In the build-up to the launch of Reason version 3.0 (see review in the last issue of SOS), Propellerhead Software released pictures and basic information about the update's largest single addition: the device known as the Combinator. The weeks following saw the Props' web site host one of the most heated debates ever seen on a music software web forum. Everyone understood the Combinator's functionality: it allows collections of rack devices to be compacted into a single device. The problem appears to have been a failure of imagination on the part of some forum participants who couldn't see the huge new power and potential this single device brings to Reason.
Here's the basic idea: 'combined' devices are all moved inside the new Combinator 'shell'. Audio connections are provided to and from the internal devices, and to and from the 'outside' main rack environment. The Combinator appears as a single MIDI destination and features a programmer for setting how the internal modules respond to MIDI, similar to the key-mapping within NNXT but for devices, not samples. Finally, there are four knobs and four buttons on the Combinator's front panel that can be assigned to any of the controls on the combined devices. This offers some previously difficult or impossible options, for example:
Producing complicated instrument patches like those found in 'workstation' synths, with sound sources, filters, modulation and effects all present, and easy control over the key parameters via assignable knobs.
Creating layers and splits combining any instruments and samples.
Loading complex arrangements and live setups (synth combos, or even entire tracks) that are collapsed into 'Combis' for easy recall, without disturbing clock by changing songs.
Creating entirely new instruments and sequenced synths, Reaktor-style.
Making new effects devices using the Combinator inputs.
If you're still not seeing why this might be useful, let's go through an example of how it works and build a simple layered pad patch. Devices can be added to an existing Combinator, or selected objects can be collapsed into a new Combinator using menu option Edit / Combine. In this tutorial you'll do the former, starting with a fresh Combinator:
1. Create a new song and add a Remix 14:2 mixer. Select the mixer and choose menu option Create / Combinator. A new Combinator will be added, and if you hit Tab to flip the rack you'll see that the Combi Outputs are jacked automatically into channel one of the mixer. If you have the sequencer window visible, you'll also see that a new track has been created for 'Combinator 1', and your master keyboard will be ready to send MIDI to it. (See screen above.)
2. Now click within the narrow black area at the bottom of the Combinator. A red bar will appear in this box, indicating that any object you add from the Create menu will be put inside the Combinator. Add a Malström synth. Reason will automatically cable the Malström's audio outputs to the Combinator's 'From Devices' ports, and you will be able to play it from the keyboard. From the Malström's patch selector window, open up the Reason Factory Soundbank and load the Malström Pad patch called 'PHAD'.
3. Now we'll add another layer using another synth. Again, click in the empty space within the Combinator, just below the Malström. Add a Subtractor, this time from the Create menu.
4. There's a problem now: the audio output is not connected to the Combinator, so you can't hear the Subtractor. This is where Reason 3's new Line Mixer device comes in. Click on the Subtractor and choose Create / Line Mixer 6:2.
5. Now you can probably see what needs to happen. As shown in the middle screen on the right, manually re-cable the devices so that both synths are plugged into the Line Mixer and the Line Mixer's Master Out is connected to the Combinator's 'From Devices' ports. You will now be able to play both synths from the keyboard, something very difficult in previous versions of Reason. The last part of this step is to load the Subtractor pad patch 'Cloud Chamber' from the Factory Sound Bank.
6. Congratulations! You've built your first Combinator patch — but let's go further. Select the Subtractor and choose menu option Create / UN16 Unison. The Unison effect will automatically be cabled in line between the synth and the Line Mixer, fattening the sound nicely to match the width of the Malström layer. (See screen below right.)
7. The final building block for your patch will be a global filter. Click in the space below the Line Mixer and choose Create / ECF42 Envelope Controlled Filter. Reason will try to be helpful by connecting the filter to the aux send and return ports of your Line Mixer, but you should re-cable it so that it sits between the Line Mixer's Master Out and the Combinator's 'From Devices' inputs, as shown in the first screen overleaf.
8. The next stage in building your patch is to add some hands-on control to the Combinator's front panel. In this way you can eventually hide the internal devices and treat the Combinator as a single instrument. In the second screen overleaf I've hidden the devices and brought up the Programmer using the Show Programmer/Show Devices buttons on the panel. On the left-hand side is a list of all the devices contained within the patch. The small keyboard display works in the same way as the key-mapping window on the NNXT sampler. Key ranges and velocity zones can be set here for each sound-generating device. In the case of this patch you can ignore it, as we want both synths to respond to all keys and velocities.
9. To the right of the Programmer is the Modulation Routing section, where all front-panel knob and button assignments are set. The most obvious thing to do with this patch is program in some control over its master filter. Select Filter 1 in the device list, then click in the routing grid to the right of Rotary 1 (see the third screen on the left). Choose 'Frequency' from the pop-up list of available parameters. Now try turning Rotary 1 on the Combinator's panel and you should have direct control of the filter cutoff frequency. Assign Rotary 2 to Resonance and rename the panel control labels by double-clicking on them and typing in new names.
10. A typical layered patch on a synth workstation would feature additional controls to alter the sounds and effects. A good idea for this patch would be to add control over how quickly the first pad layer comes in, because by default it has quite a hard attack. This is a slightly more complex process, as the Malström synth uses two oscillators with individual volume envelopes. Select the Malström in the device list and give Rotary 3 a target of 'Oscillator A Attack' in the routing grid. Now notice that the grid has two spare slots at the bottom. These provide for situations where you want to assign the same controller to more than one parameter on the same device. In the first spare slot, select Rotary 3 in the Source column (see the fourth screen on the left). Now you can add Oscillator B Attack to this knob.
11. You can add a further level of sophistication by editing the control ranges in the routing grid. At the moment, Rotary 3 moves the Attack sliders on the Malström across their whole ranges. However, you can tweak the Min and Max columns in the routing grid so that the knob only operates within the most useful range of values. Try setting the Max fields to about 80, by clicking them and dragging down with the mouse.
12. A good final step would be to use two of the front-panel buttons to switch the two sound layers in and out. The easiest way to do this is to map buttons 1 and 2 to the mute buttons on channels one and two of the Line Mixer. When you map controls to buttons, the Min and Max ranges reflect the number of states the parameter you choose can be in. So, for example, the mixer's mute buttons can be either '0' or '1' (off or on). Notice, in the first screen overleaf, that I've reversed the default Min/Max values so that the Combinator's buttons act like 'enable' buttons rather than mute switches.
One of the things that earned the Propellerhead brand a certain credibility was the fact that their Rebirth TB303-emulator software could be hacked and modified by users to change the graphics and samples. Clearly with those days in mind, the Props have included a 'skins' feature in the Combinator. In other words, you can import your own graphics to replace the plain light-grey front panel. Simply right-click on the Combinator (or select it and go to the Edit Menu) and choose 'Select Backdrop'. If you fancy finishing off your unique Combinator patch with its own front-panel design, you'll need to use a graphics program to make a backdrop 754x138 pixels in size, and export it as a JPEG. Once the backdrop has been selected, it will be saved into the Combinator patch file, so the original JPEG won't need to be referenced next time you load the patch.
The example above shows how it's possible to create new and previously impossible sounds from smaller building blocks. This was one of the main intentions that Propellerheads had for the Combinator device, their minds being on modern hardware synth workstation patches. However, this is by no means the only use for the new device. For a start, it's much more flexible, as you can combine synths, drum machines, samplers and matrix sequencers to create entirely new instrument concepts. Something else you can do is take complicated rack arrangements that have grown in a Song and unify them into manageable chunks. Many Reason users will have played around with patching CV and audio between different devices to get certain, often unexpected results. It's quite common to copy these linked devices from one song to another, and the Combinator provides a much tidier way to achieve this. It's particularly useful when you're trying to use Reason in a live setting. The middle screen on the left shows a collection of devices, based around a Redrum drum machine, that I've used in several songs and in live situations. There's quite a lot of patching, with the drum machine triggering a filter envelope, a Subtractor used as an LFO for the filter, and some effects connected in-line. Previously, whenever I've wanted to use this ensemble I've had to open a song containing it, select the objects and use the Copy Devices command. Then I'd paste it into the new song, get it connected back into the mixer, and create a sequencer track for it. Now I can just turn the whole thing into a Combinator patch for recall in any song. To do this I just need to select the objects, choose Edit / Combine, and the whole thing is collapsed into one box and can be saved as a patch. The bottom left screen shows the result. I've opened up the patch in a new song, and even added a few control mappings to make a really useful live instrument.
If you're like me, you've probably spent a lot of time sitting in front of Native Instruments' Reaktor, and wishing you could take a year off to design and build something big and wonderful. Particularly appealing is Reaktor's ability to make sequenced sound generators and innovative effects units. The Combinator opens up some cool possibilities in these areas. Obviously, it doesn't approach Reaktor's scope and flexibility, but the fact that the building blocks are much higher-level components than the nuts and bolts of a Reaktor ensemble means that it's much easier to quickly build things that work. You can learn a lot by studying some of the Combinator patches in the Factory Sound Library. The 'Pattern Based' folder contains patches that all feature some kind of sequenced element — drum machine, matrix or tempo-synced LFO. You can set these running using the 'Run Pattern Devices' button on the Combinator front panel, and they'll also kick in when you hit Play. Check out the patch 'Graintable Sequencer Light', which was designed to emulate how certain Reaktor Library patches work. See if you can unpick how it functions. Notice that it uses Matrix Pattern Sequencers to automate some elements, and an LFO connected to the Combinator's own CV inputs to control others.