The battle of the DAWs has been going on since the grandfather of DAWs, Cubase, got its first rival. Since then, big studios to bedroom musicians have been reviewing all new alternatives, to the point where companies have improved their software so much as to tick most boxes for producers. I recently decided to go from the legacy Cubase to the much cheaper open-source REAPER.
In this article, I’ll put REAPER vs. Cubase compared head to head, explain why I switched and which software might work best for you without getting too technical.
My Bottom line up-front
Choosing the right DAW has much to do with your production style, genre, and the extent to which you use the software.
Cubase is professional from the start but can be expensive and limiting if you are into making all the small details work for you. REAPER, on the hand, might be plain at first, but much cheaper, and with some work in customizing, it goes farther than Cubase.
Before getting into specific use cases, you can relate to, I’d like to give a general overview of the differences between Reaper and Cubase. You don’t need to be tech-savvy to understand the differences, as I’ll continue my comparison with real-life examples that might apply to you.
Main Differences Between Reaper vs Cubase
The main differences between Reaper vs Cubase are:
- REAPER is customizable in every way, whereas you get what you see with Cubase.
- REAPER has a faster track editor, whereas Cubase is superior in MIDI editing.
- REAPER comes with only a few basic plugins, whereas Cubase full versions come with multiple good plugins.
- REAPER is more lightweight and less prone to crashing.
- With REAPER, you can only buy a license. whereas with Cubase, you can choose different limited versions for every budget.
- All Cubase paid versions are more expensive than the REAPER license.
- Both are user-friendly, yet REAPER has a longer learning curve if you want to use it at its full potential.
Is Choosing The Right DAW That Important?
My career as a studio guitarist helped me understand the importance of choosing the right workstation for your needs. If ten years ago this question would be primarily valid for producers, today it’s as relevant to guitar players, singers, bands, indie artists, etc. If you have any connection to the music or audio world, there’s no escaping DAWs.
Even the analog aficionado producers have their share of work done in a DAW. I recently watched a video of Steve Vai editing his new song on Pro Tools. If the person with a collection of hundreds of amps and an original Neve mixing board is sitting for hours mixing in front of a screen, there’s no reason we should not do the same.Some of the reasons choosing the right DAW is important are the following:
- The right DAW will save you time and make your work in front of the screen much more comfortable and efficient through its workflow and layout.
- Some DAWs are more inclined towards a specific style of music and recording.
- Depending on your budget and efforts, there are many options you could choose from. The important is to pick a software you fully use, as there’s not much point in purchasing the expensive Pro Tools if you are mixing a song per month and don’t put the time in to learn some of its complex features.
- Some DAWs only work on specific Operating Systems and have different system requirements.
- DAWs are transparent, meaning they won’t affect your sound directly. However, depending on your style and available plugins, it could indirectly influence some of your decisions.
Cubase: What You Need to Know
- It comes packed with various good stock plugins
- The MIDI editing possibilities are great
- There are different versions available, some with affordable prices.
- Great customer support
- Great workstation for composing
- It can view and edit videos
- It’s an expensive software.
- It does not support Linux.
- Keyboard shortcuts could be better.
- The screen could feel overloaded with features basic users don’t need.
Cubase has been around since the 80s and is still one of the most used DAWs. It’s a very strong software packed with features and has everything you might need to record, compose, mix and master your music. The software is continuously updated and is now split into different versions, from the basic one a bedroom guitarist could use to the Pro version reserved for serious producers.
I always found Cubase’s most significant advantage is being a complete one-stop package for all the different steps that make up music production.
If you purchase its pro version or at least the second best, you could, in theory, compose and mix a song using only its stock plugins. However, musicians are very picky about the plugins they use, and most likely, you will, as I did, purchase multiple other plugins that apply to your style and need. It’s the same as using the gear you have used your whole life to play a show and getting rental gear that it’s ok but not comparable.
Some of the stock plugins that serve a general purpose, like SuperVision for monitoring and analyzing audio, are brilliant, and I still use them. However, since I need to get the best possible guitar and vocal tone, I needed to purchase the latest guitar plugins and vocal compressor, which do not come with Cubase. Smaller companies today make better, very specific plugins you will be tempted to buy at a point.
Are The Cubase Lite Versions Worth It?
Cubase AI, LE, and Elements are limited software versions, which Steinberg often gives away when you purchase their soundcards. While I think they are enough for the casual musician, you just get a glimpse of what Cubase does, and there’s no reason not to go with another free or cheaper alternative.
The biggest limitation musician first notice is the number of tracks. While many think being limited to 30-40 tracks is enough for their music, the true limitation is not the number of tracks, as even charting songs often use fewer tracks. Some crucial functions, advanced producer/mining engineer, or even a good casual use are missing.
Even Cubase Artist, slightly cheaper than the full Cubase Pro, lacks some features like the software. The Control Room, Advanced Audio Export, and Spectral Comparison EQ are great features that I find should be included if I’m spending more than $300 on the license. At a certain point, you might decide to improve your mixing game or just end up watching a YouTube tutorial of a function you find helpful but need to buy separately.
Even if you can get by with great results with a lite Cubase Version, I find REAPER the best choice. Only Cubase Pro and maybe Cubase Artist are at the same level of a well-customized REAPER.
REAPER: What You Need To Know
- It’s compatible with all OS, even Linux
- You can customize it
- It’s free for 60 days and relatively cheap to purchase.
- It has an excellent track editor.
- Great for live recording
- Lightweight for the CPU and minimal space required
- It can view and edit videos
- It does not come with any VST apart from a few basic ones
- The customer support is not very reliable
- The MIDI editing feature is not very advanced
- It might need some customizing before being set for use
- It’s easy for the basics, but if you want to get the best out of it, there’s a learning curve
Reaper has joined the DAW battle late. It came out in 2006, the era when software started to take over and people were finding new alternatives to the expensive traditional licenses. It slowly progressed from forum threads to social media posts of artists to become famous in the online community. Today many artists, including me, have switched from Pro Tools, Cubase, and Logic to REAPER.
REAPER is an open-source software, meaning it’s customizable to your preferences. You can change the interface, the commands, and everything you can think of as long as you put some effort into it.
REAPER’s most significant advantage is its ability to mold according to the user’s needs. It could be as suitable for a casual user as for a professional producer. It all depends on how much time you invest in it.
When you open REAPER for the first time, you get the similar feel as being in front of a simple analog mixer. There are very few to work with, yet it’s fast and intuitive on how you can open new tracks, record, and especially edit. It makes the process more straightforward, especially if you are not into loop-based music.
The plugins that come with it are upfront not that good. However, with some work or help, you can program your plugins.
Why I Switched to Reaper?
Part of the reason I chose to buy Cubase 11 Pro was the many possibilities it offered. However, this was also why I decided to switch to Reaper. My work as a session guitarist and rock producer used only a part of Cubase’s functions, so I chose a cheaper alternative I could customize and use the multiple plugins I had collected and buy new ones.
I find REAPER to be better for recording musicians who don’t use all the advanced features of a DAW but are keen on using external plugins. It’s equally great for pro producers who want a workstation tailored to their needs.
I think it’s great for live instruments. Even the famous composer who records orchestras, Hans Zimmer, recently switched to REAPER. On the other hand, MIDI composing and editing is rather slow.
The low price and some occasional crashes I suffered with Cubase were why what ultimately convinced me to switch after getting the 60 days trial. Since I had all the plugins I wanted separate, I purchased some analyzers that I like about Cubase.
Why Stick with Cubase?
The biggest reason I would suggest buying Cubase PRO is the software MIDI editing capabilities. There’s no comparison between the simple MIDI editing REAPER offers and the may Cubase does.
If you’re a modern music producer where MIDI is the main input, Cubase might prove to be more efficient. However, you could get a similar result with REAPER by investing more time and customizing it to fit electronic music production. You could alternatively switch to Ableton, which I think is better for EDM.
Another reason I” d recommend Cubase is if you don’t have the time or desire to customize your interface, discover new plugins and just want to get recording and mixing done. It’s already ready to do the heavy lifting and easy to use from the time you start it.
Another reason to stick with Cubase is how much you are used to it. I find REAPER easier to use, yet Cubase is also easy to navigate, just different. If you’re used to one, get great work done, and don’t mind paying more, there’s not much of a reason to switch.
Cubase PRO vs. Plugin Packed REAPER Value
Cubase PRO costs $579.99 at the time of writing with free updates for the same version. When CUBASE 13 comes out, you need to purchase it. It’s costly software, but if you use it at full power, it’s worth it.
REAPER, on the hand, only costs 60$ if you’re an individual, school, or small business. For enterprise, it costs $225. In both cases, you get free updates for two software versions, leaving you satisfied for a few years.
On the overall calculation, you should consider the plugins you would need to replace some of Cubase’s built-in ones. There are many options today, and you can find cheap plugins that do the job and very expensive ones that sometimes cost more than the DAW.
Other Alternatives To Consider
1. Ableton Live – Best for Loop-Based Music
Abelton is the modern king of loop-based music and electronics producers’ new favorite software. It’s not a DAW for everything, but most likely the best at what it does.
You can choose from multiple versions of Ableton, from the basic 99$ up to almost 1000$+ if you want plugins installed.
2. Logic Pro – Best Intermediate to Advanced Software
Logic Pro, in many ways, is like a smaller version of Cubase. It’s feature packed and very easy to use, yet it’s only compatible with Mac and does not support VST, only AU.
If you’re a casual user, it’s a perfect DAW; if you want to go deeper, I believe upgrading to more complex software is best, even though you could achieve the same result with Logic. I not very cheap, yet affordable at only 200$.
3. Audacity – Best For Audio Editing
Audacity is not my favorite DAW for music, but fantastic for podcasts, cleaning audio, sound effects, and overall, most non-music-related audio uses.
Audacity is free and open source.
Question: Who Uses REAPER?
Answer: Reaper seems to be the first choice of home-based producer and now spreading among well-known professional ones. Deadmau5, TYCHO, Tim Henson, and Hans Zimmer, among others, use it.
Question: Who Uses Cubase?
Answer: Cubase has still used more than REAPER when it comes to famous producers. Tiesto, Infected Mushroom, Ian Kirkpatrick, Avicii, Hardwell, Cirkut, and many others use it.
Question: Can I Convert Cubase Projects To Reaper and Vice Versa?
Answer: A good way to do that is to use AATranslator. If you want to send your track for mixing to another DAW, you should be careful to keep the tempo map. A method to do it is to export a single universal midi track as in this tutorial.