Propellerhead Software has been on roll this past year, releasing not one but three major updates to its flagship DAW, Reason. Just months after version 9.5 was made available, the developer announced version 10, which sees a return to the product’s roots as sample junkies and instrument makers. Whereas versions 9 and 9.5 focused on providing a better DAW experience within Reason, version 10 is all about creating and playing with new sounds.
For example, the latest release introduces two new synthesizers, three sample-based instruments, a hybrid sample-and-physical modeling piano, and 3 GB of sample material consisting of loops and one-shots. Collectively, it is a welcome dose of inspiration that reminds me why I love Reason: It’s a sonic playground that spurs creativity and rewards experimentation.
Despite being the most advanced and capable of Reason’s built-in synths, Europa is surprisingly easy to program and play. Billed as a “shapeshifting synthesizer,” it is essentially a 3-oscillator wavetable synth with 14 primary tables, each of which offers a variety of oscillator waveforms that cover a broad range of synthesis techniques, including analog, FM, physical modeling, and conventional wavetable among them.
In Figure 1, Europa’s oscillator wavetables are laid out to show the breadth of synthesis techniques available in each of the three Sound Engines. The first four choices produce analog-style sounds, whereas Game re-creates lo-fi chiptune waves—perfect for recalling the glory days of ’80s video games. Electro Mechanic simulates an electric piano, while Karplus-Strong offers physical modeling of a string. Further down the list, FM serves up four different frequency ratios for the carrier and modulator (1:1, 1:2, 1:8, 2:1).
Each Sound Engine is also equipped with a number of sound sculpting components that can twist and transform the raw oscillators into surprising results. More on this in a bit.
The first wavetable choice, Basic Analog, consists of sine, triangle, square and sawtooth shapes, which you can select using the Shape knob. At 0% (knob turned all the way down), you get a sine wave. As you turn the dial clockwise, the oscillator’s wave morphs from one shape to the next, allowing you to create unusual analog-style waveforms. More complex waveforms are also available, such as the Karplus-Strong physical modelling option, which can produce muted and bright plucked-string sounds. And if none of the supplied wavetables interests you, you can create your own using Envelopes 3 and 4 from the modulation section.
There are a lot of timbral variations to be had from the 14 wavetables, making Europa quite the chameleon. If you want juicy analog, biting digital, or up-to-the-minute hybrid combinations, this synth can deliver.
But let’s say you’re not satisfied with the oscillators as they are. No problem. Just use the two Modifiers in the Sound Engine to bend the waveforms into new shapes before sending them downstream in the signal path. There are 31 Modifiers to choose from, including Hard Sync, Invert, Downsample, Quantize and Phase Distort (Casio CZ-1000 anyone?). What’s more, the Modifiers have dedicated modulation sources, allowing you to reshape the waveforms dynamically and continuously for some wild ear-catching results.
Although you can use the Spectral Filter as a typical resonant multimode filter (lowpass, highpass, etc.), it has additional modes such as Vocal Formant, Comb, and Resonator, giving you more creative flexibility. Similarly, the Harmonics section lets you manipulate the partials of the oscillator in interesting ways. With Stretch mode, for example, partials can be stretched or squeezed along the frequency spectrum. Depending on the source, this can sound like a mix of pulse-width and frequency modulation.
Next in the signal path is the powerful Unison section, which goes beyond the basics with controls for blend, stereo spread, and five choices of tuning: Normal, Fourth, Fifth, Octave Down, and Phase Only. This last option creates duplicates of the signal on either side of the original oscillator’s pitch. When this mode is enabled, the Detune knob controls the phases of the duplicates, which works well for creating wide sounds without a lot of detuning.
Once you’ve had your fun inside the Sound Engines, you can route, pan, and mix each signal through the master resonant multimode filter, which includes an overdrive circuit for added punch and grit. Taken together, the Harmonics, Unison, and other sections represent a massive amount of potential for programming all manner of sounds. It is the sort of feature set that’s sure to please even the most jaded sound designers among us.
And as one might hope, there’s a respectable number of presets organized into folders according to type (Pads, Basses, Plucks, Leads, and so forth), making it easy to find suitable sounds for your production needs. The presets do a nice job of demonstrating what’s possible with Europa; many of the presets are designed to show off the synth, though at the expense of more production-ready bread-and-butter sounds. Even so, if you like having existing patches as starting points, the included presets serve as a solid launch pad for creative exploration.
GO WITH THE GRAIN
In contrast to Europa’s software-modelled oscillators, Grain produces sound by slicing up a single audio sample—a drum loop, vocal phrase, guitar riff, or whatever other source you may want to use—into small so-called “grains” that can be played at different speeds and processed using four algorithms:
Spectral Grain, Grain Oscillator, Long Grains, and Tape. Spectral Grain uses FFT analysis to figure out the sample’s harmonic content, which you can then pitch shift or filter by applying user-drawn formant frequency-response curves. Another variant, Grain Oscillator plays back a mix of two short grains from the original sample, and you can control the spacing between the two grains.
I wish I could summarize the types of sounds you can expect to hear from using these algorithms, but I simply can’t. That is because the results are especially dependent on the source material; we’re not dealing with predictable configurations, such as a sawtooth running through a lowpass filter. For example, in my experiments with these algorithms, I would sometimes get garbage, and other times gold.
With this disclaimer made, if you want a hint at the kind of excellent timbres you can mine from Spectral Grain and Grain Oscillator, check out the factory presets Distant Breath and Grainophone, respectively. Distant Breath is a beautiful and ethereal pad made from a cinematic impact sample, while Grainophone is based on a simple glockenspiel sample that is morphed into a moody electro-organic bell.
Moving on to more familiar territory, the Long Grains algorithm can be used to scrub through a sample to create the now-common evolving, ambient and fluttery character often associated with granular synths. In fact, Long Grains is put to good effect on several stand-out examples, such as the retro-modern Deep Blue Sea, a muted Poly preset built from a PPG Wave sample; and the default patch, Vergon 6, an expansive tonal texture that slowly introduces high-pitched rhythmic material as you hold down a note.
Lastly, Tape mode uses what the manual calls “old-fashioned tape-style” playback in which speed and pitch are linked (e.g., sounds played higher up the keyboard will play back faster and at a higher pitch). This mode may seem mundane compared to its neighbors, but it is useful. For instance, by modulating the Speed control you can create believable-sounding tape-stop effects.
Sounds made from granular synthesis can sometimes be lacking in certain frequency ranges. To compensate for this, Grain includes a synth oscillator with multiple waveforms that can be mixed in to supplement the processed sample (see Figure 2). Case in point, a sine wave tuned to an octave below the sample’s pitch in the aforementioned Grainophone helps fill out the patch and give it a synthetic quality.
And for additional coloration, the synth and sample signals can be routed into Grain’s multimode filter, which offers 12dB highpass, bandpass and lowpass shapes, as well as a 24dB lowpass shape for more extreme shading. I found that, even with the filter wide open, it added a bit of beef and presence, so you should definitely not overlook this simple-yet-effective component in your programming.
Europa and Grain share the same set of modulation functions, which deserve special attention. The mod section on both instruments is situated in the lower half of their respective GUIs, where you’ll find four multisegment envelopes and three LFOs with 10 waveforms to choose from, including several stepped variations that can help add rhythmic animation.
In particular, the envelopes represent a cut above anything we’ve seen in previous Reason synths. There are 20 preset envelope shapes that cover a range of common uses (e.g. shapes for plucked and arpeggiator-like sounds), and you can freely edit these or create your own to craft exactly the kind of motion you might want. For even more modulation madness, envelopes can be looped so they function as complex LFOs (see Figures 3a and 3b).
Below the envelopes and LFOs is an 8x16 modulation matrix that first appeared in Propellerhead’s Parsec synth, a Rack Extension that is sold separately. Like the envelope section, the matrix is also quite flexible (though not as robust as Thor’s). Each Source can be assigned to two Destinations, plus a Scale parameter that affects the relative modulation Amount for both Destinations. This all adds up to a wealth of programming possibilities that should keep inventive sound designers busy for days.
The synths also share the same set of effects—reverb, delay, distortion, single-band EQ, compression, and a combo phaser/flanger/chorus—all of which can be reordered in the signal path. If you need more creative tools, you can always rack up more effects into a Combinator.
(Visit emusician.com to read our master class on programming Europa and Grain.)
Reason’s three new sampler instruments—Klang, Humana, and Pangea—contain a subset of instruments culled from the catalog of third-party developer Soundiron. In Reason, these instruments all use the same sample-player engine, which employs a modest-yet-functional set of features consisting of a single multimode resonant filter, two ADSR envelopes (filter, amp), reverb, and multitap delay. There is not much synth programming to be done, per se. The emphasis is more about high-quality, playable samples of acoustic instruments that pair nicely with electronic textures.
With Klang, the focus is on tuned percussion, including alto glockenspiel, circle bells, and whale drum among the more exotic ones. These multi-samples are beautifully recorded, detailed, and very dynamic, thanks to a generous set of velocity layers. For organic, vaguely-ethnic woody or metallic acoustic-percussion, Klang is a great place to start.
Pangea is based mostly on pitched melodic/harmonic instruments from across the globe, such as sitar, zither, struck piano, pump organ, and angklung. Part of Pangea’s charm results from the subtle imperfections that have been captured from each source. Bizarre Sitar, for example, is a delicate and slightly detuned plucked instrument patch with a piano-like quality that evokes the brooding-yet-boisterous character of Hans Zimmer’s score to the film Sherlock Holmes.
In addition to solo male and female vocalists, Humana offers a select choice of choir patches—boys, men and women—from Soundiron’s Mercury, Mars, and Venus collections, respectively. The ensembles, in particular, sound fantastic, thanks in part to the reverberant acoustics of the church where the choirs were recorded. While you don’t have a lot of articulations to choose from (just “ahs” and “oos”), what is here works well for background pads in epic EDM and hybrid cinematic soundtracks.
Reason 10’s remaining two new devices—Radical Piano and Synchronous—were previously sold separately as Rack Extensions. I certainly don’t mind their inclusion as standard wares and I imagine I’m not alone!
Radical Piano combines sample playback with physical modeling, giving you far more timbral control than you’d have with samples alone. You have a choice of three acoustic instruments: upright, “home” grand, and “deluxe” grand, which is based on a Steinway Model D. Each has a distinct character. And with multiple microphone perspectives, control over mechanical noises, and controls to adjust the tone, all three pianos can be extended to cover a lot of musical territory.
Synchronous is a multi-effect device with a 3-track modulation generator whose envelope shapes can be looped and set to rhythmic divisions for creating complex time-synced effects. Distortion, filter, delay, and reverb are built-in, but you can send the modulation source signals to any device by patching from the back of Reason’s rack. Synchronous is a lot of fun and can turn just about anything you throw at it into something fresh and exciting.
Rounding out the set is 3 GB of loops and hits courtesy of third-party developer Samplemagic. These represent a grab-bag of goodies spanning hip-hop, pop, R&B, trap, glitch, house, and more. I found a lot from this material that will be making its way into my productions just as soon as I get this review finished! Suffice to say, the new sample content is not just filler, but puts a bow around the gift of a great upgrade to Reason.
THE AGE OF REASON
Version 10 is an unbeatable update that Reason users will love and it deserves serious consideration from those who aren’t yet part of the Propellerhead pack. This judge’s score? A perfect 10.
John Krogh is an award-winning ASCAP composer and producer with over 1,000 music placements in media.
Europa and Grain. Greatly expanded sound library. Two rack devices included.
No support for video/composing to picture. No “scenes” or screenset function for windows (common with most other DAWs).
$449 (upgrade; $129)