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Reasonable Advice

7/1/2003

Most people would agree that Propellerhead Reason is a revolutionary product. By putting powerful and great-sounding music-making tools in the hands of the masses, Propellerhead has redefined laptop techno.

The possibilities for experimentation in Reason are huge, and it's unlikely that you are using everything that the program offers. In this article, we'll explore various techniques that will extend your Reason know-how. You'll also find some creative ideas in the sidebar “Even More Reason Tips,” including some that refer to the newest version, Reason 2.5, which should be out about the time you read this. If you don't yet own the program, you can grab a demo off of Propellerhead's Web site (www.propellerheads.se). You can also find Reason files for several of the tricks described in this article at the EM Web site.

YOUR MATRIX SEQUENCER

Sometimes, a bit of blind experimentation can yield fantastic results — especially when you're using the Matrix Pattern Sequencers. Start with a Subtractor module that has a good lead-synth patch. Create a Matrix Pattern Sequencer, and then tab to the back panel and be sure that the Matrix is set to Unipolar mode. Notice that the Note CV Out of the Matrix is patched by default to the CV Input of the Sequencer Control section of the Subtractor. Tab back to the front panel and press the Run button, then create a synth line in the Matrix Pattern window and experiment with different gate values at the bottom of the Matrix display.

Tab to the back panel again and patch the Curve CV from the Matrix to the Filter 1 Freq Input on the Modulation Input section of the Subtractor. Tab back to the front panel and set the Matrix input mode to Curve. Now you can “draw” a curve for the filter frequency in the upper portion of the Pattern window for a nice automated filter sweep.

The fun doesn't stop there, though, because now we'll add some freaky modulation effects using a second sequencer. Create a second Matrix sequencer and tab to the back panel. Run a patch cord from the Gate CV to the Amp Level on the Modulation Input section of the Subtractor. Tab back to the front panel and set the Matrix to Curve mode. Now you can enter gate settings in the second Matrix that will manipulate the volume of your synth line (see Fig. 1). Experiment with different settings, and you'll end up with some rhythmic dynamics that will really make the line come alive.

Finally, tab to the back panel of the second Matrix and patch its Curve CV to the FM Amount jack on the Subtractor. Tab back to the front and start entering control-voltage curves in the upper area of the second Matrix's Pattern window. You might want to adjust the FM Amount knob on the back of the Subtractor to dial-in the right amount of the FM effect. Add a Distortion module to the chain, and you'll have a hardcore Trance line that will really rip.

MALSTRÖM MAYHEM

The Malström synth module was an incredible addition to Reason 2.0. Unique among synths, the Malström combines granular and wavetable synthesis to produce some truly wild timbres. In a fit of design brilliance, Propellerhead added the ability to patch audio (either directly from other modules or as a send effect) into Malström's Shaper and filters so that their audio-mutating capabilities can be shared. Here's how to exploit that technique.

Create a Dr:rex module and load a drum loop. Next, create a Malström module and tab to the back panel. Disconnect Dr:rex's audio outputs from the Mixer or Hardware Interface (depending on your settings), then patch one of the audio outputs from Dr:rex to the Filter:B Audio Input on the back of the Malström. Patch the Main outs of the Malström to the Hardware Interface (or Mixer), then tab back to the front panel. Try different modes for Filter B and adjust its Resonance and Frequency controls until you find settings that you like. Also experiment with the Amount setting on Filter B's Shaper. You'll get some effective industrial grunge without much effort.

For additional control over this effect, try triggering the Filter B envelopes with MIDI notes. Do that on the Malström front panel by turning off the oscillators and turning up the amount of the Filter Envelope. Also make sure that “env” is activated on the filter section. If you prefer a thinner, more cramped sound, tab to the Malström back panel and patch Oscillator Output A to the Shaper's Filter:A input. That will allow you to alter the timbre of your Dr:rex loop even more (see Fig. 2).

ORDER FROM CHAOS

Although this tip won't produce any supersexy new sounds, it can save you some real headaches, especially if you use Reason for live performance.

When the Save Self Contain Settings option is selected, Reason saves all the associated samples, synth settings, and sequence data in one single file. That's great to use for sharing your jams with others but isn't the safest way to store your data. A crash or a bad save could corrupt your files, making it impossible to retrieve the various song data elements. As a safety precaution, I create a folder for each song with subfolders for each Reason module, including samples, REX files, synth patches, and so on. That way, when disaster strikes, you can rebuild your song instead of kissing all your hard work good-bye.

Once you have arranged your files in folders and subfolders, creating your own Reason Refills is easy. Go to the Propellerhead Web site and download the Reason Refill Packer, then follow the steps below.

First, locate the root (top-level) folder that contains all of your files. There's no reason to make a backup of your materials, because creating a Refill doesn't alter your original files. Double-check that each Reason instrument has its own folder for patches and samples. Now copy info.txt and splash.jpg from the Refill Packer template files to your root folder. Change your Refill file name in the info.txt template file to whatever you want your Refill to be called and add any additional data such as copyright and contact information. You can also edit the splash.jpg graphic or create your own custom icon — just remember that it must be 64 × 64 pixels or else the Refill Packer will reject it.

Now comes the tricky part. Once all your samples are in the proper folder, you need to create patches for the instruments using those samples. If you don't, the Refill you create won't know where to find the samples. (The patches can be saved in any folder included in your path.) You don't have to do that for the synth-instrument patches, just the sample-based modules such as Redrum, NN-XT, and NN-19.

Now you're ready to launch the Refill Packer and create your Refill. Select the main folder you created containing your patch and sample folders. Then specify where you want your newly created Refill to be saved. Select Create Refill and watch the magic happen. In a few short moments you will be able to share your patches and samples with the world.

DR:REX DECKS THE WRECKS

You can quickly create complementary percussion grooves that borrow the feel of an existing Dr:rex loop by using the Slice Gate Output from Dr:rex to trigger individual percussion sounds in a Redrum drum module. That is especially useful when the Dr:rex file has a feel that is difficult to duplicate with Redrum's pattern sequencer or if the Dr:rex loop is simple and therefore needs a more complex rhythmic accompaniment.

Load a Mixer if one is not created by default, then create a Dr:rex module and load a simple loop that doesn't sound too busy. Next, add a Redrum module and patch the Slice Gate Output from the Dr:rex to the Gate In of one of the Redrum sounds (say, for example, a hi-hat). Start Dr:rex, and lower its fader on the Mixer.

Notice that the Redrum hi-hat is triggered on every slice of the REX file (see Fig. 3). That gets old quickly, so patch the LFO Out (try different LFO waveforms and rates) from Dr:rex to the Pitch CV In on the hi-hat to add a little variety until you've created a slick, totally locked-in hi-hat groove. For even more sonic variation, patch-in an effect like a flanger or reverb and mix-in the original Dr:rex loop to taste. Don't stop with the hi-hat, either; a snare drum sounds equally sweet when modulated this way.

You can also use the Sync-LFO function on Dr:rex to trigger a bass sound from a Subtractor synth. Dial up a good bass sound on your Subtractor module and patch the Slice Gate Output from Dr:rex to the Sequencer Control Gate In on the Subtractor. Also patch the LFO Out on Dr:rex to the Subtractor's OSC Pitch In. Enable the Sync button for the LFO on Dr:rex, then set the Sync-LFO rate to 3/16 (or, for a classic analog-sequencer effect, try a setting of 5/4). Experiment with lowering the OSC Pitch Modulation Input level on the back of the Subtractor until you get a smooth pitch modulation. Try increasing the release on the amplitude envelope and raise the filter resonance on the Subtractor if you want to add a psychotic element to the patch.

ANALOG DRUM MADNESS

Although the Redrum module has some great-sounding electro-style drums, you're pretty limited when it comes to tweaking the module's sounds. You can overcome that somewhat by using the Factory Sound Bank drum and percussion patches and editing them with Malström and Subtractor. Here's a way to use the Redrum Pattern Sequencer Gate outs to trigger a bunch of Subtractor or Malström modules, each loaded with drum patches.

First, create a Redrum module. Next, create a Subtractor or Malström module and load a bass-drum patch from the Factory Sound Bank. On the back of the Redrum, patch the Gate Out from channel 1 to the Gate jack on the Sequencer Control section on the back of the Subtractor module, then flip to the front panel. Press the Run button on the Redrum (channel 1 is selected by default), and program a kick pattern on its Pattern Sequencer. You should hear the Redrum sequencer triggering the bass-drum patch that you loaded.

Repeat this procedure for any other drum sounds that you want to include in your pattern — you can trigger up to ten Subtractor or Malström modules per Redrum Sequencer. You now have the full editing facilities provided by these synth modules for heavy drum-sound manipulation. To add even more variety, experiment with patching a Matrix Pattern Sequencer or Dr:rex CV Out to the various modulation inputs on the synth module you are triggering from the Redrum Pattern Sequencer.

SIGNAL SPLITTING

If you've ever wanted to split the output of a Reason module so that you could process a signal in parallel and then return the sounds to the mixer and set independent levels, here's a somewhat crude method that works. The trick is to send a mono signal to one of Reason's delay units, and the signal will be duplicated on both of the delay's outputs.

Create a DDL-1 delay module and set it to Bypass mode. Now patch a mono signal from whichever module you want to split. You will now have two copies of the original signal to route wherever you like. If you want to create even more copies of the original signal, you can add additional DDL-1s — just patch one of the outputs of the existing DDL-1 into the input of a new one for each pair of copies that you need.

TUNING FOR FUN AND PROFIT

Tuning drums and percussion loops to match a bass line can accomplish a couple of goals. First, it gives your track a supertight feel. It can also help minimize the amount of EQ that your tracks will need at mixdown by focusing the low end of the track and giving it clarity.

Tuning Redrum drums to a Subtractor bass line is simple. Start with the kick because it is most noticeable when out of tune with the bass. Solo the kick and the Subtractor bass line. Adjust the Pitch knob on the Redrum kick track so that the pitch of the kick is in unison with the root of your bass line. You'll have a simpler time doing this if you flatten the pitch of the kick, and then dial it up to match the bass. That's because you can hear a flat pitch more easily than a sharp one relative to the note you are tuning to. Slowing down the overall tempo of the track can also aid in hitting the mark.

Although less crucial than with tuning the kick, the snare and other percussion elements can also benefit from that process. To get even more sophisticated with this technique, tune the snare and hi-hat to complementary intervals (like thirds and sixths) of the bass.

This trick is only slightly more involved when applied to a Dr:rex drum loop. Solo the bass line and the Dr:rex loop. Use the Octave and Fine Tune knobs on Dr:rex to find the root note of the bass line. If the loop requires tuning that is so extreme that the loop slices start sounding aliased or exhibit other artifacts, use the transposition keyboard on Dr:rex to transpose the loop to a complementary interval of the bass line's root note. As with the previous example, using intervals like thirds and fifths is a safe bet for working with the entire track, whereas sevenths and ninths can sometimes give a jazzy, “outside” vibe to the loop.

NO INPUT TRIM, NO PROBLEM

Reason's auto-gain-matching abilities keep levels under control for basic exploration, but headroom can get pretty thin once you fill your mixer full of huge bass and big beats rocking the block. The 14:2 Mixer doesn't include any input gain, so how can you optimize signal level for the inputs of the various modules? The look of the 14:2 Mixer is reminiscent of a Mackie 1604 (see Fig. 4), which made me wonder if some of the procedures for optimizing a 1604 for unity-gain operation could be applied to Reason's mixer. It turns out they can be, with the various module-output gain controls operating in lieu of mixer input trims.

Start by setting the master fader on the 14:2 to the maximum. Solo the first channel of the mixer and set its fader to the maximum also. Keep your eye on the Clip Indicator in the lower-left corner of the Transport window. If the Clip Indicator is lit, go to the module on that mixer channel and adjust its output level until it no longer lights up. If the Clip Indicator is not lit, crank up the module's output level until the Clip Indicator does light up, then back the module's output gain down again until the light goes out. Now bring the channel fader on the mixer back down between 90 and 100.

Repeat the procedure for each of the mixer channels that is active. When you have finished, remember to bring the master fader on the mixer down to around 100. The input gain for each track is now optimized, and you can achieve maximum levels before clipping. By setting the channel and master faders to between 90 and 100, you've given yourself some room to compensate for inserts and radical EQ settings.

PSEUDO DUB-DELAY EFFECTS

You can create crazy yet controlled delay effects by using CV control to modulate the Pan and Feedback settings of a DDL-1 delay module. Select the Mixer and create a DDL-1 connected to the mixer's send. Connect the Mod B Output from a Malström module to the feedback input on the DDL-1. Crank the level pot for the delay's feedback input to the maximum. Create a Redrum drum module and load a Dub Kit, and then use the channel send connected to the DDL-1 on the mixer to bring in the delay effect. Adjust the send level so that the wet signal is as close as possible to the volume of the original signal. Set the delay's feedback level about halfway and experiment with a delay time of between 30 and 70 ms. Longer delays produce dreamy, dublike effects, while shorter times give a junglelike, drum-and-bass vibe. Although it's worth trying different waveforms in the Malström Mod B section, the random waveforms provide the most dramatic results.

If you want a more controlled effect, enable the Sync button on Mod B. However, if you leave Sync disabled and adjust the Rate control and Modulator speed by ear, you'll get the most interesting results.

One of Reason's beauties is that it begs you to experiment — in fact, that is how most really cool sounds have come to me. If a module has an input, patch another module's output to it. Wonder what it would sound like if you patch ten flangers in a series? Go ahead and try. Want to hear the results of modulating every available parameter that a module has? Go for it! Don't let anyone tell you that you can't. Oh yes, and save often.


Kent Carmical is one half of the production/performance duo Apologetic. You can find the group's work at www.apolgeticmusic.com. He wishes to thank Kevin Walt from M-Audio and DJ Atomix for their help in preparing this bit.

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