Propellerhead Software Reason 5 and Record 1.5 (Mac/Win) Review

Image placeholder title

As usual, Propellerhead Software took its sweet time delivering the updates Reason 5 and Record 1.5, and as usual, it was well worth the wait. Reason 5 brings a new drum module, Kong Drum Designer, and a welcome upgrade of the REX file player, now called Dr. Octo Rex. Record 1.5 adds Neptune for pitch correction, transposition, formant shifting, and harmonization. Among many usability enhancements, the two that stand out are Blocks—multitrack chunks that you can reuse at different points in an arrangement—and real-time sampling of external audio or any module''s output. Blocks and sampling are available in both Reason and Record. (Yes, Reason does sampling.) Here, I''ll concentrate on the new modules and user enhancements. For reviews of Reason 4 and Record 1, check out the December 2007 and November 2009 issues.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: Kong Drum Designer provides synthesis, physical modeling, and sampling modules for its 16 MPC-style drum pads. Here the physical-modeled bass drum lets you adjust the beater, heads, and shell.

Kong adds synthesis and physical modeling to Reason''s drum arsenal. It presents you with 16 drum channels into which you can load any of its nine drum modules: two sample-based, three physical-modeled, and four synthesized. Each pad also holds two insert effects, which can double as noise or tone generators for layering. All the modules are user-friendly and beg to be tweaked. Send and master effects (one of each) are accessible to all of the modules. A lot of Kong''s functionality is derived from its flexible MPC-style pad setup, so I''ll start there (see Fig. 1).

Each of Kong''s 16 pads can target any drum channel; in fact, several pads can target the same channel, and a single pad can target multiple channels. Many of the drum modules offer different hit-types: separate velocity-layered or round-robin multisamples for the sampler module (NN-Nano); loop, single slices, chunks of a loop (one per assigned pad), or stop playback for the REX file module (Nurse REX); strike position for the physical-modeled snare; and closed or open configuration for the synthesized hi-hat.

You can trigger (and record) the pads with the mouse (vertical position for velocity) or from two separate MIDI key ranges: C1 through Eb2 (one note per pad) and C3 through B6 (three notes per pad). Kong has no built-in sequencer, but rear-panel inputs for each pad''s gate let you co-opt other Reason sequencers (typically Redrum''s) for the job.

Kong comes with dozens of factory kits. The presets are conveniently duplicated in MPC and keyboard versions, which map Kong''s pads to accommodate both playing styles. Beyond the kits, you get samples and single-pad presets covering a variety of drum and sound-effects categories.

Both Reason and Record accommodate sampling, and the process couldn''t be much easier: Select a source by cabling an external audio input or a Reason/Record device output to the sampling input of the audio I/O module, then select a destination by clicking the Sample button on a device that supports sampling or on the Tool window''s Song Samples tab. Sampling begins immediately. When you''re sampling into a device, the sample start is automatically set to the first onset transient so that the sampled loop is ready for playback.

All Reason''s samplers (NN19, NN-XT, Kong''s NN-Nano, and Redrum) support sampling; the REX-file-based devices do not. Suppose, for example, you''ve set up a couple of Redrums to sequence Kong''s 16 pads. That leaves four unused Redrum channels that you could use to resample the audio from Kong or other devices in your song. You can then sequence those Redrum lanes along with Kong''s pads.

The Tools window''s sample browser displays all the samples you''ve recorded or edited (you can edit factory samples and your own), and all the load-audio-file dialogs have access to the same browser. Collapsible folders show which samples are used in each device in the rack, as well as which are unused. Double-clicking a sample opens a rudimentary sample editor that lets you place start and end markers, as well as crop, normalize, fade, loop, and reverse selections. The browser also lets you duplicate, delete, and export samples.

The redesign of Reason''s REX file player makes it easier to manage multiple REX files. Dr. Octo Rex has eight slots into which you can load different REX files, but think in terms of alternatives, not layers—you can play slices from only one slot at a time. (When you want to layer REX files, use multiple Dr. Octo Rex devices, like in the old days.)

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: Dr. Octo Rex manages eight REX files at a time, letting you easily modify playback settings. Here, slices 4, 8, and 14 are assigned to Alt group 1, and slices 7 and 15 to Alt group 2. Slices in the same Alt group are alternated randomly.

You have two ways to play and sequence REX files in Dr. Octo Rex: trigger individual slices using MIDI notes starting at C1 (two octaves below Middle C) or trigger the whole loop using MIDI notes E0 through B0. (Use Eb0 to stop.) With the slice-triggering method, the Notes to Slot knob selects which slot''s slices are triggered, as indicated by the red LEDs at the top (see Fig. 2). That knob has a dedicated automation lane, and when you use Dr. Octo Rex''s Copy Loop to Track function, it also sets the correct slot in the automation lane. You need to be careful not to create overlapping slice-trigger clips because all the notes will go to the selected slot and you''ll get double hits. Once you get used to that, Dr. Octo Rex is a very nice tool for creating new loops from multiple REX files.

When you use the loop-triggering method, loop changes are quantized to bars, beats, or 16th-notes, but the loop is always triggered from the beginning. That''s less than ideal, but triggering and sequencing loops in this way still has plenty of creative potential. You use a Pattern Select lane to record or draw with the Pencil tool using this method. In an exception to the one-slot-playback rule, you can use the two trigger methods simultaneously, which has interesting applications.

Dr. Octo Rex incorporates a number of sample-playback enhancements. You get four new slice-modification settings: Rev, F. Freq, Alt, and Output. Rev and F. Freq, obviously, reverse and apply a filter (lowpass), respectively, to the slice. Alt selects among four Alternatives groups; slices in the same group are alternated randomly and the process is reflected in the trigger-notes when you Copy Loop to Track. Output lets you send the slice to one of five rear-panel stereo outputs. As an alternative to setting slice parameters one at a time, Slice Edit mode gives you a bar graph for drawing one parameter''s setting for all slices.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 3: The blocks in the last eight bars shown here were created from the arrangement clips in the first four bars. Mutes (diagonal gray shading) suppress clips within each block. Arrangement-track clips (colored) override other parts of the blocks.

When your lead singer''s enthusiasm overpowers allegiance to pitch, Record''s Neptune offers on-the-fly pitch correction. During mixdown, you can wreak your revenge with Neptune''s voice synth and formant shifting. Neptune offers all you would expect from pitch correction at its best and its charming worst. It can make smooth, almost undetectable pitch adjustments based on front-panel settings or real-time MIDI-note input. Alternatively, it can deliver grotesque jumps and swoops, “Cher''ing” with the best of them. And the battle between in- and out-of-tune has never been so graphic (see Web Clip 1).

Neptune''s control panel provides you with quick access to its three operations, along with buttons—Transpose, Formant, and Pitch Adjust—to turn them on and off independently. The Voice Synth is activated by incoming MIDI when the MIDI mode is To Voice Synth, and the built-in mod and pitch wheels apply to those voices. With To Pitch Adjust mode, the last incoming MIDI note sets the pitch-correction target, and when no notes are present, pitch correction is managed by the onscreen note buttons and the Catch Zone slider, which controls the range around each note that gets adjusted to that note. Six common scale presets are provided, and you can save your own to four user preset slots.

Like all pitch-correction and harmonization software, the results depend on the source material and your settings. The Voice Synth is fun and certainly useful for parts back in the mix. Pitch correction depends heavily on the Correction Speed and Preserve Expression settings, and formant shifting can easily get out of hand. Neptune''s overall performance is excellent; it''s a wonderful addition.

Perhaps the greatest enhancement to the sequencer is the addition of blocks, multitrack chunks of data that you can replicate any number of times anywhere in the arrangement. When Block mode is active, the arrangement has two views: Song and Block. Song view is exactly as before, except a track named Blocks is added at the top. When the Pencil tool is selected, a dropdown menu lets you choose from the 32 available blocks, and you use the tool to draw in blocks on the Blocks track. Blocks can be moved, resized, and split just like normal clips. In Blocks view, the arrangement shows only the innards of the block, and you can add, remove, and edit material exactly as you do in the arrangement. You can copy and paste between the views so you can quickly create a block from a chunk of your arrangement.

Blocks are not just static chunks of audio and MIDI, however. For one thing, you can mute any track within any block, and when you don''t want to mute the whole track, you can simply split the block and mute only one of the split segments (see Fig. 3). You could, for example, create a block with separate tracks or lanes for each drum kit-piece, and then mute different kit pieces in different instances of the block to create your drum arrangement. You can also override any portion of a block with a different clip, thereby building up a complex arrangement based on simpler building blocks. A handy Edit menu command copies all active (not muted or overridden) block clips to the arrangement, allowing you to clean house without changing your arrangement.

Sequencer and device improvements in both Reason and Record are too numerous to cover in full, but here are four of my favorites. You can now time-stretch both audio and MIDI regions by simply Option-dragging (Control-dragging on the PC) the end of the region—no more disabling stretch, changing tempo, resizing the clip, bouncing, and so on. Choose the Pencil tool and start drawing data; a clip will be created and sized automatically to hold the data. The Combinator has four CV inputs that you can assign in its programmer. You can record simultaneously from multiple controllers (for example, a button box for Kong and the master keyboard for a synth track).

Reason''s factory library has grown to 1.5GB, primarily due to its huge collection of Kong and Dr. Octo Rex presets. Many of these are from notable sources such as the Shocklee brothers of Bomb Squad, Sharooz, Jason McGerr, the Salazar Brothers, and Loopmasters. Furthermore, the browser is easier to organize and navigate by creating and managing new locations and Favorites lists.

If you''re a Reason user, you want this upgrade, and it may be time to add Record—the price is certainly right. If you''re not now an owner and are thinking of adding either or both to your toolkit, you get a lot of great sounds, many excellent sequencing features, and easy connectivity to other DAWs with ReWire. If you need scoring, video, or plug-in hosting, you''ll still need another DAW, but if not, the Reason and Record Duo may well be all you need.

Image placeholder title