Since its launch early in 2001, Propellerhead's Reason has established itself as one of the coolest music software packages ever, with a large and growing user base. The recent version 2.5 update came as a bit of a surprise to many, not only in its timing (not long after the previous major v2.0 upgrade) but also in its scope, especially given that it's free for registered users. Not content with interim operational tweaks to the software, Propellerhead went the whole hog and added a selection of major new devices, primarily for signal processing, to the Reason virtual rack. No-one would have argued that Reason didn't need a bit more muscle in the effects department, but the number and power of the new devices goes beyond what was strictly required (certainly a better reverb and a more convincing distortion effect), adding a whole new sonic dimension to this electronic studio. And there's a secret weapon in the update too: a pair of simple yet incredibly useful audio and control signal merging/splitting devices that open up a world of creative possibilities.
Anyone who doesn't know about Reason should see our reviews and two-part tech tips features in previous issues of SOS (see the 'Reason In SOS' box on the next page); there's no room for a lengthy description of its features here. Essentially, Reason offers a virtual simulation of practically everything that would be found in a real electronic music studio: synthesizers, sample players, drum machines, sequencing tools, effects and an audio mixer. They're all interconnected by an intuitive cabling system and the programming interface is very knob-heavy. Mouse-driven editing is pretty straightforward, but the software can be made to interact with a wide range of third-party MIDI knob or fader boxes. The software functions perfectly as a stand-alone application — though you'll need sampling software if you plan to add your own samples — and it will interface, as sync'ed slave or static rack, with most popular sequencing platforms on the Mac or PC.
Version 2.5 of Reason visibly adds an advanced reverb device, a powerful vocoder, an evil distortion device aptly termed a 'Sound Destruction Unit', a 'sound-fattening' unison effect, and those merger/splitters mentioned above. We'll deal with the new Reason devices in detail in just a moment, but first let's examine some small enhancements added by v2.5. These concern the Remix mixer, the device at the heart of every Reason project.
First of all, Propellerhead's engineers have 'improved' the response of Remix's two-band shelving channel EQ. What those improvements are haven't been logged, but the audible result is that the EQ is smoother and has less tendency to blow out and unbalance the overall sound, especially the low band. Propellerhead have, thoughtfully, retained the original EQ response as an option (selectable via a switch on the Remix back panel), so that users can load pre-v2.5 songs safe in the knowledge that they won't sound different.
Next up, the mixer's four effects sends now operate in stereo, a laudable option in most mixing devices, but an initially curious choice for a closed software system. It is possible to create pseudo-stereo effects configurations that would benefit from true stereo sends (which could be cobbled in pre-v2.5 Reason), but the main motivation for the addition is the new RV7000 reverb unit — it's a true stereo device, requiring stereo sends. Of course, the sends can still be used in mono with the older effects devices.
Remix's 'chaining aux' sockets are also now stereo, so two chained Remixes can share one set of effects, notably RV7000, in stereo. However, the two aux sends on the Redrum drum machine, which can also interface with Remix's chaining aux sockets to share the mixer's send effects, remain mono only.
Lastly, Remix's aux send four is now switchable to pre-fader operation. Again, this would be a welcome option on a real mixer (for setting up monitor mixes and so on). In the context of this particular closed system, the option is handy for providing the particular sound created by using a pre-fade effect (ie. bringing the channel fader down doesn't reduce the amount of signal sent to the effect), something you'd probably want when using the RV7000 reverse-reverb algorithm. It could also be useful to provide an independent feed to the vocoder from audio that's also part of the main Reason mix.
These are welcome tweaks. But what makes this update special is the collection of new devices, so let's take a look at them.
It's a mystery to some how the vocoder, provider of many a cheesy pop record solo or special effect, has managed to maintain its air of coolness. Perhaps that's because for every novelty track there's an ironic or clever usage by the likes of Devo or Wendy Carlos, or something truly other-worldly or ear-catching on a club-bound white label. Vocoders classic and modern have been used creatively by dance-oriented artists for as long as the genre has been to the cultural fore, making the device a logical addition to Reason's rack.
The vocoder was developed as a telecommunications research tool early in the last century, eventually finding its way into electronic music studios and becoming most audible on radio and movie soundtracks. Essentially, it allows the timbre and texture of one sound to be superimposed onto another. The classic effect, if you can imagine it, involves speaking or singing into one side of the vocoder (as the modulator signal) which then articulates a sustained pad sound (the carrier). The rhythm, articulation and words (if they're distinguishable) are provided by the voice/modulator, while the tune or chords, sonic texture and timbre are produced by the pad/carrier. Once you realise that the modulator doesn't have to be a voice — substituting a drum part or rhythm loop, for example — and that you can easily swap the modulator/carrier relationship (or even use the same sound as carrier/modulator), a different world of processing becomes available.
Reason In SOS
Propellerhead Reason: March 2001.
Propellerhead Reason v2: September 2002.
Making The Most Of Reason, Part 1: November 2002.
Making The Most Of Reason, Part 2: December 2002.
Man Of Reason: Interview with Ernst Nathorst-Böös of Propellerhead: January 2003.
Vocoding results from the modulator being analysed by a bank of filters, the spectral fingerprint thus derived being replicated in the carrier's own, duplicate, filter bank. In BV512 (shown at the top of the page opposite), there is a choice of four, eight, 16 or 32 fixed filter bands or a special 1024-point FFT (fast fourier transform) process, which is equivalent to 512 bands of vocoding — hence the device's name. Four bands produces a fairly coarse sound, with increasingly faithful tracking as more bands are used. Each band has a level control in the shape of an on-screen slider (though there are not 512 sliders for FFT mode!), which can boost or cut a given band's response, allowing the result to be tailored. Note that BV512's modulator input is mono, though the carrier is stereo.
Unfortunately, the processing necessary to analyse the audio when using the high-quality FFT option introduces a definite delay, of around 20ms, onto the signal passing through BV512. This is logged in the manual, but is still a bit irritating. The delay is most noticeable on percussive or mixed audio; in normal circumstances where a voice is being vocoded, you may not really hear the problem. If it is audible, switch to 32-band mode. If Reason's sequencer had greater resolution, performances could be shifted by the right amount to eliminate the delay.
The frequency band level-adjust sliders take up the bottom half of the BV512's display; the top half shows modulation levels — a dancing bargraph, with a bar corresponding to each frequency band, shows the relative level in each band of the modulator signal. This graph shows roughly the location of all the active frequencies in a signal, so you'll have a fair idea of what moving the level sliders will do to the signal.
Other controls include a 'Hold' button. This fixes the vocoder's response, applying the frozen spectral pattern to the on-going signal. Using Hold creatively — and the Hold control can be triggered by an external gate — causes strange effects that sound rather like formant manipulation.
Envelope-followers are used to control signal levels passing through the modulator filters, and simple Attack and Decay controls allow you to tailor their response. The audible result is that the shape of the vocoded sound can be manipulated in a synth-like fashion, softening the attack or adding a decay effect. The ±1 shift control changes the frequency of the carrier filters, which alters the sound produced by the 512. The last significant parameter is high-frequency emphasis, which boosts the carrier's high frequencies. This is particularly useful when vocoding voices or vocals, where it can help to improve intelligibility.
BV512's rear panel (shown on the previous page) features a lot of CV In and Out sockets. Most prominent are the 16 individual band level input/output pairs: the Outs transmit a voltage in response to each frequency band's envelope-followers (complete with envelope shape, courtesy of the 512's Attack and Decay controls). Route them to any CV input to add parameter changes on another rack device that follows the vocoder rhythm. The Ins allow the bands to be automated directly. Even more interestingly, the Outs can be routed to the Ins on the same BV512, allowing you to completely subvert the way the vocoder treats its signal, with the level of one band affecting the output of another. You'll have noticed that there aren't enough CV In/Out pairs to allow for 32 or 512 bands; in these cases, the connections control (or generate) voltages from groups of frequencies. And of course, everything on the front panel can be automated. So if you feel the urge to madly draw and redraw the positions of the level sliders during the course of a track, you can — editing the result will not be for the faint-hearted, however!
It has to be said that vocoders tend to be a performance tool for treating live vocals or other instruments. Reason as yet has no audio input, so any modulator, vocal or otherwise, will have to be provided in a less than spontaneous way. Any external audio to be vocoded requires sampling elsewhere, to be imported into one of Reason's sample playing devices.
BV512 is not just a vocoder — it can also be used as a multi-band EQ. For more on this, see the 'BV512 As EQ' box below.
BV512 As EQ
The new BV512 is really two devices in one, since it will also function as an EQ, with the audio to be processed connected to the stereo carrier inputs. This isn't really a graphic EQ, as you might think, but a bank of fixed-frequency low-pass filters.Once again, there are choices of four, eight, 16 and 32 bands, plus the 512-band FFT option. The BV512 as equaliser also suffers from the vocoder delay in FFT mode mentioned elsewhere in this review.
As an equaliser, the BV512 is a fairly precise tool, with filter bands so steep that treated audio can have parts completely stripped from it. It's a 'by ear' process, since none of the bands has its centre frequency listed, but the result is that, for example, one can isolate the bottom end of mixed audio, or the hi-hat part, or various middle parts. Or, of course, give audio a completely new spectral fingerprint, creating resonances (by boosting bands as much as cutting) that bring implied musical material to the fore. You hear parts and lines that weren't there when you created a given piece. I soon got into the habit of setting up loop points and exporting treated audio as loops and textures for re-importing into Reason as samples or REX loops.
The EQ can even be used somewhat to attenuate vocals and other inconvenient parts of a fully mixed track. The BV512's bands are perhaps not quite as surgically precise as the best hardware tools, but it remains a brilliant facility to have. Note that the Hold, Attack and Decay controls don't work in this mode, but Shift and HF emphasis do.
FFT mode, in spite of its delay (which isn't a problem when offlining the processed results as samples), is audibly the best mode for creative EQ'ing. That said, 32-band mode is fine if you need the effect live on anything but the overall mix. Tweaking the HF Emphasis parameter can add a little brightness to the processed signal that might be lost when using fewer frequency bands.
VST (or indeed any other) plug-ins can't be used within Reason, so the shortcomings of the CPU-efficient but basic RV7 reverb have been apparent since the software's release. Reason users not wanting to pass audio via Rewire to the plug-in effects system offered by a MIDI + Audio sequencer have been fairly vocal about their opinions of RV7!
Enter RV7000, which is everything a reverb simulation should be, with an immediately impressive, much smoother, sound. Propellerhead could market this device as a stand-alone reverb plug-in — it's that good. This great sound has been matched with comprehensive and accessible editability via an intuitive and nicely designed interface. Like the NNXT super-sample module, RV7000 folds down in two ways: with the full package visible, a large, friendly remote programmer window allows you to be quite precise with your reverb tailoring. Editing is further aided by the remote programmer's graphic reverb plot, which changes dynamically in response to parameter tweaks. If you fold the programmer (it's connected to or disconnected from the main panel via a nifty animated cable), you still have a collection of four knobs and two buttons that allow simple tweaks of the current effect. And of course, it'll also fold one more time to the standard Reason space-saving sliver.
RV7000 comes equipped with a healthy library of factory presets. This is quite unlike other Reason effects, apart from the new Scream 4 device. You can, of course, save custom edits at any time. The presets are great, offering several fine vocal treatments. And if you want to be sure RV7000 can handle percussion, reassure yourself by setting up a Redrum loop and patching it through the 'Drum Hall' factory patch.
The new reverb is the only 'true stereo' effects device in the Reason rack: its processing of stereo signals involves no internal summing or mixing, producing a better, more natural-sounding result than RV7, which sums everything to mono and fakes a stereo output. In order to get the most out of this facility, Remix, as mentioned earlier, has a new stereo auxiliary send system. RV7000 could also be patched in line with a stereo Reason device, with none of RV7's compromises. And of course, it can be used in a mono send/stereo return loop, an option which saves a little CPU power.
The design, internal and external, of the RV7000 reminds me of the mid-range hardware reverbs produced by the likes of Lexicon and Roland. A similar range of processes and editability is afforded by the new Reason device. At the heart of the reverb process is the choice of basic algorithm. There are nine, dubbed 'Small Space', 'Room', 'Hall', 'Arena', 'Plate', 'Spring', 'Echo', 'Multi Tap' and 'Reverse'. Each algorithm is equipped with up to seven main parameters, accessed via 'soft knobs' at either side of a central reverb response display; an eighth soft knob always selects the algorithm, and reverb decay is controlled by the Decay parameter on the main panel. (Decay governs feedback for delay algorithms.) For example, 'Small Space' offers the following parameters: Size, Mod Rate (the reverb's random modulation), Mod Amount (low settings are recommended when emulating real rooms, and higher settings for special effects), Room Shape (which offers four options with different characters), LF Damp (to control the decay time of the low-frequency portion of the reverb), Wall Irregularity (which emulates the complexity of the simulated room, from straight-facing walls to many walls and angles for more complex resonances), and Pre-delay, plus Decay on the main panel.
Other algorithms are similarly well thought-out, though the simplest, 'Plate', offers just LF Damp and Pre Delay (plus Decay). In addition, there are two pages of secondary parameters, labelled Gate and EQ. With no fewer than seven parameters, quite sophisticated Gate responses can be applied to all reverb algorithms — including the delays and the reverse. The gate trigger itself can be derived from audio amplitude, or an incoming gate, the latter obviously allowing you to be very precise about how rhythmic an effect you produce. Other gate controls include Threshold (available when the trigger source is the incoming audio), Decay Modulation (a neat parameter that lowers the reverb decay time as the gate closes), a high-pass filter (which controls the amount of low-frequency energy in the audio spectrum that triggers the gate), Attack, Hold, and Release.
The EQ window (shown below) offers yet another sophisticated graphic, this time of the plot of the EQ response. In other ways, this is a strange window. Although it appears to offer two bands — low shelving with frequency and gain controls, and a parametric mid band (offering frequency, bandwidth and gain controls), the reverb EQ is actually three-band, though this doesn't show up on the graphic plot. The high shelving band has its control on the main panel — it's simply a less/more control, with no choice over centre frequency. The main panel also has a HF Damp control, which governs how quickly the high-frequency elements of the reverb tail decay.
RV7000's two tempo-sync'able delay algorithms, once again in true stereo, offer a different flavour of effect to that provided by the existing, rather basic, DDL1 delay processor. The 'Echo' algorithm, providing a maximum 2000ms delay, is the simpler of the two, yet provides diffusion and spread controls (adding a reverb-like bloom on individual repeats), along with LF damping and pre-delay. The 'Multi Tap' algorithm, on the other hand, offers comprehensive control over up to four taps, each editable in its own window. Each tap has its own level, pan position, and delay time (up to 2000ms). The Decay knob in the main panel controls the feedback-like Repeat Time parameter.
There is little CV control for the RV7000 — the gate trigger input is joined only by CV ins for HF Damping and Decay. Nearly all front-panel controls can, however, be automated, so in addition to the fact that this may be one of the best straight reverbs you'll have heard in a host-based system, it can also be used creatively. Automating decay and pre-delay parameters, for example, can help add something a bit different to a mix, not to mention the strange textures that can be generated by altering HF or LF damping over time. As with all aspects of Reason, the best results come from experimentation!
Make A BV512 Multi-band Compressor
Here's a lateral use for the BV512 vocoder's EQ mode that I've been using a lot lately to create a multi-band compressor from multiple pairings of BV512 in EQ mode and COMP01 compressors. I'd love to be able to take the credit for this technique, but it can be found, more fully explained, on Propellerhead's web site.
First of all, route audio from the Remix stereo out via a Spider Audio's splitter section to three BV512s, each set up to pass a range of frequencies roughly equivalent to low, mid and high bands. Route the vocoders to a compressor each, and the outputs of the three compressors are mixed in the merge section of the Spider Audio that's doing the splitting, with the merged audio routed to Reason's hardware interface. Best results are obtained in FFT/512-band mode, which means that you'll hear flamming and delays if you 'bypass' any vocoder in the setup. To fine-tune an individual frequency band, simply switch the other two 'off'. Full details, together with a useful template song with all the wiring and basic parameters set up for you, can be found in Propellerhead's ongoing 'Discovering Reason' series of on-line tutorials.
Reason's D11 Foldback Distortion doesn't have a lot of fans — it's a non-subtle 'either/or' effect that doesn't major on varied results. Scream 4 changes the rules of Reason's distortion game.
If ever a processor was given the right name and description, this is it. It can be non-subtle in a good way, and produces a wide range of exciting, aggressive, and even understated effects. It's very controllable, being capable of everything from light saturation and tape overloading effects to complete digital destruction. Many of its effects can be digitally precise, but Scream 4 can also be pleasingly warm and 'analogue' — for which full marks to the programmers.
Running Scream 4 is very natural for anyone familiar with hardware, though some of the legending on the 'front panel' seems rather small. Again, this processor would sell as a stand-alone product, and I'm sure many users will wish even harder for Reason to grow audio inputs just so a live guitar could be patched through it, especially given its excellent response to the dynamics of incoming audio. But as with the vocoder, any real-world audio to be treated by Scream 4 needs to be sampled and imported into Reason first.
Broadly speaking, Scream 4 is divided into three sections. In the Damage section, you set the input-gain level (called Damage Control — though there's not always much control going on!) and select one of 10 distortion algorithms. Each algorithm has two tweakable parameters, labelled in a grid on the front panel. For the record, the algorithms are 'Overdrive', 'Distortion', 'Fuzz', 'Tube', 'Tape', 'Feedback', 'Modulate', 'Warp', 'Digital', and 'Scream'.
Most of the names are self-explanatory, though a couple would benefit from a little further explanation. For example, the 'Tape' algorithm, as one would expect, emulates the soft clipping produced by analogue tape saturation, a desirable result in Reason's digital world. The two parameters available here are labelled Speed and Compression. The latter increase the tape saturation effect, while the former aims to reproduce the effect of tape running at different speeds. This is rather subtle, revealed as a brighter sound the 'faster' the tape is running!
'Modulate' and 'Warp' produce complex sound by simple means, but can be easily driven to digital-style crunch. The former marries a sort of amplitude modulation stage with distortion, for really resonant effects, while the latter distorts and multiplies the incoming signal with itself, adding more overtones and brightness with extreme settings. 'Digital' simply reduces bit rate and sample resolution to create the recognisable sound of digital distortion — Propellerhead even invoke the cause of emulating the raw and dirty sounds of vintage digital gear, which is a bizarre concept. Still, if you miss the noisy eight-bit outputs of early samplers and effects processors, tweak away. Incidentally, when its resolution parameter is set fully left, the output of this algorithm is at one-bit resolution! Finally, 'Scream' is simply a hyped form of fuzz — a band-pass filter with high resonance and a gain control is placed before the distortion process. High resonance settings help to produce wah-wah effects.
Scream 4's second section, Cut, is basically an effective three-band tone control with 18dB of cut or boost for its low-, mid- and high-frequency bands. This brings us to the intriguing Body Section, which can add as much as the basic algorithm to Scream's final output. Essentially, it creates the space and resonances that Scream 4's effect appears in; the manual suggests that Body parameters could emulate the sound of a particular speaker cabinet, but it's much more dynamic than that: an envelope-follower, controlled by the 'Auto' parameter, adds auto-wah and fixed flange effects. Five body types are available, though they come with no descriptions, and the user can then control the resonance of the selected body and its scale (its size, if you will).
In practice, it's perhaps best to largely ignore Scream 4's parameter names, and just tweak the knobs until it sounds good! The relatively simple set of controls can be used intuitively to produce really meaty results. All knobs can be automated, and there's CV control at the rear. The two Damage parameters, Damage Control and Body Scale, are augmented by a CV Out generated by the envelope-follower of the Auto control in the Body section. This value, which varies with what's being processed as much as with the Body section's parameters, can thus be applied to another CV-controllable parameter in the Reason rack — such as filter cutoff or resonance — for more dynamic textural variation.
Scream 4 is provided with a large, varied and well-programmed library of preset effects. You can also name and save custom edits.
The last new effect matches Reason's existing half-rack processors in design. UN16 does a simple audio-fattening job and has simple controls: its detuned voices are slightly delayed and modulated, for a chorus-like effect, offering a character not produced by other Reason devices. It's very pleasant. With guitar samples or loops, for example, one gets a sparkly, bright effect not unlike that of a 12-string guitar.
The controls consist of a button for choosing four, eight or 16 detuned voices, and a Detune knob, plus the expected Dry/Wet balance knob and Bypass/On/Off switch. I found that audio processed by UN16 appeared to be somewhat attenuated, but on closer examination, this may just be a psychoacoustic side-effect of how the unit achieves its result. The process is in stereo — the detuned voices are panned with no user control — and there seem to be cancellations, with a resultant thinning of tone, as part of the process. There is one CV input — for the Detune control — and that's about it for the UN16!
Looking back at the original SOS review of Reason, one operational feature really seemed to be missing: some way to route one gate or CV signal to multiple destinations, a common technique in all-patchable analogue synth systems. And finally, with v2.5, this option is provided. But there's more: Propellerhead have supplied Gate/CV merging as well as splitting, and they've included a module that splits and merges audio. Both devices go by the name of Spider. The front panels in both cases show little charts illustrating the splitting and merging within, with virtual LEDs showing the presence of original gates/CVs or audio.
The Spider CV Merger & Splitter does what it says on the box. Around the back, you can see where the action is: two splitter circuits each produce three straight and one inverted output, and one merge circuit mixes four inputs, each with a variable amount knob, to one output. Splitting is most welcome: any gate or CV can now be routed to several destinations, whether for multiple modulations from one source or for controlling several synths/samplers from one Matrix sequencer — saving rack clutter and CPU overhead.
Also useful, in a different way, is CV merging. This can help create a little randomness in the response of the target parameter, as the source gates or CVs are summed and output over time. And the new v2.5 manual has a nifty setup for using merged CVs from a pair of Matrixes to produce a sort of transposable arpeggiator. Spider CV's merge function could also be used to merge the gates and CVs from two or more Matrixes into one synth; then you could mute or unmute the Matrixes to provide more pattern opportunities for one instrument.
The inverted split output is also worth separate comment, as its value moves in the opposite direction to the straight outputs. If you created similar filter settings on a pair of Subtractors, say, and dynamically altered their cutoff frequency from a split Matrix CV curve, the straight and inverted CVs would send the filter cutoff values in opposite directions, creating more interesting textures.
The Spider Audio Merger and Splitter offers mix facilities for when the full Remix feature set is not required, or where you'd like to route given audio to more than one destination. The latter situation can arise when attempting to treat one audio device with more than one processor in parallel; in previous versions of Reason this involved a bit of fiddly trickery with other devices.
The merge function is very useful. For example, if you're using several Dr Rex devices to play back a series of related loops — say the individual lines in a vocal performance, or verse/chorus/break drum loops — it's handy to be able to 'subgroup' them via Spider Audio to feed one Remix channel, to be treated by common EQ and effects and so on. Doing this saves mixer channels and CPU overhead to boot. It would also be possible to route the merged output of a Spider Audio device to one, or a chain of, insert effects for that group of Dr Rexes — if you had a bunch of related guitar loops that you wanted to process with the same distortion effect, for example.
One last point common to both Spider CV and Spider Audio: they can be infinitely chained if more splitting/merging is required, with no apparent delays.
If you're an established, registered Reason user, you won't even need to be persuaded to upgrade. If you're one of the handful of computer-based musicians who hasn't tried out this fabulous software yet, be aware that Reason deserves its great reputation — and it's just got even better! As a newcomer, you may be wondering where the audio input is. Well, Reason currently doesn't have one, but it will happily interface with nearly every major MIDI + Audio sequencing package. Pro Tools can be added to this list, as v6.1 has now introduced Rewire compatibility.
The new devices add a new dimension to the software, starting with the new audio and control freedom offered by the Spiders. I've spent ages just tweaking loops with BV512's EQ mode, often in conjunction with Scream 4 distortion, and bouncing the results to disk. Straight vocoding — also 'Screamed' — has also been rewarding.
And that new reverb... RV7000 is as fine an example of software reverberation as one could hope for as part of a host-based virtual studio, and I marvel that it's been included as part of an interim, free update. It makes you wonder what Propellerhead have in store for version 3!