirely in-the-box electronica via the PRV or canned loops. But for everybody else, the extra CPU overhead is negligible so it’s fine to just leave it turned on.
Here’s a video how-to.
Loop users will appreciate this feature. If you spend a lot of time auditioning loops, wouldn’t it be nice if those loops were automatically synchronized with your project as you play it back? Now, they are.
A new plugin comes with T6 that handles latency compensation when sending audio out of the box to an external device such as a hardware compressor, reverb or perhaps an amplifier for re-amping. All you do is put the new Insert plugin on the track or bus you want to use the external hardware with and select the appropriate ins and outs of your audio interface.
As with all DAWs, the tricky part of using external hardware is figuring out delay compensation. This is handled automatically for software effects, but your computer has no knowledge of external devices and therefore must measure their latencies in order to apply the appropriate amount of delay compensation. Fortunately, the Insert plugin makes this very easy to do – you just click the “auto-detect” button in the plugin properties box. The plugin sends a short noise burst through the external device and measures how long it takes to make the round trip.
Of course, our friend Bill Edstrom has a helpful how-to video where he patches a physical wah-wah stompbox into a guitar track.
You can now easily arrange your plugins into folders for easier navigation when you have a large plugin collection. This is done from the plugin listing on the Settings tab.
Go to the Settings tab and click on “Plugins”. Here you’ll see a list of every registered plugin, where you can enable and disable each one and give them user-defined tags. Click on the “Show Custom Menu Editor” to open the plugin menu customization screen. Here you can create folders (click on the “+” icon in the lower right) and then drag individual plugins into it.
Because you’re just creating shortcuts, a given plugin may be placed into two or more folders if you like. For example, I placed MMultiAnalyzer (a spectrum analyzer from Meldaproduction) into two folders, one labeled “Metering” and another labeled “Meldaproduction”. Sometimes, it makes more sense to look for a plugin by function, other times by vendor.
This feature is still in beta at the time of this writing, but version 6.2 should be released shortly after this article appears in the July 2015 edition of SoundBytes Magazine, so I’ll go ahead and tell you what little I know about it now, even though it’s not yet official.
Whoa! I can hear you saying – a programming language for a DAW? But I’m not a programmer! Please don’t tell me this is something I have to learn now!
If you’re really interested to find out where the feature stands today, 6.2 is an open beta, which means anyone can download it and try it out. Go to www.tracktion.com/downloads/tracktion6 and click on the “Beta” tab at the bottom of the page.
Tracktion just keeps getting better and better. On essential features, it can already go toe-to-toe with any general-purpose DAW on the market, even those costing many times more. If the current rate of development continues, in another year or two this underdog could very well be The One to beat, at any price.
If you’re interested in exploring Tracktion, you can get started one of two ways: install the free unlimited version (version 4) or download the demo of Tracktion 6. I recommend the latter, unless you’re sure you’ll never have 60 bucks to spend and absolutely must have a free version.
The demo does not time out, but instead injects low-level noise bursts every few seconds. Otherwise, it’s fully-functional indefinitely.
If you think Tracktion might be for you, it’ll set you back a mere $60. When Tracktion 7 comes along, you’ll pay half that for the upgrade. Price-wise, it’s an excellent bargain. Features-wise, it’ll do everything you need a DAW to do, and at the rate it’s evolving, it also looks like a pretty safe long-term investment.
Get the demo or purchase Tracktion 6 here: