Music Production on the Cheap with Reaper

This article is part of the Reaper Guide series:

Making music on you computer is very easy to get into now. The availability and inexpensiveness of computers capable of making music makes it a real possibility now for anyone. The only thing standing in their way now is the expense of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, like Apple’s Logic, Protools or Steinberg’s Cubase Pro.

Yes, you can make music with simple software like Audacity (see our previous article on just that subject), but software like that is not really made for multitrack music. You really need to use something made for the job. Fortunately there is a solution.

Reaper is a fully-featured DAW for Windows and Mac, and although not technically free, the licenses for non-commercial use are only $60, and the software is usable even if you don’t license after the evaluation period. With it you can record multitrack music and use software instruments, just like you can in premium packages like Cubase and Logic.


In this article we talk about how to use Reaper as a professional music creation system and what free or cheap things you could add to it to make your own music or film soundtracks.

Reaper is a real eye opener. The install file for Mac 64-bit is a mere 14Mb and expands to a small 64Mb for installation, yet it seems to be a fully-featured DAW. How do they cram that much functionality into such a small package?


The software is a little daunting at first, but here’s the stuff you need to know. To install the software, go here and download the version for your machine. The software is set up to imitate a professional recording studio. There are tracks laid horizontally in the body of the interface. Recording on each of these tracks (with the record button) layers up tracks which will play simultaneously when you hit the Play button.

You can add a virtual instrument to each track or attach a microphone or the audio output from a guitar or synthesiser to the inputs on your computer.

You make multitrack music by pressing Record and playing an instrument or singing in real time, either to a metronome or in time with previous tracks. If you aren’t a good enough player to play along in real time, you can either slow the tempo down and play along slowly, or you can out the notes in your hand using the piano roll editor. (So called because they mimic the paper rolls on an old-fashioned player piano.)


Once you’ve recorded all your tracks, you can mix (or balance) them and pan them back and forth in stereo.

There are many free VST plugins and add-ins you can get on the Internet to make your music production experience that much more rich. To get you started, here is a list of free plugins and instruments. For Windows users, one of the best free virtual instrument packs is the Elektrostudio package, wonderful for electronica producers as it reproduces many fine and rare old synths, and at a price you can’t argue with.


For effects, the Reaper software itself comes with some effects all ready to go. There are some great free effects out there on the Internet, too, and here are a few ideas to get you going.

  • Klanghelm makes some great saturation plugins. These are good for simulating the kind of distortion you would get from analogue tape machines, and they add a raucous power to a track.
  • Glitchmachines also make some lovely glitchy sound treatments called Fracture and Hysteresis which really mess up your sounds in a good way.
  • And a classic and one used by many musicians, both amateur and professional, SoundHack is a suite of VST plugin effects featuring some REALLY cool professional quality sounds that are hard to get anywhere else, never mind for free.


The best idea with instruments is to Google “free VST,” and you’ll have more than you know what to do with.

It may be that your computer is the best you could afford, but that may mean that it suffers from a lack of grunt in the sound department. Consider taking your music production up a notch by springing for an I/O box like those we discussed in a previous article.

Also, it’s a good idea to have a USB MIDI keyboard like this one which enables you to play virtual instruments on a piano style keyboard rather than with the mouse or the piano roll editor.

Have you had any experience making music on Reaper? Let us know in the comments below.