Field Test: Mackie Tracktion 3 DAW/SequencerA BEGUILING UI DESIGN AND SOME SLICK NEW FEATURES 11/01/2007 8:00 AM Eastern
The original release of Mackie Tracktion was notable for its bold attempt to redesign the traditional sequencer user interface in a way that would be less intimidating and more fun. Since then, Mackie has moved aggressively to add features. Tracktion 3 sees an upgraded UI with an integrated browser, folder tracks, better support for markers, etc. A suite of software instruments and a big set of loops are now included in the Ultimate Bundle ($319.99); the Project Bundle ($129.99) has less content. REX files and Apple Loops can be imported. Like most DAWs, Tracktion 3 is so complex that this review can only hit the high spots.
Tracktion 3 puts most editing features in a single window. The panes can be resized or hidden. A few features, such as groove template editing, appear in pop-up windows, but MIDI track editing is in-line: The track expands vertically to display notes and controller data. Rather than use a standard menu bar, Tracktion puts menu headers in a box in the lower-left corner and packs the transport into the lower-right corner. In combination with the pastel color scheme and oval buttons, this gives the program a distinctive look. Once I learned my way around, Tracktion operated much like any other sequencer. It's richly supplied with pop-up menus, key-command equivalents and so on.
Tracktion's mixer is arranged vertically at the right edge of the track display and is very configurable. Aux sends can be positioned at any point in the channel signal path, as can extra level meters and faders. Because of the one-to-one linkage between tracks and mixer channels, aux channels and subgroup channels occupy space along the entire length of the track. This is less than ideal, but they can be tucked away in a slender folder track to minimize the clutter.
After recording a few tracks, I tried recording automation using the mouse and an external MIDI control box. Everything worked flawlessly. Editing the multipoint automation envelopes was just as easy. At first glance, it seems only one envelope can be displayed at a time for a given track, but you can create extra tracks for display purposes and show the envelopes for various parameters of the “real” track on their own tracks. Automation curves can be locked to audio or MIDI clips.
When I dragged REX files into Tracktion's tracks, they conformed to the project tempo as expected. You can also turn raw audio files into tempo-stretchable loops using a utility that detects beat transients. The beat markers can be edited manually by dragging, but there's no way to zoom in on the waveform in this utility area. I would need a zoom control if I wanted to use this feature regularly.
I bookmarked my favorite folders in the browser, which is handy except that the bookmarks are displayed in the pop-up menu with the entire directory path rather than just the name of the destination folder. The browser has a sweet category tag system for finding audio loops by instrument, genre and so on. You can also add your own loops to the database, which made me long for an intern who could spend a week entering the data for my voluminous loop library.
The Tracktion 3 Ultimate Bundle comes with three synths from LinPlug, plus IK Multimedia's SampleTank 2 SE (with a 285MB library), almost 3.5 GB of loops from Sonic Reality, Submersible Music DrumCore (2.3 GB) and the Garritan Personal Orchestra T3 Lite Edition (820 MB). As I use more than one DAW, I was dissapointed to find that the LinPlug instruments operate only in Traktion.
LinPlug Alpha3 is a rich, satisfying analog-type synth. Each of the two oscillators can blend two waveforms, and ring mod and waveform symmetry modulation are included. Other features include a multimode filter, matrix modulation, MIDI Learn for controlling the knobs and three LFOs.
LinPlug CronoX3 is a four-oscillator sample-playback synth that generates textures using some unusual waveform-modulation techniques. It comes with almost 500 MB of waveforms, and can set up multisample keyboard layouts of your samples. Dual filters, six effects modules and an arpeggiator are onboard. In a word, CronoX3 sounds “brushed” — it has a wiry digital flavor that I like a lot.
LinPlug RMIV is a hybrid drum machine capable of both sample playback and synthesis. It comes with a 1GB sample library, plus hundreds of MIDI beats in more than 40 styles. A kit comprises 18 pads, each of which can use any of the 12 types of synthesis. Distortion, compression and random variations are available for each pad, along with resonant filters, envelopes and so on.
The SampleTank and Garritan plug-ins fill in the sound palette with the expected variety of multisamples — everything from grand piano to an 808 kit. DrumCore TK, which specializes in acoustic drum tracks, runs as a ReWire client, not as a plug-in. Loops from name drummers like Terry Bozzio and Sly Dunbar are included at multiple tempos and variations, but because this is an “introductory version,” you get only one style from each drummer. Even so, it's a great addition to Tracktion.
The Racks in Tracktion share a name with the Racks in Ableton Live, but not much else. Although the goal is similar — to allow multiple plug-ins to be connected in complex ways — the design is completely different. In Tracktion, I dragged plug-in effects and/or instruments (Mackie calls them all Filters) onto a worksurface, as shown in the figure above. I then connected the elements with virtual patch cords, as in a patchable environment like Cycling '74 Max. I then was able to insert the entire Rack as an insert or on an aux bus, just as if it were a single plug-in. In fact, a single Rack can be inserted on several tracks at once — odd sounding, but useful.
Racks let you create modules that you may not have with relative ease, such as multiband compressors and multitap delays. VSTis that have multiple audio outputs should generally be inserted in a Rack; this is how you extract the outputs to separate mixer channels. Tracktion ships with a couple dozen Rack presets to get you started, and you can save your own configurations.
At first, I couldn't figure out how to automate the parameters of plug-ins inside of Racks using Tracktion's automation envelopes, as these modules don't show up in the list of automatable parameters for the track. But it turns out to be easy: Just drag the little “A” button from the track onto a Filter within the Rack. When I deleted a plug-in from a Rack by mistake, my action was not placed in the Undo queue, which meant I had to recall the settings of the plug-in using my poor, addled brain.
In this review, Traktion scored many points in a lot of departments. The manual is solidly written and informative, and newcomers will appreciate the informative pop-up help (which can be switched off when it gets annoying, as it soon will). After spending a few weeks with the program, I can think of only a few things it won't do. It has no MIDI event list, no logical criteria for editing MIDI data and no notation editing or printing. Yet even with these no-shows, if I didn't have a long-standing commitment to another DAW, I would seriously consider Tracktion as my platform of choice for music production. It scores the hat trick with all the right tools, ease of use and attractive pricing.
Mackie, 866/858-5832, www.mackie .com.
Jim Aikin writes about music technology for Mix, Remix, Electronic Musician and other magazines.
Sounds created in Tracktion using CronoX, Alpha, and RM IV factory patches and stock FX