Storytellers OTR – Template for Success
This week on StudioWise we are investigating an interesting adaption of the Reaper DAW specifically for media composers to create powerful orchestral templates. Of course, my ears perked up straight away when somebody mentioned Storyteller’s OTR on the VI Control forums. Creating and maintaining effective instrument templates is tedious work so any software promising to streamline that process immediately has my attention.
I am a big fan of Reaper, and though other DAWs come and go, none offer the same performance and feature set with a crazy low rrp of $60. Reaper also has one of the most supportive and active online communities with an immense resource pool of free themes, mods and UI customisations.
So it’s interesting when a developer launches a theme with such a high price tag (relative to the cost of Reaper, that is). Though $129 (plus the cost of Reaper) is still very well priced when compared with other DAW alternatives, it is still more than a casual purchase if you’re on a tight budget.
A customisable orchestral template UI replacement for Reaper sounds too good to be true, I absolutely can’t wait to dive into this review.
Storyteller OTR (Orchestral Template For Reaper) is a total UI replacement for Cocko’s Reaper digital audio workstation. It runs as a second installation and will not affect the original version. You are free to swap backwards and forwards between each as you need. Since OTR is incorporated directly into Reaper all of the specifications and system requirements are the same, so it basically runs on anything out there with minimal processing overheads.
You do need to own a copy of Reaper, of course, and the OTR price does not include this. There is no installation required with OTR, you simply unpack the supplied Zip file to a location and you’re good to go. You will need your original Reaper license code handy, plus you will need to reset all your audio devices, VST locations and the likes, as you might expect from a fresh installation of Reaper.
Though the DSP overheads for Reaper and OTR are minimal – even a modest PC or Mac can run fairly advanced projects with ease – this still does not mean you can avoid serious investment into hardware if you wish to run multiple virtual instruments with any degree of usability. The same rules apply here as with any DAW: bigger and faster hardware is key to stacking multiple VI’s.
Realistically, you will want as a minimum a modern dual-core CPU with 16 gig RAM and a 7200 RPM drive. But that would be bare-bones minimum. Ideally, you should have a good size SSD drive and 32 gig or more of RAM. More expensive CPU’s help, but the immediate concern is RAM and hard drive speed.
However, having an optical system is a luxury and we can’t all just whip out to the PC store and drop a few grand on a new setup. OTR comes with a bunch of tricks to circumnavigate much of the heavy hardware demands usually required. More on this later.
OTR’s core functionality stems from a handful of stringent naming strings that cannot be altered. There is complex routing pre-configured behind the scenes allowing you to simply load a preset template and have everything set up and ready to go with no extra mucking around. There are also custom toolbar macros included that make anything from custom track visibility, enabling instruments and bouncing stems a simple one-button job. The caveat is you cannot mess with the basic naming structure or you risk breaking the system.
Fortunately, the naming format makes perfect sense and actually forces you to be more meticulous with your layout, carefully ensuring tracks are in the right category with the correct syntax names. It is a little bit of a chore at first, especially if you’re like me – particularly lazy when it comes to project layouts – but for larger, 100+ track orchestral templates this is a necessary skill to develop.
The manual clearly lays out the rules with the prefixes you can and cannot mess with. Each track name will begin with a prefix – VI refers to a virtual instrument track, VI-C means virtual instrument category. VI-OUT is the virtual instruments output bus, VI-MIDI is the virtual instruments individual MIDI output channel. FX are for effect inserts, VCA is the master mixing bus and so forth.
All important prefixes are before a colon (:), so you are free to modify the track name after this. “VI-MIDI: 1” can be renamed to “VI-MIDI: My Track”, as an example.
There are three special prefixes which will break OTR if you change them, namely “-inactive*!”, “-active*!” and “-frozen*!”. These are core process suffixes that the theme relies on using often. Fortunately, if you do rename these by mistake you can simply refresh the track status for everything to be restored.
There is no need to setup FX sends and multi-channel BUS mixes. OTR automatically creates everything you need in the background. OTR interfaces perfectly with Native Instruments Kontakt, providing templates to automatically assign multiple output routing options within Kontakt directly to your project BUSSES and VCA’s. Vienna Pro and EastWest Play are equally supported out of the box, but adding in other sampler platforms is relativity simple once you understand the routing system.
I am a big fan of UVI’s Falcon which operates in a similar manner to Kontak in regards to output routing. This was extremely simple to link into OTR’s format with a custom output patch map made and saved as the default, as you do in Kontakt.
The fundamental feature of OTR is the project and track template presets. These are designed to make creating new tracks or full project as streamlined as possible. OTR comes with a number of excellent starters to use and learn from, though you will need to develop your own layouts to suit your specific workflow and instrument collection.
An OTR “Project Template” is a complete project setup from scratch, with FX, BUSSES, outputs and multiple instrument track categories all named and ready to go. The basic starter template is a monster with 22 preconfigured track categories, all fully routed to FX, VCA BUSSES and custom outputs.
These project templates include category tracks which are designed to hold individual instruments. In each category you can insert a custom “Track Template”, which is a single or multi-instrument VI such as a Kontakt, a soft synth or even an external synth. You should (I stress: must) insert track templates into matching project category tracks, so a brass category should contain all of your trumpets, french horns, saxophones etc. With this method, you can build up your orchestral template with each instrument nicely filed away in its own category section.
Out of the box, OTR comes with enough pre-configured project and track templates to get you up and rolling if you have Kontakt with the Komplete factory library installed. The idea, of course, is to customise the default project templates to better suit your workflow, inserting your own VI libraries, synths and external hardware. Eventually, you might have a dozen or more fully setup templates to call on depending on the project requirements, each fully routed and configured with the regular instruments you use.
As long as you don’t break the basic naming format, you can rename categories and track templates as you need, reorder tracks and delete any do not need. OTR also includes a bunch of built-in key commands and scripted buttons, though you are free to create or modify anything to suit your workflow.
The toolbar is the main navigation control centre and will allow you to show or hide various elements of your template as you need. Using the supplied toolbar buttons you can completely clear the UI to only show a single track or have everything showing, and pretty much any configuration in between – whatever works best for your needs.
The custom hide and show controls are so effective that you could in principle create a massive 1000+ track mega template with each and every VI, patch and articulation individually mapped out ready to go. Using the visibility controls to display only the elements you need, the rest stay hidden in the background. The downside of this method is you still need to load this goliath template. Even though each of the instruments is disabled and not using RAM, they still need to load which might take 5-10minutes – who knows?.
I personally found creating three or four smaller, more focused templates effective for my workflow. Often I am afflicted by inspiration, I might have just discovered a chord pattern I like or a groove I need to lay down quickly. Waiting 10 minutes for my template to load would not work when all I need is just a piano and drum machine up fast.
OTR includes two built-in skins, the default is pretty good, but a slick looking “FRXST” alternative is also available. You are able to use any custom themes you have as well, though the UI might not marry up well with OTR unless you start modifying the layout. Some White Tie themes will have issues displaying the full OTR format naming system on the mixer scribble strips, which is a pain.
But other than the naming format, you are free totally to customise, colourise and rework the interface as you like.
Though OTR is logically laid out, its complex structure will take some time to master. Forget any expectation of having your complete orchestral template up and running out of the box. You will need to spend some quality time with the manual.
Reaper alone is a tricky piece of software if you are new or perhaps used to the ProTool or Cubase workflow. Fortunately, the rather humorous manual for OTR is excellent, and if you take time to watch the multiple online tutorial videos, you should be up and running with the very basics quickly.
What takes time is setting up each and every instrument you own in a coherent way. You will need to identify every individual instrument in your collection, each patch or articulation, and the basic processing or effect that you would like to preset. Even on a modest orchestral template, you could be looking at upwards of 100 individual elements in your template and probably a lot more.
Of course, this is all in aid of accelerating your future projects. Once you have everything locked down and set up the way you like, it is simply a matter of loading the required project template each session and you are set to go. But in the early days, you can look forward to a lot of arranging, inserting, colour coding and renaming.
Creating project templates is not as painful as it sounds. OTR comes with a handy library builder template and much of the instrument building can simply be copy/pasted and duplicated as you go, requiring only slight modifications to outputs or MIDI inputs. Also, I found once a project template is complete adding more instruments to it on the fly during daily composing is very simple since everything is separated out into categories.
OTR includes a bunch of handy life-hacks for MIDI editing I’ve found invaluable. Using the MIDI Warp and CC tools for creating organic curves on velocity or other MIDI cc elements a breeze. Again, this is nothing Reaper can’t already do in its native form – it is just that OTR provides simple tools for you to use in a convenient manner.
A couple of Reaper quirks should be mentioned. OTR natively runs in 48k sample mode, which was a major pain for me as all of my writing I do in 44.1k. Reaper is set up in a way where the project can request a specific sample rate different to the hardware interface, which is troublesome when the system device is set to 44.1k and the project is trying to load 48k – my Focusrite interface has issues swapping on the fly and tended to just crash, requiring a system reboot.
Also – a heads up – track templates are frustratingly easy to overwrite by accidentally saving the wrong element of a template. By this I mean you might have a large track template with multiple instances and articulations laid out. You need to save the root track as the template, not accidentally one of the sub-tracks, which will overwrite all of your hard work with empty data. And yes, I’ve done this a few times.
I found the default toolbars overwhelming and requiring as much searching as the default menus. Fortunately, these are all simple action macro commands and it is very simple to create your own custom toolbars. Please just remember to save, save, save – Reaper will not carry your changes over if you swap themes. Again, this is something I found out the hard way.
One of the major problems of running a large orchestral template is the system DSP requirements. Even with a massive VSL networked system you will soon run out of processing power if you continue to just stack up virtual instruments.
OTR’s core features is the ability to activate and deactivate instrument tracks with the push of a button. This means its possible to make huge sample library templates with many hundreds of VI’s inserted in deactivated mode until you need them, effectively using no system resources.
One of the nifty ways OTR (and of course Reaper and most other DAWs on the market) circumvent much of the processing power required to run multiple VI’s is by “freezing” tracks. This is a method of bouncing down MIDI tracks to wave but retaining the original MIDI data so you can “unfreeze” and continue to work on the arrangements.
The idea is once you’ve finished working on your track’s MIDI or track effects, simply freezes it down to a wave file and disables the effects to regain the DSP. OTR has a handy “Freeze” button which will automate the process – click it to freeze just the MIDI or shit-click to freeze the entire effect chain as well. You will see a nice big snowflake icon indicating the track’s status. Unfreezing is a simple matter of clicking the “Track Unfreeze” button to restore to its original state.
With this process of activating, deactivating and freezing tracks you can create huge projects and still retain the ability to unfreeze and edit the original MIDI arrangements as you need. Even a modest system is capable of running many hundreds of wave tracks.
Again, and this is not unique to Reaper, OTR provides the tools right up front as an integral part of the orchestral template layout. You are not meant to freeze tracks once you start hitting CPU limits: you are meant to freeze them constantly as you work. It should be part of your muscle memory to finish editing the MIDI, then freeze.
Creating track templates.
The one area you will spend most of your time moulding OTR to fit your workflow is creating custom track templates.
A track template is basically a pre-configured snapshot of a VI, FX chain, external synth patch – pretty much anything. So, for instance, a typical track template might contain a copy of Kontakt with Spitfire Audio’s Chamber Strings inserted, the violin patch with staccato articulations, Decca tree mics at 50%, close mics at full, all routed to a hall reverb.
Also, a track template is not necessarily limited to a single instrument. In reality, mostly you will be creating multi-instrument patches, or more likely, multi-articulation patches. For instance, you might create a similar Spitfire Audio track template that has each and every articulation prepared. This means you can simply activate a specific articulation on the fly as you need instead of wasting resources and RAM loading the entire patch. Create your piece, freeze the track and disable the VI.
Alternatively, you might decide to create a track template that includes multiple instruments, each with their articulations loaded and ready to go. This way you have quick access to all of the similar instruments, each with all of their individual articulations loaded and ready to play.
I found creating external synth patches for my Yamaha MOTIF and Roland Jupiter synths very rewarding. In essence, you have a custom synth library where you can create specific patch calls, preset FX, levels, filters, ADSR – anything you want, all set up ahead of time as track templates. Of course, you don’t need to freeze external synth so the more you create outside the box the less your PC needs to stress.
So I hope you can see now how using this method of presetting individual VI’s into larger project templates and freezing as you go along allows you to load, and more importantly, run massive orchestral sessions without glitching, even on modest systems.
This takes time – so be prepared. You will spend a week setting things up just right, tweaking this and that, changing track labels, mucking with colours – all that stuff. But once you’re locked in, you can forever get on with just writing music and ignoring the tech.
While there is no ‘magic’ going on here, there is nothing you cannot already do with a standard installation of Reaper and plenty of Walter code and scripting knowledge. All OTR does is to combine all of the essential and often hidden features of the DAW into a sensible and well-designed layout. But that really is its great merit, because not many of us are code and scripting gurus.
OTR has curated every conceivable tool and preset routing configuration with a bunch of cleverly scripted keystrokes so you don’t have to. If you were thinking of attempting to hotrod Reaper and do this all yourself, I can guarantee you will take one look at the source code and go cross-eyed. Sometimes it’s better to just pay the experts to do it properly so you can get on with life.
OTR ultimately is a celebration of Reaper’s flexibility, specifically for media composers. Reaper has such a small processing footprint and a mind-boggling number of features and customisable theming choices. Nothing else really comes even close.
Of course, it is a brand new platform for some who might be reluctant to jump ship from their current DAW, but since OTR really is a specifically designed for orchestral template there’s no harm in running multiple instances of Reaper in dual-mode with your current DAW – one as your daily editor, the other as your orchestral template. The OTR version is so very different in both its workflow and layout to the standard Reaper that it really should be viewed as a totally separate stand-alone orchestral template platform.
If you are traditionally quite inconsistent with your track naming and layouts you may struggle with the fundamental need to follow the core naming structure. OTR relies on a very regimented workflow that can feel a little confining. It can be a chore to check all the right tracks are in the correct categories, but as with all good life lessons, perseverance is rewarded tenfold.
Out of the box, OTR is a deep and complex platform that requires time to work out, sort and filter into a comfortable environment. You can look forward to many hours creating track templates for your favourite sampler patches, synths and, in my case, specific patches for all of my external keyboard synths. But for the first time, after all that hard work is done, you will have available at a moment’s notice presets for every single patch, instrument, articulation and FX chain in your studio.
Not only is this empowering, but the freedom to just relax, forget about the technology and write music is phenomenal.
Even if you don’t own Reaper, the cost of OTR and Reaper together as a bundle is bargain basement when compared with the cost of any other pro-level DAW on the market, and the workflow benefits are quite simply outstanding.
If you are a media composer using Reaper, this is quite simply required buying, no questions asked. If you are using alternative DAW platforms you now have one of the strongest reasons to consider making the swap to Reaper. Storyteller’s OTR has successfully converted Reaper into the best orchestral template platform on the market, period.
For full details and ordering information please visit the Storytellers website right here www.otr.storyteller.im