Cakewalk VS Reaper – Which One is Right For You?

 

Cakewalk and Reaper are Digital Audio Workstations that have been on the market for quite a long time. They are in the lowest price range but aimed at both, professional and home studio. Let’s see what they can offer and how they compare to each other.

cakewalk general view
cakewalk main view

Price and Operative System

You can download and install an evaluation version of Reaper from its website, the trial period is 60 days. After that, it costs USD $60 for personal use or commercial use if your earnings do not exceed USD $20,000. Or if you are an educational or non-profit organization, and costs USD $225 for commercial use without revenue limit.

Despite that, after the trial period you can still use it without restrictions (only a 5 seconds reminder on start up). So, it’s up to you to pay the license or not, but being the personal license so cheap, I think it is better to help the developers to enhance the software, and it is ethically correct.

On the other hand, Cakewalk is totally free. You have to go to the Bandlab website, download the installer or install the Bandlab Assistant app. And install Cakewalk from there (Bandlab Assistant will let you install some extra content and share projects online), then you have to register and that is it.

So, even though you can use both for free, Reaper is technically (and ethically) paid software. For this reason, I will say that Cakewalk is the only true free DAW of these two.

Cakewalk is only made for Windows (64-bit only). But Reaper runs on Windows (64-bit), Linux (64-bit), and MacOS (64 and 32-bit). As a result, given the case you don’t use Windows, Reaper is the only way to go.

User interface

Both user interfaces look modern and are highly customizable. The first time you open Cakewalk, it looks a bit crammed and can be a little overwhelming for a beginner. But quickly you will find your way around the UI, and then you can change things around as you like. Reaper is the opposite.

The first time you open it, the UI looks pretty empty and it will take some time to find what you are looking for. But again, once you find how it works you can adapt things to your liking.

reaper general view
Reaper main view

In this regard, I think Reaper is just a little bit ahead of Cakewalk. To me, the user interface looks slightly cleaner and the space is better used, as opposed to Cakewalk, which has several chunks of wasted space. One point in favor of Cakewalk is that in general the controls and labels are easier to read, especially on smaller displays.

General features 

Audio capabilities are excellent on both. They are light on CPU and RAM usage. They process audio at 64 bits, and support multithreading and delay compensation. Additionally, Cakewalk can be set to process audio in 32 bits, making it lighter on the CPU and letting you work on more complex projects. But you can still choose to render the audio at 64-bit precision to keep the audio results at the highest quality.

Cakewalk MIDI

Cakewalk MIDI engine is very solid, it is being developed for more than 30 years. And although now Bandlab is concentrating the development on the audio side of the software. The MIDI part is still one of the best you can find. And the tools for editing and modifying MIDI events are a bit better than the ones you will find in Reaper. MIDI in Reaper is quite solid too, and it has a more modern approach in MIDI routing and MIDI real-time processing, two points in which it is clearly better than Cakewalk.

Cakewalk piano roll image
cakewalk piano roll
reaper piano roll image
reaper piano roll

Which DAW is better in quality?

The two DAWs come with a basic but complete set of good-quality audio processing plugins. And of course, you can add the plugins you want as they support most plugin standards. But I found the plugins included in Cakewalk a little bit better in quality. With a nicer and more user-friendly interface, and a wider selection of processor and effects types.

In the virtual instruments department, both are a bit disappointing as they come with almost nothing. Still, Cakewalk wins here, as it includes a General MIDI synth (TTS-1) and a set of sample-based instruments (Studio Instruments Suite). In contrast with the basic sampler and signal generator included in Reaper.

cakewalk plugins
cakewalk bundled plugins
reaper plugins
reaper bundles plugins

Reaper does not include any sample, loop, or MIDI libraries. If you want to use libraries you have to search for them by yourself, either free or paid. 

cakewalk TTS-1 image
cakewalk TTS-1
reaper sampler synth image
Reaper sampler and synth

With Cakewalk installation, several MIDI clips, MIDI Loops and MIDI patterns are installed. And if you installed the Bandlab Assistant app, you can use it to download Samples. Also, audio loops and MIDI loops from an online library that includes a search option. It has the content divided into packs classified by genre, tempo, etc, and it is totally free.

Cakewalk can only import video for playback in sync with the audio, you can not edit or process the video in any way. Instead, with Reaper, you can edit the video, crossfade between different takes, add video effects, etc. Although it is not a fully-featured video editor, is a very respectable one.

cakewalk video view
cakewalk video view
reaper video view
reaper video view

In use

The workflow is a bit different on each one. I like some aspects of Cakewalk like the “linked clip” option that lets you copy MIDI clips linked and then if you modify one clip, all clips linked to it will reflect the change you made. This speeds up a lot the modification of a track when you use repetitive patterns like drums or bass lines.

The plugin manager

The Plugin Manager in Cakewalk lets you organize the plugins in the way you like. And create several different layouts you can recall at any moment. For example, you can create an EQ category, and inside that category, you can put the EQ you use more often at the top.

plugin manager cakewalk
cakewalk plugin manager

Drag-copy effects from one channel to another is better implemented in Cakewalk. If you want to use the same EQ settings for two tracks, you just simply set the EQ in one track. And then drag-copy the plugin to the FX bin of the second one and all the settings are copied with it. In Reaper, you can drag-copy too. But you have to have both FX windows open and it is not that straightforward.

The comping view

comping view cakewalk
cakewalk comping view

Also, the set of tools for comping takes (editing and selecting the best parts of several takes to combine them into a final composite track) are better in Cakewalk and makes comping much faster.

Cakewalk comes with some specific tools for production. It can be handy like a dedicated Arpeggiator per track. A Step Sequencer is something you can use instead of MIDI clips. A Matrix view with functionality similar to Ableton Live’s session view. You can use an audio quantization that lets you quantize an audio recording to MIDI. Or to another audio track, the Vocal Sync that lets you sync one voice take to another (handy to tighten sloppy backing vocals).

The Mix Recall feature that lets you save several different mixes inside the project. Most of those tools can be added to Reaper with plugins, but not all are free and some of the more unique features (like the Matrix view) will not be available.

Cakewalk matrix

arpeggiator step sequencer matrix view cakewalk
cakewalk arpeggiator, step sequencer and matrix view

Reaper matrix

reaper routing matrix
reaper routing matrix

Another thing I didn’t like about Reaper is that for some basic operations you need to do an extra step (or two) compared to Cakewalk. In Cakewalk, all basic operations are done with one or two clicks or just with a keyboard shortcut. In Reaper, some operations are only accessible through menus.

Reaper has its strong points too, MIDI routing is done with a more modern approach than Cakewalk, it is a lot smarter. For example, if you want to use a MIDI plugin (VST or VSTi) like an arpeggiator in Reaper, just insert it in the FX window of the track and that is it. In Cakewalk, you have to do a lot of routing to make it work.

MIDI plugin in reaper
Ripchord as MIDI plugin in reaper

If you work with external hardware (MIDI controllers, control surfaces, synthesizers, drum machines, etc.) you will find that Reaper manages it much better. You have a project that uses several external pieces of hardware. You open that project with some of the gear not present (not connected or turned off). Cakewalk will mess up all the MIDI routing of the project. As opposed to that, Reaper will warn you about the missing hardware but the project will play fine (except for the missing hardware).

MIDI hardware setting reaper
reaper MIDI hardware settings

Audio routing also has a more modern approach in Reaper. With a flexible routing matrix, better suited for non-conventional or creative audio processing. But I found the more traditional “mixing desk-like” approach of Cakewalk, faster and clearer to work with.

Reaper MIDI vs Cakewalk

Both apps have scripting capabilities to extend their functionality or automatize procedures. But the one that comes with Cakewalk (CAL proprietary language) is very dated and quite limited. In this regard, Reaper’s options are much more flexible and modern (ReaScripts lets you use several languages like EEL2, Phyton and Lua). 

To test the CPU consumption, I put together the same project on both DAWs with the same audio settings. And I found that Reaper is slightly lighter on the CPU. Takes a little less memory than Cakewalk and the start-up time is faster. But this test could give different results on a different computer.

In general, there are other minor differences here and there. I found things that I like and dislike in both. And things that make me work faster in one or the other. But in the end, it is a matter of which one suits your workflow better. Or how you adapt to the intended workflow of each one.

Support

Both apps add features and keep fixing bugs. So, you don’t have any risk of ending up with unsupported or obsolete software (at least in the near future). Moreover, both have very active forums with big communities. If you have questions, suggestions, requests, or just want to interchange ideas, you will not be alone.

bandlab assistant libraries
bandlab assistant libraries

Reaper has a very detailed and complete manual in PDF format that you can download. It is a little hard to read, in part because of the level of detail. In part because of the layout and aesthetics, the level of detail is very welcome. As it can dissipate any doubt you may have. The same manual is online and also you can download a Quick Start Guide in PDF. That is more of a quick reference of the basic commands and menus. It may be too compact but handy. There is no in-app help but it has tool tips.

You can download a Reference Guide in PDF for Cakewalk, is quite complete but not as detailed. As the one for Reaper, though easier to read. It has an in-app Get Started tutorial very helpful for beginners, but not an in-app help and even though it has tool tips, they are very basic and less descriptive than the ones in Reaper.

Conclusion

Cakewalk and Reaper are modern, fully-featured and powerful Digital Audio Workstations, both capable of professional results. Being free (or very cheap) doesn’t mean that they are limited in any way and are in the same league as more expensive software. In fact, until a few years ago, Cakewalk was a paid app (it was called SONAR) and was not cheap at all.

So… which one should you choose? 

For a beginner, I think Cakewalk has some advantage as you have a more complete package with more and slightly better FX and processors, a few virtual instruments, MIDI clips, and access to a well-organized library of samples, audio loops and MIDI loops, without the need to search and install anything extra to start to produce, record and mix music.

For a more advanced user with some experience, it is more a matter of which one works better for you. As I described before, even though they are pretty similar, everyone has their strong and weak points, and you should consider which of those points are more important for you to make a decision.

I hope this article helps you to choose the right one for you.