Automatic Weapons

Reason Tips & Technique

Published in SOS February 2013
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Technique : Reason Notes

Take a guided tour of Reason's automation armoury.

Robin Bigwood

Three great rack extensions running in Reason 6. The green boxes indicate which parameters are currently being automated.

Automation is all about recording knob and slider movements, and other parameter changes, so that they happen automatically on playback. The applications are endless, from the good old fade-out at the end of a song to really detailed, meticulous and creative synth tweaking that could well form the heart of a sound's character — and that's what we're going to be looking at in this month's Reason workshop.

Dive In

For synths and other instruments, there's frequently nothing special you have to do to start recording automation data into your sequence. Your synth needs a sequencer track, which needs to be selected, both of which are normally the case if you've just been playing it. Then you just start recording, and tweaking parameters with the mouse or a control surface. If you have your sequencer visible, you might see automation data start to appear in the track lane. But even if not, when you later play back the same section you should see the automated parameters surrounded with a green box. Not to mention those knobs and sliders now flying around of their own accord!

Automating most effect devices, or mixer channels, does require an extra step. That's because these devices often won't already have a sequencer track to record the data into. It's super-easy, though: just click the parameter you want to automate with the Alt (or Option) key held down. If the device didn't have a sequencer track, one will be created, and set up perfectly for recording automation. Now you can go into record and start tweaking any parameters on the device to record their movements.

Knowing this much will meet the vast majority of automation requirements. By understanding a little more, though, you can really take control of your arrangements and mixes.

To begin with, how about recording automation for several devices simultaneously? They'll all need sequencer tracks, so Alt/Option-click a parameter on any that don't. Then, in the sequencer's track lanes, look for the squiggly-line 'Record Enable Parameter Automation' buttons. Click them on the tracks of all the devices you're intending to automate, so that they turn red. Now you can start recording and manipulating parameters across your rack.

What if you need to disable automation, to simplify things for a while? There are a few ways to go. One is to simply click on an automated parameter during playback. Its green box disappears and it no longer follows the track automation data. What's more, an Automation Override alert comes up in the transport section's display, near the DSP meter. Clicking that 'reconnects' the parameter once more, as does restarting sequence playback, so this is just a very temporary override.

To turn off automation more permanently, open up Reason's sequencer, find the track in question, and make sure you can see its automation lanes (you might have to expand it by clicking the triangle next to its name). Now look for the parameter in question, and deselect its yellow 'On' button. This is effectively an automation 'mute'. However, if you know you'll never want that particular automation again, another option is to click the X button; that deletes the entire parameter lane and all the data on it.

Dig In

Three important automation-related buttons are visible here: the red automation record-enable for the track, the yellow ON that enables an automation lane, and the X that would delete it.

What should be clear by now is that automation data is recorded into dedicated lanes in a device's sequencer track. The 'live' automation recording we've looked at so far creates these automatically whenever necessary, and records the data onto them in clips. Wouldn't it be great to write those clips, and the data, directly? Of course, you can.

Here's the classic example: writing a master fader fade-out at the end of a song. You could, of course, record the movement, but it's unlikely to be as smooth as you could achieve by really 'programming' the automation.

1. First, Alt/Option-click the master fader. A track is created for the Master Section device (of which it's really a part), a Master Level automation lane is created, and everything's set up ready to go.

2. Next, in the sequencer, find the Master Section track and enter Edit Mode, either with the button at the top left of the sequencer or by using the Shift-Tab shortcut. You should see that Master Level automation lane now.

3. Increase the vertical scale a bit if you need to, using the zoom '+' button at the right of the sequencer.

4. Check the lane's 'static value' — that's the handle on the left, superimposed on the value scale, and represents the value the fader sets itself to, other than when it's being automated. You probably want the master fader to be at 0dB unity gain until the fade occurs. This equates to a static value of 734 (in Reason 6.5.1, at least).

5. Select the pencil tool and click in the lane around this 734 or 0dB level where you want your fade-out to start. A clip is created with a single breakpoint. Check the Value field that will have appeared at the top of the sequencer view. If it's anything other than 734, type in that exact value and hit return to make sure the transition from static value to automated value is seamless.

Three adjacent automation lanes in the sequencer. Notice how the transitions in and out of the clips could potentially cause sudden jumps in parameter values.

6. Then, still with the pencil tool, click in the lane at the 0 (zero) level where you want your fade-out to end. The automation clip automatically grows in size and you get a new breakpoint, with a perfect straight line connecting it to the previous one. Check in the Value field that it really is at zero, and, again, enter in the value manually if not.

An automation ramp like this is as simple as mouse-entered automation gets, but of course the complexity of the automation is limited only by your dexterity with the pencil and arrow tools. Remember that your computer keyboard's Q and W keys are the quickest way to switch between the two tools. Then you just click with the pencil tool to create a breakpoint, or click and drag with the arrow tool to move an existing one. Hitting the backspace key deletes a selected breakpoint. You can shift‑click multiple points to select them all, then when you drag one, they all move.  .

Lost In Static

Reason's approach to automation, using data contained in clips, and a 'static value'that a parameter will jump to when the playback wiper is outside those clips, is a little different to what you find in other DAWs. They're more likely to have automation data that 'latches', staying put at the last automated value until the end of the sequence.

If Reason's approach ever causes problems, such as unexpected jumps going into or out of automated regions, there are workarounds. Sometimes, just dragging the static value handle to a more suitable value will do the trick, of course. However, a robust option is to effectively take the static value out of the equation completely. For example, you could extend the length of clips manually, using their left or right handles, so that automated starting and ending values are in force for longer — possibly the entire length of your sequence. Another way, if you end up with several isolated clips in a single lane, is to combine them into one big clip. Shift-click to select them all (make sure you're not in Edit Mode to do this) then right-click and choose Join Clips.

Name & Shame

The example I gave this month, of automating the master fader, reveals an occasional weakness that I'm surprised still lives on in Reason 6.5. Rather than having meaningful decibel values in the automation lane's value scale, we get an arbitrary 0-1000 range instead. You see other examples of this, too — Thor's oscillator types are only referred to by number, for example. Compare that with the equivalent parameter in Synapse's Antidote synth. That also has properly named automation values, so it's clearly possible. Hopefully, this is something for a future Reason incremental update.

Tone Tools

The torrent of tasty rack extensions goes on unabated over at shop.propellerheads.se. Here's a quick round-up of three great tone‑related devices:

• LAB:ONE ReQ131 (€29) is a currently unique beast in Reason — a graphic EQ with a whopping 31 bands. While it won't (and shouldn't) oust conventional swept or parametric EQ designs for most duties, for broad mix-shaping it's rather brilliant, and can effect strong changes in character. A new favourite!

• Blamsoft Resampler: In last month's Reason column we looked at some glitch techniques and tools. Definitely add this $19 extension to the list for its strangled, edgy, down-sampling and bit-crushing effects. Before you say 'but Scream 4 does that', the difference here is that there are multiple algorithms to shape the quality of the effect, as well as simple but effective envelope followers.

• Uhe's Uhbik collection continues to grow, and the €32 Uhbik S is a welcome addition to the arsenal. This frequency shifter shunts harmonic content in a decidedly non-musical way, disrupting its structure and potentially causing full-on audio meltdown. At less extreme settings, though, the effect can be beautiful, often creating subtle movement for pads and string patches, quite similar to comb filtering or phasing.


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