The Props got it right again. If you have a Reason wish list, and it doesn't include audio tracks, odds are that you will find satisfaction in version 3.0. This time around, Propellerhead emphasized live performance, adding enhancements such as support for a variety of control surfaces; the ability to combine rack modules into a single, reloadable instrument; and a greatly expanded sound library.
FIG. 1: Reason''s much-improved browser allows you to audition instruments and effects for different devices and create collections of your favorite patches.
For those people unfamiliar with Reason, it provides you with an endless rack and a collection of virtual-instrument-, effects-, and utility modules that you can insert in the rack and cable together as desired. The program also has pattern changes, an integrated multitrack sequencer for sequencing notes, and controller automation for the modules in the rack. Reason does not sequence or process audio, but several of the virtual-instrument modules will play audio files. EM last reviewed Reason (version 2.0) in the February 2003 issue (available at emusician.com), so I'll focus here on the changes made since that version, starting with the major changes in version 3.0.
One of Reason's claims to fame since its inception is its low CPU drain. That hasn't changed, and I was easily able to run a large demo song that uses 28 instances of the NN-XT sampler on a Mac G4 800 MHz PowerBook, a dual G5 2 GHz Power Mac, and a Pentium 4 3.2 GHz notebook PC. On the slowest machine (the PowerBook), CPU usage averaged 50 percent, peaking at 80 percent. The G5 and Pentium 4 machines handled the load much more easily.
This Browser's No Bowser
Reason's completely redesigned browser (see Fig. 1) is at the heart of the usability enhancements. The browser is used to load songs and patches for modules in the rack, and patches can now be auditioned before loading, which saves a lot of time.
The browser gives you access to files in two ways: one is through a standard file-tree format similar to that of your hard drive, and the other is through user-defined collections called Favorites. A Favorites collection can contain patches for different Reason modules, and you can have as many Favorites collections as you like. You can even have virtual-instrument and effects patches in the same Favorites collection; Reason will display only the appropriate type in its drop-down patch menus. For example, you can mix and match your favorite electric-piano patches with your favorite electric-piano-processing effects. Then, from the same Favorites collection, you can create an instrument device showing only the instrument patches and an effects device showing only the effects patches.
When you load a patch from the browser, Reason automatically installs the module for which the patch was designed. If the patch came from a Favorites collection, the module's drop-down Patch menu shows all the patches in the collection, and selecting another patch automatically changes the module as required. You can also use the browser to add new modules to the rack using a feature called Create Device by Browsing Patches.
The browser has a flexible search function that displays all files that contain the search text in the name of the file or in the name of the parent folder. Taken together, all these new features allow you to organize your browsing by sound rather than by sound module.
Reach for It
Reason's streamlined integration with MIDI hardware controllers is another major performance enhancement. Rather than having to use the MIDI Learn function (which is still available), Reason includes templates to match the default settings for a variety of MIDI devices, and you can simultaneously use as many devices as you want.
Once you've set up Reason to work with a supported device (which you can do manually or by automatic detection), the device's controllers are mapped to the controls of each type of virtual-instrument and effects module in Reason's arsenal. You can override the default mappings when you want to change the scheme for a specific instance of a particular module.
By default, the remote-control target is the module assigned to the sequencer track that is currently designated for master-keyboard input. You can also lock a hardware controller to a specific Reason module, which is especially handy for editing patches while changing sequencer tracks and working on other parts of a song.
With previous versions of Reason, one of the drawbacks to using it in live performance was the program's inability to change patches on the fly, a shortcoming that was made even more frustrating by the inclusion of little patch-up and down buttons on each module's Patch menu. Although those buttons still can't be automated in Reason's sequencer, they can be targets for MIDI remote control. (If you're controlling Reason from another sequencer, you can use MIDI remote to automate patch changes using the buttons.)
You can use the browser's Favorites feature to group and order your favorite patches, and then use remote control to step through the patches during performance. For example, you could have a favorite-keyboards collection that had sampled and synthesized instruments from a variety of Refill libraries. Careful arrangement of the patch order (which you can rearrange at will) gives you quick access to the sounds you need directly from your MIDI keyboard.
With multitimbral synths, your favorite presets always include effects, and presets frequently involve splitting and layering several sounds across the MIDI keyboard. Enter Reason's Combinator (see Fig. 2).
FIG. 2: The new Combinator is really a rack within the rack that allows you to combine several Reason devices into a single patch, called a Combi.
The new Combinator module is a rack within the rack; it can hold any configuration of Reason modules. Combinator patches, called Combis, act exactly like other Reason modules. Although a Combi functions as a single module, you still have complete access to the modules within it for remote control, sequencing, and automation.
The Combinator's control panel has several handy features. There are four knobs and four buttons that can be assigned to any parameter of any device in the Combi, and the same control can be assigned to several parameters simultaneously. Notes can be routed to any combination of modules, with each module having its own key and Velocity range. Finally, a global Run button will start and stop all pattern-based devices in a Combi.
Grab and Go
One of the nicest features of the Combinator is that you don't have to plan in advance. If you have a rack of modules that you like (from an old Reason song, for example), select them and then choose Combine from the Edit menu to create a Combi. The modules don't even need to be contiguous within the rack. You may occasionally have to rework the cabling of the modules in the Combinator, but in most cases, Reason will figure that out for you.
You can create and edit Combis manually by adding, removing, and rearranging modules at will. You can even break down a Combi into its constituent modules. Because of the browser enhancements, you can think of Combis as flexible split-and-layered, effects-laden presets.
Reason's virtual-instrument modules include two samplers (basic and advanced), a straightforward subtractive synth, a more complex Graintable synth, a sample-based drum machine with a built-in pattern sequencer, and a player for Propellerhead's slice-based REX file format. There's also a note and controller step-sequencer module that can be used to control the other modules. Those all have been covered in the February 2003 EM review, but their rear-panel connectivity and the flexibility of the sample-based modules deserves reemphasis.
Most of Reason's modules have rear-panel modulation (CV) inputs and outputs. Those allow you to use an LFO or an envelope from one of the synths to control a parameter of another synth or sampler. Two new utility modules in Reason 2.5, called Spiders, enhance CV interconnectivity by allowing you to combine and split CV routings, so that the same LFO can control two parameters, for example. (Similar Spiders exist for audio.)
All the sample-based modules load mono or stereo WAV, AIFF, and SoundFont audio files of any bit depth and sampling rate. They also load the individual slices embedded in REX format audio files. You can take a REXified guitar or drum loop and, without any further processing, load its individual slices into the Redrum drum machine for processing and pattern sequencing in Redrum's special style (see Web Clip 1). Or, you can quickly map the individual slices in a REXified vocal loop as a multisample in one of the samplers.
An Effective Reason
Reason 2.5 added three high-end full-rack effects to its complement of low-CPU-drain, half-rack effects. RV7000 is a full-featured stereo reverb unit offering control of finer details such as room size, diffusion, dispersion, and predelay. It also gives you true reverse reverb, echo, and multitap delay. Using the latter two with a bit of diffusion produces an interesting hybrid effect that lies somewhere between delay and reverb.
If you're not into distortion, you may think that Scream 4, dubbed a sound-destruction unit, is not for you. Along with some truly ugly effects, however, it has some warm fuzzies such as tube- and analog-tape emulation. Try it on the output of a final mix.
BV512 is a 32-band vocoder with a special 512-band FFT mode that produces highly intelligible speech vocoding. FFT mode uses Fast Fourier Transform analysis of the modulator signal (typically speech) instead of passing it through parallel bandpass filters with level detectors. The BV512 can also be used strictly as a multiband EQ in standard and FFT modes.
Master of the Universe
Reason 3.0 adds a suite of mastering effects to the mix. The MClass effects include a 2-band parametric EQ with high- and low shelving, a stereo-imaging effect, a compressor with sidechain input, and a limiter optimized for maximizing.
FIG. 3: The MClass mastering suite combines maximizer-style limiting for finalizing your mixes, parametric EQ, stereo enhancement, and a compressor.
You aren't limited to using the MClass effects at the end of the mixing chain; a Combi called MClass Mastering Suite that combines all four effects is available from the Create menu, and is part of the built-in default song (see Fig. 3). Plug it into some of your old Reason songs, and you'll see what a worthwhile addition the MClass series is.
Rouding out Reason 3.0 is Line Mixer 6:2, which is a 6-channel, single-rackspace module with rotary level controls and a single stereo effects bus. It's ideal for submixes and is especially useful in Combis.
Ah One, Ah Two
Reason's built-in multitrack sequencer for note, automation, and pattern sequencing hasn't changed a great deal since version 2.0. Mute and Solo buttons now grace each track, you can record automation on multiple tracks simultaneously, and automation can be copied and pasted between controller lanes.
Conspicuously absent are patch-change automation, meter- and tempo-change support, and key commands for changing tools. You can, however, use the ReWire master program for tempo changes when Reason is running as a ReWire slave.
Some users will complain that the sequencer still doesn't offer audio tracks, but that is outside the design philosophy of Reason — the program is primarily an audio source, not a digital audio workstation. Nevertheless, audio inputs for effects processing would be nice, and since Propellerhead has opened that door with the ReBirth Input Machine, why not let everyone pass through it?
Plenty of Good Reasons
The 3.0 upgrade adds a lot to Reason for current and potential users. Individually, each new major feature — the redesigned browser, the Combinator, enhanced remote control, the MClass Mastering Suite, and the expanded factory library — justifies the modest upgrade price. If you're a Reason user, version 3.0 will significantly streamline your workflow.
If you've been considering purchasing Reason but have not been sure why you want it, this version may be the one that swings the deal. Combis and enhanced remote control make Reason a good performance tool. Its expanded library, together with the huge variety of free and commercial content now available, make Reason an excellent addition to your sound palette. It's easy to use, and you don't need a liquid-nitrogen-cooled supercomputer to run it.
If you know nothing about making music with computers, Reason is an excellent place to start. All the requisite tools are in the same box, and they're fun to use. Plenty of polished music is being made entirely with Reason, and if you go on to use more high-powered audio-sequencing tools, Reason won't be a wasted investment. You can get a free taste with the time-limited demo available from the Propellerhead Web site.
Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted through his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
Reason 3.0 soft-synth workstation
$129 (upgrade from any previous version)
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Easy to learn. Contains a wide variety of virtual instruments and effects. Flexible and powerful MIDI remote-control implementation. Large factory library of sounds and patches. Performance-oriented browsing and patch changing.
CONS: Minimal set of keyboard shortcuts; requires lots of mousing around. No audio input for effects processing.