Using Digital Performer With Reason

Digital Performer Notes & Techniques

Published in SOS December 2007
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Technique : Digital Performer Notes

Propellerhead's Reason software studio offers some great instruments and makes a good partner for DP - but there are various things to be aware of if you want to create the most hassle-free partnership. Our in-depth look at using the two applications together explains it all.

Robin Bigwood

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Reason and Digital Performer make a tremendous combination and are easy to use together. This setup, described in the main text, has DP driving a synth and sampler in Reason, and took just moments to set up.
Reason and Digital Performer make a tremendous combination and are easy to use together. This setup, described in the main text, has DP driving a synth and sampler in Reason, and took just moments to set up.

Propellerhead's Reason has long been a useful tool for Digital Performer users. To begin with, Reason complements DP well, in that it's not another all-singing 'workstation' application but instead is a MIDI studio consisting of a range of soft synths and samplers running in a self-contained mixing and effects-processing environment. DP users can run Reason as a software instrument 'rack', while DP gets on with sequencing, audio recording, mixing and project management, using its extensive feature set in all these areas. This can be very effective, and Reason's instruments are easy on the CPU, too — a great benefit if you have a modest Mac. There are other ways to work, as well: you could, for example, build a whole backing track with Reason's sequencer and then use DP to simply add a couple of vocal audio tracks. This month we look at how these methods can be easily achieved.

Fly By Wire

First, here's how to get DP and Reason humming when you're using DP to do all the sequencing and mixing, with Reason acting as your instrument rack. This combination relies on Rewire, the Propellerhead technology that provides multiple virtual audio and MIDI channels between Reason and a 'master' sequencer. Incidentally, if you have Reason then you have Rewire — it's not an application or anything you ever configure or 'see' in any other way.

In its most basic form, the DP/Reason combination works like this. On the Reason side of things, you create as many instruments and instrument-plus-effect chains as you need, and use the Remix mixer to sum them to stereo. The resulting stereo pair of channels is then carried across the Rewire connection into DP's mixing environment on an Aux track. Each Reason instrument is then driven by a MIDI track in DP, and these MIDI connections are also handled by the Rewire link. Let's quickly set this up, with a simple scenario in which DP drives a Thor synthesizer and an NNXT sampler.

1. Boot up DP, open or create a new project, and then boot up Reason. This order is essential to force Reason into its so-called Rewire Slave Mode.

2. Now for some basic setup stuff. First, dive into Reason's Preferences and disable your master keyboard input under the Keyboards and Control Surfaces tab. This ensures that Reason only responds to MIDI messages from DP, and never from your master keyboard directly. In DP, go to the Studio menu / MIDI Patch Thru and make sure 'Auto channelise' and 'Patch Thru in background' are selected. This is so that you can keep playing Reason when you're tweaking its parameters and when DP is in the 'background'.

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The rear of Reason's rack makes it clear how the Thor and NNXT in this example are submixed in the Remix mixer. This then feeds into the Hardware Interface, which is Reason's side of the Rewire audio link.
The rear of Reason's rack makes it clear how the Thor and NNXT in this example are submixed in the Remix mixer. This then feeds into the Hardware Interface, which is Reason's side of the Rewire audio link.

3. In Reason, in an empty rack, create a Remix mixer and then create a Thor. You could substitute a Malström if you're using Reason 4. Toggle Reason's rack and you'll probably find that Reason has automatically created a stereo connection between the Thor and the first two channels of Remix, but if it hasn't, make one now. Also, check there's a stereo connection between the Remix and sockets 1 and 2 of the Reason Hardware Interface device.

4. Now, in DP, create an Aux track and name it 'Reason Input'. Assign to it your main audio output pair, and for its input choose New Stereo Bundle / 'Reason:Mix L 1-Mix R 2'. What you've just done with these steps is establish the Rewire audio link from Reason to DP. Now let's deal with the MIDI going in the other direction...

5. Still in DP, create a MIDI track and record-enable it. If you now click on an 'Output' pop-up menu in the Tracks window or Sequence Editor you'll see that a new item has appeared, called 'Reason: bus 6'. Why is it called bus 6? Your guess is as good as mine! But no matter: in its submenu you'll see the Thor you created a moment ago, along with entries for the Remix and the Hardware Interface. Select the Thor.

6. Playing your MIDI keyboard should now produce sound from the Thor, and its audio should stream into the 'Reason Input' Aux track. You can feel free to switch to Reason for auditioning patches and tweaking parameters, by the way — your playing won't be interrupted.

7. Finally, in Reason, create an NNXT, load it with a patch and ensure it's connected to channel 2 of the Remix. In DP, create a new MIDI track for it, select it as the track's Output, record-enable it, and off you go.

The great advantage of this simple approach, where the Reason instruments are effectively submixed before they reach DP, is the simplicity and speed with which it can be set up. Adding another instrument to what we already have only requires it to be created in Reason, and another MIDI track added in DP, as in step seven above. You can even pretty much forget about Reason's mixer, because instrument levels can be controlled in DP. Just switch to DP's mixer, adjust the volume slider on a MIDI track driving a Reason instrument and you'll see a corresponding change in the instrument's Master Volume control.

There are three disadvantages, though, which may or may not be 'deal-breakers' for your needs. First, the 'sound' of Reason's mixer. There's anecdotal (and some more scientific) evidence that Reason's summing of multiple instrument sources doesn't sound very good. I tend to agree, although I have a hunch that Reason 4 may be better in this respect. Second is flexibility of effects processing — or the lack of it. If you have only a single stereo connection coming from Reason into DP, the only effects you can use on individual Reason instruments are those built into Reason. They're OK, several are very good, and it's easy to insert them between instrument and Remix. But there's no way at all to use DP's MAS and Audio Unit effects on a single Reason instrument without also effecting the other instruments it's been submixed with — you'd have to place them on the 'Reason Input' Aux track and that would tar all the audio arriving from Reason with the same brush. Finally, while all of Reason's instruments respond to volume messages sent using DP's Mixing Board faders, they don't respond to pan. Well, Thor sort of does, but the others don't. You inevitably end up mixing in both DP and Reason, which is messy, especially if you want to automate your mix.

The solution to these drawbacks is fundamentally the same in each case: don't submix your instruments in Reason. Instead, bring each instrument's audio individually into DP using multiple Rewire channels. If you're not bothered by the 'Reason summing', you can even submix and use individual connections for those instruments you need to treat with DP's effects or whose pan position needs to be controlled in DP. To see how this works in practice, let's continue with our submixed Thor and NNXT, but add a Malström synth, which will get treated separately with a plug-in inside DP.

1. In Reason, create your Malström and load it with a patch.

2. Flip Reason's rack so that you're viewing the rear. You'll probably find that Reason has connected your Malström to channel 3 of the Remix. Remember, you want to get the audio from the Malström into DP separately from the submixed Thor and NNXT, so you need to open the Hardware Interface in the rack, if it's not open already. Its 64 sockets feed Rewire's 64-channel connection and your Remix will already be patched into sockets 1 and 2. Unplug the Malström from the Remix and plug it into sockets 3 and 4 of the Hardware Interface, giving it its own Rewire channels.

3. In DP, create a new Aux track and name it 'Malström input'. Assign to it your main audio output pair, and for its input choose New Stereo Bundle / 'Reason: Channel 3-4'

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In the Reason rack Malström bypasses the Remix mixer and gets its own 'private' Rewire channels. Thor and NNXT remain submixed. In DP another Aux track is required to handle Malström's audio, but this can be panned and have MAS or Audio Unit effects applied to it without affecting the Reason input already in place.
In the Reason rack Malström bypasses the Remix mixer and gets its own 'private' Rewire channels. Thor and NNXT remain submixed. In DP another Aux track is required to handle Malström's audio, but this can be panned and have MAS or Audio Unit effects applied to it without affecting the Reason input already in place.

4. Finally, create a new DP MIDI track and record-enable it. Assign its Output to Reason: bus 6', choosing the Malström in the submenu that appears. We now have one submixed and one direct connection from Reason to DP. Now it's time to add the AU plug-in.

5. Go to DP's Mixing Board and find the 'Malström Input' aux track. On one of its insert slots add a plug-in of your choice.

The Malström will still respond to MIDI volume messages from DP, but in every other respect it's now part of DP's audio mixing environment.

If you like this way of working — perhaps even going completely 'mixerless' in Reason and bringing all your Reason synths into DP separately — you might find you're juggling a hell of a lot of Aux tracks, and doing a lot of input and output configuring. Several DP features can help you. Track Folders are a great way to group all your Reason Aux and MIDI tracks, and you can create multiple Aux tracks in one go by hitting Shift-Control-Option-A and typing how many you need into the dialogue box that appears. Select those tracks and hit Option-A to bring up the Audio Assignments dialogue box, where you can configure input and output assignments for multiple tracks in one go.

When working with Reason synths, either submixed or connected directly, there are a couple of things to be aware of. As we discovered above, DP's MIDI track output pop-up menus reflect instrument names in Reason. Instruments in Reason can be renamed, though, by double-clicking their 'scribble strips', and if you do this the new name will be used in DP too. I like to rename with a combination of the instrument name and its patch (for example, 'Thor 1 — Epic Poly'). Then I'm in no doubt as to what I'm working with in DP.

You also have to be careful when using Combinators. These can contain multiple devices, and they will all be listed separately in DP MIDI track Output pop-ups, even though you probably only want to drive the Combinator they belong to. In fact, just a couple of loaded Combinators can throw your MIDI output pop-ups into total confusion. You might even find that you quickly exceed the 16 Rewire MIDI channels offered by the enigmatic 'bus 6' (at that point your MIDI Output popups will get a 'bus 7' submenu and you can really start feeling like a power-user!). A way through this confusion, I find, is to rename any Reason instrument, Combinator or effect with a descriptive name and a recognisable prefix — maybe an asterisk or a couple of dashes. Then when you look at your MIDI output pop-ups in DP you can quickly recognise the devices you really do want to drive, and ignore all the Combinator-enclosed devices that you don't.

Audio Tracks Vs Aux Tracks
In all the examples this month, I've advocated using Aux tracks to handle incoming audio from Reason. But if you have DP5 you might prefer to use mono or stereo audio tracks instead, and enable input monitoring for them. As you build your DP/Reason sequence, they'll act just like Aux tracks. But when you've finished and you need to record the Reason inputs into DP prior to a final Bounce To Disk, for example, you need only record-enable them before hitting Record to start DP's and Reason's transports.
Master & Servant

Although it suits many projects well, you don't have to do all your sequencing and mixing in DP when using the DP/Reason combo. In fact, although Reason will always be the slave and DP the master in their little Rewire-enabled relationship, this really only relates to two aspects of operation. First, it means that Reason doesn't try to send audio directly to your audio interface, but instead sends it via Rewire. Second, it means that DP is the boss when it comes to time signatures and tempo: Conductor Track stuff. It does not mean that Reason's transport is disabled. On the contrary — click play in Reason and DP goes into playback too, and will follow any transport-related action that you carry out in Reason. This includes placing Locator points (which set Memory Cycle boundaries in DP) and turning looping (Memory Cycle) on and off.

What this means is that for many straightforward MIDI projects you could work exclusively in Reason and only bring in DP when you need to add some audio tracks. Here's a way you might do it:

1. You've got your Reason sequence sounding great, and at this point DP isn't running. But now you need to record some vocal tracks. First you have to get Reason into Rewire Slave Mode with DP running alongside, so quit Reason, start DP and create an Empty project, and then load up your Reason sequence once more.

2. Because Reason is running in slave mode, it can't address your audio hardware directly, so DP is going to have to bring Reason's stereo mix into its own mixing environment. Create an Aux track in DP, configure it to output through your main audio output and set its input to 'Reason: Mix L 1-Mix R 2'. You also need to make sure that DP's Tempo Control is set to 'Tempo slider' and set the bpm value in the main transport to the same as your Reason sequence tempo.

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If you use some sort of prefix — here, two underscore dashes — when naming instruments in Reason, it can help keep your DP MIDI Output pop-up menus a little easier to understand. The other instruments shown here are enclosed in a Combinator.
If you use some sort of prefix — here, two underscore dashes — when naming instruments in Reason, it can help keep your DP MIDI Output pop-up menus a little easier to understand. The other instruments shown here are enclosed in a Combinator.

3. Check to make sure everything's working. Hit play in Reason or DP and both sequencer transports should start at the correct tempo. Your Reason mix should also play into DP's Aux track.

4. Now, in DP, create as many audio tracks as you need for your live parts, configure and record-enable them, and start recording.

5. You can now mix the completed piece by tweaking instrument levels in Reason's mixer(s) and live track levels in DP's mixer.

This method presupposes that your Reason sequence plays at one tempo throughout. Indeed, if you use a version of Reason prior to v4 you've no way of automating tempo changes in Reason anyway. But what if you're using Reason and you do need a tempo change — perhaps a slow-down at the end of your piece?

DP can provide it. Simply switch DP's Tempo Control over to 'Conductor Track' in the Control Panel (aka DP's transport window), and then view the Conductor Track in the Sequence Editor, writing whatever changes are needed using the pencil and other tools. If this is unfamiliar, check out the Performer workshop from April 2006 for an in-depth discussion of what's possible and how to achieve it.

If you're using Reason 4 and you already have tempo (and time-signature) changes in place, the only solution currently seems to be to recreate them in DP. DP's own transport can never track changes in Reason's sequencer, and, sadly, Reason's MIDI files don't appear to retain their time-signature and tempo changes when they are opened in DP, so you can't get the information across that way. If I find a solution to this, I'll let you know... 

Automating Reason instruments
A great feature of the DP/Reason combo is that you can record Reason knob and slider movements into DP. So you'd be playing a Subtractor synth, say, and if you hit Record in DP, then started tweaking a parameter on the Subtractor, those changes would be recorded into DP as MIDI Continuous Controller messages. (Propellerhead provide a MIDI Implementation chart in a PDF document when you install Reason, so check this out if you need the technical details.)
This is a good thing, because if you're sequencing Reason instruments in DP you can also deal with their automation, rather than having to do this in Reason's sequencer and attempt to keep on top of the two sequencers at the same time. However, it gives rise to a strange and rather spooky effect, whereby tweaking a parameter on any device in your Reason rack can cause seemingly random knob and slider movements on the instrument that's currently being driven by a record-enabled MIDI track in DP. It can actually be quite entertaining, but has the potential to really wreck finely-honed settings. I wrote about this in detail in the November 2005 Performer feature, and I'd encourage you to dig this out, but for now I'll cut straight to the two solutions to the problem. The first one is this: don't adjust anything on your Reason rack other than the device currently record-enabled in DP. If you need to tweak something, take your DP MIDI track out of record-enable first. The second solution is a touch more labour-intensive, but more reliable: turn on Multi Record from the Studio menu. Now you have to choose a MIDI input as well as an output for your MIDI tracks, but this ensures that while you play a Reason instrument only your controller keyboard is 'heard', and not the stray messages from other Reason devices. When you do need to record Reason knob movements into a DP MIDI track, put DP in Overdub mode and, in the MIDI track's Input pop-up menu, select the Reason instrument whose knob movements you want to record.

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