We serve up another smorgasbord of Reason Rack Extensions.
In last month's Reason Notes, we made a first recce of the often strange sonic landscapes emanating from Propellerhead's rack extension Polar, a new device based around two pitch-shifters fed by a delay buffer. At its subtlest, you can use it for chorus-like thickening and stereo effects. But quickly you're into tone cluster and octave stack territory, sometimes with a rhythmic element, and a seriously likeable artificial twang. Check out the article in the September issue of SOS for some guidance on setting up these treatments.
Polar comes into its own in the outer limits, though, and alongside a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of weird noises, one really interesting approach stands out.
This technique centres around Polar's delay buffer and the way its Lock button can 'freeze' an incoming audio stream. This is a great, contemporary effect with applications for vocals, drums and more. We looked at something similar using The Echo back in the April issue of SOS, but this is weirder.
To get going with this effect, create a Polar for an audio track or instrument device, right-click it and choose Reset Device to initialise all its settings. In the Algorithm section, switch to Fast mode: this cuts the latency associated with Polar's input analysis right down. In this basic, zeroed-out state Polar still imparts a bit of character on the audio it processes, but it's minimal.
As your track plays back, click the Delay Buffer section's Lock button. The effect should be instantly obvious! You'll notice the button isn't 'momentary', it latches. That's a good thing, though, because it means that while the delay buffer is locked, and you're experiencing that strange granular synthesis-like cloud of sound, you can turn the nearby Delay knob to explore the snippet caught in the buffer. All sorts of ear candy can be produced like this, to spice up otherwise straight-sounding tracks in unexpected and interesting ways. It doesn't have to be a choice between 'normal' or frozen either: if you turn on the Dry Signal section the freezes persist while the input signal continues.
To get some variation on this technique, try switching algorithms. Classic creates strange digital artifacts, while the Loop algorithms offer something new again. Now chunks of audio (the durations of which are determined with the Length knob) get played repeatedly. With the Loop algorithm, the effect is most pronounced the more upward pitch-shift is dialled in. With Rev Loop the effect is good most of the time, regardless of settings! Good enough, in fact, to use without the Lock feature, as a strange kind of delay.
You might also investigate hooking up an LFO to Polar's rear-panel Lock Delay Buffer gate input. Don't bother with anything other than a square-wave LFO, as this is strictly on-off stuff. A device like Pulsar, a dedicated modulation source, is ideal for the task.
Crazy and cool stuff can happen if you also modulate the Delay Buffer Position with Polar's onboard LFO, which is as simple turning up or down the LFO knob in the Delay Buffer section. Sawtooth waveshapes work well, at a tempo-sync'ed rate, injecting rhythmic pulses and shapes into your frozen audio.
Propellerheads' rack extension instrument, Radical Piano, isn't your normal virtual piano. It doesn't really do those £$100,000 tones of big Steinways, Bosendorfers and Faziolis which are the promise of most sample libraries. Instead it seems dedicated towards creating 'character' pianos, all with a bit of a twist.
The essential controls are all quite self-explanatory: you choose two pianos from 12 piano types and then blend between them with the central grey knob. The orange knob to the left is labelled Character, and seems to control a resampling process. Turn it down and the piano sounds slowed-down (think Music For Airports). Up, and you're into tighter, brighter tones reminiscent of historical pianos or dulcimers. Other parameters tailor the effect, applying different decay curves, controlling action noise, adding reverb, and so on.
Less obvious is the front-panel Sustain indicator. Yes, it is an indicator, displaying the position of a continuous sustain pedal, if you're fortunate enough to be using a MIDI keyboard which has one. But it's also a slider: click it elsewhere in its range to set the amount the virtual dampers are lifted from the strings, when you're not using a sustain pedal input.
Then there's the rear-panel audio input. Signals sent there pass through Radical Piano's resonance section (the soundboard and strings) before going on to its EQ, Ambience and Compression section. This means you can use Radical Piano as a strange but wonderfully different reverb, on NNXT sampled pianos, vocals, guitars, drums and anything else. As it has no wet/dry mix control though, and only a mono input, you're better off patching it into one of the Master Section's FX Send/Return loops rather than patching it directly to the output of another device.
Hold down the Shift key when you're creating a Radical Piano to use as an effect, to prevent an unneeded Mix device and sequencer track being created. To heighten the piano-reverb effect, raise the Resonance Level and Release Time knobs, and the Sustain Pedal level. Also, be aware that the rear-panel flow-chart graphic isn't telling the whole story — the reverb quality is affected very much by the positions of the Character knob, the Cent (fine tune) and Drift knobs in the Tune section, the overall Volume level and the stereo Width setting.
Finally, one of the most exciting aspects of rack extensions is that they provide access to classic gear within Reason. Let's take a quick look at two really good candidates.
We looked at GForce Software's excellent virtual Mellotron, Re-Tron, last month. Just as momentous is the release of Korg's Polysix, a recreation of the early-'80s six-voice synth of the same name. It's only $49€39 from shop.propellerheads.se.
Polysix fills a niche in Reason's synth armoury. It's fundamentally very simple, with a single oscillator (albeit backed up with a sub-oscillator) and single low-pass filter. It has a different character to Reason's own Subtractor, though — somehow more 'fruity' and immediate — and various features such as pulse width modulation, a great-sounding chorus/phaser/ensemble and a devastatingly effective unison mode ensure the sound still has loads of richness and life.
I'm hoping Korg might consider expanding Polysix's rear-panel connections in a future update; it'd be great to pass other devices through its effects section, and also drive other synths from its straightforward but very effective arpeggiator. But it's already good as it is, and a real bargain.
Next up is Softube's Trident A-Range EQ, one of the first rack extensions to be announced. It's a port of their long-established VST/AU/AAX/RTAS plug-in which models the EQ section of a '70s-era Trident A-Range mixing desk.
While the appreciation of different EQ characters can sometimes seem an esoteric business, there's no doubting the smoothness on offer here. Even large boosts and cuts never get ugly, and seem to enhance the character of the original source rather than overwhelm it.
€119$149 might seem a lot for an EQ, but this is one of the best. Now, if only Propellerhead could dream up a way of getting EQ rack extensions to appear in mixer channel strips...
The textures that can emanate from pretty much any audio source treated with Polar's Delay Buffer Lock feature are often worth capturing, to play from your MIDI keyboard as textures. All sorts of great pads, textures and effects can be made this way.
To do this you need to get Reason's main audio output routed to the Sampling Input sockets. Viewing the back of your rack, locate the Master Section and Hardware Interface devices (always at the top left of the rack) and make sure neither is folded. Also check the Hardware Interface is showing its 'Audio I/O' panel. Click the button with the same name if not.
Now, disconnect the cables running from the Master Section Master Out sockets, which are no doubt running up to one of the Audio Output pairs on the Hardware Interface, and take note of which numbered pair it was.
Next, create a Spider Audio Merger & Splitter device nearby. Drag cables from the Master Out sockets into the Spider's right-hand side splitter input sockets. Then reconnect cables from two of the splitter output sockets back to your audio output pair in the Hardware Interface (the one you made a note of) and also to the Sampling Input on the same device.
Phew! This setup is a lot easier to understand in the screen shot. But now it means you can use any sampling device to capture interesting sounds from Polar (or anywhere else in Reason, for that matter). An NN19 Sampler is ideal, after you've cleared its default preset with the Reset Device command. Just click its Sampling button, near the preset display, and your sound gets loaded straight in.