With the addition of the MClass processors in Reason 3, Propellerheads addressed the fact that Reason had been a studio without a mastering suite. Prior to v3, people would export their masterpieces as audio files, then complain about a "wimpy" sound — until the file found its way into the hands of a good mastering engineer. Now much of that kind of work can be done inside Reason itself. For a detailed description of the new MClass processors and how to use them to master material generated within Reason, check out the article 'Mastering Your Mixes in Reason 3', in the November 2005 issue of Sound On Sound.
Reason's mastering processors are even good enough that you might want to try using them for mastering audio files generated by other programs, such as Cubase, Live, Sonar, DP, Logic and so on. (And to the list of MClass processors I'd also add subtle use of the RV7000 reverb as suitable for mastering, if your material needs a bit more ambience.) Although the conventional wisdom is that Reason isn't suited for digital audio-based signal processing, that's not really true. You can load digital audio files into the NNXT or NN19 sampler, play them back through the processors in real time, tweak the settings, then export the audio to disk.
Although it's touted as a sampler, NNXT can play back any digital audio file, including ones that are quite long (within the limits of available RAM, as it doesn't stream from disk). So you may not be able to fit an entire CD in there, but you can certainly fit most songs.
So why use NNXT instead of NN19? Either will work, but NNXT allows layering. So if you want to crossfade two songs, or add another last-minute effect or transition, you can do so very easily. You don't need to load a patch, as the Init Patch works just fine for our purposes. Here's the step-by-step process for setting up the NNXT file player; the steps correspond to numbers on the screen shot, left.
1. Click on Load Sample, navigate to the sound file you want to master, then click on OK. The NNXT accepts WAV or AIFF files, 16-bit or 24-bit; however, if you load 24-bit files, note that the MClass processors do not include dithering. For many types of files this won't matter, but it probably will for acoustic music.
2. Click on High Quality Interpolation, as you may want to change the pitch. We'll discuss why shortly.
3. At this point, the sample is sitting inside NNXT, with the root note at C3.
4. Go to the sequencer and click on the Pencil tool.
5. Draw a very long note at C3 — long enough to last the entire length of the song.
6. Double-click on the Stop button to send the Play cursor to the beginning of the sequence.
7. Click on the transport's Play button and you'll hear the file.
Although using Reason in this way doesn't allow for true random-access playback within the file, you can come close by modifying the sample Start point.
In addition to the sample Start-point trick mentioned above, there are also some advantages to using looped playback. For example, one part of the file may be considerably louder than the others; this is what you'll want to listen to when adjusting the Maximizer, to make sure that the sound doesn't get squashed too much as you increase the level of maximisation. To loop a portion of the file:
1. Adjust the Start point for where you want the loop to begin.
2. Match the Start-point control's setting with the Loop Start control.
3. Set the Loop End control for where you want loop playback to end.
4. Set Play Mode to FW-Loop (forward looping).
Now, when you start playing the sequence (remember, you always have to start from the beginning) you'll hear only the looped portion.
One fun aspect of using NNXT for playback is that you can alter pitch, just like in the old days when hit music producers routinely turned up an analogue tape-recorder's variable speed control by a few percent. There are three ways to do this with Reason:
In the sequencer, move the note up by the desired number of semitones.
With NNXT, use the sample Tune control (located next to the Start control) to alter tuning in cents.
Add a pitch-bend controller message in the sequencer. The advantage of this option is that you can make very subtle pitch changes over the course of the tune.
Mastering Suite: Out Of Order?
Obviously, for the application presented here, NNXT must go at the beginning of the chain, because it's providing the signal to be processed, and the Maximizer should go at the end, because it's designed to catch peaks and prevent 'overs'. Anything inserted after it could introduce peaks again. But the order of the other three modules is open to debate; I tend to go with EQ, Compressor, Stereo Imager.
Although Reason's MClass mastering Combi places the Stereo Imager before the Compressor, I'm not a big fan of stereo image processing. I'll use it subtly, if at all, so I don't want a compressor after it to emphasise the effect. But if you love stereo imaging, you may want the Compressor after it.
Another issue is which order you prefer for EQ and compression. I prefer EQ first, because any peaks caused by serious equalisation are tamed by the compressor. But you could also argue that compression after EQ 'undoes' some of the EQ's effects, and you might therefore want to place the EQ after compression. Some of this depends on how much EQ and compression you use; as always, your ears are the best judge.
Something even most digital audio editors won't let you do is automate levels throughout the file, which you can certainly do in Reason. You can fade in to the file, fade out, or even change gain in particular passages. As an example, if one section is considerably softer or louder than the rest of the file, rather than relying on compression to smooth things out, you can use automation to reduce the level of the over-loud section. To do this:
1. Click on the Show Controller Lane button. The controller lane appears.
2. Size the controller lane as desired for easy viewing.
3. Click on the Controllers drop-down menu.
4. Select Master Volume (see screen below).
5. Draw the desired automation curve.
You can use the same basic principle to automate pitch-bend, if you want to do variable-speed tricks as mentioned earlier.
Now that you're done with mastering, don't forget to go File / Export Song as Audio File. If you've come up with a great mastering setup, shift-click on all the devices you used, right-click on one and select Combine: they'll end up in a Combinator patch, at which point you can save your efforts as a preset.