The Stockholm, Sweden masterminds have done it again. Although the release of Reason 3 was a biggie, and dedicated users have had to wait quite some time for the new version, Reason 4 is arguably the most important and feature-rich release since version 1.0. Propellerhead's Website boasts, “Your Reason rack just got bigger,” and that's certainly true with the new additions of Thor Polysonic Synthesizer, RPG-8 Arpeggiator and ReGroove “groove management console.” But it may well be the massively overhauled main sequencer that will prove to be the best-of-class new feature for seasoned Reason users.
I tested Reason 4 on a modest Apple 1.33 GHz iBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM and also on a more robust dual-2.0 GHz PowerMac G5 tower with 2 GB of RAM. I wanted to see how well the lesser of the two would perform on this historically efficient yet ever-flowering program. The install process is the simplest matter of dragging-and-dropping the program from the DVD to the Applications folder. Upon first launch, Reason installs the two classic ReFills — Factory Sound Bank and Orkester — and asks you to register online. No dongle is required — a plus in my book. I've been a Reason user since version 1.0, and as soon as I opened the program, it was obviously familiar, yet looked a little slicker. The transport has a more polished, professional appearance. The addition of a running time interface in hours, minutes, seconds and milliseconds has been needed in my opinion and is a very welcome addition, as are the New Dub and New Alt buttons.
The obvious change in the sequencer is the addition of multiple “lanes” on tracks; each track now represents just one device in the rack. Rather than confusing, multiple tracks representing single devices clogging up the sequencer, Reason 4 now sports multiple lanes for different note takes, pattern changes, automation, etc. All lanes are grouped together neatly under one track, and just like the devices in the rack, each track and subsequent lane can be collapsed or expanded to manage screen space — laptop users especially will appreciate that. Note lanes can be edited, muted and deleted, and each has a miniature level meter, while the other lane types include similar, specific function controls. Linked to the record button on the transport are two new buttons: New Dub and New Alt. In Record mode, when the New Dub is pressed, all notes from the selected lane are instantly cleared, and a new overdub begins; when New Alt is pressed, a new lane is automatically created and selected while the previous is muted.
Each lane can be custom-named, and each note lane features a drop-down menu for choosing among different ReGroove Mixer channels. For veteran Reason users, this new layout may at first seem disorienting when opening songs created in older versions, but after spending just a few minutes with it, the new design makes logical sense and is a vast improvement. One caveat here is that when the New Alt button mutes previous note takes, the Mute button on the lane is not engaged unless Loop is enabled, and the song position locator is within the loop. Otherwise, you have to mute and un-mute the individual clips via the Edit menu (or hot key) in case there are clip outside the of the loop that shouldn't be muted by the New Alt command.
THE GOD OF THUNDER HAS ARRIVED
Reason 4 brings a big new synth around the block — Thor. It represents Reason's first foray into semimodular synthesis and looks somewhat like an old modular. Users have access to three simultaneous oscillators, each selectable from among six oscillator types: Analog, Wavetable, Phase Modulation, FM Pair, Multi-Oscillator and Noise. Those are mixed and then fed into one, two or three filter banks; for each bank, users get to choose from four filter types: Low-Pass Ladder, State Variable, Comb and Formant. An LFO with 18 selectable waveform types is onboard, along with an ADR modulation envelope and ADSR filter and amp envelopes. There is a global sample-and-hold ADSR envelope and a second LFO, and if all that weren't enough, there are adjustable Chorus and Delay effects.
A display for modular routing design sits below all the sonic-sculpting goodies, and below that sits a dedicated 16-step sequencer. In short, there are enough toys to play with here to keep even advanced synthesizer geeks engaged for quite some time.
Having personally owned at one time or another classic Sequential Circuits and Oberheim analog synth monsters, as well as cream-of-the-crop modern modular soft-synths from Native Instruments, Arturia and Cycling '74, I must say that the Propellerhead posse has designed a synth to turn heads. Just the presets, which include patches created by such luminaries as Richard Devine, Morgan Geist and Plaid, tell the story of a mighty synth that is capable of glossy FM leads, Arp-like sci-fi pads and strange squelches, fat Moog-inspired basses, Waldorf-like Wavetable patches and plenty of ground in between. While I don't love all of the presets (who ever does?), there are plenty to get users started, and they are arranged like all Reason presets in tidy category folders.
STEP UP (AND DOWN) TO THIS
The next big bang in Reason 4 comes from the RPG-8 Monophonic Arpeggiator. Like its cousin, the Matrix step sequencer, RPG-8 will connect itself automatically to the nearest appropriate sound module available, including pitch and mod wheel CV controls. The interface is straightforward and easy to familiarize with quickly. There are as many as 16 steps available, which can all turn on and off at the click of a button. Apreggios can be assigned to play via key press or play continuously, they can cover a one- to four-octave range, and there is a ±3 Octave Shift control. Altogether, all 88 keys of a piano are within range, and then some. Arpeggios can be assigned on-the-fly to play up, down, up + down, random or manually, and there is a huge range of tempo-synced and tempo-independent rates of play, from the standard 16th-note down to one-note-per-beat and on up to what sounds like a tight drum roll. Note lengths have a freely editable global adjustment, from very short staccato to a smooth “tie” legato. Like other modules in the rack such as ReDrum, RPG-8 includes Reason's well-designed Shuffle switch, which gives the pattern some loose swing; it can only be adjusted via the ReGroove Mixer's Global Shuffle knob.
Though I am admittedly not crazy well-versed in different arpeggiators, this one is thoughtfully designed and is capable of much more than just a batch of preset tempo-locked arpeggios. The one big issue with RPG-8 is that, even if you have set it to continuous looping without pressing keys, if the main sequencer is stopped and started again, it resets itself to “off,” and you have to key it back in. Another nice upgrade would be for Random mode to have a second option whereby a single generated pattern loops continuously; presently, the pattern gets regenerated with each loop. Adding an additional 16 steps for a total of 32 would also be welcome.
The final big addition to Reason 4 is the ReGroove Mixer Real-Time Groove Console. ReGroove is an interesting concept; it is a 32-channel (four banks of eight) “groove handling mixer,” which can slap any of 32 editable grooves onto any of the sequencer tracks or individual lanes. It's essentially the “gradually adjustable” swing feature that Reason users have been craving, but it's also much more because you can apply one global groove to your song, or break it down by assigning different grooves to all of your different song parts. Propellerhead has provided a variety of groove presets that are called up track-by-track, include HipHop, Reggae, Vintage Soul-RnB, MPC-60 and even grooves that simulate classic vinyl recordings. Each preset represents a certain rhythmic feel; swing and varying note Velocities are applied.
Controls on ReGroove's face include channel faders that “fade-in” the groove amount, adjustable Slide and Shuffle pots on each channel, a Global Shuffle that can be assigned (or not) to each track and more. When you first apply a groove, it might sound rhythmically dissonant with the rest of the song, but with subtle shifts in the various controls, you can fit things together like pieces of a puzzle. This tool is not for mechanical, Kraftwerk-ian types, though; it can really push the feel of tracks into hard swing territory, and yet a deep level of fine-tuning is available, as well as “de-shuffling” tracks with heavy swing. I've seen a bumper sticker once or twice around San Francisco that reads, “Drum Machines Have No Soul.” I personally disagree with that statement, and I've long liked the feel of Reason's Shuffle. But in a nutshell, ReGroove is killer and should put the opinion on that sticker to rest.
RACK IT UP
The Swedes have done another excellent job with Reason 4. They have upped the ante of the sequencer and transport modules to compete with the big leagues; they also raised their own standard once again with Thor, turning out a semimodular synthesizer that is arguably worth most of the price of Reason 4 by itself. Propellerhead also implemented an easy-to-use yet feature-rich arpeggiator, RPG-8, which I am certain many seasoned users have been craving. Finally, ReGroove is nothing short of quantizing-on-steroids. And all of this has come to us without much additional CPU-draining baggage or a raised price tag. Yes, there are a few blips and desires on my radar, but with all these new goodies, I can't complain; I only applaud a job well done.
REASON 4 > $499
Pros: Stable and CPU-friendly. Running time displayed as H:M:S:M in Transport. Completely redesigned sequencer with multiple lanes per track. Great sounding, extremely flexible semimodular synth, Thor, added. New arpeggiator, RPG-8, easy to use and sports broad feature range. Unprecedented 32-channel groove mixer, ReGroove, added.
Cons: Arpeggiator doesn't automatically run with sequencer start.
Mac: G4/1 GHz; 512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended); OS 10.4 or later; 2 GB hard disk space
PC: P4, AMD Athlon XP or better; 512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended); Windows XP/Vista; 2 GB hard-disk space