FIG. 1: The RPG-8 arpeggiator features a rhythm-pattern sequencer, octave shifting and repeating, several Insert modes, and the option to not repeat single notes.
To borrow a slogan from a well-known winery, Propellerhead will sell no software before its time. It took a couple of years and then some to get Reason 4 out the door, and it was worth the wait. You get a new synth, improved sequencing, and additional pattern-based tools, as well as a bunch of smaller enhancements to make life easier.
The biggest wow factor belongs to the new Thor Polysonic Synthesizer, a semimodular, eminently programmable instrument with a huge palette of sounds. Steppin' out just got better with the introduction of the RPG-8 arpeggiator and the 32-channel ReGroove Mixer. But for those who use Reason for complete projects, the best news may be the much-needed redesign of the sequencer.
God of Thunder
Thor, the first new Reason instrument in two generations, definitely breaks some ground. For one thing, it offers five types of oscillator and one noise source, which you can mix and match at will. Similarly, you get four types of filter, each with multiple modes. Filters and oscillators are inserted into slots (three for each), and although the signal path is prewired, a number of switch points give you some control over the signal flow (see Web Clip 1).
Thor excels at modulation. A 13-row modulation matrix lets you route anything anywhere; beyond LFOs and envelopes, sources include Thor's audio modules and a variety of external signals. Then there's a built-in step sequencer with a lot of tricks up its sleeve. For a detailed description of Thor, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com.
Ups and Downs
One of my questions when I first saw Reason was, Where's the arpeggiator? I've asked that in reviews of each generation. The new RPG-8 module ends the wait — it has almost everything you'd want in an arpeggiator, along with a few things you've probably never thought of (see Fig. 1).
Needless to say, when you feed it a chord, the RPG-8 will cycle the notes up, down, up and down, randomly, or in the order played. It will offset the pattern by as much as three octaves and repeat the pattern over as many as four octaves. Four Insert modes — Low, Hi, 3-1, and 4-2 — offer a bit more variety. The first two insert the lowest or highest held note every other beat. The latter two arpeggiate three or four notes, then jump back one or two notes before continuing the arpeggio.
For still more variety, you get a 16-step rhythm sequencer. Steps that are turned off don't play, of course, but in a nice touch, the arpeggio is spread across only the active steps. That gives you the same pitch sequences regardless of the rhythm pattern.
The MIDI Sustain Pedal (CC 64) activates the arpeggiator's Hold button to continue the arpeggio after you release the held notes, and the Single Note Repeat switch, when off, prevents arpeggiation when a single note is held. Using that, you can easily go back and forth between playing lead lines and arpeggiated chords.
Until now Reason offered no way to use MIDI note pitch or Velocity as a control source unless that option was built into a particular device. The RPG-8 converts MIDI Note messages to Reason's internal CV and Gate signals, and when turned off, it functions simply as a MIDI-to-CV and -Gate converter whose output you can route to other modules' CV and Gate inputs. For example, you could use that ability to make a pad synth's filter cutoff track the pitches of notes played in real time (through the RPG-8) while the pad synth itself is playing a recorded track.
FIG. 2: Reason''s greatly improved sequencer has multilane tracks with all data held in clips. Lanes can be folded for compactness or open (as the Lead Synth track is here) for easier editing.
Reason's sequencer has undergone a major overhaul. Instead of being reassignable, tracks are hardwired to devices in the rack, and each device can have at most one track. Tracks have lanes for each type of data the device recognizes (notes, automation, and pattern select). You can have multiple note lanes, which play simultaneously but can be muted individually; other data types have at most one lane (see Fig. 2).
All data is now housed in clips. Clips are a great improvement on the data grouping in previous versions — they're much easier to move, copy, split, and join. Furthermore, you get numerical entry fields for all data points (note and automation values and positions). Unfortunately, there is no quick way to extract selected data to a new lane, for example to extract all notes for a particular drum to their own lane for groove quantizing.
Automation, which includes both device-parameter automation and MIDI performance data, may reside in note clips or in separate clips in automation lanes. During recording, MIDI performance data is placed in the current note clip. By default, parameter automation (moving device knobs and sliders) is recorded in separate automation lanes, although you can toggle that behavior. Automation data in either location is vector based (dots connected by lines), and you can edit it manually. You can also set the default value (Pitch Bend wheel centered, for instance) to be used on any portion of the lane where there is no clip. Pattern-select automation occupies its own lane, and you can now change the pattern number rather than having to reenter the automation.
The sequencer has a permanent Transport track at the top in which you can insert lanes for tempo and time-signature automation. The transport's tempo and time signature are in effect where there are no automation clips.
As in previous versions, two tools are assigned to the cursor, the alternate tool being accessed by pressing the Command (Mac) or Alt (PC) key. But unlike in previous versions, you can select any tool with a single keystroke — Selection (Q), Pencil (W), Erase (E), Razor (R), Magnify (T), and Hand (Y). That speeds up editing considerably.
You can import and export Standard MIDI Files, but owing to Reason's unorthodox MIDI implementation, the process is a bit clunky. Imported Type 1 (multitrack) MIDI files generate a new track assigned to a new, empty Combinator for each track in the MIDI file. Exported MIDI files are always Type 1, but each track is assigned to MIDI Channel 1 because Reason doesn't use MIDI channels. Unfortunately, tempo and time-signature changes are neither imported nor exported.
FIG. 3: The ReGroove Mixer lets you apply up to 32 different quantizing grooves to individual lanes.
In the Groove
The new ReGroove Mixer is one of the slickest implementations of groove quantizing I've seen. It resides just below the sequencer and is toggled in and out of view by a button in the transport (see Fig. 3). You can assign each note lane in the sequencer to any of the ReGroove Mixer's 32 channels. Each note's timing will then be influenced by the groove template in that channel. A convenient Anchor Point setting controls where ReGrooving restarts. That is handy, for example, when you have an 8-bar intro and want to sync a 16-bar groove to bar 9 of the song.
Groove templates are, in effect, timing offsets for each 16th note over a span of one or more bars. You get a variety of factory templates, but more important, you can extract a template from any note clip in the sequencer. For instance, you can extract the groove from a REX file or an imported MIDI drum loop and apply it to a Redrum or Matrix Pattern Sequencer pattern once you've copied that pattern to a track (see Web Clip 2).
Each groove channel has a variety of settings that influence how the groove is applied. Those settings are made on the Groove tab of the floating Tool window (more on that in a moment). Sliders set the extent of the impact on timing, Velocity, and note length. For example, 50 percent timing moves notes halfway to the template position, 100 percent moves them all the way, and 200 percent offsets them to the opposite side of the template position. You use the Random slider calibrated in ticks (960 ticks per quarter note) to apply a random variation to the timing adjustments.
In addition to the settings in the Tool window, each ReGroove Mixer channel has a slider for groove amount, knobs for Shuffle and Slide, and Pre-align and Global Shuffle buttons. The groove-amount slider works relative to the sliders in the Tool window. The Shuffle knob offsets even-numbered 16th notes ahead or behind in time, whereas the Slide knob offsets all notes. Pre-align quantizes notes to the 16th-note grid before applying the groove template. The Global Shuffle button applies the global shuffle amount, which is now set in the ReGroove Mixer rather than the transport, to the notes being processed.
The aforementioned Tool window brings a variety of menu items to your fingertips. From its Browser tab, you can drag devices directly to the rack. The Tools tab provides sequencer-management tools for quantization; pitch, Velocity, legato, and note-length adjustment; tempo scaling; note scrambling; and automation cleanup.
The Combinator's Programmer lets you filter out MIDI Pitch Bend, Mod Wheel, Breath, Expression, Sustain, and Aftertouch messages. Also, all knob and button source fields are variable (you can route a single knob to ten destinations, for instance). The NN-XT sampler features chromatic automapping and multizone editing of sample settings.
In the transport, playback position is displayed in bars, beats, 16th notes, and ticks as well as hours, minutes, seconds, and milliseconds. All fields are editable. You also get buttons for precount as well as for overdub and alternate-take recording, although the latter two would be more useful as toggles than as triggers.
As with all previous upgrades, it's hard to imagine a Reason user not parting with the modest upgrade fee. If you're still not sure Reason is for you, this might be the time to grab the downloadable demo and have a listen. The patchable rack of instruments and effects is by itself worth the price of admission.
Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
GUIDE TO EM METERS
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed
FEATURES 4 EASE OF USE 4 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 5 VALUE 4 RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Great-sounding new semimodular synth, Thor. Reason finally has an arpeggiator. Much-improved sequencer. Clever groove-quantization scheme.
CONS: Can't easily extract data to new lanes. MIDI file import and export lacks features. New overdub and alternate-take implementation is awkward.