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electronic MUSICIAN


By ROBERT HANSON | April 1, 2005

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With electronic music, a great divide has existed between what happens in the confines of the studio and what happens on the stage. Software synths and samplers have given you access to a limitless palette of sounds while at the same time freeing you from the hassle of patching together hardware synths and editing parameters on little green LCDs. But when you want to take your music into a performance setting, you're confronted with a number of barriers. You can load all of your studio patches into a hardware workstation that costs another couple of grand and requires you to learn the quirks of another piece of gear. Or you can drag your computer onstage and toggle through a dozen different soft synths that may or may not play well together. Of course, there is a lot of middle ground between those two extremes, but wouldn't it be nice if there were one piece of software that had sounds that you'd actually wanted to use as well as an interface that worked onstage? Say hello to Reason 3.0.

Reason is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it's their entire studio — just give them some headphones, and leave them alone. For others, it's a writing tool. And via ReWire, it's an easy way to flesh out an arrangement with some extra soft synths. The program has always been stable and efficient, and its design is intended to foster collaboration among users. But Reason hasn't really been able to hold its own against the big Korg and Roland workstations: Layering sounds requires a bit of work with Reason, and most users manage to memorize the factory presets in a short amount of time. So with Reason 3.0, the company looked to make the program every bit as powerful as the competing hardware while maintaining the look, feel and flow that users have come to know.

LAYER IT ON > The new Combinator allows users to group, keymap and layer as many instruments and effects as their computers will allow.


With Reason 2.0, the company introduced the NN-XT Advanced Sampler, which included one the easiest and most intuitive keymapping and routing interfaces around. Always looking to outdo itself, Propellerhead has put some characteristics of the NN-XT to good use with the main attraction of Reason 3.0: the Combinator.

The Combinator isn't an instrument at all. Alone, it doesn't make a sound. What it does do is allow you to load up any number of Reason instruments and effects at the same time and treat them as a single preset. The Combinator includes both stereo inputs and outputs for interfacing with other Reason modules. For instance, the main outs could simply be routed to the main mixer through an effects unit or wherever. Or by routing another source to a Combinator, the unit could work as a huge effects unit housing an elaborate array of Malström synths working as filters, a vocoder, a dozen different delay modules — you name it. Alternatively, the unit also has an internal set of stereo ins and outs that route signals to and from the modules within the Combinator. A companion piece to the Combinator is the new Line Mixer, which includes six stereo inputs each with volume, panning, mute and solo controls; one stereo aux send/return; and a master volume control. The panning of each channel can also accept CV data from another module for even more sound-shaping options.

The front panel of the Combinator is where the real fun happens. Starting on the left, there are the standard pitch and mod wheels as well as four control buttons (Run Pattern Devices, Bypass All Effects, Show Programmer, Show Devices). The Run Pattern Devices button allows you to use things like the Redrum drum computer and the Matrix pattern sequencer. Bypass All Effects does just what the name implies; when it is pressed, all of the effects within a Combinator patch are switched off. (The Show Devices button is also rather self-explanatory.) The Show Programmer button, however, opens up a second screen directly under the main module. The Programmer borrows heavily from the keymapping screen of the NN-XT, and it's just as easy to use. On the top is a scrollable keyboard with all octaves clearly marked, and down the left side is a list of all modules contained within the Combinator. By selecting an instrument, you can specify what MIDI notes it will respond to and create a number of modulation routings (which also work for effects). Thus, you can easily create performance patches with various instruments keymapped up and down the keyboard as well as layer sounds.

Turning to the new modulation options, the Combinator has four knobs and four buttons on its front panel that can control any parameter on any module within the patch. Even parameters that were not available for automation in previous versions can now be accessed in this manner. When a module is selected within the Programmer window, the Modulation Routing pane (which is on the right side of the window) becomes active for that device. From there, you can simply choose a control knob or button under the Source heading and select a parameter from the Target heading. Clicking inside the boxes under the Target heading reveals a pull-down menu that lists all of the available parameters for that module. For instance, it's now possible to route the LFO 1 Rate knob on a Subtractor to the Rotary 1 knob on a Combinator and automate its movement inside the sequencer or map it to a hardware controller — very exciting stuff. A single control knob on the Combinator can simultaneously control multiple parameters at once, and the range of control for each can also be adjusted (0 to 127).

Also of note with the Combinator: You can create a Combinator from the Create pull-down menu, just like any other module. When a Combinator is selected, all other modules that you create will automatically go there. Also, you can drag any module in and out of a Combinator. From a MIDI and keyboard standpoint, think of the Combinator as just a single instrument working off a single channel; if you have a Redrum playing a pattern as well as some synth instruments in the same patch, you can disable MIDI notes for any device so you don't get a handful of drums when you're reaching for the bottom octaves. And, lastly, the answer is no: You cannot create a Combinator within a Combinator. If this revelation really bums you out, you should get your head examined.


Reason 3.0 also adds some enticing dynamic and EQ processors to the fold. Sure, the old half-rackspace COMP-01 compressor/limiter and PEQ-2 EQ were both serviceable pieces, but for those who have become accustomed to the Universal Audio UAD-1 plug-ins or any of the Waves bundles, those two Reason pieces always fell a little short, especially when used on the stereo bus to boost the output. Well, just like the Scream 4 distortion unit blew the old D-11 Foldback Distortion away, the new MClass Mastering Suite delivers the goods.

The MClass consists of the Equalizer, the Stereo Imager, the Compressor and the Maximizer. You can call up the suite as a single Combinator preset or each module separately. Each of the items is designed to emulate and behave like classic hardware pieces, borrowing the best bits and pieces without naming names. The MClass EQ comprises four selectable bands (low-shelf, high-shelf and two sweepable mids), a low-cut filter at 30 Hz and a graphical representation of the curve. The Stereo Imager splits the controls for the high and low bands with a variable crossover (100 Hz to 6 kHz). The controls for the high and low bands are the same; the stereo image can be constricted or expanded by turning the Image knob from Mono to Wide. Each of the two bands can also be soloed, and there are stereo-width LEDs for each band. The MClass Compressor includes input- and output-gain controls, threshold with selectable soft knee, a ratio control (1:1 to infinity), a gain-reduction LED, a sidechain option, and attack and release controls with a selectable adaptive release option. And just to prove how cool they are, the programmers also added a CV output based on the gain reduction of the compressor. What you do with it is up to you. And, finally, the MClass Maximizer boasts look-ahead limiting and a soft clipper. The module includes input- and output-gain controls, a gain-reduction LED, three attack settings (Fast, Mid, Slow), three release settings (Fast, Slow, Auto), soft clip on/off, soft clip amount and a selectable peak/VU LED.

Overall, the MClass Suite is a complete EQ and dynamics section. The modules sound every bit as good as the high-end third-party plug-ins that you can get for your DAW. The Compressor and the Maximizer are simply outstanding, and I used them stand-alone all over the place. I'm a huge fan of the UAD 1176 and LA-2A, and I felt completely at home with these new modules. The soft-clip option is great for adding just a touch of grit or smashing a signal to death. The Stereo Imager is also a great inclusion, allowing you to add just a smidge of separation or push things completely out of phase. And the EQ can do everything from notching out an offending frequency to adding big gentle, curves.


One of the biggest work-flow enhancements to the program is the new browser. In previous versions, it was possible to open an instrument and scroll through presets one folder at a time. If you needed to change folders — say, Subtractor bass presets instead of polysynths — you had to open the browser and make that change. Now, you can audition sounds, in any folder, right from the browser. For instance, if you have a two-bar bass sequence playing and you want to audition different presets against that particular pattern, all you need to do is open the browser; click on the preset; and in just a split second, you can hear the new patch playing in time. You can also open the browser and audition sounds with a MIDI keyboard. And better still is an option to create an instrument by browsing patches (Create > Create Device by Browsing Patches).

The browser screen includes a favorites list, a keyword search function, volume and play controls and explanations of each preset (which is important with multimodule Combinator patches), and the available presets can be limited to effects or instruments. Honestly, I never had much of a problem with the old browser, but after getting comfy with this new way of working, I would never go back. It's much more liberating to search for a sound and not worry about which instrument makes it. Now, instead of thinking, “I want to load a string patch into an NN-XT and then treat it with a bit of distortion,” I can just look around for a cool-sounding string patch and go. The new browser really turns Reason into a single multifaceted instrument instead of a loose collection of modules tied to a sequencer.

And while the subject of presets is on the table, let me just say that there are more — a lot more! The addition of the Combinator effect and instrument presets is worth the price of admission alone. But it doesn't stop there: Reason 3.0 adds more kits, more percussion samples, more effect presets — more of everything. I can't tell you how happy I was to fire up the program and, inside of 30 seconds, have Glitch Kit 2 loaded in a Redrum and Industrial Bass on the Combinator. If the first incarnations of the program were addicting, Reason 3.0 is pushing into OxyContin territory.


So do all of these new features come at the ex-pense of the program's famous speed and stability? Not really. With some of the complex Combinator patches, you will be taxing your system a lot more than with single instruments — it's an unavoidable reality. But, overall, a copy of Reason 3.0, a modest machine and a MIDI keyboard is the same worry-free experience that it always was. For the most part, you can still just plug in and compose and not worry about killing your machine. I tested the program on a 1GHz PowerBook with 768 MB of RAM and Mac OS 10.3.7 as well as a dual 2.5GHz G5 with 4 GB of RAM and Mac OS 10.3.7. With the PowerBook, the screen started to get a bit slow with some of the more complex sessions, but it never affected the playback. And I couldn't even make the G5 cough.

Overall, if you're an established Reason user, you should absolutely buy the upgrade for the presets and browser if nothing else. The Combinator and the MClass Suite give Reason the complexity of sound that it might have lacked before, and you can get the output as hot and as saturated as you want. If you didn't think you could kill a set of monitors with a software synthesizer, think again. If you're a hardware user, and you've been on the fence about software, the playing field has officially been leveled. Reason 3.0 is a great step forward for an already solid piece of software. Now, will somebody please make a full-size FireWire keyboard with a mount for a laptop? M-Audio, Edirol, I'm talking to you.


REASON 3.0 > $499

Pros: New Combinator module allows for extensive layering and keymapping of instruments. New hardware-inspired dynamic and EQ effects. Vastly improved browser and factory presets.

Cons: None.

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MAC: G4; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.2; 2 GB available hard-drive space; MIDI interface and keyboard recommended

PC: Pentium III; 256 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; 2 GB available hard-drive space; 16-bit Windows-compatible soundcard (DirectX or ASIO drivers recommended); MIDI interface and keyboard recommended

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