When it comes to step sequencing, Reason 7 has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve.
If you're getting stuck in a rut playing synth, sampler and drum parts from a MIDI controller, you can always get a rack device do it instead. Reason 7, and now third-party rack extensions, offer more ways than ever before to generate your note data the automatic way. And that's what we're going to be looking at in this month's column.
Reason's bundled RPG 8 device is a monophonic arpeggiator that drives other instruments via CV connections. When you create one, you'll need to spin the rack and connect its Gate CV Out and Note CV Out sockets to the corresponding CV inputs on the instrument you're working with. However, because RPG 8 also relies on having a MIDI input (so you can tell it what notes you want to arpeggiate) it gets its own sequencer track by default. You have to make sure you select this track rather than that of the synth you're arpeggiating, for example, or things won't seem to work.
Many aspects of RPG 8's operation are pretty obvious: play notes to give it some musical material to work with; choose basic arpeggio shapes by turning the Mode knob, with the Manual setting causing RPG 8 to follow the order in which you built up the notes in your chord; get arpeggios going over a wider pitch range by pressing Octave buttons other than '1 Oct' (which sticks to the notes you played); control the speed of the arpeggio with the Rate knob; and control note durations with the Gate Length knob. The Gate Length goes from super-short (well, Off, in fact!) to completely legato. All the while the display on the right-hand side gives a visual indication of the arpeggio shape that's set up, across an eight-octave range. All very conventional so far, but there are ways of making RPG 8 do more interesting things.
First, try setting the Velocity knob (at top left) to Man, so that note velocities you play are retained in the arpeggiated effect. Build up chords, deliberately playing some notes strongly and others weakly. You can get some nice unexpected accents and syncopations this way.
Second, make friends with those Insert buttons. Low and Hi cause the lowest and highest notes you played to be repeatedly interspersed in the normal arpeggio pattern, while 3-1 and 4-2 cause the patterns to backtrack a little every few notes. A great tip is to engage the Low insert to generate unexpected, but totally functional, bass lines. The bass note is repeated frequently, so things continue to work musically and harmonically, whatever your other settings.
Third, try enabling the Pattern section. You might think of it as a kind of MIDI gate: use the Steps plus and minus buttons to set the length of the pattern, and the individual step-position buttons along the top to play or mute notes at that step. Sparser patterns can sound more like riffs, especially if you have that Low insert button depressed.
We've looked at using the Matrix sequencer as a CV modulation source in the past, but it's also your real-deal monophonic, step-driven note sequencer. As with RPG 8, you connect its Note and Gate CV outputs to the inputs of the device you want to sequence, and then program note patterns via the red display on the front panel. Sequences can be up to 32 steps in length (set via the display and value buttons at top right) and the length of the steps is set with the Resolution knob just below.
Matrix's 'grid' has two main sections. The larger upper section is used for programming note patterns via mouse or trackpad, and you'll notice the vertically running piano keyboard graphic, and octave slider beneath, that lets you address a wide pitch range accurately. Make sure the upper slider/switch is set to Keys, by the way. Underneath is a slightly taller row labelled Gate, and that's where you program rhythm. A click in there writes a note trigger, with the height of the red vertical strips representing note velocity. You make a rest by removing strips completely (quickly achieved by clicking on a step and dragging down). Longer note values are generated by first enabling the 'Tie' indicator and clicking in several red strips (which now appear wider) for the duration of the note, up to the next rest or non-tie strip.
All good stuff, but the Matrix becomes uniquely powerful thanks to its pattern section. A single instance can memorise 32 sequences in its four banks of eight pattern slots. And it's not as if you have to start from scratch with each pattern either. Right-click an empty area of the front panel and you'll get menu options to Cut, Copy, Paste and Clear patterns. So it's easy to, say, create a pattern, copy it, select a new empty pattern button, paste it, and create a variant or developed version. It's also no trouble to shift a pattern into a different key: just right-click and choose (repeatedly, if necessary) the Shift Pattern Up/Down commands.
Chaining together multiple Matrix patterns is easy too. Select the Matrix's track in the sequencer, drop into record, and just record the pattern changes in real time by clicking pattern buttons. Another way is to select the Matrix's track in the sequencer and click the little Create Pattern Lane button (which looks like four tiny squares) at the top of the track list. Then you can select the pencil tool, choose your pattern from the Pattern/Loop pop-up menu to the right of the tool palette, and click patterns directly into the Matrix's sequencer lane. It makes good sense to have Snap enabled, and a fairly large snap value (probably a Bar) chosen, when you work this way.
We've only just touched the surface of this interesting area of Reason programming. Tune in next month for more step-time goodies and techniques.
If you're hell-bent on a truly 1970s sequencing vibe, just buy the AS16 rack extension for €35$45. This 16-step whopper can sequence instruments via the usual Gate and (Note) CV connections, but you only need to hook up the Main outputs (rather than the individual 'channels') when working with a single instrument. Also, set the front-panel Output section to a suitable musical scale type for your Song, rather than either of the two CV modes.
The 16 main numbered knobs set the pitch for each step, and you choose the range (in octaves) over which they work with the Range slider below. The length of the note in each step is controlled with the 16 'GW' (gate width) knobs. Turned right down, the step becomes silent (ie. a rest). Turned right up, the step ties over into the next, so that's how you create longer note durations.
For sequences shorter than 16 steps, whole steps can be disabled by pressing their Skip buttons. Alternatively, pressing a Jump button causes the pattern to restart, or to jump ahead to the next step that has its Pad button enabled, when it reaches that point. Crazy! You needn't be stuck with those fixed Root Keys either. If you drag the Root Key value right down so it displays '—', and also right-click and choose 'Create Track for AS16', you can get MIDI into AS16 and essentially change that Root Key setting in real time with the notes you play on your controller.
Taking a more graphical approach to step sequencing is Tick Tick Step Sequencer (€32$39). Let's say you want to use this to sequence Kong. Connect up just the main CV Note and Gate outputs to Kong's 'Sequencer Control' inputs, and revel in the fact that those two cables can handle polyphonic note data… If you need to, adjust the MIDI note number that each row sends on the rear panel, and rename the rows by double-clicking the lane labels front or rear. Adjust the number of sequence steps and the basic playback speed (resolution) at front top left. Now program away, clicking in the grid to write a note trigger, and again to mute it.
Notably, Tick Tick has no tie facility, so pitched programming always feels very 'percussive', which may or may not be a bad thing. Also, be aware that while monophonic patterns send gate triggers that last half a step length, those for polyphonic patterns are much shorter. That's only going to work with sounds that have an instantaneous attack and a reasonably long release time. Forget slow-moving string pads and so on, you'll probably never hear them!