Last month's column, “The Soft Machine,” presented an introductory lesson on hardware courtesy of Propellerhead Reason software, which is a software mirror image of old-school hardware, complete with knob and slider controls and routable cables. This month's column spotlights a few crucial components of rack gear — the sampler, compressor and equalizer — with Reason's corresponding devices: the NN-XT sampler, an MClass Compressor and an MClass Equalizer. Last month's column is not necessary prerequisite reading, but if you're just starting out with either Reason or studio hardware, you can find the article by searching for “The Soft Machine” at www.remixmag.com. Also, a Reason demo is available at www.propellerheads.se.
ROLL WITH REASON
Launch Reason with an empty rack; only the Reason Hardware Interface (marked by the labels “MIDI In Device” and “Audio Out”), the Sequencer and Reason Transport (with Stop, Start, Record, etc. buttons) should be visible. If you see something different, click on each component and press the delete key. Choose Mixer 14:2 from the Create menu; that creates your basic mixer (covered in last month's column). Then choose the NN-XT, MClass Compressor and MClass Equalizer from the Create menu (in that order). Now press the Tab key to flip to the back of the rack. Notice that the audio-output cables from the NN-XT are connected to the audio input of the MClass Compressor. Also, MClass Compressor's output is connected to the MClass Equalizer input. Finally, the MClass Equalizer's output is connected to channel 1 of the Mixer 14:2 and is labeled “reMIX” on the rear panel.
SAMPLES MADE SIMPLE
Press the Tab key again. Beginning with the NN-XT, open the Remote Editor section by clicking on the lower arrow on the far left; knobs and a large, bright blue screen should appear. With its oversize display, the NN-XT loosely resembles some of the best Akai hardware samplers of the past, such as the S5000 and S6000. Now load a ReFill or bank of sounds into NN-XT. (For step-by-step directions, check out Reason's Help menu.) Play your keyboard, and you'll notice that each key, rather than sounding a note such as a C, plays a different drum sound; that is called a drum map. Most hardware and software samplers allow you to map individual samples in that way. They also typically allow for multiple samples to be mapped to single keys (for thicker tone), single or multiple sounds to be selectively stretched across multiple octaves and samples to be individually tailored to taste. In NN-XT's display, each “block” below the virtual keyboard represents a loaded sample. Click on one to select it, and notice as the sample's name to the left gets selected as well (that also works in reverse). Play the corresponding sample on your keyboard, then change the Lo Key and Hi Key controls just below the blue screen; you'll see the sample stretch wider and wider across the keyboard. If you now play the matching keys, you will hear the sample layered underneath the other mapped sounds. Reset the Lo and Hi keys to their original positions, and change the Root Key control, which plays the sample at its normal pitch. With preset drum maps, this value is typically the same as the Hi and Low keys, but you can experiment and create entirely new percussion kits from a single set of samples.
Now create a basic drum pattern: engage Reason's metronome (select the Click checkbox to the left of the Stop and Start buttons at the bottom) and set up a 16-bar loop (select the Loop On/Off checkbox to the right, and set 1,1,1 for L and 16,1,1 for R). Choose a few basic drum sounds (kick, snare, etc.) and record a rhythm by tapping the appropriate keys; overdub as needed. Once you've got something you like, apply compression to make it bolder and more dynamically even. Scroll the rack until MClass Compressor is in view. Lower the Threshold (turn the knob counterclockwise); doing so increases the amount of overall signal that is compressed respective to volume. Next, lower and raise the Ratio; that changes the amount of compression applied. Raise and lower the Attack and Release knobs. Listen carefully because those are subtle. They determine how quickly the compressor will begin compressing and for how long it will sustain the effect. Try an attack of 50ms and a release of 150ms. Finally, raise the Output Gain. That compensates for the reduction in dynamics that compressors apply. Experiment with all of those — your ears will do the best job of teaching you what each thing does and where to set it.
The MClass Equalizer is parametric, meaning that the frequencies it affects are adjustable and overlap one another, covering the spectrum. On the left side is a visual display of how the equalizer is currently affecting the sound passing through it. Punch in any of the five buttons on the top left of each set of knobs, which turn red, and then turn the corresponding knobs: You will hear the effect and see the slope on the display reflect the change. The Lo Cut is the only nonparametric component; it is fixed at 30 Hz — a very low bass frequency — and is designed to remove rumble that you often feel more than you hear. In a dense mix with lots of elements, it frees up the sonic space for other elements, such as sub bass. The next three bands cover the remainder of the human audible frequency range and have three controls: Freq(uency), Gain and Q. Frequency is adjustable from 30 Hz to 20 kHz. The fourth control is set at a fairly typical mid- to high-frequency range, 3 kHz to 12 kHz. All Gains set in the middle are in the neutral position. Turn the knob to the right and you boost a range of frequencies; turn it to the left and you reduce (cut) them. The Q control is a crucial component to any parametric EQ; it widens or narrows the frequencies surrounding the center frequency (set by the Freq control). Turn the knob clockwise to widen the affected frequency range, and turn it counterclockwise to narrow the range.