An incremental software update is a milestone for most software, especially if it's a really popular package. When that software is Propellerhead's Reason — the yardstick by which other virtual studios are measured — there are plenty of users holding their breath.
Reason's last update, to v2.5, was free and introduced a host of powerful new devices. The latest release, v3.0, doesn't initially seem to be in quite the same league (and it's not free!), but just a little investigation reveals that Propellerhead have enhanced their flagship package in some unexpected ways.
If Reason is new to you, a quick recap is in order. Should you require more detail, check out some SOS back issues: Reason was first reviewed in March 2001, v2.0 surfaced in September 2002, and v2.5 made a splash in December 2003. In between, check out a 'Making The Most Of...' two-parter in November and December 2002, and have a gander at SOS's on-going Reason Notes column, which started 11 months ago.
For many readers, the ideal hardware electronic studio would be a mix of classic analogue synths, drum machines, step sequencers, samplers, effects units and an audio mixer. In essence, this is what Propellerhead took as their inspiration when developing Reason. Its on-screen representation of these elements houses them in a virtual rack and adds linear sequencing, automation and easily configurable real-time control from hardware control surfaces. It also offers a brilliantly elegant virtual jack-based interconnection system, a lot of knobs and sliders, and instant integration with a wide range of other software via the Rewire protocol.
What it has never had is an audio input, either to audio tracks or the sample-based devices. I'll get the bad news over with now: this feature is still lacking in v3.0. Anyone requiring linear audio tracks needs a MIDI + Audio sequencer that supports Rewire to host Reason, and the creation of custom samples for importing into Reason sample players requires separate sample-acquisition and editing software.
There are two major developments in v3.0. First of all, the new Combinator turns Reason into more of a real-time performance instrument than it has been before. Just like the 'performance' level of a workstation synth, this new instrument groups Reason devices into one super-device. You can layer and set up key and velocity splits, but that's just the beginning: unlike most workstation synths, Combinator puts no limits on the number or configuration of devices it holds, save those imposed by the host computer's CPU and RAM. It sits in the rack as one device, addressable from one MIDI sequencer track.
In the past, Reason owners have been forced to go to great lengths to repurpose existing Reason devices to recreate the effects of integrated mastering processors. This is no longer necessary, thanks to v3's other major innovation: the new MClass collection offers four dedicated mastering processors, and they're really rather good.
Other new features which we'll address shortly include a new, more accessible patch browser (see the box at the end of this article), built-in support for many hardware control surfaces, an enhanced linear sequencer, a neat little line mixer and improved sample handling.
Sadly, for some of us, there are changes of a less positive kind. Reason is now Mac OS X only — it ran quite well under Mac OS 9 until v2.5. It'll also only run on Windows XP and 2000; 98 and ME are no longer in the picture. Version 3.0 is much more demanding of its host computer, so although Propellerhead claim that the minimum specs are a G3 running Mac OS 10.2 or a 300MHz Pentium III, think of those as absolute minimums. Reason is much happier with faster processors (and tons of RAM). I was a little saddened that I wasn't able to audition demo songs on my aging Mac without crackles and audio dropouts, and even had to tweak the audio system of my 3GHz Pentium 4 laptop.
A Remote Possibility
Reason is not known for being buggy — release versions usually work first time. A trawl around the Propellerhead web site, though, does reveal a problem with v3. Basically, the problem is with Keyboard Control (previously known as Keyboard Remote), the system whereby computer keys can be assigned to Reason functions. What has been discovered is that if you set up mappings and then change them, the mappings may change unpredictably and can occasionally cause the software to crash. The big problem is that making changes in a song, saving it, and then reloading it, could crash Reason. Songs with no mappings are problem-free. Propellerhead advise users to not make any Keyboard Control assignments in v3 until the problem has been solved. Visit the site for a full discussion of the issues, a strategy to minimise problems if you have made assignments, and await an update!
It was always frustrating, in earlier versions of Reason, to be presented with four incoming MIDI control busses (via the fixed 'Hardware Interface') that allowed real-time layering of four devices — there was no way to use these layers in the main sequencer except by a lot of messing around. The new Combinator changes all that, adding many performance-level features. A Combi — the name for the resulting agglomeration of devices — doesn't just layer sound-makers. It allows them to be played in their own key range or velocity-triggered layers, and you can add as many effects as you want, and integrate Matrix step sequencers or Redrum drum machines. Not only can the result be saved as a recallable patch, but all the virtual linkages between devices (audio, gate and virtual 'CV') are saved as part of that patch. As existing Reason users will know, even simple gate/CV links made within a single device cannot be saved, except in a full song. As you might expect, any links from inside a Combi to the rest of the Reason rack will not be saved in a patch. However, Combinator does have its own audio inputs, so if you create effect-only Combis, you'll have one of the most user-definable multi-effects processors you've ever played with (at least in this price range!).
At its simplest, Combinator is reduced to a single rack strip, like any other Reason device, offering patch selection and name display, plus input and output level metering. Clicking a little arrow causes the Controller panel to fold out. The business end of Combinator, this panel offers four assignable rotary control knobs and four assignable buttons, plus pitch-bend and mod wheels. These controls can be assigned to any parameters in any device in the Combinator, so one knob or button can control one parameter on each of several devices if you wish.
Two more buttons let you run all the pattern-based devices in the Combi (ideal for auditioning independently of the host song), and bypass any effects. One of the remaining two buttons folds out the Programmer, which lets you define key and velocity ranges for each sound generator in the Combi. It looks rather like the Remote Programmer on the NNXT sample player, and is logical and straightforward. Key ranges are shown by a tweakable bar under a mini keyboard, with an option to key in exact values. Velocity ranges are simply keyed in, and I did feel it might have been useful if there had been a more graphical way of showing a velocity-controlled layer than the shading effect applied to the layer's key range bar, though this would have required much more screen space. It would be handy to be able to apply a transposition setting to devices in this display (if you wanted to have key-split instruments playing in specific pitch ranges), and I'd quite like to see some sort of trigger delay option, so that devices play a fixed time value after a note-on.
Devices appear in a list to the left of the keymap display, and highlighting a device allows you to access the Modulation Routing section for that device, to the right: the knobs and buttons on the controllers are assigned to device parameters here.
The last Controller button — labelled 'Show Devices' — unfolds the Combinator even further, so that it shows all of the devices that have been loaded into it. Adding devices can be done in three ways. First of all, it's possible to highlight a group in the main rack and use the Edit menu's 'Combine' command. A Combi containing those devices is instantly created (Combinators can also be 'uncombined'). Devices can easily be added using the 'Create' menu or contextual menu option. And finally, any device in the rack can simply be dragged into the Combi. You can't drag one Combinator into another, though — doing so simply adds all the modules from the one you're dragging to the other. This is a nifty option, allowing you to combine, say, effects chains and layered synths in a new Combinator. However, the new devices added in this way tend to automatically link to any available inputs on the main Remix in your rack, if you have one, rather than the mixer in the target Combinator.
Each Combinator has a flexible audio routing system, consisting of two pairs of stereo input jacks and two pairs of stereo outs. Devices in a Combi are routed to a stereo pair labelled 'From Devices', and thence to the rack's main mixer from the pair labelled 'Combi Output'. Thus you can see a mixer is needed in most circumstances, to reduce the outputs from all the combined devices to a single stereo stream, whether you're combining synths, samplers and drum machines or the outs from a parallel effects setup.
There is one area in which the devices in a Combinator are still dealt with on an individual basis: automation. Try to record a parameter change with your mouse for a device in a Combinator patch and it won't work. The only parameters that can be automated are the knobs, buttons and wheels of the Combinator's controller panel (plus aftertouch, breath control, sustain pedal and expression pedal). To automate the parameters of one of the devices, you have to assign that device to its own sequencer track.
Combinator even has a collection of gate and CV connections: the four rotary Controller knobs can be assigned a CV from elsewhere in the Reason rack for programmable modulation, and sequencer control gate and CV inputs mean that a Combinator can be played by a Matrix pattern sequencer. Finally, I note that the rear panel of the Combinator Programmer is amusingly labelled 'TS8450 Touch Sensitive Display Unit. We wish, guys, we wish...
The four-strong MClass suite offers a mastering EQ, stereo imager, compressor and maximiser. Each is a full-sized device, with a full complement of controls. And to make it even easier for you, Propellerhead have made a Mastering Suite Combi available from the 'Create' menu; it has all four devices in it, and a collection of specific factory patches to start you off (see above).
The MClass EQ is actually larger than the remaining three devices, to show off its curve display, a larger version of that used by the original half-rack PEQ2. The MClass EQ is worlds beyond that device, however, offering high and low shelving bands, two parametric bands, plus a 30Hz low-cut switch. The range of the EQ is quite impressive, with the low band operating from 30Hz. Though the high band tops out at 12kHz, both mid bands have a range of 39Hz to 20kHz. I was slightly disappointed to not be able to change EQ response by dragging the curve in the display, but that's just a personal thing!
I can't be alone in playing with delays to increase the perceived width of mixes, so the dedicated MClass Stereo Imager is most welcome. Not only does this device control stereo width, but it operates on high and low frequency ranges independently, with user control over the crossover frequency, and offers independent stereo outputs for each range. Solo controls let you check out the effect on each band.
It's great to see the MClass Compressor join the Reason family — unlike the original COMP01 device, it offers the facilities of a real compressor, such as standard or soft-knee operation (the more 'musical' compression), plus side-chain access for ducking and frequency-conscious processing (such as de-essing). The control set is very traditional, with knobs for Input Gain, Threshold, Ratio (1:1 to Infinity:1), Attack (1 to 100ms) and Release (50 to 600ms), plus Makeup Gain, but there are a couple of surprises — the Release parameter has a programme-dependent option. If you enable this, the release time changes in response to the length of incoming peaks. And the rear panel houses a CV output which transmits a dynamic CV signal derived from the compressor's gain reduction.
Lastly, the MClass Maximiser allows you to make your mixes as loud as possible without clipping. There's a large, detailed peak/VU meter display and control over input and output gain, with a three-way switched control over Attack and Release (Release again has an adaptive programme-dependent option, for a more natural-sounding result). A soft clipping control appears after the final gain stage, and enabling the 4ms look-ahead option lets the Maximiser examine audio before it's processed, and limit it if you wish.
Enhanced File Browser
New for v3.0 is a reworked file-browser system, letting you more easily navigate your hard drive and any Reason-related files and Refills it might contain. The redesign lets you search for patches by name or type, and the database folders of earlier versions have been replaced by a sub-window called 'Locations' — in fact, the database folders from earlier versions will be placed in the Locations list when you upgrade. You can add any file location to this to make it easily accessible.
One great new feature is in-browser auditioning of both samples and patches: as long as your master keyboard is routed to the device patches are being selected for, they can be played in the browser without loading first. A particularly welcome file-browsing option, available from the Create or contextual menu, is 'Create Device by Browsing Patches': you just pick the patch you want, and the device that plays it loads immediately, ready to go. As an extension of that idea, it's also possible to open the browser from one device and look for patches for any other device; select another device's patch, and it will automatically replace the original device.
The MClass suite is fab — I've already imported a couple of mixes into NN19, just to process them with these effects — but there is still more. One further device has been added to the rack: the Micromix stereo line mixer. While it's ideal as a sub-mixer inside Combis, it has, of course, a life elsewhere in the rack. Many of us have been using v2.5's Spider audio device as a simple audio mixer/combiner, and will welcome the option to add a bit of panning and an effect send for more demanding applications that don't require the facilities or CPU overhead of the full-blown Remix module.
Each of Micromix's six channels is equipped with a stereo input jack pair, mute and solo buttons, and level, pan and a single pre/post fader stereo aux send (to suit the stereo input of the RV7000 advanced reverb device). There's even space for a miniature LED bar-graph level meter, scribble strip and (rear-panel) CV control for the pan parameter.
Other changes are more subtle. A new Preferences page labelled 'Control Surfaces and Keyboards' helps you select the hardware controllers you intend to use, and the software communicates instantly with many current examples, complete with ready-made mappings of controllers to Reason parameters. Multiple controllers can be used if you need to control more than one device at once. There's even a 'MIDI Out' element to the MIDI routing for controllers, but this link is solely for controllers that require bi-directional MIDI connections, like moving-fader surfaces — there's no way to send MIDI note data outside Reason this way.
Another MIDI enhancement affects the main linear sequencer: it's possible to record automation to several tracks at once, though you can still only record one note-based MIDI performance at a time. The sequencer itself benefits from a bit of tidying up: it now has sensible Mute and Solo buttons, a much clearer 'MIDI In' indicator column, and record-enable switching. There are no major new editing options, though, and neither is there a tempo track yet, nor a score display.
The two supplied Refills (Orkester and the Factory Sound Bank) have been enhanced and enlarged — they both now total 1.22GB in size, and take advantage of new features such as the Combinator and the MClass processors. Some of the stacks and layers sound fabulous! Refill installation now occurs as part of the overall installation, too. The fab Electro Mechanical Refill added some months ago is not part of the Reason v3 package, but is still a free download for registered users.
At the other end of the process from installation — bouncing a finished mix to disk — dithering has been added to the audio export options, and sample load times for Redrum, NNXT and NN19 have been sped up.
As ever, I had a ball with Reason. It's just so much fun to work with, and the new features enhance that feeling. You'll never want to be without Combinator again, and the mastering suite really is in a (n M) Class of its own. Overall, the software remains the one to beat just for sheer facilities and user-friendliness.
To temper this slightly, I'm not so delighted about the way v3 will only run on up-to-date operating systems and exhibits sluggishness on older computers, even with simple Songs. Perhaps Propellerhead are readying their software for some as-yet unrevealed features.
Furthermore, my own bias is towards sound sources, and there are no new ones in this update (although admittedly Combinator offers a powerful way of applying what's already there). And Reason remains a closed zone to plug-ins, so you can't add any yourself. I also have a soft spot for arpeggiators, and no matter how existing devices can be pulled together to create arpeggiator-like effects, it's not the real thing! Finally, there will always be users who wish audio recording was available, and that goes for me too, if only to see how Propellerhead's engineers would present the feature.
But as much as I try to play devil's advocate with Reason, it remains the music software I use most. Whenever I feel nostalgic for all the old synths and effects units my studio no longer has to accommodate, I fire up Reason, and I'm in the future. Now.