By Craig Anderton
At the 1999 Winter NAMM convention, a small Swedish company called Propellerhead Software—at that point, best-known for the REX file format and ReBirth, the first software emulation of vintage instruments (Roland TB-303 and TR-808)—announced Reason. People were blown away by what was a complete studio, virtualized in software, with a synthesizer, sampler, drum machine, mixer, signal processors, and sequencer. It used a "rack" paradigm where you inserted what you wanted to use in a virtual rack, and you could even flip the rack around to access the back, where you’d find patch points just waiting to be connected with virtual patch cords.
Over the years, Reason has been used in commercials, sample libraries, hit dance tunes, and more. It’s a great tool for laptop fans because it lets you make music anywhere, any time. And while it doesn’t record audio, Propellerhead’s ReWire protocol allows using Reason in conjunction with any ReWire-compatible host program, like Pro Tools, Sonar, Logic, Digital Performer, Cubase, Live, Tracktion, etc. This allows bringing Reason’s instrument outputs into the host’s mixer, so you can use the host for audio recording along with the suite of instruments in Reason.
Updates over the years have added a new synthesizer (Malström), the NN-XT advanced sampler, utility modules such as mixers and splitters, the Combinator feature that allows extensive splits and layers for live performance, an updated sample library with orchestral strings, additional signal processors (like a vocoder, studio-level reverb, and great distortion device), more efficient browser, and more. Now we have Reason 4.0, which is a major update.
One of the great things about Reason is that there’s a downloadable demo (check the "Downloads" section at the Propellerheads web site), so you can check it out for yourself and decide if it’s the right program for you. But let’s take a look at some of the new features, because there’s more to this update than meets the eye…or ear.
Reason comes on a single DVD, and installs painlessly on both Mac and Windows machines. There’s no dongle or other convoluted protection scheme; you just enter a serial number. But you do need to register in order to take advantage of future updates and goodies like free additional content. Props to Propellerheads for making life easier for their legitimate users, and shame on those who take advantage of Reason’s benign copy protection to steal it.
At the top, you’ll see the SubTractor synth that’s been a mainstay since Reason 1.0; directly below it is Thor (new to version 4.0), and at the bottom is the sequencer Transport.
Reason’s SubTractor synthesizer is a standard, "analog emulation" synthesizer while Malström uses graintable synthesis for truly unique sounds. Version 4’s Thor synthesizer is a much more ambitious instrument, which allows a near-modular synthesizer level of customization.
For example, there are three "slots" for filters and you can choose from four types: Lowpass Ladder type (the classic Moog filter sound), State Variable, Comb, and Formant. The state variable type offers several filter responses (lowpass, bandpass, highpass, notch, and peak), while the comb filter produces a response with multiple peaks and notches that, when the frequency is modulated, adds "motion" to the sound that sounds somewhat like flanging or phasing. Formant adds a more "vocal" quality.
Similarly, for the three oscillator "slots," you can choose from six oscillator types (analog, wavetable, phase modulation, FM pair, multi oscillator, and noise). The wavetable option has 32 waves, phase modulation produces sounds similar to those of Casio’s classic synths, FM was the technology that powered Yamaha’s DX and TX-series synths in the 80s, and multi oscillator is like a "unison" mode when you can set the detuning between oscillators.
In terms of routing, the three oscillators go into a mixer (you can enable the output from each oscillator individually), and routings to the two main filters can be in series or parallel (or combinations of serial/parallel). The third filter is more of a "master" filter that affects the final sound. This is just an overview; there are plenty more routing options, and of course, the usual envelope and LFO options.
Thor also comes with extras, like an onboard delay and chorus, extensive modulation matrix, and a step sequencer suitable for modulation as well as programming arpeggios and short melodic sequences.
For convenience’s sake, you can "fold up" the programming section, leaving a smaller control panel. This offers up important synth parameters (for example, keyboard trigger mode and portamento), as well as general-purpose assignable controls for making quick tweaks. It’s also possible to access the various module inputs via patch points on the back, allowing you to process other sounds through Thor.
But of course the bottom line is the sound, and the factory patches show off just what Thor can do. This is an extremely capable synthesizer that can produce sounds from the ethereal to the dirty, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that some people will use Reason primarily to ReWire Thor into their favorite host. To me, Thor is the centerpiece of the 4.0 upgrade.
Reason’s sequencer hadn’t really changed from version 1, until now. When rewiring into a host, it’s likely you’d use the host sequencer, rendering the Reason one more or less redundant. But for those using Reason on a laptop, or as their primary instrument, the sequencer updates allow for much better workflow.
The biggest change for me is that it’s now possible to automate tempo and time signature changes. One of Reason’s main limitations was that once you chose a tempo, it was fixed from start to finish: You couldn’t, for example, pull back the tempo just a shade for the chorus, then kick it back up for the solo. Now you can! And also in the "I wish they’d done this sooner" category, you can now have a countdown before you start recording.
Reason 4 handles automation much more elegantly, electing to use a "multiple lane" approach that makes it easy to overdub passes of notes and controllers, and placing this data in clips, which makes it easier to move, cut, and copy data.
The other big change is that each track can have multiple "lanes." This prevents "track clutter" where you might have something like three or four tracks of notes and controller data to drive a single instrument; now they can all live in different "lanes" for one track that you can show or hide as needed. This is particularly helpful with automation, and furthermore, the sequencer in general is now more "clip" oriented. You can think of clips as containers for data. As one example of how you’d use this, suppose you create some complex filter automation change for the first verse of a song that you also want to use in the last verse. You simply copy the clip containing the data you want to use, and paste (or ctrl-drag) it as desired.
I’m a little disappointed that there’s no cycle recording mode, where you can loop a section, keep recording new bits, then choose the take (or portions of takes) you want to use for the final track. However, there’s an easy workaround: Create a bunch of lanes, and record-enable each one as you want to use it. Another feature, Alt, helps in this respect as it lets you create a new note lane, while muting previously-recorded ones. This complements the Dub function, which adds a new note lane but doesn’t mute any others. Dub is useful if you’re, for example, building up a drum track by first playing the kick drum part, then the snare, then the high-hats, etc.
Reason has always had its Matrix step sequencer, which could be used for arpeggiation-type effects. But Reason 4 now has a "proper" arpeggiator, the RPG-8. What I particularly like about this arpeggiator is that you can play it, as a performance type of device; I also like the "Single Note Repeat" function, particularly with bass lines. With Single Note Repeat off, arpeggiation doesn’t kick in unless you play more than one note. The RPG-8 also includes a Pattern function that allows changing the number of steps before the arpeggio repeats, but more importantly, you can mute certain parts of the pattern so you don’t have a constant "jackhammer" effect of sequences of notes that just won’t stop. In addition to recording the notes feeding the arpeggiator, the sequencer also records changes you make in the pattern—very cool.
The RPG-8 is a cool arpeggiator, but it’s the playability as a performance device that makes it particularly interesting.
But wait, there’s more…you can "render" the arpeggiator’s output as notes, so you can edit them as you would any sequenced notes, as well as add variations by using an "insert" function that repeats particular notes in one of four orders (e.g., in 3-1 mode, the arpeggio plays three notes forward, steps one note back, plays three steps forward, steps one note back, etc.).
Yeah, it’s fun…
If you’ve worked with MIDI sequencers, you’re almost certainly familiar with quantization and how it "snaps" note starts to particular rhythmic values. You may also have worked with "groove quantize" functions, which snap note starts to particular "grooves" that may not follow a metronomic beat (such as a shuffle or a "groove" where the snare drum hits, say, a little early or late to give a different "feel").
The ReGroove mixer, along with the Tool window set to show editable parameters for the selected Groove in channel 1.
The ReGroove mixer is basically a way to do groove/shuffle quantization that affects note lanes, and add real-time variations while you do this. (You can think of ReGroove as related to the "shuffle" function found on previous versions of Reasons, but on steroids.) There are 32 "channels" in the ReGroove mixer, and any note lane can be assigned to one of these channels. From there, you can (for each channel) call up a particular groove template, change the effect of the groove, slide the timing ahead of or behind the beat, alter shuffle ("swing"), and "pre-align" (quantize) notes prior to adding groove effects, which can create more predictable results with tracks that aren’t quantized.
The groove templates are editable; you’re not limited to just loading a preset. For example, the Timing Impact parameter works like quantization strength, as it determines how much the groove template affects the timing. Similar parameters can affect velocity, note length, and timing. Also note that if you come up with channel settings you want to apply elsewhere, you can copy data from one channel to another.
Those are the "biggies," but there are numerous smaller tweaks, like including a "device palette" that lets you drag-and-drop devices into the rack in an arguably easier fashion than using the standard "Create" menu option, a cleaner look for the hardware interface, German/French/Japanese localization, and so on.
But first, two items of interest. Reason’s help is rather limited, so if you want to really drill down and learn about the program, you’ll need to look in the Reason folder on your root drive. There you’ll find extensive documentation and MIDI implementation charts (the latter are very helpful when using external control surfaces).
It’s also worth noting that Reason’s success has spawned a bunch of "refills"—sound libraries that can contain samples, drum patterns, synth patches, or combinations of these. Propellerheads themselves have produced some excellent refills, including Reason Drums and Reason Pianos for their NN-XT sampler.
In addition to sounds, there are also a ton of third party books available…which always mystified me, because I think Reason’s documentation is excellent. However, one book—"Power Tools for Reason 3.0" by Kurt Kurasaki—stands alone as going beyond the documentation to cover innovative and useful applications. Don’t be fooled by the "3.0" in the title; everything covered in the book is still a part of Reason. Even without talking about the new goodies in version 4.0, there are enough tips and techniques to keep you busy for quite some time. If you want to be a Reason power user, this book is required reading.
When you think about it, getting all this sequencing, processing, synthesis, and sampling power for under $400 street price is pretty amazing. Furthermore, there are some generous upgrade options in case you signed on early but haven’t upgraded since version 1 or 2. Of course, you can download the demo to see if you have good chemistry with Reason, making any opinions I have moot. Nonetheless, Reason is a brilliant program that has garnered a near-fanatical following, and version 4 simply allows this brilliant program to shine quite a bit brighter.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.