Studio Diary #28: Returning To Reaper, After 2 Years Of LUNA

We’ve just started band rehearsals again, after a 2 year break because of the global pandemic.

Why Did You Originally Use Reaper?

In the before-times, we used to record each rehearsal in its entirety, and then share the entire session with everyone. Reaper was perfect for this.

  • It’s incredibly affordable. It has a generous free evaluation period, and then the license costs about half the cost of Logic Pro X.
  • Sessions run on both Windows and Mac. Just make sure everyone has the same set of plugins, and collaboration is a no-brainer.
  • It isn’t trying to recreate an analogue mixing desk. This makes it very intuitive to learn and use, especially for band members who just want to dip in, who aren’t interested in learning how real recording studios work.

Why Did You Switch To LUNA?

I switched to LUNA for three reasons:

  1. (Effectively) zero latency for live tracking. I’ve always struggled with the latency of live tracking through Reaper (not Reaper’s fault!). I just found playing and recording through LUNA to be so much easier for me.
  2. It has complete integration with the Apollo hardware. I open my LUNA session, and it loads all the plugins back onto the hardware (preamps, live tracking inserts) for me. With any other DAW, I have to remember to go away and do that step too.
  3. Full console emulation (this was added after I’d switched to LUNA). There are LUNA-specific plugins to get you as close as possible to the signal path of an analogue studio. I’m a big fan of this approach, because I do believe that signal path order makes a big difference.

As far as I can see, these are the only reasons to use LUNA over any other DAW. If it has any other advantages, I’ve not come across them myself.

The band wasn’t able to meet for rehearsals during the lockdown period of the pandemic, so I didn’t have to worry about collaboration. It was just me, and that gave me the time to switch to LUNA and really fall in love with it for the three features I’ve listed above.

Why Have You Gone Back To Reaper?

LUNA Is A One-Trick Pony, And That Trick Comes At A Price

LUNA … has some glaring gaps, and a major limitation that I doubt will ever change.

  • To achieve (effectively) zero latency live tracking, LUNA disables any plugin that isn’t running on their DSP hardware. That stops me using any native plugin during live tracking (including UAD’s new Spark plugins). This is a limitation that probably won’t ever change. It’s a trade-off, and one I was happy with at the time. Now we’ve got Apple Silicon, I’m not sure it’s as relevant any more?
  • Midi drum plugins (like Superior Drummer) publish multiple channels, so that we can compress and EQ each part of the drum kit in a different way. LUNA currently doesn’t support this at all. So the only practical way to work with midi drum plugins is to use a different DAW, and then bounce those as WAV files back into LUNA.
  • LUNA doesn’t support VST plugins. Whatever you feel about VST as a technical standard, it is a standard.
  • LUNA’s UI seems to be built on a non-standard toolkit. It doesn’t feel like a native macOS app at all, and even on an M1 ULTRA, it can be very sluggish to use.

UAD Isn’t Agile (At Least, From The Outside)

Progress on LUNA is quite slow. We used to get a release per month, but they normally contained more bug fixes than new features. And, nearly two years after Apple Silicon became available, LUNA still hasn’t been ported to M1 devices.

Contrast that with Reaper. Even though it’s a smaller team, Reaper is mature and moves at a blinding speed. Releases are often weekly (they seem to follow the philosophy of ship-it-as-soon-as-it-is-ready, which is a good choice), and it’s fully native on M1 devices.

It simply looks like UAD just doesn’t have enough developers working on LUNA. That’s probably only going to get worse now that they also have UADx and Spark to work on.

I hope they’re able to pick up the pace on LUNA, and plug the serious gaps. I’ve really enjoyed using LUNA, and I’d love for it to be my main DAW long-term.

I’m Not LUNA’s Target Audience

As far as I can tell, LUNA was conceived as a way for UAD to eat into Pro Tools’ market share (a classic red ocean strategy, if you like). It’s pro studios who have the money to pay for UAD’s plugins, and it’s pro studios who were running into issues with sessions that were too large for old Apple Intel machines to cope with.

I’m not accusing UAD’s decision makers of ignoring us home hobbyists and all the amateur musicians, don’t get me wrong. They’ll have internal numbers that tell them about their business, and those numbers probably told them that there was an opportunity to grow their business by taking customers away from Avid.

Unfortunately for UAD, the world has changed. Apple Silicon has disrupted the audio ecosystem. We can now do things on I have to wonder whether LUNA has a future at all. I can’t help but note that nearly every audio pro I follow on YouTube seems to have switched away from LUNA again.

LUNA Simply Can’t Do It All For Me

Working on my solo material, I simply can’t use LUNA for everything. Midi drums are important to me. At the very least, I’m going to have to use a second DAW to work on those.

But, we’ve also start band rehearsals again, so collaboration is (once again) very important to me. Here, LUNA isn’t an option, unless we all buy UAD hardware and UAD plugins. That just isn’t going to happen.

For home hobbyists like myself, Reaper is simply a better tool than LUNA for collaborating with people, especially now we have the amazing Tukan Studio plugin range.

The Tukan Studio Plugins Are A Game-Changer For Reaper Users

The Tukan Studio plugins cover the things that I use UAD plugins for. They cover all the classic compressor, EQ, expander, reverb and delay effects that I’ve grown to love with UAD, and a whole bunch more.

I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned from working with UAD plugins in LUNA, and put together a Reaper template for our rehearsals that sounds more than good enough. After each rehearsal, Tess can take the recording away, open it up at her home, and everything just works. All she had to do was install the free Tukan Studio plugins as a one-off activity.

Am I Going Back To Reaper Full-Time?

It’s too early to say.

I haven’t done any live tracking in Reaper yet. (In rehearsals, we capture our entire live performance. We don’t go back and add additional tracks afterwards.) I need to give it a go, and find out whether or not I can get the overall latency low enough for me.

Would I keep LUNA for mixing, if I’m not using it for live tracking? I’ve never bounced tracks between DAWs before. It’s not a workflow I’ve ever done. I’m not sure if mixing in LUNA offers any real advantage. I just don’t know.

I’m definitely going to continue to use my UAD plugins on projects where I don’t need to collaborate at the DAW level. But (apart from the LUNA-specific console emulations), I don’t need to run LUNA to use them.

Final Thoughts

It’s definitely a bit of a shock, using Reaper again after a couple of years away from it. I can sort-of see why professionals prefer to stick with Pro Tools, Logic Pro and the like.

Reaper works in a very different way, because it isn’t trying to emulate old studio consoles. That gives it a lot of power. But, once you get used to working in a DAW like LUNA that does emulate a studio console approach, Reaper feels very alien. That surprised me, because I’d been using Reaper for many years. I did not expect to feel totally lost going back.

The other shock is the Reaper UI – the way it is presented. Reaper v6 has made some objectively poor choices here, which do hurt its accessibility and its usability.

  • Key controls are hidden for no clear reason, while still having a lot of empty, totally unused space on the screen.
  • Some colour combinations are well below international standards for minimum contrast levels, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to change them.
  • I can’t find a way to scale some of the UI elements to a readable size on a 4K display.

If I find myself using Reaper as my primary DAW, I’m going to have to make my own theme for it to sort these problems out. That’s a lot of effort, and why there’s a really good chance we’ll end up buying Logic Pro X for everyone instead.

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