Reason 3.0

When Reason first came out, people thought it was brilliant — and rightfully so. But now it’s been around a few years, some competitors have sprung up, we’ve all had our expectations raised, and as a result . . .It’s still brilliant. Just more so.
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Reason 1.0 was one of those programs that got it right the first time. Reason 2.0 and 2.5 didn’t do any radical makeovers, because frankly, they weren’t needed. Updates included a nice sampler, some more effects, a groovy graintable synth, improved routing, and a detachable sequencer window, all at reasonable upgrade prices. What you didn’t get: Bug fixes and crashes. Reason’s reliability is legendary.

Admittedly, you do have to subscribe to the “Reason Way of Life” to dig the program. That means no recording digital audio, no inserting plug-ins, no acidized loop import, no adding additional virtual instruments: What you see is what you get, and by the way, all you’ll get. Like an electronic music version of the Sims, Reason creates its own world (which is probably a major reason why it works so reliably and efficiently). Reason truly is a virtual studio — instruments, processors, mixers, and audio interface.

But is it really so limited? Not exactly, because let’s remember that Propellerheads is the company behind the ReWire protocol. You can rewire Reason into Live, Sonar, Logic, Cubase, Acid, Digital Performer, Adobe Audition, Pro Tools . . . whatever adds the capabilities you want that Reason doesn’t have.

Which brings us to Version 3.0. As with previous updates, Reason’s core remains intact — which just proves again that yes, they did get things right the first time. But they’ve added three killer features (and a bunch of little extras) that I predict will not only have Reasoners eager to upgrade, but also maintain the program’s currency.

THE BROWSER

Everyone’s talking about the Combinator and the MClass effects. We’ll get to those, but trust me, this is 3.0’s killer feature (Figure 1). Now you can audition patches, drum kits, samples — even effects presets — in context, while Reason is playing.

Got a drum pattern going? Forget the find, load, listen, find, load routine to audition kits. Just go to the browser and click. Don’t like the sound? Click again. Like it? Click OK. Done.

This is the single biggest improvement for tapping Reason’s enormous potential. Not only does it help you find sounds you want, it also lets you know when to give up. For example, I was looking for a sorta Miles Davis trumpet sample for the NN-XT. I typed “Trumpet” into search, didn’t like what I heard, and moved on. How about sax instead? Within seconds, I found a Wayne Shorter-type sound that fit perfectly. Mission accomplished.

The browser is not limited to the sounds that ship with Reason, and for the final touch, you can create Favorites lists. It’s almost like hiring an assistant to take care of your sounds.

COMBINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES

You like a particular Reason sound, so you load in a Matrix Pattern Sequencer feeding your favorite SubTractor bass patch, followed by a spacey delay and a little distortion. Fine, but then you create another Reason project and you want that same signature sound, so you start all over again.

Those days are now officially gone, because you can combine any number of Reason machines — synths, drums, signal processors, splitters, you name it — into a Combinator (Figure 2), which is essentially a Reason rack within a Reason rack. You can then save the combi for later recall.

It has no particular limitations: You’ll find the same patch cord jacks on the back, the ability to fold instruments to take up less space, ins and outs for connecting with the rest of the world, and internal ins and outs for combi devices. (They call the display that shows splits and such a “Touch Sensitive Display Unit,” so I guess they couldn’t resist throwing a bit of humor into the mix.)

The obvious use is splits and layers for instruments, although you could also create multieffects chains. Or splits and layers with multieffects — whatever. Modulation routing adds another level of coolness, as there are four assignable knobs and buttons that can control any number of parameters in the combi. For example, if you have several instruments, one knob could control the filter cutoff and level on one, the filter resonance on another, the decay time on a third . . . you get the idea. It’s really convenient to be able to call up these kinds of submodules.

MASTERING . . . SWEET

There are four “mastering class effects” (Equalizer, Stereo Imager, Compressor, and Maximizer). While I don’t think WAVES is losing any sleep over these, they fill in one of Reason’s few gaps: the lack of good equalization and dynamics control. And of course, bowing to popular demand from the new breed of Listeners Without Ears, there’s a maximizing device so that people can slam levels and not complain any more about how Reason sounds “wimpy.” (No, it didn’t sound wimpy; it just had a thing called “dynamic range.”)

The effects are actually quite nice, and I found the Stereo Imager surprisingly effective. The Maximizer didn’t respond well to being pushed really hard, but this is probably a good thing because then people won’t be tempted to do it. In any event, you’re no longer stuck with patching the old COMP-01 module in the mixer’s master outs to get a little bit of a dynamic boost. Oh, and as if to prove the value of the Combinator, all four effects are available in a “Mastering Suite” combi.

CONTROL SURFACE SUPPORT

Reason just begs to be fed with MIDI continuous controllers from hardware interfaces. It’s always been very good about that, and it was fairly easy to assign controllers to parameters. But Reason 3 takes the concept a step further by offering what appears to be a plug-in architecture for control surface support. It already supports surfaces from Alesis, Behringer, Doepfer, Edirol, Evolution, Kenton, Keyfax, Korg, Mackie, M-Audio, Novation, and Peavey; more are claimed to be on the way (hey, how about the Radikal Technologies SAC 2.2?).

How does it work in practice? I hooked up an M-Audio Oxygen8, whereupon the program wanted to know if it was an “old” one or a “new” one. I assumed old, and lo and behold, whenever I changed the MIDI focus, its knobs controlled something of interest in that particular instrument. And, there are several pages of controller mappings for each device, so even a basic controller can map just about all parameters of interest. Furthermore, you can hook up multiple control surfaces, and there’s support for some surfaces with MIDI feedback . . . yes, motorized faders are now a possibility. The architecture also supports controller display feedback, so you can see the names of the parameters being tweaked on compatible controllers (e.g., Korg Kontrol49, Mackie Control, etc.).

Those are the big features, but you’ll also find new sequencer goodies (mute, solo, and the ability to record automation on multiple tracks), dithering for audio exports, an improved (but also backward compatible) sound bank . . . and it sure seems samples load a lot faster. Granted, with more instruments and options the rack paradigm is getting a little unwieldy, but much less so than dealing with the hardware equivalent.

THE WISH LIST

So what’s left to do? You can open multiple songs at once, and stop and play independently, but there’s no way to switch seamlessly between them except by using a combination of a remote command and mouse click to start one sequence while stopping another. It works, but sure isn’t like beat matching. I’m still not thrilled with some of the Orkester CD samples, although the new Factory Sound Bank is steps ahead of the original one. And while the NN-XT does velocity crossfading, it can’t do positional crossfading, where a sample fades out as you play higher or lower in pitch while a different sample fades in.

And I sure wish Reason, which is a laptop jockey’s delight, would support using the QWERTY keyboard for triggering keyboard notes. You can find accessories to do that on their website, but why not just build it in?

Admittedly, that’s a short wish list. Then again, it’s a brilliant program. I’m still amazed by the ease and fluidity with which you can make music on Reason. When it comes to virtual studios, Reason remains at the top of the heap — and the program to beat.