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PROPELLERHEAD REASON 2.0 (MAC/WIN)

February 1, 2003
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With the release of Reason version 2.0, Propellerhead Software has fulfilled a number of feature requests and added two excellent sound modules to their flagship product. You'll find a detailed review of Reason 1.0 in the July 2001 issue of EM (available online at www.emusician.com). Here I'll concentrate on what's changed and take a detailed look at the new Malström synthesizer and NN-XT sampler modules. But first, a brief overview for those who've not yet been exposed to Reason.

Reason is a standalone soft-synth workstation consisting of an endless virtual rack into which you insert sound-generating and effects-processing modules (see Fig. 1). Its six sound generators include two synthesizers, two sample players, a REX-file player, and a drum machine with a built-in pattern sequencer. DSP effects include reverb, delay, chorus, phaser, distortion, enveloped filtering, compression, and parametric EQ. A 14-by-2 mixer and a 32-step pattern sequencer round out Reason's complement of modules. You can have as many copies as you want of any module, limited only by your computer's processing power and memory.

Reason's signal flow is completely customizable by means of its virtual patch cables (see the sidebar “Back of the Rack”), although in most cases the correct cable connections are made automatically as modules are inserted into the rack. There are also extensive opportunities for controller patching. That, for example, allows LFO, envelope, and gate signals from one module to control parameters of another.

Reason includes a well-endowed MIDI track sequencer that is not as full-featured as most of the standalone software sequencers on the market but does offer the features necessary to get the job done. Reason's sequencer is built in to the rack but, as of version 2.0, can also be “torn off,” allowing it to be resized and even moved to another monitor. The sequencer offers an Arrange view for grouping and arranging regions. There's also an Edit view with separate lanes for various data types including notes, controllers, pattern changes, and REX-file slices. Reason's sequencer does not record or play back audio tracks, however.

Reason does not host or operate as a plug-in in any format, but it does offer MIDI and audio connectivity using Propellerhead's ReWire protocol. ReWire is supported by a number of commercial products including the major digital audio sequencers. When used in that way, Reason appears as an audio input to the other ReWire application (called the Master), receives MIDI input from that application, and synchronizes to the Master's transport clock and tempo.

Reason is very CPU efficient and will run well on low-end processors. On the other hand, it supports the latest operating systems: Windows XP and Mac OS X. For this review, I ran it without problems on a Mac G4/800 MHz Titanium PowerBook using both OS 9.2.2 and X 10.2.

WITHOUT FURTHER ADO

Let's start with a look at what's changed and what hasn't. Two sound generators have been added, the Malström Graintable synthesizer and the NN-XT multisample player, which significantly extends Reason's synthesis and multisample-playback power (I'll cover Malström and NN-XT in separate sections). Both Reason sample players (NN19 and NN-XT) can now import SoundFont multisample presets and, like the ReDrum drum machine, can also load individual SoundFont samples. Most LFOs will now sync to song tempo. And finally, some welcome new tools have been added to the sequencer.

Reason's included sample content has been nearly doubled with the addition of the 500 MB Orkester sound bank of multisampled orchestral instruments for NN-XT. The Orkester library is organized in four sections: brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion. Each section contains a full complement of instruments in its category, and the woodwind and string sections also contain layered combinations that really show off NN-XT at its best. If you are already a Reason user, the Orkester library alone justifies the cost of the upgrade.

In addition to the tear-off feature previously mentioned, Reason's main sequencer has been enhanced with eraser, magnifier, line (for controller entry), and hand tools. The hand tool is especially welcome in Edit view because it individually scrolls lanes within the same track. Each tool has a modifier-key alternative, which changes the selected tool to another tool (for example, from the Pencil tool to the Selection tool). Unfortunately, there are no key commands for selecting tools. When the sequencer is torn off, it contains its own transport, identical to the one at the bottom of the rack. That gives you instant access to the transport controls from either the sequencer or the rack, but for those who find dual controls confusing or space consuming, either transport can be minimized.

One thing that hasn't changed in Reason 2.0 is Propellerhead's incredible attention to detail. That has always been obvious in the front- and back-panel graphics as well as many features of the user interface. Propellerhead's desire to avoid features that impede the work flow without significantly adding to Reason's functionality is also reflected in a number of design decisions. The Matrix Pattern Sequencer provides an example.

Matrix is a 32-step pattern sequencer with separate note, gate, and controller lanes. The note lane is not polyphonic, and because you can only plug one Matrix in to any Reason sound generator, you're restricted to monophonic patterns. There are a number of user-interface complexities involved in making a pattern sequencer polyphonic — for example, you must consider whether to provide separate Velocity lanes and allow for separate note lengths. On the other hand, there's a simple way to use Matrix to generate polyphonic parts by copying Matrix patterns to sequencer tracks. That keeps the Matrix simple for the most common pattern-sequencing jobs, which are monophonic, while providing a viable work-around for creating polyphonic patterns.

Still absent from Reason 2.0 are MIDI output, ReWire mixing (allowing Reason to act as a ReWire mixer for your digital audio sequencer or standalone soft synths), support for third-party plug-ins, tempo and meter changes in the sequencer, program-change automation, and arpeggiation. I'd especially like to see CV and Gate mixing (which would allow one source to control several destinations and vice versa).

MALSTRÖM CHRONICLES

Malström, Reason's new high-end synthesizer (see Fig. 2), uses a wavetable approach to granular synthesis called Graintable synthesis. (A Graintable is a wavetable made of small slices or “grains” taken from a sampled sound.) Beyond its Graintable oscillators, Malström is basically a subtractive synth with some sophisticated routing and modulation possibilities. Malström provides stereo output (Reason's other synth, Subtractor, is mono) and offers extensive back-panel routing and modulation options (see the sidebar “Back of the Rack” for more on that).

Malström is capable of a wide variety of sounds, from lush pads to searing leads to exotic percussion. Seven banks of presets covering all the major categories are included to get you going, but to really understand what makes Malström different, it's worthwhile to start from scratch. In this case, scratch is Malström's “Init Patch,” which you access from Reason's Edit menu. The patch routes a single oscillator directly to the output, allowing you to see what Graintables are all about.

Malström comes with 82 Graintables covering a broad range of sampled acoustic and synthesized sounds, including the usual single-cycle oscillator waveforms (sine, sawtooth, square, and so forth). The Graintable oscillator treats individual grains as waveforms, looping them at the frequency required to produce the desired pitch. At the same time, it cycles through the grains at a rate completely independent of the pitch. Finally, each of the grains can be resampled before being fed to the oscillators, causing a shift in its harmonic spectrum. That can, for example, produce interesting vocal effects, as is well illustrated in the FX bank of Malström patches.

In conjunction with the incoming MIDI note, Malström's Octave, Semi, and Cent controls set the oscillator pitch. The Motion control sets the rate of motion through the grains, and the Shift control sets the resampling rate. The Index control sets the starting grain, and with the Motion control fully counterclockwise, you can use it to audition individual grains in the Graintable. With the Motion control centered (12 o'clock), you'll hear the Graintable played at its natural rate (although the individual grain pitches will still be under the control of other oscillator settings). Playing with the oscillator controls in the context of the Init Patch will quickly reveal what the Graintable oscillators can do. For example, try the Shift control with one of the single-cycle waveform Graintables — for those Graintables, Index and Motion have no effect because there is only one grain.

Malström's other audio elements are a waveshaper and two identical multimode filters. The Shaper module alters the shape of a waveform, typically adding harmonics or producing some form of distortion. The filters offer 12 dB-per-octave lowpass and bandpass filtering, comb and inverted-comb filtering, and amplitude modulation (AM). With AM, the filter actually functions as a sine-wave oscillator whose amplitude is modulated by the incoming signal. Comb filtering, especially with a little modulation on the filter frequency, is great for phasing and flanging effects. AM produces bell-like, clangorous sounds.

Malström features two signal paths, labeled A and B. Both begin with Oscillator A and Oscillator B, the Graintable oscillators just described. Path A proceeds through the Shaper to Filter A and then to Output A. Path B passes through Filter B to Output B. The output knob (labeled Spread) controls whether Outputs A and B are mixed and sent to both stereo outputs or are spread between them.

Two factors make that seemingly simple signal routing a bit more complex: some cross-routing options are available, and when the Shaper or a filter is turned off, signals pass through it unchanged. The cross-routings include Filter B into the Shaper (instead of to Output B) and Oscillator A into Filter B (possibly in addition to Filter A). Routing Filter B into the Shaper and then turning both of them off, for example, allows the oscillators to be mixed and processed by Filter A alone. The system can be a little confusing at first, but it pays big sonic dividends.

For modulation, Malström has two multiwaveform LFO-style modulators, each with 32 waveforms. Included are the usual single cycles, a number of unusual shapes, and a variety of stepped waveforms for producing arpeggiator-like effects. The modulators can be configured either to loop or to play once and can sync to tempo when looping. The modulators have different destination options, and a switch on their outputs allows them to be routed to those destinations in the A signal path, the B signal path, or both. For example, Mod A can affect the Index of either or both oscillators while Mod B affects their Motion. The patches in Malström's Rhythmic bank illustrate the power of the Modulators. In a nice twist, Mod B can be routed to control Mod A's amount. Both modulators have back-panel CV outputs, which allows them to be used with other Reason modules.

Malström has three ADSR envelopes; one for each oscillator and one shared by the two filters. The filter ADSR can be back-panel routed to a variety of other parameters. There is no envelope on the output; level is controlled solely by the oscillator envelopes. Having a single envelope generator for all modulation purposes seems a bit stingy, but the flexibility of the Modulators more than makes up for it. Flexible modulation routing for MIDI Mod Wheel (CC 01) and Velocity is also provided.

THE NNEXT SAMPLER

Reason 2.0's other major addition is the NN-XT multisample player (see Fig. 3). It offers a number of enhancements over its little brother, NN19, including many of the features found in high-end hardware and software multisample players. (Because NN19 is simpler, however, it is more CPU efficient.) Like NN19, NN-XT can import REX files, which allows processing (including separate outputs) of individual REX-file slices.

First and foremost, NN-XT supports layering of samples; you can map different samples to overlapping regions of notes (in other words, key zones). That allows you to construct instrument ensembles in a single NN-XT multisample (the Orkester library contains a number of NN-XT presets combining orchestral instruments). Each sample also has its own Velocity range, which means that you can use layering to create Velocity-switched or crossfaded multisamples. That makes for very realistic instrument emulations because, for example, you could have loud samples triggered by high-Velocity notes and soft samples triggered by low-Velocity notes. The MP3 file BC is a synthesized Bach chorale that uses NN-XT and the Orkester library, with a little help from a REX drum-loop and some Malström filter processing.

The other big enhancement NN-XT offers is an extensive set of individual sample-playback parameters. Those include sample and loop start and end points; loop mode (forward, forward-reverse, and so on), root key, tuning, and key range; Velocity and crossfade ranges; and audio output (eight stereo outs are provided on the NN-XT back panel). Beyond that, all synthesis parameters — filter, envelope, and LFO settings, for example — can be set individually for each sample.

Like NN19, NN-XT has a standard subtractive-synth output stage consisting of a multimode filter and amplifier, but again, the settings are on an individual sample basis. The filter and amplifier envelopes have six stages: Delay, Attack, Hold, Decay, Sustain, and Release. The filter envelope can also be applied to pitch. NN-XT's two LFOs — a multiwaveform and a triangle wave — can be key and tempo synchronized. LFO destinations are pitch, pan, level, and filter cutoff.

A flexible modulation-routing scheme allows Pitch Bend, Velocity, Mod Wheel, and one other external controller (Breath, Expression, or Aftertouch) to be routed to a variety of synth parameters. All modulation settings are on a per-sample basis, which can lead to some very unique patches. Try different Pitch Bend amounts for different sample groups, for example.

REASON ENOUGH

If you're already a Reason user, the upgrade decision is practically a no-brainer. Any one of the major enhancements — Malström, NN-XT, and the Orkester library — is easily worth the $89 upgrade price, and whatever your musical style may be, at least one of those is going to be a useful addition.

If you're new to desktop music-making, Reason is an excellent place to begin. It provides you with considerable sequencing power as well as software instruments and effects processors in all the major categories. Together with the huge sound library, that makes it a bargain, even at $399.

If, on the other hand, you have a fully equipped digital audio studio including a professional-level sequencer, lots of instrument and effects plug-ins, and an extensive sound library, Reason may not add a lot to your kit. One important consideration is how well ReWire is implemented by your sequencer, because that will affect how easily Reason integrates into your studio. But for generating tracks, especially in styles that emphasize loops, Reason is hard to beat.


Len Sasso can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

BACK OF THE RACK

The back of Reason's virtual rack offers a wide variety of audio and control-voltage routing options. Although Reason's automatic cabling allows you to avoid the back of the rack altogether, you're missing out if you don't poke around there once in a while. You can use the Options menu or the Tab key to flip between the front and back of the rack.

Each Reason module has back-panel input and output jacks for two kinds of signals: audio and control voltage. Jacks for audio signals are larger. You connect modules by drawing cables between inputs and outputs of the same type. If jacks or their labels become obscured by cables, you can suppress the cable display from the Options menu or by pressing Command + L (Control + L on the PC). When cables are hidden, the holes for connected jacks are filled in, and you can still make connections by click-holding on a jack until a context menu appears containing all possible destinations.

When you insert a module into a Reason rack, automatic audio connections are made in the most logical way (that is, sound generators are patched to an output or mixer channel, and effects are patched as inserts or sends depending on their position in the rack). The quickest way to glean Reason's logic is to start with an empty rack, flip around to the back, insert a Mixer module, and then insert sound-generator and effects modules at different locations. You'll quickly see that Reason does exactly what you would do — unless, of course, you want something different. Modifications to the audio signal path will mostly involve inserting effects and modifying mixer configurations (for example, chaining two mixers to gain more channels). Most of the real fun is in control-signal patching.

Reason distinguishes three kinds of control-voltage signals (all labeled “CV”): Gate, Note, and Curve. Although you can connect any CV output to any CV input, Gate CVs are intended for triggering notes, Note CVs are intended for controlling pitch, and Control CVs are intended for modulating parameters such as filter cutoff and pan position. The most obvious use for CV patching is to enable the Matrix Pattern Sequencer to play a sound generator. When you create a Matrix Pattern Sequencer below a sound generator, its Note CV and Gate CV signals are cabled to play the sound generator. But most sound generators have CV outputs from their various modulators, and those provide lots of creative modulation opportunities.

Fig. A and the MP3 file CVrex, available online, illustrate a simple but effective use of CV patching. Two sound generators are used: Dr.Rex plays a seven-slice percussion loop, and Malström plays a chime sound. The REX slices are played by Reason's sequencer, and the sequence has been altered so that not every slice is played in each measure. Dr.Rex's Slice Gate Output is patched to Malström's Gate input. Malström's playback is thereby triggered in sync with the REX-file slices. Malström's Filter Envelope is patched to the oscillators' Shift input, causing the timbre of the chime to change according to the envelope pattern. The oscillators' pitch is controlled by the Matrix Pattern Sequencer's Note CV. Finally, the Mixer pan position for the Malström channel is controlled by the Matrix Pattern Sequencer's Curve CV. The Dr.Rex slices play alone for the first eight measures of the MP3 example, with Malström coming in at measure nine.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Propellerhead
Software

Reason 2.0
soft-synth workstation
$399
upgrade
$89

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.0
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4.0
VALUE 4.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Fast and flexible to set up. Easy on your CPU. Extensive and varied sound library. Impeccable design.

CONS: Cabling limited to a single source and destination. No tempo changes. No program-change automation.

Manufacturer

Propellerhead Software/M-Audio (distributor)
tel. (800) 969-6434 or (626) 445-2842
e-mail info@m-audio.com
Web www.propellerheads.se

UP TO SPEED

Two very useful learning tools for Reason were announced as this review went to press. Producing Music with Reason ($39), from Propellerhead and M-Audio (www.m-audio.com), is an interactive CD-ROM containing 14 QuickTime tutorials, example Reason songs, and a 40-page PDF document of additional helpful information. The 14 tutorials walk you through constructing a Reason song from scratch. They are loaded with insights into each of Reason's modules, as well as tips and tricks for taking advantage of some less obvious features. The pace is fairly leisurely to accommodate those with no prior experience, but you can move among the tutorials at will, making it easy to skip over the slower patches.

The supplemental PDF covers a range of topics not included in the tutorials, such as an elementary guide to music theory and how it relates to Reason, basic synth programming Subtractor-style, using effects creatively, and pattern-sequencing tips and tricks. If you're new to Reason, an afternoon spent with these materials will probably save you days of learning it on your own, but the seasoned Reason user may find things that are useful here, too.

The Fast Guide to Propellerhead Reason ($29.95), available soon from PC Publishing (www.pc-publishing.com), is a 410-page book by Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser. I wasn't able to get a look at The Fast Guide before press time, but it promises to deliver step-by-step tutorials on setting up and using Reason in different environments, including with other audio-sequencing software, as well as detailed and varied programming techniques for each of Reason's modules.

Although Reason is easy to use and the manual is excellent, a little extra help never hurts.

Minimum System Requirements

Reason 2.0

MAC: PPC 604/166; 64 MB RAM; OS 9.0

PC: Pentium II/233; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP

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