Electronic Music Studio Software

Published in SOS September 2002
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The new Malström and NNXT in the Reason rack; NNXT is showing just its Main Panel, since the unfolded device takes up practically the whole screen.
Propellerhead's Reason software studio has undergone a big upgrade, adding two powerful new instruments.

Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser

Version 2 represents a major, paid-for upgrade to Reason, Propellerhead's cult software studio, which was originally reviewed in SOS March 2001 (see articles/propellorhead.asp). As well as many smaller changes (see Other v2 Enhancements box), the most obvious additions are two new 'devices' for the Reason rack.

The first of these is the NNXT sampler. This is a more sophisticated offering than the existing NN19, allowing users to do far more than play back loops and construct simple multisample Patches. NNXT doesn't actually sample (since Reason doesn't do direct audio recording). You have to import the samples you want to use -- but from then on it does pretty much the lot. NNXT supports velocity-split and crossfaded layers, offers auto pitch-detection for easier multisample keyboard mapping, and has 16 audio outputs. What's more, unlike NN19, its synthesis parameters are applicable independently to every individual sample.

The NNXT device comprises two sections. The idea is that you normally keep the small Main Panel open, unfolding the 'Remote Editor' when you need it. The former offers Patch-loading and saving facilities, mod and pitch-bend wheels, a master volume control, and global synthesis knobs for quickly applying

Propellerhead Reason v2 £299
Deep and characterful new synth.
Excellent new sampler extends Reason's appeal further into genres other than dance.
Huge, top-quality Orkester sound bank.
Useful sequencer tweaks.
Tempo-sync'able LFOs.
SoundFont support.
Effects not improved.
Sequencer could still do with some extra features.
You still have to Rewire to another app for audio recording and VST plug-ins.
The Orkester sound bank alone could justify the upgrade cost, but since you also get a brilliant synth, a sophisticated sampler and a host of smaller improvements, Reason users shouldn't think twice about investing in v2.

offset tweaks of the most significant parameters to an entire Patch, while the latter includes comprehensive synthesis controls, plus the excellent Key Map graphic display.

Samples may be loaded singly or en masse, and mapping them across the keyboard (producing a Patch) is a simple, automatic, two-step process which includes a pitch-detection stage. This is welcome news to those used to NN19, where if a sample does not have embedded pitch information, its Root Note has to be set manually. NNXT's pitch detection is nearly always successful: it can be fooled by some sounds, such as resonant synth tones, but even then it's usually just an octave out, so is easy to fix manually. Keymaps are shown in a clear, helpful way as a descending series of zones, with sample name on the Y-axis and pitch on the X-axis. Clicking a zone creates a visual connection to a keyboard graphic, making it very easy to see what is mapped where.

Another 'first' for Reason is sample looping: in v2, you don't have to rely on imported samples already having loop points set. You can set start and end points for the whole sample, and set up an internal loop, although you have to do this by ear. This is fine for rhythmic samples, but a bit of a pain for individual instrument-note samples. It can be done, however, and can be very precise, using Reason's Tool Tips to display the loop points in individual samples. Holding 'Shift' while making changes increments or decrements in single frames. This is made easier by the fact that loop parameters can be changed while a sample is played and held, but if individual note looping is likely to become part of your routine, it's still probably best to invest in a third-party sample editor.

NNXT handles layers beautifully. Any set of samples can be quickly Grouped to turn it into a layer, whereupon the samples for the next layer can be loaded. Group these, too (then keymap, if necessary): instant layer. It's possible to go on adding layers like this until your RAM gives out. Best news is that layers can be cut and pasted between NNXTs, and all sample and synth parameters are transferred automatically, for quickly creating new layered Patches from existing Patches.

Where two or more variations of the same instrument multisample are layered, the natural thing to do is velocity-split the layers, so that different samples 'come through' in response to playing style. All you need do is select a layer and dial in the lowest and highest velocities that should trigger it. It's just as easy to

  Test Spec  
  Propellerhead Reason v2.0.
Apple G4, 450MHz, Mac OS 9.2.1, 896MB of RAM.
create a crossfade between velocity-split layers: set velocity ranges that overlap between layers, select all layers in the Patch, choose 'Create Velocity Crossfade', and it's done automatically. Brilliant. (You can also edit crossfades manually.)

NNXT's synthesis system is similar to that of the other devices, with subtle differences. As well as applying synth parameters separately to each sample, you can also apply them to Groups of samples, which is a real time-saver. NNXT's multi-mode resonant filter is similar to SubTractor's, but its additional 6dB Low-Pass option gives a very different character to the existing 12 and 24dB types. Amplitude and Modulation envelopes are more sophisticated, being five-stage devices offering a 'Hold' stage between the Attack and Decay stages, and a Delay of up to 10 seconds after a note-on event before the envelope fires up. Careful use of this parameter, on the Amp envelope especially, allows complex wave-sequencing-type effects to be created. This will be even better if Propellerhead get around to providing tempo-sync'ed envelopes!

The two LFOs offer a decent variety of waveforms, but fewer modulation destinations than SubTractor. However, they can be routed to modulate all these destinations at the same time, if desired. New for a Reason LFO is the LFO1 'Key Sync' switch, forcing the LFO cycle to start anew each time a key is pressed. Where LFO modulation is an important rhythmic part of a sound, Key Sync allows the effect to be much more predictable.

The depth and flexibility of NNXT is excellent for those who want to work with complex, expressive Patches and layers, but it affects the 'automatability' of the device. Moves of most Reason device

NNXT, with its massive Remote Editor unfolded. Worth noting is the way in which 'in focus' sample zones are highlighted, for editing, and the way in which their key ranges are indicated: the highlighted zone in the upper part of the screen is currently in focus. The 'M' flashes that appear next to parameters in the Remote Editor indicate parameters that have different, or conflicting, values in overlapping layers.
controls can be easily recorded for automation purposes, a popular facility of the program. But because every sample in an NNXT Patch has a full complement of synth parameters, once you reach even a modest number of samples in a Patch, you'll run out of MIDI controllers to assign. Thus only the controls on the Main Panel can be automated, or tweaked by a MIDI hardware controller. Likewise, NNXT's back panel is rather less 'populated' than those of other Reason devices. It has a good collection of gate and modulation CV inputs, plus gate and CV trigger inputs to link to a Matrix sequencer, but no modulation CV outputs.

The Orkester ReFill

What really shows off the capabilities of NNXT is the new Orkester ReFill. Over 500MB in size, this features 24-bit samples of orchestral instruments, and has a scope and quality that's amazing for a set bundled free. It's divided into brass, woodwind, strings and percussion folders, and the basic Patches you'd expect are provided in variations. These depend on the instrument type and include different playing dynamics, bowing styles, staccato/pizzicato, selections of note lengths, trills, trumpet and trombone mutes, and so on. There are even some stereo 'cello and violin Patches, plus combination Patches such as oboe/English horn/clarinet and violas/'cellos/basses; you can also create your own combinations. Playable ranges for most Patches are sensibly chosen -- for example, you can't play below C1 on a 'cello Patch, as you can't on the real instrument.

Highlight of the collection has to be the string Patches. There's barely an unusable one, and the sound is really pleasing. Propellerhead seem to be using Orkester as a sales point for toilers in the R&B trenches, but this fine, atmospheric collection will be welcomed by all Reason users. Recording quality is top-notch, and so is playability. There's even a range of 'lite' patches requiring less RAM than the full patches -- sensible, since some Orkester patches are very large. Only the brass collection disappoints in some ways: most trombones are unpleasant to these ears, and the French horns are nearly as bad. Some trumpets are decent, though.

Note that while NN19 can't load NNXT Patches, it can load the samples that make up NNXT Patches.

The New Synth

Malström addresses the need for a different character of synthesis in the Reason environment, producing a hybrid of wavetable and granular synthesis called 'Graintable' synthesis. Granular synthesis divides sound into tiny, discrete segments called grains, each of which has its own frequency, harmonic spectrum and envelope, while wavetable synthesis organises a collection of single-cycle waveforms or short samples into a 'lookup' table, any part of which can be accessed during the sound-making process, with individual waves being looped, played back at different speeds (to change pitch) or 'swept' to create timbral change. In merging the technologies, Propellerhead start with a sample that's undergone complex processing to divide it into a table of periodic waveforms -- grains. These recreate the original sample when played back with no modification, but the sample can now be played back at any speed without a pitch change and vice versa.

Eighty-two impressionistic and imitative Graintables are provided as raw material for programming, and no, there's no way to create your own or add extra ones. This is not as restrictive as it sounds, as individual grains in a Graintable can be isolated and looped, themselves becoming the basis for Patches. In the case of the more complex graintables, each grain may have a distinct timbre, providing much more synthesis potential.

Graintable playback can be started at any point, potentially influencing the finished sound's texture, and the harmonic spectrum of the Graintable can also be changed. Then the rest of the synth signa

Malström, with its 'unusual' design and colour scheme. This particular patch is producing arpeggio-like patterns courtesy of its special Modulator waveforms.
l path and modulators can be called upon, to create Patches that couldn't be made with any other Reason device, or indeed many other instruments. The signal path, post-Graintable 'oscillator', is analogue-style, so once you're familiar with Graintable manipulation, you should be able to program Malström if you can program an analogue synth.

Graintables aside, various things about the two-oscillator Malström's facilities have been 'souped up' when compared to the other Reason sound-makers. For example, comb and amplitude modulation options have been incorporated into the filter. The comb filters provide tone control based around very short delays and really open up some unusual sonic territory. Instead of a noise generator, there's the Shaper module, which provides soft and hard distortion options and plays a large part in the hard-edged sound of Malström. It can also be bypassed, which some users may have overlooked in complaining that they can't make soft or beautiful sounds with the new synth. Such sounds are achievable, but it might have been useful if the manual had provided programming examples.

Another departure is the substitution of two tempo-sync'able 'Modulators' for the more usual LFOs. The different terminology is justified by the 32 waveforms they offer. Alongside standard-issue sine and square waves are unusual rhythmic and special effect patterns, some of which create interesting 'envelope' attacks -- blips, swoops and wibbles -- while others produce arpeggio-like effects when routed to pitch or filter cutoff.

Malström's signal path is extremely flexible -- almost to the point of confusion -- in that you can route either or both oscillators through the Shaper and one or both of the filters, with serial and parallel options. If the filters are used in parallel, an effective 'Spread' control gradually pans the filter outputs hard left and right, for a pseudo-stereo effect. A single ADSR envelope can be applied to one or both filters, and feels like a cheat when there are independent EGs for each oscillator.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Malström is the rear-panel break in its signal path; it's possible to route the audio from both oscillators out of the synth via Oscillator outputs A and B, pre-Shaper/filter, process it with effects and then patch it back into the filters. Audio generated by other devices can also be patched into either of Malström's filters (and Shaper), via a pair of audio inputs (unique in the Reason rack). You can thus add some Malström attitude to any other device -- no mean advantage in itself. Actually, the sonic possibilities opened up by the audio outs and ins are staggering.

In general, Malström's character is aggressive and powerful, as demonstrated by the many preset Patches. It sounds great, though we habitually patch a compressor in line to tame some of the more out-of-control resonances. While the NNXT/Orkester combination is apparently aimed at R&B, Malström targets the Nine Inch Nails wannabes of the world. But, as mentioned earlier, it doesn't have to be that way!

  Other v2 Enhancements  
  Tempo-sync'able LFOs: At last! And in a really elegant implementation (SubTractor and NNXT secondary LFOs cannot be sync'ed, being polyphonic and triggered by note-ons, rather than free-running).

All sample devices load REX slices: It's always been possible to load REX files into Dr:rex, but now all sample devices can use REX slices. Even Redrum can load slices -- just the job for making a new drum kit from REX loop hits, for example. NNXT and NN19 can also load entire REX files.

SoundFont compatibility: Opens up the possibility of hoovering up some of the thousands of SoundFonts available on the Internet. We still can't load Akai-format samples without first converting them (a utility is said to be coming from Propellerhead themselves). Incidentally, NN19 will not load SoundFonts as Patches, only as single samples.

High-resolution sample playback: 24-bit samples can play back at 24-bit (previously they were dithered to 16-bit for playback).

Settings saved with Songs: Reloaded Songs have windows, rack position and magnification in the same state as you left them. Previously, everything defaulted to one window state and magnification.

Default Song change: Define any Song on your drive as a default, to open on launch. The Song no longer has to be called 'Default Song' (but if you define one and then move it to another folder, Reason won't find it when you start a session).

Minimum computer spec change: The minimum spec is no longer as minimum as it used to be. Devices like Malström and NNXT have an impact on power requirements, but on our run-of-the-mill 450MHz G4 Mac we've managed Songs with up to three NNXTs (playing 24-bit samples), three Malströms, a couple of Subs, a Redrum and half-a-dozen effects devices, with the CPU indicator just nudging amber. Propellerhead have limited Malström's polyphony to 16 notes, to help ensure that sloppily-programmed Patches, using more notes of polyphony than the user realises, cannot have too much effect on system load.

Full compatibility with Mac OS X and Windows XP.


Sequencer Tweaks

Reason's main sequencer benefits from some improvements in v2. The neatest new trick is detaching/resizing the sequencer window, to float it elsewhere on your monitor -- or another monitor entirely. Hand in hand with this improvement goes the ability to 'fold' the hitherto-unfoldable Transport bar welded into the

Reason's sequencer detached from the rack: it can now be resized to the full width of your monitor, or displayed on another monitor entirely.
bottom of the rack -- handy if you exclusively use keyboard shortcuts to run the sequencer, need more visible rack space, or would rather not have two transports showing after detaching the sequencer window.

Next up is a clutch of new sequencer tools. The Eraser tool erases notes or controller data. The Magnify tool provides instant two-way zooming, applied to all visible lanes in the Edit view, and is a great improvement over the previous 'static' zoom controls. The Hand tool lets you drag your way horizontally through a Song, or vertically within an Edit window, and is especially valuable in the Edit View, where vertical dragging can be achieved independently for each Lane. Dragging to a sub-Lane you'd like to view or edit is rather easier than using the scroll bars, especially if you only have a little of the Controller lane showing. Finally, there's a Line tool, which was high on our wish-list, allowing perfect straight fades and other gradual parameter changes in the controller and velocity lanes.

Reason's sequencer isn't as sophisticated as Cubase or Logic, but then it doesn't claim to be. We actually like its simplicity and clarity of presentation, and think the new tools are good enhancements. There are some suggestions we'd like to throw in, however: a tempo track to allow you to automate tempo changes without having to Rewire to another sequencer; customisable Group colours; and, in the Change Events window, an operation for deleting doubled events and a routine for automatically altering note lengths, like Cubase's 'Note Length' menu item.

  Missing In Action  
  So far we've not mentioned three features that many Reason users are still asking for: audio recording, VST plug-in support, and MIDI output.

Propellerhead have their reasons (sorry!) for not providing these most-wanted facilities. Regarding audio recording, you might sum up their stance as not wanting to do the job by halves and, if they do it at all, wanting to formulate an approach to audio recording that is as unique as the rest of Reason. As Propellerhead co-founder Ernst Nathorst-Böos puts it, "I don't want to just do a 'me too' thing for adding hard disk tracks to Reason. We'd just be an inferior Cubase, and why would we want to be that?" However, they haven't totally ruled out at some time producing an audio application to run alongside Reason.

As for VST plug-in support, Propellerhead say they don't want Reason to become a product that is a VST host, "and particularly for VST plug-ins that might not be as efficient as Reason." They instead favour Rewire for accessing VST plug-ins. The plan is to upgrade Reason's effects at some time, and if they do we will personally have no problem with lack of VST support -- it's not something we're desperate for, though some users are.

Lastly, there's MIDI Out, which Propellerhead (after all, still a small company whose 16-strong staff is in stark contrast to their international status) say is not as easy to implement as it might seem, since things like SysEx handling, a MIDI mixer, and various other complications would need to be accommodated. The company say they also still see Reason as "an accessory product to the major sequencing programs", and that they value the support of the other major music software houses.

These features seem like a big deal, in that they're requested so often, but the fact is that we Reason users are still Reason users without them, and we've never actually seen anyone say they won't buy the program, or will stop using it, if they don't get them. To be fair, Propellerhead have never even hinted that they're on the agenda for Reason, Rewire works, and Reason offers a fantastic environment for making music just as it stands. Still, we can hope!



This is a very good update, and a must-have for existing Reason users. The new devices breathe extra life and variety into the program, Malström bringing truly exciting sonic possibilities and NNXT offering all the sampler depth you could want, plus superb ease of use. The sequencer tweaks, though not revolutionary, are sensible, and we're very happy to see tempo-sync'ed LFOs finally appear. The ability to use REX slices in any sample-based device opens up excellent possibilities, and SoundFont support will also be widely welcomed.

Personally, we thought an improved reverb was needed for v2, and more sophistication on the compressor front wouldn't go amiss. There's also the question of the three features that Propellerhead are probably heartily sick of being asked for (see the 'Missing In Action' box). Different users obviously want to see different changes, but Propellerhead are still a small company and can't do everything at once. Version 2 is a considerable advance that increases Reason's useability and fun factor for existing devotees, while further enhancing its appeal for new users.

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