4 on the Floor

TAKE COMMAND OF THE BEST ADDITIONS TO PROPELLERHEAD REASON 4--THE THOR SYNTHESIZER, REDESIGNED SEQUENCER AND REGROOVE MIXER--WITH THESE TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
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For whatever reason, Propellerhead's flagship Reason 4 software is stubbornly different. Maybe the Swedish office has Fleetwood Mac's “Go Your Own Way” in heavy rotation — or Mims' “This Is Why I'm Hot.” But Reason 4 isn't another me-too, one-stop, do-everything production studio. You can use Reason stand-alone for all-electronic instrumentals or ReWire it to a DAW so you can add vocal tracks and use plug-ins. Either way, Reason ignites a lot of audio dynamite.

For DAW/ReWire users, the big news in Reason 4 is Thor, a multifaceted, semimodular synth. If you're using Reason stand-alone, then you'll also want to snuggle up to the completely redesigned sequencer. You'll explore both in this tutorial, and you can download most of the patches — packed into a Reason RNS file — at remixmag.com.

Thor in action. In this patch, noise sources (Oscillators 2 and 3, and both LFOs) are being used for modulation of a single-oscillator sound.

STEALING THOR'S THUNDER

With the one exception of the Combinator, which can house arbitrarily massive patches, Thor is easily the most complex device in Reason 4. Learning to work with Thor may require a few hours of experimentation, but here are some starting points for your tweaking sessions.

External Audio

Most Reason devices provide rear-panel patch points, but Thor raises the stakes with four audio inputs that can be routed to any destination in the synth. The MalstrÖm synth also has audio ins, but only for processing signals through its filters. With Thor, audio can be a modulator.

Load a beat into Dr.Rex, use its To Track button so the beat will play back, and then route the Dr.Rex left audio out into Thor's Audio In 1. Try using this input to frequency-modulate (FM) an oscillator. Setting the oscillator (which in FM parlance is called a “carrier”) to a sine wave is usually a good choice because FM is applied to every overtone in a wave. If you use a sawtooth wave as a carrier, then FM will produce much more complex harmonic spectra, which can quickly degenerate to noise. Filtering the external audio before you use it as an FM modulator will add clarity to the patch. (See online files Thor_External_Audio.rns and Thor_External_Audio.mp3.)

Using Thor's extra audio outputs, you can route some aspect of its own signal to an external processor, such as a Scream or chorus, and then bring the tone back into Thor to mix with the rest of the tone. One limitation to be aware of is that any signal arriving at the audio inputs will be routed to all of Thor's currently sounding voices.

Sines o' the Times.

Thor's Wavetable is one of the six available oscillator types. (See Fig. 1.) It can produce complex spectra that sound like additive synthesis. Additive synthesis is based on mixing large numbers of sine waves at different frequencies, so the 10 Sines and 16:th Harmonics tables are ideal for this type of tone. Create three wavetable oscillators, leave the X-Fade switches in the oscillators turned on, choose the previously mentioned tables and sweep the position of each oscillator at a different slow rate from LFO 1, LFO 2 and the Mod Env. (The Gate Trig and Loop switches should be turned on in the Mod Env.) (See online file Thor_Wavetables.mp3.)

A comb filter messes with the overtones in a similar way, so you might try adding one in the Filter 3 slot. Delay is also good, but chorus shouldn't be necessary because the tone will already be very rich. (This patch is called Wavetables in the downloadable RNS file.)

Classic Minimoog Filter Sidebands

One of the first synthesizer effects I ever learned was how to make filter sideband sweeps on a Minimoog. To do it, you tuned Oscillator 3 to the audio range (this oscillator did double-duty as the LFO), used it to modulate the filter, turned the filter resonance up all the way so that the filter self-oscillated and then swept the filter with a long envelope decay.

A lot of computer-based synths can't do that effect at all because they don't allow the filter to be modulated at audio rate. Thor doesn't quite nail the classic Minimoog sidebands, but it comes remarkably close. An initialized Thor patch has the oscillator and filter we need, so we'll need to change only a few settings:

  • Turn off the Osc 1 input to the filter.
  • Set the oscillator to a triangle wave.
  • Turn the filter resonance up all the way and check to make sure the Self Osc button is lit.
  • Set the filter envelope to a very long decay time and zero sustain level.
  • Turn the filter cut-off frequency down below 100 Hz.
  • In the Patching matrix, select Osc 1 as a source and Filter 1 Frequency (FM) as the destination. Set the amount to 100.
  • Select Filter Env as a source and Osc 1 Pitch as the destination. Turn the amount up to 60 or 70.
  • Set the Amp Env sustain to 100 percent so the tone will stay loud.

You can achieve a variety of effects by adjusting the filter cut-off frequency and oscillator octave knob. Turn on the chorus effect for some added richness. (This patch is called Mini Filter in the downloadable RNS file. See also Thor_Mini_Filter.mp3.)

Noise Modulation

Using a noise source in place of an oscillator tone is an effect that got boring in about 1978. But Thor lets you use noise in a more interesting way: as a modulation source. (See Fig. 2.) Choose a Noise Osc for Oscillators 2 and 3, choose band-limited noise and then turn the bandwidth knob down very low. Next, use the AM from the Osc 2 slider to add instability to the tone of Osc 1.

To explore this technique, I set Osc 1 (an Analog Osc) to a thin pulse wave and routed it through a formant filter to produce a vocal tone. I assigned Oscillators 2 and 3 to modulate filter parameters under control of the mod wheel, added a few other tweaks and ended up with the Nervous Monks patch in the downloadable RNS file. (See online file Thor_Noise_Mod.mp3.)

Casio? Not Quite

Thor's Phase Mod Osc was obviously inspired by the Casio CZ Series synths, which began way back in 1985 with the CZ-101. Sad to say, Thor's envelope generators just aren't up to the job of emulating the CZ, which had three eight-stage envelopes (for pitch, amplitude and phase-modulation depth) per oscillator.

To approximate the CZ sound, don't use filters. You can use a filter's Drive slider (which is actually an input amplifier) as an extra VCA, which will help. Run one oscillator through a lowpass ladder filter whose cut-off frequency is turned all the way up and lower the filter's Drive slider. Then assign the Mod Env or Filter Env as a source in the Modulation matrix and choose the filter's Drive as a destination.

The CZ could use two oscillators per patch, and one was often used for a percussive attack transient while the other added sustain. The Casio Bass patch in the downloadable RNS file illustrates this.

That patch illustrates another idea. Select the Comb Filter for Filter 3. It's set up with heavy resonance and no modulation, which makes the frequency knob a versatile tone control. Slight adjustments of this knob will show off a variety of tone colors.

SEQUENCER SCOOPS

If you've been using Reason for a while, do yourself a favor and read the manual before you dive into the redesigned sequencer. Many things have changed.

Track-Based Modulation

This is a classic technique, but it's handled a bit differently in Reason 4's new sequencer. The idea is that rather than record a long string of knob moves by hand, you create a two-bar or four-bar clip that contains the modulation data and then copy the clip down to the end of the track. You can use the modulation for 16 or 32 bars and then shut it off — or edit one of the copies to leave room in the mix for a one-shot event on some other track.

To create the clip, you can either draw the automation contour you need or record knob or slider moves in real time using the mouse.

If you record in real time as an overdub after recording notes, there's one slightly tricky thing to watch out for: While you're recording the mouse moves, Reason will also create a new clip on the notes lane for that device. If you immediately grab the right end of the automation clip to resize it to a whole number of bars, you'll also be resizing the clip in the notes lane, which may cause notes to disappear. To prevent that, click on an empty area and then re-select the clip containing the automation.

Drawing the control data is a better choice when you want something like a straight sawtooth or triangle ramp. Right-click in the track and choose Parameter Automation from the Contextual menu, or use the Automation drop-down menu at the top of the sequencer window. (That menu is shown only in Arrange mode.) Select the parameter you want to automate. An empty automation lane will appear within the track.

In Arrange mode, use the pencil tool to click in the new automation lane, which creates a clip, and drag to the right so the clip is the length you want. (Leave the Snap to Grid button switched on while doing that so it will be a whole number of bars in length.) Choose the arrow tool, double-click on the new clip and switch back to the pencil tool. Now you can draw an automation curve in the clip.

Finally, hit Escape to deselect the clip for drawing, select the arrow tool and Ctrl+drag the clip to copy it.

ReGrooving the Matrix

The ReGroove mixer can add almost any kind of feel to a groove. The best way to learn what it can do is probably to program a very steady track, with quantized notes at a consistent velocity and note length. Route this track through a ReGroove channel and then load various ReGroove patches into that channel from the browser to hear what they do. The synth patch you use for auditioning should be set up to respond to velocity data because this is included in many of the ReGroove patches.

The output of the Matrix step sequencer can't be routed through a ReGroove channel, but there's an easy work-around:

  • Load or create a Matrix pattern.
  • Select the sequence track of the instrument that the Matrix is playing.
  • Right-click on the Matrix and use the Copy Pattern to Track command.
  • Click on the Matrix's Pattern button to turn it off.
  • Assign the instrument's note lane to a ReGroove channel.
  • Load a ReGroove patch.

The main limitation of using a Matrix this way is that its curve output won't be copied to the track. If you're using the curve output, then leave the Pattern button switched on and set all of the velocity levels to zero in the Keys display so that the Matrix itself will generate no notes.

Quick Sequencing Tips

Reason 4 has a very welcome new command: Mute/Unmute Clips. Select a few clips and type M. They will be grayed out. This is handy for trying out a complex part both with and without certain notes or controller moves.

If you aren't sure a particular phrase in a track is working, don't erase it. Add a new note lane to the track, mute the original part and try again. You can stack as many alternate takes as you like and then choose the one that works best — or cut and paste bits as needed.

In the Tool window, the Alter Notes option works very effectively with Dr.Rex beats. Load a loop, preferably one that has several different types of drum sounds. Click on the To Track button, select a clip containing the notes, set the Alter Notes amount to 10 percent and then click on Apply. That will randomly shuffle a few of the notes. Keep clicking on the button (with or without Undo in between) until you find a variation that you like. If you've started with several copies of the clip, then you can generate separate variations for a few of them, which will produce a drum track with a few unexpected changes. It may also mess with the feel of the beat, however; it requires you to exercise good musical judgment.

Also in the Tool window, the Scale Tempo option is great for double-timing a drum fill at the end of a phrase. Choose the razor blade tool and separate the last two beats of a Dr.Rex clip into a new clip. Select that clip and click on the Double button. The clip will be compressed to half its former length. (See Fig. 3.) Ctrl+drag to copy it, refilling the now-vacant spot. With the short clip at the end selected, click on the Double button again and repeat the process. This trick doesn't produce great results with every beat, but it's an easy way to generate some raw material for further editing by hand.

A REASON IN THE SUN

Every time I use Reason, I'm amazed anew by how much fun it is to use. Okay, I still wish I could insert a few third-party VST plug-ins in the rack, but that's strictly because I'm a gear-hound, not because of any huge gaps in Reason's sonic palette. With the exception of physical modeling, Thor covers just about every type of sound I can imagine. And I've heard some enticing rumors about what we may be seeing in 4.5. If you're not on the Reason bandwagon already, jump onboard.