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Phantom Power: God of Thunder

November 1, 2008
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Roughly one year ago, following a painfully long hiatus, Propellerhead bestowed upon its anxious users Reason 4. Not only did this release include long-awaited features such as a dedicated arpeggiator and an overhauled sequencer, but the brilliant Swedes behind this dope software also threw in their most ambitious synthesizer yet, Thor. On the surface, Thor appears to be a basic synth; it sports three oscillators with six voices each. But wait — those “voices” aren't your standard sawtooth and square waves. They are actually entirely different oscillator types, including analog, wavetable, phase modulation, FM pair, multi-oscillator and noise. That means you get six different synthesizer types in one…times three. Thor is also semi-modular in the truest sense: Three discrete filter module banks can be filled with a choice of four filter types, a variety of audio and CV (control voltage) inputs and outputs can patch together via the rear panel, and an extremely flexible Modulation Bus Router lives on the front. With some basic understanding, you can concoct truly monstrous sounds, all while gaining a deeper understanding of modular synthesis.

FIND YOUR FAVORITE

Let's begin with a minimized Thor. Place a new instance in your rack and choose Initialize Patch from the Edit menu. This strips the elements down to a very basic level, leaving only one of three oscillators and one of three filters. The Mod Router is also emptied of any signal routings.

Now, record some basic notes followed by a few chords into the sequencer, first in a low octave and then two or three octaves higher. Engage the loop to play just those few bars. Be sure to hold down the notes long enough to hear the envelope sustain that your patch may eventually have; I recommend about two seconds per note or chord. Using this loop for your reference tones, try loading Oscillator 1 with each oscillator type, one at a time. For each, play around with the different controls, be it Wave Type, Noise Color, Carrier Signal, etc. As you go, note which oscillator voice you like best, second best, third and so on. We'll use your top two choices as your basic building blocks. For most purposes, my favorite oscillators are phase modulation, multi-oscillator and noise. When finished, reload your favorite oscillator type back into the Oscillator 1 bank, and tweak the settings to just what you want.

Now look closely at the light gray routing arrows on Thor's face, and note that each oscillator is routed to the oscillator mixer, which is then passed to one (or both) of the filter banks. Also note that currently, Filter 1 only is being fed the first oscillator only. That is indicated by button “1” (to the right of the filter bank) lighting up. If you load another oscillator into the Oscillator 2 bank, you'll notice that you won't hear it unless you engage button “2.” Now make sure only button 1 is lit, and demo each of the four filter types in Filter 1. Try out the different controls on each, and once again make note of your favorites. Then choose one favorite, and tweak it to taste.

FUN WITH FILTERS

At this point, it may be tempting to load another oscillator to thicken up the sound. Instead, load a different filter into Filter 2, engage button 1 for that filter, and once again tweak the sound to your liking. It may be advantageous to temporarily bypass Filter 1 while shaping Filter 2, but ultimately you'll want to hear how they sound together. Though all of the filters sound great in their own ways, for big sounds I favor the Low Pass Ladder and Comb types.

Once you've dialed everything in, explore this one more routing option before adding a second voice. If you trace the path of the routing arrow coming from Filter 1, you'll first see the Shaper. Click on the little button in the upper-left corner to engage it, and sample the different settings. For really big sounds, check out the Rectify and Wrap shape options. According to the lit arrow below the Shaper, you'll see that the signal is currently routed to the Amp. Click on the left arrow to fold that signal back into Filter 2 for additional sculpting and potential fattening. Choose whichever routing sounds stronger to you.

Now load your second-favorite oscillator type into Oscillator 3, not 2. Why? You have separate volume control over Oscillator 3 on the mixer, whereas banks 1 and 2 are grouped together on a fader. Temporarily disengage Oscillator 1 by turning off the 1 buttons entering each filter bank, and substitute Oscillator 3's voice entering both filters. Now tweak Oscillator 3's settings to your liking, and finally re-engage Oscillator 1. Try slowly fading each oscillator in and out of the mix, using the faders on the oscillator mixer, and find just the right balance.

FOLLOW THE PATH

By now, you should already have a nice, fat tone. Making even mild parameter edits in many of the other areas will continue to sculpt your patch, such as slight increases to the Decay and Sustain controls (marked “D” and “S,” respectively) in the Filter Env and Amp Env sections. Imagine: The remaining right-hand side of the programmer panel, not to mention the entire Modulation Bus Router, is still untouched.

Just to scratch the surface of what lies ahead, in the Modulation Bus Router, select LFO1 from the menu in the first available slot under Source. Next, raise the Amount to 75 to 85 and then choose Osc1 FM in the Dest(ination) field. Now soak it in.

While I've left plenty of virgin territory here, the idea is that to create unique patches in Thor, go beyond just tweaking presets. Take the time to understand and follow where the elements are placed along the signal path. Then apply your right brain and your left — your muse and your logic — to manufacture sounds you've never heard, the ones your ears want to hear.

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