Now that Rack Extensions are here, there are lots of Reason synths on offer — but which are the best?
This month, we're going to round up the best synths on the Reason Platform — including both 'bundled' favourites and new third-party add-ons — and discover a few tricks along the way. Let's get stuck in...
Propellerhead Subtractor (bundled)
Subtractor has been with us since the very beginning of Reason and these days is in danger of being overlooked in favour of shinier alternatives. The mono output doesn't help, nor does the lack of any on-board effects. However, if you route the output through a delay or reverb from RV7000 or one of many good rack extension alternatives you can instantly gain stereo width and motion.
For me, one of the main attractions is Subtractor's Phase Offset Modulation. This sounds nerdy — which it probably is — but it's also fun to work with and extends Subtractor's tonal range enormously. Check out the Mode buttons of oscillator 1 and 2. When these are set to 'O', the Phase Offset Modulation feature is turned off and the harmonic content of the oscillator's waveform is fixed. But when you click through to '-' (subtract) and 'X' (multiply) modes, the oscillator duplicates its waveform and the two copies, running more or less out of phase with each other, interact to generate a different, often more complex waveform. Each mode has a distinct character, and the nearby Phase knob controls the effect, adding harmonic shifts. Extreme settings often create interesting thin or transparent textures. If you then switch either of the onboard LFOs to modulate Phase — essentially, the position of this knob — the harmonics jump into constant motion. Beautiful and exciting effects can ensue...
Blamsoft Viking (€65$79)
In releasing a strictly monophonic synth that's utterly devoid of delays, reverbs, or even a chorus, Blamsoft clearly have some balls — and so does their Rack Extension, Viking VK1. With chunky silver and black knobs and rocker switches, this three‑oscillator brute clearly takes its inspiration from the Minimoog, although its 24dB/octave filter also has a dual low-/high-pass mode. Actually, the filter can be switched to gentler slopes too (either 18, 12 or a silky 6dB/octave) in the synth's programmer section, and you can also opt to use a high-quality but processor-intensive filter model.
Viking is in its element generating raw, unbridled leads and basses, but it's probably best not to look to it for great subtlety. Also, for the full old-school experience, check out the rear-panel Drift and keyboard Stretch parameters. These introduce out-of-tune behaviour typical of a real analogue synth, and can sound great in the right context.
Korg Polysix (€39$49)
The Polysix, as a single-oscillator synth (albeit with a simple sub-oscillator), has no right to sound as full and big as it can. The secret lies in two essential features.
First is the set of Unison controls at top right. Increasing the Unison value, by clicking and dragging the LCD number display, layers multiple Polysixes on top of each other — up to 16! You have to remember to allocate enough voices to cope, in the Total display, and because there's a maximum of 32 available, your Polysix will end up merely duophonic if you've also set the Unison value to 16. But however far you choose to go, the voices can be detuned with respect to one another, and spread across the stereo field (that's the real kicker!) with the Detune and Spread knobs.
The second feature is the simple but lovely effects section I've mentioned before in this column. All three modes — Chorus, Phase and Ensemble — are good in their own way, and another Spread knob does even more for the stereo field.
Rob Papen Predator RE (€99$119) and SubBoomBass (€65$79)
As synth designs, SubBoomBass and Predator predate (ha!) Rack Extensions, having been available in common plug-in formats for some years. Like all of Rob Papen's stuff, they're immensely capable. Big trance textures seem to flow out of Predator, and yet it has tremendous range, too. Amongst its 4000 (!) excellent presets, check out some of the Classic preset banks for remarkably good Roland-like tones, or the Ian Boddy signature bank for excitingly complex and unstable stuff. SubBoomBass doesn't have to be used only for bass duties, but its complement of oscillator waveforms, including plenty derived from acoustic instruments and drums, make it especially suited to that role.
Predator and SubBoomBass are worth having in the armoury not just because they're really good synths. Each has a useful, analogue-style, 16-step arpeggiator, and rear-panel CV sockets let you apply its gate triggers and shapes to other devices in your rack. Predator's audio inputs also let you use its excellent 27-mode filter and full-featured three-slot effects section, which includes great ensemble, wah, and phaser modes, on other audio sources. ReasonTech_03
Propellerhead Malström (bundled)
Malström was designed by Magnus Lidström, who's also now behind the brilliant RE effects Echobode and BitSpeek (as well as the wonderfully quirky plug-ins Permut8, Synplant and µTonic), in the guise of his company, SonicCharge.
As a 'Graintable' synth Malström is pretty unique. The two oscillators are wavetable designs, in the manner of PPG or Waldorf hardware synths. They don't offer single waveforms, but whole banks (or 'tables') of them. Try this to see what I mean. Create a Malström and then right-click and choose Reset Device. This leaves just Osc A enabled and set to a boring sine wave. Click on Sine' in the pop-up menu, though, and you'll see all the wavetables on offer. Choose Plastic Pipe (a particularly interesting one) and play some long notes. What you hear is like a looped sample, but in fact it's Malström cycling through the wavetable's bank of waveforms. Think of those old Victorian 'flick books', where a series of individual photos produce the impression of motion, and you have something of the concept.
Controlling the wavetables is easy. The Motion knob controls the speed of progression through a wavetable's waves, and if you turn it all the way to the left, you hear a static waveform. The Index slider shifts the point at which playback of the wavetable begins. Slide it while Motion is turned off and you can explore the wavetable manually. If you only want to cycle playback around one small part of a wavetable, rather than the whole thing, keep Motion turned down and use one of the LFO-like 'MOD' sections to modulate the Index position, via its 'index' knob.
The 'grain' bit of 'graintable' refers to the Osc sections' Shift knobs. Moving these away from centre causes the wavetable to be pitch-shifted and resampled, often keeping the original pitch-centre discernible, but skewing the harmonic content around it. The result is yet more strange and inspiring sounds...
One last titbit about Malström: using its rear-panel inputs and unusual filters, it can provide both stereo-faker and ring modulation effects for other devices. See the Reason workshop from SOS May 2010 for more on this.
Propellerhead PX7 (€79$99)
PX7 is an emulation of Yamaha's ground-breaking early 1980s DX7 synth, in all its brown and mint-green glory. Like the original, it uses FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis, creating complex waveforms through the interaction of six sine-wave 'operators', all without a filter in sight. In all honest,y FM remains, to the average musician, just as impenetrable and uncontrollable as it was 30 years ago. The sounds can be inspiring, though, in a kitschy sort of way, and Propellerhead have provided some 'macro' sliders, including a Brightness control, that take all the pain out of quick sound tweaks. If you visit www.propellerheads.se/support_area/dx7-px7-converter/ you can convert original DX7 '.syx' SysEx-format banks into PX7 patches. Impressive.
Propellerhead Thor (bundled)
The Reason column has looked at Thor in considerable detail over the years. Simon Sherbourne's December 2007 and January 2008 columns are a great introduction, and he covered Thor's use as an effects processor and modular environment host in May 2009. I returned to it in May 2011 to explore its audio-rate modulation capabilities, so I won't attempt to add to that here except to point out, in case anyone's forgotten, that Thor really is the epitome of the hybrid, semi-modular synth. Switchable oscillators and filter types, a big modulation matrix, a step sequencer and useful effects help it conjure up most varieties of synth sound.
Synapse Antidote (€119$149)
Virus, Venom, Antidote... You can see where Synapse were coming from with this one! With two oscillators, one filter, two LFOs and two envelope generators, Antidote seems fairly standard, but this stealthy synth conceals its true power. First, the Oscillators work either conventionally or as wavetable generators. Then each can create up to 12 copies of itself, via the Count parameter, and double that again at a different pitch, which is set via the DYAD parameter. All the resulting voices can be detuned and spread across the stereo field with the Detune and Spread knobs. There are seven great filters, and a seven-stage effects chain which, like Predator, can be utilised by other devices, via the rear-panel audio inputs.
To these ears, Antidote seems more than a bit reminiscent of the big Yamahas of yesteryear, including the CS80, and that can't be bad.