With our racks about to get even more densely populated by Rack Extensions, we may need strategies for keeping on top of the sprawl...
The CPU power of today's computers allows us to create absolutely colossal racks of virtual devices in Reason. Propellerhead's response in Reason 6 was to give us a modular-style mixer with unlimited channels, to break free of the limitations — which now seem almost laughable — of the ReMix 14:2 mixer. We also get multiple vertical rack spaces instead of the one single über-long rack of Reason 5 and before.
That's all great, but the more synths, samplers and effects we load into our Racks, the more potential there is for confusion, and for literally getting lost in a migraine-inducing mass of illogically ordered, poorly named channels, devices and sequencer tracks. So this month we've got a whole bevy of tips and tricks that can help keep your Reason workflow smooth, clear and productive.
Your best friend for shuttling around a big rack is the Navigator. Nestling to the right of the rack this shows you a zoomed-out view of it, with an overlaid blue square to indicate what's currently visible in full-size. Grab the square with your mouse pointer to move it in any direction. Unlike the similar Navigators for the mixer and sequencer, the rack's is resizable. You can grab the vertical divider to its left, and drag to the left to increase its size, as I've done for the main screen in this month's article. You get a more detailed overview, for starters, and you may even find it useful to have the Navigator bigger than the actual rack — it helps to keep you focused.
There are other ways to navigate the rack, too. Point anywhere in the rack or its Navigator, and you can use your mouse's scrolling features. If you've only got a vertical scroll-wheel, hold down shift to allow horizontal movement. With a device selected, you can use your keyboard's arrow keys to move (and select other devices) in all directions. Additionally, page up/down keys will scroll vertically, and the home/end keys (found on some PC keyboards) scroll horizontally.
Since there's often a close connection between sequencer tracks, devices and mixer channels, being able to quickly see how they're linked up is really useful. Mixer channels all get immensely helpful SEQ and RACK buttons above the channel names. Click SEQ, and the corresponding track becomes visible, flashing momentarily, in the sequencer. Click RACK, and you'll instantly find the signal source for the channel in the rack.
Clicking an empty part of a track in the track-list area is similarly helpful: this simultaneously locates and flashes both the associated rack device and its mixer channel.
Navigation and location are all well and good, but for really complex projects, a bit of forward planning will repay you over and over again.
Since Reason now allows us to place devices in multiple separate rack columns, we should use that to our advantage. How about, for example, keeping similar parts of your arrangement grouped separately from other things? Here's one (of many ways) you might place and group your devices:
1. Master Section plus mastering devices, aux send effects, and any other 'whole mix' effects.
2. Vocal tracks.
3. Other audio tracks — perhaps guitar and bass, for example
4. Rhythm section: bass, drums and loops.
5. Strings, pads, 'texture' sounds.
6. Rhythmic, arpeggiated, sequenced sounds.
7. Leads and solos.
To create a device in an existing rack column, just right-click in an empty part of the column and use the contextual menu. To create a device in a new column further right, do the same directly on the rightmost wooden divider strip.
Moving a pre-existing device is easy, too. Just click an empty area of its front panel and drag it to the rack column you want: a red insertion indicator shows where it'll go in the new column. There's a setting we should enable before doing much of this (although it's actually on by default), and that's 'Auto-group Devices and Tracks' in the Options menu. This useful little number ensures that whenever you move a device, it takes all its baggage with it; mix channels, connected effects, modulating devices hooked up via CV and gate cables, and so on.
Along with spatial organisation, a good naming scheme is essential for big mixes, just as in any DAW.
The best place of all to assign names is in the sequencer. Just double-click a track name, type a good descriptive one, and hit return. That renames the track, the device it's driving, and its mixer channel, all in one fell swoop.
You can also rename instrument and audio track devices in the rack by double‑clicking on their scribble strips or 'LCD' displays, respectively. The name change will be reflected in both the sequencer and the mixer.
Confusion can rear its ugly head, though, if you rename mixer channels. It's a perfectly easy and legitimate thing to do: you just double-click the channel name. But if you rename an instrument device, from 'Malström 1' to 'glassy pad' for example, you're actually only changing the name of the Malström's mix device. That, and the mixer channel, changes to 'glassy pad'. The instrument itself and its sequencer track stays as 'Malström 1'. In general, renaming audio tracks in the mixer is OK, but instruments are best done in the sequencer.
One other thing to watch: if you choose to 'Combine' a pre-existing device (or device group), the resulting Combinator will zap your nice naming scheme and show up in the mixer and sequencer as a generic 'Combinator 1' or similar. Remember to rename these as you go along.
For me, visually grouping mixer channels and sequencer tracks by colour is an essential technique for bigger arrangements. I like all my loop-type instruments to be a consistently different colour from my vocal tracks, for example, and all next to each other. It makes finding things so easy. The 'Auto-colour Tracks and Channels' option, in the Options menu (turned on by default) might make a bright working environment with a mishmash of colours, but I'd take uniformity and neatness any day, so I generally deselect this. I then make sure that similar tracks are really next to each other in the mixer and sequencer — it's a simple click and drag of the mixer-channel name sections or sequencer 'move handles' to do this. Reason does not try to keep the mixer and sequencer track orders synchronised, so you'll often have to do a little bit of work on both.
You can then select a group of similar channels or tracks by clicking through them one by one while holding down the Shift key. Right-click on any of them and choose 'Track Colour', and then the colour you'd like. An entire mix can be colour-coded in a few clicks.
Further information about Reason 6.5 and several third-party rack extensions has been emerging in recent weeks.
First of all, Propellerhead have revealed more about one of their own Rack Extensions, Radical Piano. It's a sampled/modelled hybrid that offers three main piano sounds — Home Grand, Deluxe Grand and Upright — but lets you achieve many more variations than this, thanks to a Microphone Blend knob and a Character parameter that ranges from 'subdued' to 'agitated'. The Mechanics section controls key and pedal noises, and there are plenty of other things to play with too: velocity response and resonance parameters, plus an ADR envelope generator, three-band EQ and onboard reverb.
Propellerhead are backing up Radical Piano with two further Rack Extension effects called Pulsar and Polar. Pulsar is said to be a 'dual-channel modulation power house' that's also a powerful synth in its own right — intriguing! Meanwhile Polar is a harmonizer and pitch shifter with elements of stereo control and granular processing.As yet, there's no pricing information for any of these Propellerhead rack extensions, nor was any more detail forthcoming about Korg and soft-synth guru Rob Papen's involvement with the new format. However, there was some more definite info from one third‑party developer we knew about already.
Peff will be known to many in the Reason community through its founder Kurt Kurasaki's involvement with the video tutorial Music Production With Reason & Record. Peff's Rack Extension is called BuffRe and it's a beat repeater or 'stutter edit' tool that loops and scrubs audio flowing into it in sync with the song tempo. The effect is triggered by MIDI note or CV/gate input, and captured audio is looped on the fly, subject to a range of operation modes and front panel parameters. I've seen and heard an early version of BuffRe in action and it's superb, offering everything from subtle glitch effects to full-on Squarepusher-inspired mix deconstruction — very possibly an essential tool for certain genres. At 'around $85' it sounds eminently affordable too, and should be available as soon as Reason 6.5 and the Rack Extension Store launches. Visit www.peff.com for more info.