Electro Tools of the Trade – Riffworks
Over the past couple weeks I’ve been listening to studio experiments and fragments created in a recording program called Riffworks 2.6.5 by Sonoma Wire Works, a tool geared toward guitarists (but not exclusively for guitar). I first discovered the tool in mid-2009, and used it heavily for a little while, then again in 2010 when I was compiling material for my first Electro-Music performance. What Riffworks lacks in pro sequencing and mixing features, it more than makes up for in the intuitive interface and sheer fun and ease of use.
Riffworks has some definite strengths as a writing tool. It puts a front end on looping features that take a bit longer to set up in other programs (but if you use a template in Reason you can do the same thing, see below). Riffworks comes with some really good drum loops via its InstandDrummer feature with controls that add variation. Since I almost always come up with good ideas while jamming to drums, this was one of the things that attracted me to it. Riffworks can also load REX loops – 4 of them in fact – a feature that foreshadow’s Propellerhead’s eventual development of the Dr. Octo Rex player which loads 8 REX files.
Many people don’t want or need the extra mixing, sequencing and editing features of a DAW, so Riffworks is great for messing around with ideas. It can even be used live if you get comfortable with it. Riffworks also includes the requisite add-ons like Line 6, which I admit gets some good sounds (and is much easier to use than my off-board Line 6 Pod XT). RiffLink and RiffCaster add a riff sharing community, if you are into that, but I usually like to keep my pieces for my own use. I find it difficult enough to keep up with the other communities I am in, and using other people’s riffs just seems a bit lame.
Riffworks might appeal to guitarists or electronic musicians who think in terms of loops, which has – at times – been a part of my own writing process. Used in concert with Reason, Riffworks is a pretty impressive tool. The export feature allows you to take each of the individual loops from a jam session and develop them – tempo matched – outside of the program later. However, any panning or level setting done in Riffworks is lost unless you use the Mix option for export. Mix allows you to output your entire song (made up of the riffs you’ve arranged).
On the down side, you can not resize the workspace window (though this may have changed in subsequent versions). Relying on the RWS proprietary file format to stay relevant in the future is a bit of a gamble with so many other tools on the market. It’s so easy to get sucked into these programs and soon forget just how reliant you might become on them. Aside from the financial cost of upgrades and add-ons, there’s the time cost in maintenance and the learning curve. In many cases, there’s a re-learning curve when you’ve been away from an application for a while, as so often happens with my fragmented writing and recording habits.
Though Riffworks runs on both Mac and PC (a requirement of my new recording ethic), it goes against another new rule I’ve imposed on myself regarding downsizing the number of tools I am using. The problem with all of these tools is that the moment I upgrade to Windows 7 or 8, I will be forced to reinstall and – in most cases – upgrade all of them. That comes with a cost. Many won’t work, or there may be issues and hours of troubleshooting. I’ve just decided that there aren’t enough hours in the day to:
Maintain my live acoustic blues/roots set
Record an album for my “electro” persona
Continue online collaborative projects
Maintain my web sites
Promote myself through gigs and networking
Expand my knowledge through reading and listening
Maintain my computer network and devices
Oh, and did I mention maintain keep a day job as a software developer/analyst too?
So I am trying to harvest any good ideas from my Riffworks experiments and move on. I’ve found a few fruitful sessions, but now the time needed to migrate the data to a more flexible mixing environment for “official” release is taking time away from the overall creative process. As I type this I am waiting for my PC to reboot because Riffworks has a weird quirk where it takes forever to close (Mac or PC), and sometimes hangs up. Just another reason to downsize in favor of something much more stable (like Reason).
*Here’s a procedure I wrote up for transferring Riffworks tracks to Reason 6. Enjoy!