Here is my personal experience with the Cockos' Reaper 4, and Steinberg's Cubase 6. This will hopefully help you to get what is just right for you.
BackgroundI've worked for a few years and mixed/mastered many songs in in collaborative and solo environments using both Reaper and Cubase. This experience is limited to a few home studios - but includes many many hours with both programs. This includes many versions, Cubase 3/5/6 and Reaper 3.x on to 4.x. I've in depth utilized the routing options of each program to obtain interesting sounds - tried many VST fx/instruments with both - and worked extensively with the native plugins of both platforms.
|The Old Setup|
1 - Cost EffectivenessIf money is your main concern, absolutely hands down the choice is Reaper. Reaper is significantly cheaper ($60 or $225 depending on the income of your studio) than Cubase ($500). Cubase does have the "artist" version for around $250 - but I have no experience with it. Reaper has an "extended" free trial that never ends - a heck of a business model... this may offer the illusion that Reaper is a lesser software than the others, but trust, it is not!
2 - Ease of UseSome of us just wanna install the program, hit the record button, and get the sounds we make recorded. Why make life complicated? Here Reaper wins again - its super easy to create a track (double click!) and perhaps the *best* part of Reaper is the structure of the track itself. Whereas Cubase limits you to mono/stereo/group/fx tracks - and imposes restrictions upon what each of those tracks can do... Reaper has just one track format - one that encompasses all of the above! Reaper also has no limitation on the number of FX you can have on a track, along with the number of sends (or at least the limitation is beyond even the most complicated of my projects). This makes life SO MUCH easier when doing creative sound shaping.
In cubase there are a limited number of FX inserts (8) and sends available (8), if you want more you can route the audio through a group track. This is not only more complicated but it eats more CPU. Also, audio tracks cannot send to other audio tracks - so if you want to route your vocal through your guitar FX chain you need to duplicate the chain (OUCH CPU!!!), or create a group track - copy your FX (not copy and paste like reaper, in cubase to "copy" an FX you need to save the settings of the effect as a preset, and then open the same effect it in the track you want it to be on - then load the preset - TEDIOUS!!!) - you can then send the vocal and guitar through the group track as either a send or route the tracks audio outputs through the group track.
Setting up the hardware is pretty straightforward in both DAW's, cubase can create stereo busses from any 2 inputs, whereas Reaper can only utilize 2 inputs that are numerically next to eachother for stereo. This is an unnecessary limitation in Reaper which can cause some issues - but its very very typical to route stereo devices to inputs that are next to eachother, its never presented an issue to me. With that said, it can be time consuming to setup alot of inputs in Cubase, whereas Reaper uses a range of inputs that takes seconds to configure.
Although someone who is unfamiliar with how DAW's work will have to read the manual either way - Reaper has a much more efficient workflow that allows common operations to be done much more quickly than cubase.
3 - GUI (Graphic User Interface)Depends on the size of your project - although reaper is more cpu efficient and actually handles bigger projects better than Cubase - Reaper falls short on organization and the amount of tracks easily visible on screen. Reaper forces me to scroll/zoom much more than Cubase, and this can waste time. Cubase looks "better" to me, and lays out the various options in a very accessible way.
Though the functionality (later) of folders is overall better in Reaper, for organization Cubase's folder system is wonderful.
Cubase organizes VST's in a menu that is relative to the directory structure the VST .dll's are placed in. Reaper throws all the VST's into one big group, and forces you to hand pick through them to organize them. Organizing in windows explorer is MUCH more efficient, and Cubase allows for this.
|Reaper 4.x (I prefer the 3.0 theme, not shown here)|
4 - CPU EfficiencyFor a few years I used Reaper on a windows XP 2.2ghz AMD single core CPU with 1 gig of ram. I got into some SERIOUSLY complex layering and FX chains. 15+ FX on one track - automated! Cubase (5) would hardly even run on that computer, let alone let me do complex operations without those dreaded pops/clicks/stutters.
Reaper is so much lighter weight than Cubase, the full download of Reaper is all of 8mb - which includes a long list of FX (some very powerful!, later...). While Reaper itself requires less to run, it seems also to handle more efficiantly various operations.- especially once complex send setups come into play.
The BIG BIG deal with Reaper here is that since there only one "track" format - even "folder" tracks can be "frozen". Freezing a track (or rendering to a new track) exports the tracks' output to a .wav file and disables the FX... giving the sound of the FX without the real time processing. Once things are dialed in this very quick and easy operation is a game changer. Cubase does not allow group tracks to be frozen, and since group tracks are required if you wanna do complex sends - its a double hit to the CPU. You can export the audio of the group track in a few ways with Cubase, but the process takes longer and is not nearly as intuitive as in Reaper.
I mixed some seriously complex stuff on my old 2.2ghz pc, and it would have been impossible with Cubase.
5 - Sound QualityAlthough this should be number one, its more of a moot point - both DAW's offer pristine sound quality and absolutely will not be the weakest link in your chain.
The difference is in the export capability - Reaper has a much more powerful export utility than Cubase - although both are capable of exporting top quality mixdowns.
6 - Packaged VST FX/InstrumentsThis is where the extra cost of Cubase comes into play - it has a very extensive and very useful VST FX/instrument package that comes with it. The native FX are very useful - one of my favs is the vintage compressor. Reverence is a fine reverb as well, and the list goes on. Halion is an excellent instrument - along the line of Kontakt. Groove Agent can lay down some sweet drums, and Loopmash is a very interesting tool I never dug too dip into. The VST amp rack is cool too - its no Guitar Rig, but its VERY useful in many applications.
Reaper has nothing like Halion, no instruments, and only the most rudimentary synth blocks. Reaper definite is not ready to produce an entire track ITB (in the box/computer)- where Cubase is a box full of songs waiting to happen.
With that said, Reaper has many great utilities and what FX it does come with are very powerful. The JS set of plugins covers a broad range of FX, albeit very utalitarianly. The Cockos native plugin set is simple yet VERY powerful. The ReaFIR is incredible, it deserves its own post - just think of an EQ or compressor or gate that has infinite bands. This is an amazing creative tool, and has great utility as well. The compressor is also very powerful, very versatile it goes from the lightest compression to brickwall limiter - all with adjustable lookahead. The reverb is useable and extremely CPU efficient, but it is NOTHING compared to Reverence.
In terms of packaged FX/Instruments, you definitely are getting what you paid for with Cubase.
Yea, Cubase has MUCH more to offer in its package in terms of VST - but when it comes time to expand... Reaper is significantly - and I mean SIGNIFICANTLY more compatibile. Cubase 64 bit wont rewire to reason 32 bit - this was quite a heartbreak! Reaper 64 does it and has no issues. Reaper rewires very well with Fruity Loops as well.
7 - Compatibility
Its no secret, the net is full of free VST FX and instruments... and Reaper will work with just about any of them that work at all. Cubase on the other hand, will not. Its very picky about which plugins it works with, and it is much buggier about it in general. The packed stuff makes up for this to some extent, but some (most..) of the obscure VST's I know and love dont work in Cubase at all.
Kjaerhus Audio - Classic EQ
A Reaper project can include many different audio file formats at many different bitrates, and it will work great. Cubase forces you to convert to the project file format. Reaper will also rip the audio right off a cd - Cubase can't do this. This is a big deal when working with samples. The CD rip capability is great for playing along with songs, or importing a song to mess around with (its fun to take commercial releases and screw around with how they sound!).
Hardware compatibility seems great either way, I've never had an issue getting hardware to work in either DAW.
8 - Mixing/EditingThis one goes to Reaper by a big BIG margin. There is no comparison really... when it comes time to mix and edit Reaper does the job with less CPU, more capability, and much faster with most operations. A reaper track can have 64 channels or 1 channel, the same track, and it can be changed at any time. Cubase has various tracks that are limited to whatever they are created as - that is, a stereo track has 2 channels, this cannot be changed. A mono track has one, again, no way to change it. Group tracks only route audio, same with FX tracks. Reaper simplifies this and in this simplification it is MUCH more powerful and user friendly. Cubase requires planning and changes can be extremely time consuming, Reaper allows for plans to change quickly and easily.
A big difference is that FX can be applied to pieces of the .wav file in Reaper. Example: You want to apply a certain distortion to just ONE snare hit, In Cubase you would have to load it into your inserts, which are limited so this may be yet more of a concern, and automate it to turn on only for that one snare hit. You could also duplicate the track, delete everyting but the one snare hit from the new track/delete the snare hit from the original track, and apply the FX to the new track. In Reaper the .wav can be cut, and the FX applied to just the section desired - then the effected section can be crossfaded back in for a smooth transition. This is a very very powerful way to mix - it speeds up the process while greatly expanding capabilities. Its also very CPU efficient as the plugin is only active for a short period. In one song I used at least 5 different types of chorus on one vocal track - in various places. This created a really great sound, and using the aforementioned process made it time efficient and cut down on the number of tracks required to do something this intricate.
The biggest deal for me, though, is the ability in Reaper to send any track's audio to any track. This greatly expands creative opportunity. Also, think about a live situation - everything is happening at once, all the sounds are bleeding into the various mics to varying degrees. Even the guitar is going to pickup the drums/vocals/crowd/crickets to some extent. Reaper makes this easy to duplicate, and though its possible to setup the routing to pull this off in Cubase, its SIGNIFICANTLY more time consuming to do - as well as the inability to freeze group tracks to free up CPU.
Folders are another bonus when it comes time to mix in Reaper. Folder tracks in Cubase are great for organization, but they do no sum the audio, group tracks deal with the audio from multiple audio tracks. Reaper is much simpler and more powerful - a folder track in reaper can contain audio itself, and all the tracks contained within the folder track are automatically routed through the folder - instantly summing your multi-mic'ed drumkit down to one fader/set of FX/sends. In Cubase to achieve the same thing you have to route or send the audio of your audio tracks to the group track - this requires selecting each track and going through the menus - lots of clicks! In Reaper you can make ANY track into a folder track and quickly drag/drop whatever tracks you want inside. SO MUCH simpler, and the lack of FX insert limitations in Reaper separates the gap in this regard even more.
|Only 8 inserts available on a Cubase Track|
The master track in reaper is also much more readily accessible... the grouping of various controls is extremely useful (not possible to the same extent in Cubase). I could go on, but you've got some ideas by now.
9 - USB DongleDoes it require its own heading, yes, yes it does. I HATE this... not only is it taking a USB slot, its begging me to lose it, its just saying "when your moving your computer, put me in one of those places where you think you wont forget me, and then forget me (evil laugh)". Cubase uses this, Reaper does not (remember the trial that never ends?). Is it something that is an ongoing "problem", no, not really... but its a small device that could be dropped/stepped on/lost and then Cubase is inaccessible until a new one arrives. Reaper will boot up as long as your computer is working... this to me is very important. I don't want my ability to create hampered by a licensing device failing for one of those random reasons electronics fail.
|"Lose me, I dare you"|
9 - SupportCall Cubase, "leave a message, we'll call you back", and Reaper doesn't seem to have a number to call at all. Reaper does have a very active forum where most questions are already answered (and not just that FAQ crap). Cubase also has a forum that is setup in a similar fashion Both are well covered on youtube, and both have well written manuals.
Reaper updates often, and the license covers up to 2 full version numbers. Cubase you get what you buy - with discounts to upgrade depending on what version you are coming from.
SummaryCubase comes with an extensive package of plugins and instruments - plenty to produce full songs from scratch. Reaper lacks the bundling, but offers extraordinary power in a very lightweight package. Reaper is much cheaper, and this offsets the lack of bundled instruments ($460 goes a long way toward some good VST instruments!). Reaper is more compatible with the long LONG list of free VST goodies out there. Cubase does have a great GUI, but for what it gains in cosmetics it loses in complexity (or impossibility...) of operations that are simpler and more powerful in reaper.
My choice is Reaper - even with money out of the equation I still prefer it. I just wish they would redo the GUI to be more in the Cubase/Protools realm.
Benchmark of Sonar, Nuendo (by Steinberg), and Reaper