Propellerheads were one of the first companies to embrace the idea of the virtual studio. With Rebirth we caught a glimpse of their ‘all in one’ hardware inspired environment. Reason then followed taking the bare bones setup of a few classic machines into something resembling a full studio’s worth of gear. Although still retaining an element of simplicity, further iterations of Reason have expanded upon the original, giving the user more and more control.
For the uninitiated, Reason operates on the premise that all the devices used within a session are contained natively within Reason itself. In other words no third party instruments or effects are allowed. Although somewhat limiting in certain cases, this helps ensure a more stable system and for beginners a level of self control due to the lack of too many choices. It can however interface with other DAWs using the ReWire protocol when more control is needed.
As each new version of Reason is developed, the range of possibilities increases though and with version 4 this is no exception. Version 3 added, besides other things, a new range of mixing tools, the MClass series, taking the sound quality available within self contained Reason productions to a higher level. Version 4 continues where 3 left off and gives us a massive new synth called Thor and many improvements with the sequencer operation. In addition, a full featured arpeggiator and ReGroove mixer, for adding feel to MIDI parts, have been added. With these new enhancements, Reason 4 starts to really come into its own as an all in one production center.
On first glance one will notice that the overall look of the sequencer has been smoothed out and is easier on the eyes compared to the somewhat clunky appearance of older versions. But there’s more than just good looks here as many improvements have been made to facilitate ease of editing and composing.
First up are the track ‘lanes’. For each device’s track you can have multiple lanes, or sub-tracks, which contain either note or automation information. This has many uses, one of which that ties into the new ReGroove mixer, discussed later on. With the new lane concept it’s easy to try out different versions of riffs, or break apart preexisting ones for arrangement purposes. To further take advantage of the use of lanes, two options on the transport for recording are offered. One creates a new lane for recording with the previous lane unmuted, the other with it muted. This way one can easily record with or without the accompaniment of a previous take. Overall recording itself is simplified by requiring the user to now only press record, without the need to additionally hit play.
Clips, or containers, are now generated automatically when recording midi performances. They be edited with the same type of functions we are used to in bigger DAW sequencers. The new razor tool works quickly to either slice parts into two or pull out chunks of unwanted data. A single click on a clip with razor selected makes a slice mark. Alternatively an ‘area’ can be drawn with the razor that creates slices on the left and right sides of the selection, ready for deletion. Further more this tool can be used across multiple lanes and devices, allowing efficient arrangement edits. Once clips are sliced the new mute clip ability comes into play, allowing a type of ‘non destructive’ way to try out arrangement ideas. If any of these sliced edits are unwanted, a join command exists to ‘glue’ them back together again. And finally, colors can be applied to clips now, with creatively given names such as ‘Kelly Green’ and ‘Steel Blue’ as some of the choices.
Automation and controller editing has been upgraded and is finally handled through vector based drawing instead of single bars to represent values. This makes creation of smooth changes easier, especially when needing to edit later on. Automation is contained within clips similar to note data making it easy to move and copy. Double clicking a clip with automation information allows one to grab the nodes of the vectors to make adjustments. You can edit automation not only in edit mode but also in arrange. On a side note, recording pattern changes from devices such as the ReDrum, is now handled directly on the arrange page without the need to enter edit mode.
A very welcome feature is the inspector display now available when editing performance data. To the right of the toolbar you will now see the numerical attributes of position, length, velocity, pitch, and values of controllers and automation. This makes detailed adjustments quick and painless. If a particular value is selected with the mouse, the wheel can then be used to increment up or down. This is my preferred way to edit within another sequencer and I’m glad to see it here. By the way multiple entries can be selected, with the option to normalize all the values to one common one, or too keep their respective difference when changing up or down.
Along with the functions added to the toolbar, a new tool window has been included. This floats off to the side of the sequencer and device section, helping to use a little more of your screen space. It’s divided into three categories, devices, tools, and groove. The devices tab makes quick work of adding new devices and or effects to the rack area. You can also hide/show certain types of devices, either instruments, effects, or other, making this area uncluttered of devices you might not need.
With the tools tab you can choose from quantize, pitch, velocity, length, legato, tempo, alter notes, and automation cleanup. Quite a bit of editing power is available, again taking Reason’s editing possibilities closer to more traditional DAWs. Highlights include: a randomize feature for quantize, pitch and, velocity; velocities can be scaled, added or subtracted or fixed to a certain value; the alter note command interestingly shuffles values for the pitch, velocity, and length of selected notes in a random fashion. The devices tab lets you easily drag and create instruments and effects from the tool window into your rack area. The groove tab handles modifications of one ReGroove mixer channel (covered in the next section) at a time, without having that large device space in the main rack area.
One of the main complaints with sequenced music is that it often lacks the dynamics of human performance due to heavy use of strict quantizing. Most sequencers these days offer swing or shuffle but even this is also somewhat clinical in its operation and doesn’t properly emulate human playing. Groove templates do also exist which have much more variation in the timing (and sometimes note length and velocity) in order to create more natural effects. And finally adjusting the overall timing from earlier to later can be very powerful.
So the use of groove templates and adjusting the timing of performances is nothing new, but Reason has taken a somewhat novel approach to controlling this process. The ReGroove mixer allows you to apply straight shuffle, a wide choice of more complex groove templates, and shifting notes before or later in time. What makes it unique is that everything is controlled through a mixer interface, not the standard inspector box as per most sequencers. Each mixer channel is assigned a ‘channel’; these channels can then be assigned to tracks in the sequencer. This makes it easy to give all your percussion parts one groove, while your bass-lines and leads might have another. You’ll hear the changes at once across all affected tracks, without having to adjust tracks separately as is the usual way. In addition, this is where the new lanes come into good use. Take a pattern derived from the ReDrum, send it to a track, and then split each drum sound across separate lanes. You can now assign a different ReGroove channel to each lane and adjust the timing of your snare independently from the hihats.
Thirty-two discreet channels are available, which should be enough for most cases, especially as generally you will be using the same grooves across most parts so they lock together correctly. The above mentioned tool bar comes into play as well and adds more functionality to setting grooves. Here you can adjust the strength of the timing, velocity and length derived from the groove templates used independently. Perhaps you have the timing just right but need some velocity variation. For this simply turn down the timing slider and turn up the velocity. Your original timing stays the same, only the velocities of the affected part will be changed via the groove template.
All of this control does no good if interesting groove templates are not available though. Thankfully Propellerheads have included a tasty selection of templates to load into the ReGroove mixer. Patches range from classic grooves (supposedly sampled from vinyl although I see this having no effect on the groove unless wow and flutter is your thing), session drummers, manually programmed Hiphop and Rock/Pop sequences, and the old standby for how hardware is supposed to groove, the Akai MPC-60. There’s plenty here to keep you busy for a while. If that’s not enough it’s very simple to extract groove information from Rex files and your own recorded clips. The manual goes into some detail on how to get the best out of these functions and is a great starting point for those who have always stuck with the usual quantize methods.
The new RPG-8 adds fairly extensive arpeggiator control to Reason 4. All the usual arpeggiator functions such as octave scaling, note length and direction are here. You can also modify the pattern using an ‘insert’ mode which repeats certain sections of notes in various predetermined orders. If you want full control of how the pattern sounds though there is the additional pattern editor. This has a similar look to a combination of the Matrix sequencer and Redrum devices. Notes are turned on or off in the ReDrum style programming method. Note pitch is controlled similar to the Matrix sequencer. The combination allows complex musical progressions to be made from triggering only a single note. If further editing is required, then the arpeggio can be sent to a sequencer track in the same was as the ReDrum by right clicking the RPG-8 and selecting “Arpeggio Notes to Track”.
Reason 4 includes an amazingly versatile new synth called Thor. This is practically a modular system at your disposal and overall a very capable and great sounding device. The general architecture consists of three oscillators, two filters, two LFOs, and four envelopes. The oscillators can be synced, useful for complex timbres. They can also be freely assignable to the two filters, with gain control governing the amount to either. The choices for oscillator type are also varied, analog, wavetable, phase modulation, FM, Multi Osc and Noise are included, each with enough parameters to keep things interesting. Filter types are Low Pass Ladder (Moog style), State Variable (which includes LP, BP, HP, Notch, and Peak modes). The filters can be driven and there is a separate shaper module which has various forms of saturation and distortion.
If all this wasn’t enough there is a deep modulation matrix where almost anything can modulate anything else. This includes outside CV sources from other Reason modules. Thors filters can be taken further advantage of by the audio inputs located on the back of the rack for processing other devices. To top it all off there is also a step sequencer. This not only allows standard control of pitch, velocity and duration but two assignable controllers from the list of previously mentioned modulation sources. Unfortunately the sequence data can not be sent to a track for further editing and no provision for swing is presented making it somewhat less useful in the context of all the groove options provided in other areas of the program. As described earlier, the sound quality of Thor is high, rich and varied tones can be programmed almost limitlessly. There seems to be some variation or drift programmed as well, as the sound maintains a sense of movement and organic quality normally attributed to real analog devices.
With this version 4 update Reason has taken another step in providing a feature rich yet self contained music production environment. Beginners will appreciate the simplicity and stability of the all in one design. More advance users can utilize Reason either on its own or within another DAW when linked via ReWire, Thor especially being an excellent choice for incorporating into their productions. The ReGroove mixer and RPG-8 offer a lot of creative and musical sequencing tricks to the package. The streamlined, intuitive, yet powerful, sequencer along with the handy tools window, further facilitate editing, composing and arranging of midi sequences. Old fans of the program should be excited to see whats new on offer and those who have stayed away before might find some very attractive reasons (no pun intended) to give it another look.