Propellerhead’s latest Reason update adds features you never knew you wanted — but which you might find indispensible.
Everyone seems to appreciate Reason in one fashion or another, but it does split opinion. To some it’s a professional music-making workstation, but to others it’s more of a sonic playground: fun, but not for serious work. I think Reason 9 is starting to pull together a more serious range of features.
However, I didn’t start off believing that. I remember being underwhelmed with the version 8 upgrade: all the new stuff was good, it was just a bit thin on the ground for the price of the upgrade. There were the browser enhancements, which were improved and consolidated in incremental updates; but there were no new synths, or anything creative to get excited about. When looking at what was new in Reason 9 I found, again, that there were no new instruments. In fact, the last new Reason instrument was the dull but useful ID8, back in Reason 6 — and Thor was released nearly 10 years ago.
Instead, Propellerhead have given us the unexpected. They have introduced a whole new category of device in Reason 9’s ‘Players’; they have integrated pitch correction into the sequencer, and they have provided some interesting MIDI-to-audio and audio-to-MIDI features. They have also enabled a degree of choice about the look and feel of the program, thanks to the new Blue and Dark Themes. So before I decide exactly how whelmed I am with this new update, I need to put my desire for new synths aside and spend some time making music with what it has.
I’m not sure that the name Players describes the new category of Reason device very well. They are, in essence, MIDI plug-ins, the likes of which are found in most DAWs. They take in MIDI data from your keyboard or the sequencer, and add to or modify those note events. There are three Players: Dual Arpeggiator, Note Echo and Scales & Chords. All are relatively simple devices, but there’s something about the way they are designed that makes them feel really creative. A large part of the appeal could be the very anti-Reason fact that they don’t require, or indeed support, patching: on the back of the rack, they are completely blank. Instead, they slot themselves into the top of the instrument they are playing. They are also a little bit narrower, and so don’t give the illusion of being screwed into the virtual rack. This sort of behaviour very much defies the Reason way of doing things, but makes it very quick and easy to drop them in and get playing.
There’s nothing particularly exciting about arpeggiators, other than them being the most fun part of any synth. It seems extraordinary that Reason hasn’t had one up until now — except, of course, it has. The RPG8 Monophonic Arpeggiator has been part of Reason since version 4, so why introduce a new one, and why keep the old one? The answer may be to do with simplicity. As I mentioned, the new Players have no patching, whereas the back of the RPG8 is festooned with all sorts of sockets. The RPG8 thus has the ability to be patched into all sorts of places, whereas the Dual Arpeggiator is focused on the instrument at hand.
As the name suggests, the Dual Arpeggiator can have two independent arps going at once, which can create some nice polyrhythms. Each arp can also be up to four-note polyphonic. It has all the regular rate, octave and direction options, but over in the grid, things get a bit more interesting. In the grid you can specify the number of steps, the pattern for your four notes, and their velocity, and these parameters can be turned on or off separately; for instance, turning the Steps parameter on lets you define the number of steps, but if you switch this off, the number of steps would be dictated by the number of notes played. Switching the Pattern to ‘on’ lets you draw in a pattern for the four played notes, creating melody lines and also chords, while the Velocity switch flips between ‘as played’ or ‘as written’. The two arps can be run in parallel, but they can also be split by input range. The last neat function is the Repeat switch, which plays every note twice at the set rate, effectively doubling the length of the arpeggio.
All in all, I don’t think I’ve come across a more fully featured arpeggiator. Along with the accidental discovery of melody, you get a more deliberate four-note step sequencer; thread the two together, and there’s plenty of scope for melodic lines of chaos.
When we think about delay, we tend to focus on audio echoes. With MIDI delay, on the other hand, the MIDI notes are being repeated, and there’s all sorts of interesting things that can be done to them before they play that repeated note. Note Echo does some of these things. The controls are very simple, yet yield some delightful results: I found it particularly effective to liven up the piano or electric piano sound from the ID8. The Repeats knob specifies the number of repeats and the Step Length is the time distance between each note, either in milliseconds or as a fraction of the sync’ed tempo. Then, across those repeats, you can set a relative velocity and/or pitch change. By changing the velocity, you have repeated notes decay like a conventional echo, or turn it the other way to increase the velocity with each new repeat. With Pitch you set an amount of transposition between one and 12 semitones, and that same adjustment is taken on by each subsequent note. So if you set it to 1, each repeat plays up another semitone, giving you a rising scale. Any of the repeats can be turned off, allowing rhythmic patterns to be created, and this gets even more interesting when you turn the Step Length down to zero. Now, all the repeats play at once, letting you set up a little chord-generating machine. There’s a very handy folder of chord presets so you don’t have to work them out for yourself. Stacking up another Note Echo to apply to the chords the first one is creating is far too much fun!
But why would you build chords in Note Echo, when you have a whole other device to do that far more sublimely? Choose a key and scale, then play a note, and the perfect chord magically appears. Stick it on a piano, play some white notes softly, and you have an instant pop ballad ready for Adele’s vocal. Ramp up the tempo and velocity, and it’s the chordal hook of a soon-to-be-banging dance track. It’s the sort of tool that makes creating music seem far too easy. But then, that’s the essence of Reason and, although it sounds like cheating, I was totally inspired just through playing with it for five minutes.
So, how does it work? Well, it either creates chords of up to five notes within a specific key and scale, or it restricts your playing to that same key and scale. If you take the default, which is set to C Major, and press a C key, you get a C major chord. Pressing D gives you D minor, E gives E minor and so on, so your played note becomes the root of the chord that is diatonic in that scale. Simply by playing some notes, you get back some lovely and appropriate chords, but there’s also some great tweaking you can do. You can choose from four different inversions, you can open chords out to spread the range, and you can add an octave note above or below. There’s a Color button, which appears to add a ninth to each chord.
By default, any notes played that fall outside the scale are shifted into it, so it’s impossible to play wrong notes; another way of achieving the same end is to turn on a note filter, which will instead silence any notes that don’t belong to the scale — enormously helpful to the less musically able. And finally there’s a nice big green button labelled Alter which, when pressed, pushes the chord just slightly out of scale, just for fun.
The Players have another trick up their sleeve when it comes to recording their MIDI output. Similar note-generating devices such as the Matrix and the RPG8 Arpeggiator have an ability to stream their notes or pattern to the sequencer, accessed using the right-click menu. In the Players, this feature is hidden in plain sight at the top of the stack — it took me ages to find it, as I couldn’t work out why it wasn’t in the right-click menu. Hit ‘Send To Track’ and the resultant output of the Player is placed in the sequencer above the original clip. The Player device is then automatically bypassed and the original clip is muted. A very smooth function.
There’s also a new way to record the MIDI data from a Player, called Direct Record. This mode places the sequencer after the Player device and directly records the Player’s output into the note clip. This can be particularly useful for recording its output while making real-time tweaks. While the Direct Record button is on, playback from the note clip is routed direct to the instrument.
I confess to not having been initially impressed by the idea of these MIDI plug-ins — even watching the demo videos didn’t ignite my enthusiasm — but having now played with them and explored some of their potential, I have been completely won over. Maybe I’ve not noticed before how creative MIDI plug-ins can be. I’ve always seen them as dull utility features, but Reason 9’s new Players are quite inspirational and certainly fulfil Propellerhead’s desire to offer more creativity.
In recent years, many DAWs have added some variant of ‘bounce in place’. In Reason 9, you can take any note clip, right-click on it and select ‘Bounce in place’; and, after a moment’s thought, a recorded audio version will appear on a newly created audio track directly underneath the note clip. The bounce records the output of the instrument at the console mixer with all the inserts and coloration in place, but without any send effects. Any reverb tails or delay effects that extend beyond the size of the note clip are revealed if you expand the bounced audio clip to the right, which is very neat. Once bounced, you are free to mess with the clip as audio — reverse it, slice it, drop it into the NN-XT sampler — and you can delete the original instrument track to free up precious CPU cycles.
Audio pitch correction within a DAW used to be handled either using a real-time plug-in or by linking to a separate stand-alone utility such as Melodyne, but the former approach is limiting and the latter is complicated. Many conventional DAWs have thus gone down the road of integrating graphical pitch correction within the main arrange page, either by hosting Melodyne as an ARA-format plug-in or by baking in a dedicated function such as Steinberg’s VariAudio. Reason has now followed Cubase thanks to the addition of its own ‘Vocal stretch’ pitch-correction algorithms.
Double-clicking an audio clip will take you straight to the pitch edit window, and the three audio editors, Slice, Pitch and Comp, can also be accessed via buttons on the toolbar. The Pitch edit window is very familiar, and it had no trouble picking out the pitch on the vocal tracks I tried, even with some instrument bleed coming through. You can simply hit the Correct button to snap everything to the nearest semitone, but where’s the fun in that? Individual note editing is where it gets interesting, and my immediate reaction was that it is pleasingly quick and easy to use. There are three transposition modes, which affect what happens when you move a note: Snap (to the nearest semitone), Jump (same as snap but relative) and Fine (freely off grid). The first time you move a note, you’ll hear a horrible background sine wave at the same pitch, presumably giving you a tone to work with. That’s a terrible idea, but thankfully it can be disabled by turning off the Monitor button. The other slight anomaly is that the pitch of the note you’re moving doesn’t change until you release the mouse.
When a note is selected, handles appear that let you adjust pitch drift and the transition between notes. Finer details can be manipulated above the editor in the inspector bar, where you can also play with Preserve and Formant values. Drift and Preserve are conceptually slightly at odds with each other — the former reduces the amount of pitch wobble, whereas Preserve retains the wobbly character — but I’m sure there’s something clever going on to make them work together. When you close the editor, there’s no indication of any changes having been made to the audio track. I like the indication you get in Studio One on a track you’ve edited with Melodyne, which makes it easier to find and revisit an edit.
All in all, the pitch editor is very familiar, easy to use and doesn’t overcomplicate — and it’s right there on the track, which is awesome in terms of workflow.
In hardware, being old and vintage has some coolness about it. In software, not so much, and Reason’s synth rack has remained largely unchanged for years. It’s been so long since Propellerhead gave us a new sound-generating device that I’ve almost stopped moaning about it, but every time an update comes along, I hope against hope for something to liven up the roster of ageing instruments. There have been improvements and developments, such as the incremental update to version 8 that solved an issue I found very annoying, whereby you couldn’t play the device you put your mouse on in the rack but had to select it in the sequencer first. But what we really want is a new synth.
With hardware modular synthesis becoming so fashionable, we’ve seen virtual instruments such as NI’s Reaktor Blocks and Softube’s Modular start to offer similar patchable qualities. It seems like a no-brainer to me for Propellerhead to be all over this sort of thing, with individual analogue modules that could be dropped in like the half-rack effects and then patched in from behind. Reason already has all the functionality ready to go. They could adapt the rack to fit Eurorack-style modules, letting you mix the oscillators from Subtractor with the filters from Thor. It would open up a whole new Rack Extension line in individual modules. Can you sort that out for me Propellerhead? Is version 9.1 too soon?
Instead, Reason 9 offers us 1000 new patches to reinvigorate our dusty old rack of synths and samplers — and they do a good job of that, packing in the most extraordinary combinations of things. The new sounds are curated by “top producers and professional sound designers” so it’s good to know they weren’t just put together by some guy messing about. Is it enough to make up for the lack of new sound generation virtual hardware? Maybe, but 1000 patches do tend to highlight one long-running flaw in Reason’s browser: the lack of any tagging facility. The only searching you can do is by name. So if you really liked the evolving pad sound of ‘Blurring Focus’ but can’t quite remember the name, you’re not going to find it by searching for ‘pad’. There should be a category or descriptive tagging system, so you can narrow it down to ‘moody, lead, arpeggiated’ sounds, like you can in most virtual instruments. Still, that aside, the new sounds are good, solid, useful and often inspiring — and what’s not to like about that?
There is one new addition in the effects department: the Pulsar LFO, a well-regarded modulator Rack Extension that used to be available for $50. Including it in Reason 9 sounds like a good idea, unless you’ve already bought it, in which case it’s an annoying idea. I would have thought that a better plan, partly to appease loyal users who feel hard done-by, but mostly because it would be really cool, would be to give you $50 of Rack Extension store credit. Reason is, after all, not short on LFOs, whereas a cheeky FM synth would give me something new to play with.
The Pulsar also draws attention to another area where Reason is lacking: visual modulation feedback. With most modern virtual synthesizers, when you patch in an LFO, the knob you are modulating moves in accordance, or you might get a colour indication moving around the knob: something, at least, to indicate that modulation is occurring. Why can’t we have a bit of this in Reason? Maybe it’s a desire for authenticity that prevents Propellerhead from automating a knob that wouldn’t be motorised in real hardware? That’s probably a stretch, and the lack of visual feedback adds to the feel that in places Reason is being left behind.
Reason continues to be a sonically creative collection of analogue-style synthesis and sampling tools, and in many ways, its unchanging nature is one of its strengths, although the synth rack is starting to feel dated (can we lose the handwritten font on the name strips yet?). The versatility in patching and routing is second to none, making it a joyous playground for the synth and sound designer, but its evolution into a more serious digital audio workstation package has been slow and underwhelming at times. Something amazing like the console mixer is followed up not with more big things but a flurry of small adjustments. Propellerhead struggled to convince many people that the version 8 update was good value for money, and on paper, Reason 9 risks producing that same feeling. In practice, however, the creativity released by the Players and the usability of the pitch editing make for an upgrade that’s focused and moving again in a positive and creatively empowering direction. There’s plenty of things still missing that separate Reason from more ‘professional’ DAWs, such as punch in/out, markers, timeline display options and video support, but it could be argued that these things are available if you Rewire into another host — although sometimes that sounds like an excuse!
I’ve enjoyed being pulled back into Reason, and although opinion will be split on whether the additional features are worth the £99$129 upgrade price, I think they are, and I’m brimming with a bunch of new song ideas. You can’t ask for much more than that from a piece of creative music production software.
In Reason 8.1, Propellerhead introduced a new cloud-based feature called ‘Drop to Propellerhead’. This was in part to let you upload quick mixes for listening to on another device, but it was also a way of collaborating with other people and sharing ideas. I’m not sure how useful it was but Propellehead thought it worth spinning out as a start-up and renamed it Allihoopa. It’s a groovy idea: make some music, upload a mix, get feedback and bring in other people to collaborate. You can also download other users’ mixes directly into Reason and start using them yourself — what a wonderfully open world of global musical togetherness.
However, a quick peak into the Terms of Service reveals that anything you upload is completely free for anyone to use, so you could find a few loops someone has uploaded on Allihoopa, arrange them into a song, release it as a track and you wouldn’t have to pay the original creator a penny. Or someone could do that with your material.
As a place to share ideas, it’s a marvellous thing, with a Web interface that is easy to use. Pressing a button on the transport bar in Reason uploads a mix, and I like that you can download a track that will automatically open Reason and drop it in for you. At the moment it only supports audio mixes, though: you can’t upload stems or Reason projects, which I think is a bit of a missed opportunity. Copyright will become an issue if you are making music for something more than fun, but it’s also a way to get your music heard and find people to collaborate with. Just do it with your eyes open.
Reason 9’s new pitch detection and conversion of audio to MIDI is, I find, unintentionally hilarious, with results that can be entertainingly unpredictable.
For example, I used Direct Record to capture the output of a Subtractor lead sound playing three notes via the Dual Arpeggiator. When I bounced it to audio and attempted to bounce it back to MIDI, the results sounded like a lapsed Buddhist monk after a serious night on the tiles. This is somewhat compounded by Reason’s decision to automatically load up the ‘Singing Synth’ Subtractor patch as the playback device. Slowing things down a bit gave Reason a better chance, and trying the same experiment with eighth notes rather than 16ths gave a much better result. In fact, I’d call it bang on. Bounce the results in place once again, and I could see this developing into some kind of study on chaos in serialism.
A nice touch is that instead of using the right-click ‘Bounce to MIDI’ option, you can in fact simply drop the audio clip onto an instrument track, whereupon the conversion will be carried out automatically. The traditional use for this technology is, of course, to convert a hummed tune into MIDI notes, and it does that satisfyingly well.