Never has cutting-edge technology played such a critical role in the creation of music as with today's electronic-dance genres. When it comes to software, Propellerhead has been at the forefront of the movement, with products such as ReBirth and ReCycle. The Swedish company started a new wave of excitement and anticipation more than a year ago when it demonstrated a new, comprehensive music-making system called Reason. The software finally shipped for Mac and PC, and the ballots are in: Propellerhead continues to redefine how modern music is made.
Reason 1.0 is a rack of remix gear implemented in software. Synths, samplers, drum boxes, sequencers, mixers, sliced-loop players, and effects are part of an integrated environment. The user interface resembles a rack into which you place the various components needed to build a song. Memory and your CPU's speed are the only factors that limit the number of simultaneous instances you can have of those devices.
Several shortcuts help prevent endless scrolling when navigating a complex rack. For example, a module scrolls into view automatically when you click on the sequencer track it's associated with. You can also “fold” a device to take up a single rackspace. Try doing that with hardware!
ON THE RACK
Reason's user interface is a work of art (see Fig. 1). Everything has a photorealistic, retro look. The alphanumeric LEDs even look real. Controls have rollover tool tips that include readouts of the settings, which is handy because some labels are pretty small at high-resolution settings. Shift-dragging knobs and sliders provide finer control over any parameter. One touch I especially like is the use of virtual torn white tape to label devices and mixer channels on the faceplates. The designers' attention to detail is amazing.
Your keyboard's Tab key flips the rack to reveal patch points and cables (see Fig. 2). The cables even swing gently to rest when you flip. Beautiful! In addition to audio jacks, just about every module has smaller jacks for control voltage (CV) or gate — which illustrates just how much control Reason gives you. You make a connection by dragging an input to an output or vice versa. Holding the mouse down when the cursor is over a jack evokes a pop-up list of available patch points. Cables are color coded, with slight differences in gradation to delineate the left and right cables in stereo pairs. You can hide the cables if things get too messy.
You can designate the number of voices per patch (from 1 through 99) for most of the sound-generating modules, although Reason uses CPU cycles only when simultaneous notes are played. Most modules have a low-bandwidth toggle that can also save some CPU cycles. Two modules, Redrum and Dr. Rex, have a switch for high-quality interpolation, which requires more advanced number crunching but provides optimal fidelity when needed.
The sequencer can trigger pattern changes in pattern-based modules, but you cannot switch sounds using program changes, and the sound modules aren't multi-timbral. To work around those limitations, you must run multiple instances of the modules. Doing that doesn't appear to affect processing much, but it can make for potentially unwieldy rack configurations. I would prefer a true matrix-switching setup, but that would probably interfere with the cabling metaphor.
The sound modules share another drawback worth mentioning: LFOs don't sync to the sequencer clock — a baffling omission given the intended use (dance and other rhythmic genres) and the amount of thought that obviously went into Reason. You can, however, get some similar effects by using CVs and gates from the Matrix Pattern Sequencer to modulate parameters in the modules.
INS AND OUTS
The Hardware Interface at the top of the rack is Reason's only permanent fixture; it's riveted rather than screwed in like the other modules. The 64 meters on the front of the Interface match the 64 inputs on the back. The inputs accept connections from the audio outs of any device in the rack. The number you can use depends on the rest of your audio setup. For multichannel audio hardware, Reason is geared for an ASIO world. Otherwise, you have to rely on Sound Manager on the Mac or Direct Sound or MME on the PC. Disappointingly, there's no direct support for Pro Tools audio hardware.
When using ASIO drivers, you can adjust latency to compensate for slower CPUs. With Sound Manager, latency is fixed at 11 ms. On the PC, if you're limited to MME or DirectSound, latency can run from 40 ms to hundreds of milliseconds of latency — not a good thing when it comes to recording tracks from an external controller. But with luck, you can get ASIO drivers for your sound card, which improves the situation dramatically. Also note that Reason relies heavily on floating-point arithmetic calculations internally. For PC users, Propellerhead recommends running Reason on an Intel processor because of the poor floating-point operations on most bargain CPU chips.
Reason is also enabled for ReWire, Propellerhead's protocol for communicating multichannel audio between software applications. ReWire lets you do things such as run Reason's audio outs directly into the inputs of a digital-audio sequencer. Reason also supports ReWire 2, a new protocol offering 256 audio channels (increased from 64); unidirectional MIDI communication of as many as 256, 16-channel devices; and automatic querying and linking for displaying the parameters belonging to slave devices by name. (As a special implementation of ReWire, Reason also includes a ReBirth Input Machine, which lets users of Propellerhead's popular ReBirth RB-338 software route 18 ReBirth channels to Reason with sample-accurate resolution.)
The Hardware Interface also handles MIDI input. (Reason offers no MIDI output.) The Mac version requires Open Music System (OMS) and supports the IAC protocol for communicating between concurrently running MIDI apps. Under Windows, Reason recognizes available MIDI ports on your system and handles interapplication communication with the included Hubi's Loopback Device (HLD) MIDI router. (Propellerhead claims that other MIDI routing utilities may also work. Note that HLD does not run under Windows NT or 2000.)
Reason includes seven MIDI input ports. Primary among them is the sequencer input, which is used to record MIDI data from an external source. Four ports are external 16-channel MIDI control-bus inputs, which are designed mainly for use with a multiport MIDI interface to play Reason's modules from an external sequencer or multiple live devices. For corresponding banks on the Hardware Interface each have 16 channel slots to which you can assign rack modules. The two remaining ports are for slaving to external MIDI clock and live remote control.
Speaking of control, clicking on most knobs, sliders, and other controls opens a dialog box from which you can assign a MIDI controller to the selected parameter. (Reason comes with an extensive MIDI Implementation Chart.) You can set up a single slider on a MIDI fader box to control multiple parameters on multiple rack devices simultaneously for some pretty wild effects. An associated “learn” feature even simplifies mappings by automatically identifying incoming controllers as you play them. You can also create a remote map for the QWERTY keyboard, although such a map is intended mainly for on-off controls or for setting variable controls to their minimum or maximum values.
MIXING IT UP
In most instances, you start a session by adding a Mixer module to your rack. That way Reason automatically connects all new modules you add to it. (Otherwise, devices automatically connect directly to open ports in the Hardware Interface.) The Mixer has a 14×2 configuration, and you can chain two or more Mixers for additional channels. The main outputs of the master Mixer typically go to the first two audio inputs on the Hardware Interface.
Each channel strip has a fader, LED level meter, pan, mute, solo, treble and bass (±24 dB at 80 Hz and 12 kHz respectively), EQ on/off, and four aux sends. The strip of label tape runs sideways, so you can enter a name of respectable length in a narrow channel strip. There are levels for the four aux returns in addition to the master fader. Each channel on the Mixer's rear panel has stereo ins and CV ins (with matching trim pots) for external control of level and pan.
Besides the main outs and mixer-chaining ports, there are also four mono aux outs fed by the channel strip aux levels and four matching stereo returns. You can even chain the aux signals between multiple mixers. A CV jack and trim pot for controlling the master level round out the rear-panel complement. There are no channel inserts, but you can easily route a device through an effect on its way to the Mixer.
Subtractor is Reason's polyphonic analog-synth module (see Fig. 3). Each of Subtractor's two oscillators offers 32 waveforms ranging from standard fare (sine, sawtooth) to bell-like tones and other more complex harmonic structures. One particular point of interest: although Reason lacks pulse waves, pulse modulation, and oscillator sync, you can simulate those techniques and a lot more using the unique Phase Offset Modulation feature. Each oscillator can generate a duplicate of its basic waveform, and you can control the copy's phase in relation to the original.
Within each oscillator, you can multiply the twin waveforms or subtract one from the other to create a variety of results. LFO modulation of the phase gets you pulse-width modulation, and Oscillator 2 can also frequency-modulate Oscillator 1 for FM effects. Ring modulation rounds out the scenario. Reason's form of oscillator interaction takes a bit of getting used to but offers a lot of flexibility. You can't hard sync oscillators, though you can approximate a softer sync effect with phase settings.
The color of Subtractor's noise generator is variable from white noise to a dark rumble. A dedicated decay control affects noise level, letting patches that have a brief percussive onset exhibit a longer envelope — nice. Because the Noise source is mixed with Oscillator 2, noise can be used as some or all of the FM-modulation source. That technique is helpful, for example, when used to simulate the short noise burst in the attack of a flute sound.
Subtractor has two filters. Filter 1 is multimode and offers 24 dB lowpass à la Moog and Sequential Circuits, 12 dB lowpass à la Oberheim and early Korgs, 12 dB bandpass, 12 dB highpass, and notch. The main filter's output feeds the second filter in series. Filter 2 is a straight 12 dB lowpass and, unlike the main filter, has no independent modulation or keyboard tracking. The Link button slaves the frequency of Filter 2 to changes in the frequency of Filter 1. Several factory patches, such as Singing Synth and Fozzy Funk, illustrate the musical usefulness of that filter arrangement.
Subtractor's modulation complement has three ADSRs, two LFOs, extensive Velocity control, and plenty of CV/gate ins and outs. Although Subtractor does not offer unlimited matrix modulation, it's definitely no slouch of a synthesizer.
The NN-19 is Reason's stereo sample-player module. Samples can be in WAV or AIFF format at practically any sampling rate or bit depth. The NN-19 supports multisampling and comes complete with a simple visual interface for defining zones. Some nice automapping parameters make mapping easier, especially if the samples are loaded with root notes, and if tuning is already assigned. On the downside, the NN-19 has no provision for Velocity zones or loop-point editing.
The oscillator section has a sample-start parameter that lets you skip a portion of the sample, and you can also modulate the start point in various ways in real time. Beyond that, the NN-19 sports a pared-down version of Subtractor's synth controls, including a single multimode filter and LFO among other common features. Also like Subtractor, a good amount of control is afforded by CV/gate connections and Velocity. Note that the NN-19 is a sample player only — you have to do your sampling elsewhere.
Dr. Rex plays sliced loops created in Propellerhead's popular ReCycle and supports the new REX 2 stereo format being introduced with ReCycle 2's release (see Fig. 4). You can load loops during playback to easily audition them against other tracks. Once a loop is loaded, each slice corresponds to a MIDI note. You can select a slice using MIDI or the Slice knob or by simply clicking on its waveform. You then have control over the pitch, pan, level, and decay of the selected slice.
When your loop is properly configured, press the To Track button, and Reason generates a sequence containing a note for each slice. Then you can get really creative: change the groove using note editing or quantization, transpose notes to change playback order, or scramble the notes (while preserving timing) with the Alter Notes function. You can further apply the rhythm of a perfected groove to other tracks.
Dr. Rex also offers global loop controls, such as transposing the entire loop or applying the filter envelope to the master pitch. Furthermore, the filter, ADSRs, LFO, real-time controllers, and CV/gate patch points mirror the NN-19's.
Reason ships with about 300 high-quality REX loops organized into a variety of categories. Although most factory loops appear to be two bars in length, the third-party one- and four-bar loops played just fine. All in all, Dr. Rex offers considerable playback flexibility and may be just the module loopers dream of.
Redrum is Reason's pattern-based drum machine. Anyone familiar with units such as the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 will be right at home with Redrum and will appreciate its updated features. In addition to loading preset kits, you can assign a sample to each of the ten instruments. The sound specs are the same as the NN-19, and more than 75 kits and 600 percussion sounds ship with the product.
Each of Redrum's ten channels has a separate hardware output that you can route directly to the Mixer or one of the rack's audio outs. The module also sports a pair of rear-panel sends that automatically patch to the first two chaining aux ins on the Mixer. Each channel has a pair of send amounts that route the associated sound into the bus for processing by whatever effects you patched at the Mixer's master sends. Each channel also has controls for level, pan, pitch, and Velocity sensitivity. A Length control dictates the length of the sound's decay in Decay mode and determines how the sound is cut off in Gate mode. Different channels have special functionality added: two have Pitch Bend controls, three have a lowpass filter with Velocity sensitivity, five have Velocity-controlled sample start times, and two are wired so that triggering one shuts off the other.
A dedicated Run button lets you audition your Redrum setups without using the transport and sequencer channels associated with the rack. There are 32 programmable pattern slots per song. A row of illuminated buttons represents the steps in the selected pattern and instrument. You can change the pattern length, from 1 through 64 steps, which allows you to create odd meters, but you can see only 16 steps at once; I'd prefer to see the interface expand to view them simultaneously. The Velocity level of each note is determined by the Velocity of a MIDI Note On during live performance or by one of three preset Velocity levels you select during step entry. The Velocity knob on each drum channel governs that channel's overall sensitivity to the programmed levels. You can also add a flam to a step, though the amount can only be controlled globally.
Redrum's pattern sequencer can play its pattern using durations between half notes and 128th notes. (Redrum itself has no tempo control; the master Tempo control in the Transport governs the tempo of all modules. Tempos range from 1 through 999.) If shuffle is engaged, the pattern is subject to the shuffle amount set in the master transport. You can shift the pattern forward or backward, which is handy because great experimental grooves aren't lined up with the downbeat. Overall, Redrum's features offer substantial creative possibilities, and when you rig up two or more Redrum modules, the potential for wild polyrhythmic passages expands even further. Very cool.
Matrix Pattern Sequencer
Although Reason has a master sequencer for the rack, that sequencer lacks a step-entry option. But creators of dance music needn't worry, because the Matrix Pattern Sequencer (MPS) offers that common input method (see Fig. 5). The MPS, which is often patched as a control source for a Subtractor or NN-19, offers the same timing options for patterns as Redrum and is a great tool for experimentation. It lets you create 32 patterns, each with a maximum of 32 steps.
A graphic user interface facilitates the input of the three signals each step generates (note, gate velocity, and separate CV). You can route those to other modules in any number of ways using the rear-panel patching scheme. As an example, the control voltage can be routed to a filter or amplifier to imitate some of the missing tempo-synchronized LFO effects.
Unfortunately, the MPS is monophonic, which in turn renders any instance of Subtractor or NN-19 that it controls monophonic. (You can't patch more than one MPS to a module.) You could invoke multiple MPS/module sets to generate harmony, but users will likely opt for the MIDI keyboard or Pencil tool in the main sequencer at that point. Then again, users with high-latency systems may find it difficult to get the timing of external MIDI input to sync up with their tracks. A polyphonic step sequencer would be a welcome addition.
You can control gate velocity graphically or use the Tie function to alter the gate duration by tying several notes together (the shortest gate time is 1/128). You could also copy a pattern into Reason's sequencer and edit at will. Copying is the only way to transfer patterns between songs — there's no provision for saving patterns to disk. There's also no way to name patterns, which would make their use more intuitive.
Reason's half-rack effects include a stereo reverb, mono-in/stereo-out delay, foldback distortion, envelope-controlled filter, compressor, stereo chorus/flanger, phaser, and 2-band stereo EQ (see Fig. 6). All seem to be of decent quality and most have some form of CV/gate control that makes them especially useful in the Reason environment.
On the plus side, timing on the delay unit (two-second maximum) can be set in milliseconds or sequencer steps. On the down side, the distortion unit doesn't really get down and dirty, so you will need to patch in something stronger if you want a grittier effect. The compressor has an automatic makeup gain circuit, so it's difficult to smash passages completely. The reverb lacks a predelay, requiring the patching of a delay unit in-line if you want that functionality.
The integrated sequencer handles notes, pattern changes, and MIDI controllers. The normal configuration is one track per rack module, but you can also route multiple tracks to the same module and use a module without sequencer control. (Although you can patch multiple external MIDI devices to play the modules, you can record external MIDI data onto only one sequencer track at a time.) Each track has a mute button that also doubles as a solo button, but the solo feature requires holding down a modifier key while clicking. I prefer dedicated buttons for each (as found on Reason's Mixer).
The sequencer window has two basic views, Arrange and Edit (see Fig. 7). The Arrange view displays recorded information for multiple tracks in three collapsed “lanes” per track. The lanes show notes, pattern changes, and controller changes, and are where you do most of your gross editing, such as song arrangement. You can also group selected events into colored blocks that you can easily drag and drop when arranging songs. When you select Edit view, only the selected track is shown and the lanes for that track expand to fill the editing space. Reason automatically displays only the lanes that are valid for the instrument the track is triggering, but you can add a view of other lanes as needed. One drawback to the rack metaphor reveals itself in Edit view: you can't stretch the width of the Sequencer to take advantage of larger monitors.
The Sequencer's timeline uses four draggable markers — two for playback start and end and two that define the loop points. You can also enter loop-point values numerically in a glowing LED screen. Looping works in playback and record modes, so you can do drum-machine-style pattern entry. For navigating through a song, you can drag the Play marker, rewind or fast-forward one measure at a time, or enter the desired location into the counter numerically. Auto-locate points are not implemented.
The tempo control offers a resolution in thousandths of a bpm. You can't program tempo or meter changes, however. A metronome click is provided with its own dedicated sound and front-panel volume control, but you can't tell Reason to automatically use the click only for record and not playback (or vice versa) nor is there preroll, postroll, or a count off — you just have to set the counter ahead of where you want recording to start. I wish Propellerhead hadn't used the same small mock LEDs for the master counter as found elsewhere for the display of parameter values. That makes reading the counter position at a quick glance difficult.
The sequencer offers many standard features and a few less-common options. One particularly nice addition is the ability to copy a groove from Dr. Rex, apply it to a sequencer track, and route that track to play other modules. The sequencer also lets you quantize to the global shuffle amount that's set in the transport. Note that Reason lacks an event-list editor.
FUN WITH FILES
Reason has a few tricks when it comes to file management, which is helpful because a Reason session might reference many file types, including songs, samples, REX loops, and patches. The program has a database that lets you specify four search paths; all folders within a specified search folder are included. Although you can specify the roots of your attached volumes as a search path, doing so defeats the purpose of the database and can slow your searches down.
Reason uses a special file called a ReFill. ReFills are somewhat like ROM banks in a synthesizer or sampler and can hold songs, patches, samples, and REX files simultaneously. Reason ships with one gigantic 508 MB ReFill on a separate CD-ROM, a circumstance that is a bit unwieldy because Reason demands to see the file (from your hard disk or CD-ROM drive) when loading. Third-party ReFills, both commercial and free, are starting to appear online.
Reason also uses a custom browser in place of traditional file dialogs. The browser lists each database folder's contents and can even help you locate missing files by automatically grabbing them from the Internet if they are available. It also has a Find All ReFills button that searches the roots of the database folders and mounted CD-ROMs.
Reason also provides some great options for sharing songs. You can create self-contained songs that bundle the resources used into a single entity, making transporting or sharing songs a no-brainer. Moreover, you can publish songs with certain features disabled (cut, copy, and paste, for example) so that nothing can be added, removed, or extracted. Your songs can even include customized graphic splash screens and author ID and contact information — a nice touch. Propellerhead also maintains an online Reason Song Archive for sharing songs and inspiration, and the program disk includes a half dozen tasty demo songs from real-world users. Although you can't lift anything from them, I found it educational to examine the rack setups and sequencing techniques used by those artists.
In most cases, the final output of a Reason session is a mix you render as a stereo audio file. AIFF and WAV formats are supported at 16 and 24 bits and a variety of sample rates. You have to convert your mix to MP3 format elsewhere, however. Reason also imports and exports MIDI files.
Reason is destined to win lots of hearts and awards. The vintage-rack metaphor is excellent conceptually, sonically, and graphically. Some of the program's interconnectivity features, such as the ability to control modules through voltages generated in the Matrix Pattern Sequencer, really move the program beyond other hardware-emulation plug-ins. At times I missed having true matrix modulation — the addition of small CV and audio mixer modules would go a long way toward addressing that omission. Reason also lacks an arpeggiator, a factor you have to weigh for yourself.
Installation and operation on my Mac G3/300 MHz went without a hitch (though I lament the inability to connect it effectively to my Pro Tools system). The installation process thankfully requires only the serial number included with the package. Performance and latency were fine on my machine using Sound Manager. The CPU usage never exceeded 60 percent, even with complex racks and tracks.
Reason's concepts and controls are simple to grasp, so you can start making music right away. Such ease of use will appeal especially to the novice user. The software ships with a printed 90-page Getting Started manual, and the full 207-page PDF manual will help you get the most out of the package. Reason is a great composition tool and offers plenty of fun in live scenarios as well as in the studio, particularly when it's paired with a MIDI control surface. The quality and flexibility of the rack and its components are up to professional standards across any dance-music genre.
Reason is not a toy and is pricier than most DJ-oriented software. But you get more than what you pay for with Reason. It's not just a great software package; its song-publishing feature and extensive, open Web support make it a platform that should gain a community of dedicated followers. Few products can make that claim. Propellerhead clearly has another winner on its hands — download a trial version and see for yourself.
Jeff Burger is a songwriter and producer based in Sedona, Arizona.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: PPC 604/166; 64 MB RAM; OS 8.6
PC: Pentium II/233; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98/ME/NT 4.0/2000
Reason 1.0 (Mac/Win)
FEATURES 4.0 EASE OF USE 4.0 DOCUMENTATION 4.0 VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Great sound quality and example library. Ideal for composing and performing most dance-music styles. Flexible rack metaphor. Most modules have excellent features. Utilizes CPU cycles efficiently.
CONS: No plug-in architecture. No MIDI output. ASIO and native drivers only. No polyphonic step sequencer. LFOs can't sync to clock. Oscillators don't hard sync. No MP3 export. No event editing.