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Propellerhead Reason 5

Audio Production Software For Mac & PC
Published October 2010
By Paul Sellars

The latest version of Reason incorporates new arrangement tools and two powerful new instruments, and even lets you record samples. Meanwhile, sister application Record continues to develop too...

Propellerhead Reason 5

Reason is Propellerhead's flagship sequencing and virtual instrument package, which has been featured in SOS many times — not least in the regular Reason Notes column — and has now reached version 5. Record is Reason's younger multitrack audio recording counterpart, originally reviewed in SOS October 2009, and it, too, has been updated, now standing at version 1.5. Reason and Record are available for Windows (XP SP3, Vista and 7) and Mac OS X (10.4 or later on an Intel Mac). Both programs share a very similar design and layout, and if you have both installed they seamlessly integrate, with Reason functioning like a giant plug‑in within Record.

Record 1.5 is a free upgrade for existing users. Owners of Reason 4 and Record 1.0 likewise get Record 1.5 for free if they upgrade to Reason 5. Reason and Record are both nicely presented boxed packages, each containing an installation DVD and a printed Getting Started manual containing clear and well‑written tutorials aimed at newcomers. More extensive documentation is also provided in PDF format. The Record box also contains a rather heavy‑duty, metal‑cased USB dongle, for authorisation and copy protection.

Block Rocking Beats

Blocks are like miniature arrangements within a Reason or Record arrangement, and make it possible to have changes applied automatically to multiple clips at a stroke.Blocks are like miniature arrangements within a Reason or Record arrangement, and make it possible to have changes applied automatically to multiple clips at a stroke.

New in both Reason and Record, the Blocks feature is a neat refinement of the sequencer arrangement window, which now has two modes, Block and Song. Song mode behaves exactly as Arrange Mode did in previous versions. Block mode is slightly different.

Blocks are, in essence, small arrangements within arrangements. Blocks can contain multiple instrument tracks, and a Song can contain multiple Blocks. Blocks can be given descriptive names such as 'Intro', 'Verse' or 'Chorus', and when you've programmed a Block to your liking, you can switch back to Song mode and simply draw it in as required. Blocks appear as automation clips on a dedicated Blocks track, and are automatically looped to make up the duration as required.

When a Song contains a Block, the clips the Block contains are displayed on tracks and lanes in the usual way, but appear 'greyed out'. In Song mode, Blocks are only editable to a limited extent: they can be split using the Razor tool, and have parts muted using the new Mute tool. So, for instance, you could create a 'verse' Block, copy and paste four duplicates, then mute selected clips (by clicking them with the Mute tool) within the first four instances to create a stripped‑down introduction that 'builds' to the first verse proper.

To edit the contents of a Block, you must return to Block mode. When you switch back to Song mode, any edits made to the Block's contents will be applied wherever the Block appears in the arrangement. This can save you a great deal of tedious copying and pasting. For instance, if you decide a synth line could be improved by a filter sweep, you can program the required automation in the relevant Block, and it will be included every time the synth line appears. Ordinary clips can be recorded or programmed in tracks in Song Mode in the usual way, and overlaid on top of Blocks, overriding their content.

Although they may appear a small refinement, Blocks prove extremely useful in practice. To be able to back‑track and remake your initial compositional building blocks without having to laboriously rebuild your arrangement afterwards seems like such an obvious advantage that you soon begin to wonder why it wasn't always possible.

Kong King

The new Kong Drum Designer is a powerful, semi‑modular drum synth that incorporates sampled, physically modelled and virtual analogue drum-sound generators.The new Kong Drum Designer is a powerful, semi‑modular drum synth that incorporates sampled, physically modelled and virtual analogue drum-sound generators.

Reason's new Kong Drum Designer is a powerful drum-sound module. Unlike Redrum, it has no internal pattern sequencer of its own, but is driven by Reason's main sequencer (or a virtual CV/Gate signal from another Reason device). Kong combines sample playback and multiple synthesis methods with flexible internal effects routing. Each of Kong's 16 pads has its own semi‑modular signal path, made up of a drum module followed by two slots for effects modules. These, in turn, feed into a master bus, where further effects can be applied. There's also an auxiliary bus for send effects.

A pad settings pane provides quick access to a few basic settings for the selected pad: pitch, pan, level, tone, decay and effects send levels. Multiple pads can be assigned to 'mute groups' so that triggering one silences the others, as would usually be the case for closed and open hi‑hats; 'alt groups', where repeatedly triggering one pad causes playback to alternate between all pads in the group, to avoid 'machine gunning'; or 'link groups', where triggering one pad causes the entire group to fire simultaneously. Entire sets of pad settings can be copied and pasted between pads. When a kit has been organised to your liking, it can be saved as a patch.

The drum modules are at the heart of Kong, and there are a number to choose from. NN‑Nano is a sample‑playback module, superficially resembling a miniature NNXT. It can load samples in WAV, AIFF, and SoundFont formats, as well as individual slices from within REX files (which can be browsed as though they were folders full of samples). Samples can be loaded, layered, or set up to velocity‑switch with a few mouse clicks. Up to four samples or layered sets of samples can be loaded into a NN‑Nano module, one for each of four 'hit types' (more on these later). The level, pitch and velocity range for each sample can be adjusted independently, and two or more samples can be added to an 'Alt' group so that playback alternates between them each time the pad is triggered. Other controls include a basic Attack/Decay envelope, and the option to have parameters including pitch, decay, level, pitch‑bend and sample start modulated by MIDI velocity.

The Nurse Rex Loop Player is like a diminutive version of the Doctor OctoRex Loop player, of which more in a moment. It allows a pad to trigger some or all of the parts of a Recycle‑sliced REX file. Several playback modes are available: Loop Trig plays the entire loop when triggered, while Chunk Trig allows chunks of the loop to be assigned across several pads and Slice Trig allows you to assign a single slice to a pad, or several slices, with playback alternating between them each time the pad is triggered. Finally, Stop mode allows you to use one pad to stop the playback of another. Individual slices can be selected in the waveform display, have an ADSR envelope applied, have their pitch and level adjusted, or their playback reversed. Pitch and level can both be modulated by MIDI velocity.

Three physical‑modelling drum synthesis modules are also available, named Bass Drum, Snare Drum and Tom Tom. The manual is cagey about how these actually work, saying only that "very faithful mathematical models” of acoustic drums are used. There are some parameters that all three modules have in common (Pitch, Damp, Decay) and some that are specific to one drum type or another (Edge Tune for the snare drum, Beater Level for the bass drum, and so on). Regardless of what's going on behind the scenes, the audible results are impressive. All three drum types sound convincingly 'real', and could easily compete with a sampled kit in the context of a mix. They're responsive to velocity in a way that seems quite natural. Tweaking the different parameters produces a range of useful variations, and even with the controls set to their extremes, it's impossible to come up with anything that's not a usable drum sound.

The physical modelling modules have three 'synth' counterparts, also called Bass Drum, Snare Drum and Tom Tom — which might be confusing, if it weren't for their very different appearances. Once again, we're told little about how they work, just that they are "analogue modelling”. Similar sets of specialised controls are available: Level, Pitch and Decay are common to all, Tone and Attack belong to the bass-drum module, Harmonic Balance and Harmonic Frequency to the snare, and so on. A fourth module, dedicated to hi‑hat sounds, has controls for Click, Tone (filter cutoff) and Ring (resonance). Again, the results are impressive. A wide variety of percussive noises can be produced — everything from Kraftwerk‑esque white‑noise hits to the kicks and snares of Roland's famous analogue drum machines, and various things in between. The synth modules are slightly more tweakable than their physical‑modelling counterparts, but again, it's difficult to come up with anything that wouldn't be usable.

Two more 'support' modules are also available, which load into effects slots alongside drum modules and are triggered by the associated pad. There's a noise generator with basic filter and envelope controls, and a tone generator with pitch‑bend and other controls. These can further reinforce the output of the synth drum modules, or add synthetic elements to sounds produced by the other modules.

There are also the effects modules proper, consisting of a simple room reverb, a transient shaper, a compressor, a filter, a parametric EQ, a ring modulator, a nice 'tape echo' delay, an 'Overdrive/Resonator', and the Rattler, which emulates the sound of a snare attached to whatever you feed into it, with adjustable 'tension'. If that's not enough flexibility, you can flip over to Kong's back panel, where you'll find sockets for patching other effects devices into the signal path. Conversely, a pair of back‑panel audio inputs allows you to use Kong itself as an effects device, processing output from other devices through its various modules.

Making A Hit

By default, each pad in Kong is assigned to its own drum module. However, this is not compulsory, and it can sometimes pay to organise things differently — for example, to make use of Kong's 'hit types' feature.

Several of Kong's drum modules offer four different hit types, which are built-in variations on their default behaviour. The synth hi‑hat module, for example, has closed, semi‑closed, semi‑open and open hit types. You might, therefore, assign four different pads to trigger the same module, setting each of the pads to make use of a different hit type. You can then play patterns using all four variations in the sound, with the advantage that any adjustments to the module's parameters will affect the four different hit types equally, saving you the bother of having to manually tweak the knobs on four different modules.

The physical‑modelling snare drum has four hit types relating to different positions on the virtual drumhead, and the Nurse Rex module's playback modes are also implemented as hit types. NN‑Nano allows four different samples to be loaded as hit types: these would typically, although not necessarily, be variations on the same sound.

All in all, Kong is an impressive instrument. Its different sound modules cover every conceivable drum or percussion‑programming task, its physical‑ and analogue‑modelling drum modules sound excellent and are extremely easy to use, and the effects modules complete the picture. Kong's semi‑modular design invites experimentation, and is sufficiently open‑ended that you won't quickly exhaust its possibilities. While it would be possible to produce some of the same sounds and effects with combinations of other Reason devices, it would also be time‑consuming and laborious. Kong's design makes creating and playing sophisticated sampled and synthesized drum kits easy.

Dr OctoRex

Dr OctoRex is an advanced REX file player that can manipulate sliced‑up files in almost any way possible. Dr OctoRex is an advanced REX file player that can manipulate sliced‑up files in almost any way possible.

Dr OctoRex is a sampled loop player, designed specifically for Propellerhead's own Recycle‑sliced REX file format. It's essentially an updated and supercharged version of the Dr Rex player from earlier versions of Reason. As its name suggests, it allows up to eight REX‑format files to be loaded into slots, which you can then switch between either with MIDI notes, by clicking the front‑panel buttons (the sequencer records button‑pushes as automation), or by manually drawing in sequencer automation. Loops can be loaded in batches from the file browser, and are automatically distributed among the eight slots. Loops and associated settings can be copied and pasted between slots.

The device can be used very simply as a quick and easy tool for creating backing tracks from REX libraries. You might have a drum loop loaded in one slot, for example, with variations and fills loaded in subsequent slots, triggering them one after another to produce a basic but workable drum track. When switching between slots, the changeover is 'quantised': the next file waits for the next available bar (or beat, or 16th note) before triggering, in the same way as clips do in Ableton Live.

However, Dr OctoRex is capable of much more than simple loop playback. Individual slices from within each loop can be triggered with MIDI notes: the slices are automatically arranged across your controller keyboard at semitone intervals. A Copy Loop To Track button can automatically create a clip containing the sequence of MIDI notes required to trigger the selected loop's slices. A Slice Edit mode allows you to adjust a range of playback parameters for each individual slice in a REX file, simply by clicking the slice in the waveform display and dragging up or down to set the value. The available parameters include the basic Pitch, Pan, Level and Decay, plus Rev, which toggles reverse playback for the selected slice. Ffreq adjusts filter cutoff frequency, while Alt assigns a slice to one of four groups, from within which slices will be played in a random, alternating fashion, and Out assigns a slice to one of the device's eight independent outputs.

As well as these per‑slice sound‑shaping parameters, Dr OctoRex also includes a set of 'global' synth‑like parameters that affect the entire instrument's output. These include a multi‑mode resonant filter with notch, high‑pass, band‑pass and low‑pass modes, filter and amp envelopes, and an LFO, among other things.

It's difficult to conceive of much you might want to do to a REX file that couldn't be accomplished with Dr OctoRex, from the simple business of deploying a set of sampled loops irrespective of their original key and tempo, to much more drastic deconstruction and rearrangement. Slice Edit mode makes it possible to isolate single hits or notes within a phrase, pitch them up or down, reverse or filter them, route them to separate mixer channels — even (with the Alt parameter) generate complex, random variations on the original phrase or pattern.

Hidden Depths? 0

The major new feature in Record 1.5 is the Neptune pitch processor.The major new feature in Record 1.5 is the Neptune pitch processor.

The major new feature in Record 1.5, meanwhile, is the Neptune Pitch Adjuster, a real‑time pitch correction tool loosely modelled on Antares' Auto‑Tune and its imitators. It processes incoming audio, detecting pitches and automatically shifting them up or down to the nearest correct note, where 'correct' is determined by the processor's settings. You can select a root note and desired scale type, and have incoming pitches corrected to the nearest interval on that scale.

Neptune's user interface makes this easy. Root notes and preset scale types can be selected from drop‑down menus above the main display. Custom scale variations can be created using the small 'keyboard' buttons beneath the central display, toggling notes on or off to include or exclude them. Formant correction is included, to avoid overly artificial 'munchkinised' vocals, and by adjusting the Shift knob you can 'gender change' vocals, more or less realistically, in either direction.

There are functions included to help with potentially problematic input signals. Low Freq aims to improve accuracy for low‑frequency sources, such as bass lines, while Wide Vibrato tailors the processing for input signals with dramatic pitch modulation, and a Preserve Expression knob allows you to preserve intentional pitch variations.

In Automatic mode, Neptune implements what it calls Catch Zones, which are pitch ranges within which an incoming note must fall in order to be caught and corrected. The upper and lower boundaries of a Catch Zone can be shifted further apart, except in chromatic mode, where they have a fixed one‑semitone width. It's even possible to define a custom scale with only a single 'correct' note, so that all incoming pitches are shifted to meet it. A less extreme application would be to favour two or three notes within a scale by setting wider Catch Zones for them.

Neptune also supports MIDI input, which can be used as an alternative method for supplying target pitches. Instead of relying on scales and Catch Zones, you can simply play (or program) MIDI notes to serve as targets for incoming notes. The Catch Zones are automatically removed from Neptune's display whenever a MIDI note is held; when the note is released, Neptune instantly switches back to Automatic mode. In this way, you can switch freely between modes on the fly, using Automatic correction wherever it suits you, dropping occasional 'override' notes from your MIDI controller.

MIDI input can also be used with Neptune's voice synthesis functions. When these are activated, Neptune generates additional synthetic voices at pitches determined by incoming MIDI notes. Playing notes or chords on your MIDI controller, you can create harmonies to complement your original vocal, even while it's having its own pitch corrected. A pair of faders is used to balance the relative levels of the original and the synthetic voices. The synthesized voices sound slightly artificial when heard in isolation, but can be very effective in the context of a mix.

Neptune is easy to use and capable of striking results. Its forté is as a vocal processor. With the Correction Speed knob turned right up, all the usual, clichéd robotic effects are available. With more judicious settings, Neptune does unobtrusive and quite natural‑sounding pitch correction, and the Voice Synth can generate quite usable artificial harmonies or backing vocals. The device is not limited to use on vocal sounds, of course. With careful tweaking, and clean (and preferably monophonic) sources to work on, it will happily work with other instruments. It also has potential as a MIDI‑controllable pitch‑shifter and harmoniser for creative sound design.

Other Features

A small but very worthwhile addition to Reason is the ability to generate MIDI input directly from the QWERTY keyboard.A small but very worthwhile addition to Reason is the ability to generate MIDI input directly from the QWERTY keyboard.

Along with the devices and functions described above, a raft of other, smaller improvements has been made in both Reason and Record. Present in both are a new 'tap tempo' button among the transport controls, and a useful floating On‑screen Piano Keys window that allows you to play MIDI notes from your computer's QWERTY keyboard, or with the mouse. In Record, there are functions to reverse and to normalise audio clips — and audio clips can now be time-stretched simply by holding Ctrl (on a PC) or Option (on a Mac), and clicking and dragging at either end. When Reason and Record are installed together, a 'Bounce clip to sample' function offers an easy way to transfer (parts of) audio recordings to the pool of samples available to Reason's instruments. There are other enhancements too: for an exhaustive list, see Propellerhead's web site.

Two significant new instruments, and easy‑to‑use built‑in sampling make version 5 a must‑have upgrade for existing Reason users. The Neptune pitch processor is a powerful new tool for performing the kinds of task that might previously have sent Record users into the arms of rival DAW applications. When Reason 5 and Record 1.5 are installed together, they make up an impressively comprehensive package.

That said, there are still a few features missing — presumably deliberate omissions rather than oversights. Score and notation editing and printing, and the ability to import and sync to video are still two things that neither Reason nor Record will do. Third‑party plug‑ins, likewise, continue to be unsupported. If these are deal‑breakers for you, you'll have to look elsewhere.

With these updates, Propellerhead continue to refine and improve their small, self‑contained world of high‑quality virtual instruments and other devices, all presented in a uniquely approachable and intuitive way. Glancing back across this review, I see that I have used the word 'impressive' four times already, and I have no qualms about making that five. Impressive.  

Recording Samples In Reason

A welcome addition to Reason 5 is a new sampling input in the rack's main Audio I/O device. By default, this is wired up to the sockets corresponding with your computer's default hardware input. However, it can just as easily be patched to any available audio output in the rack, including those belonging to Reason's own instrument and effects devices, allowing you to sample their output just as you would an external source. Samples can be recorded in either mono or stereo. The sight we thought we'd never see: audio recording in Reason! This is, however, a limited facility designed solely for creating samples that can be used with the built‑in sample players.The sight we thought we'd never see: audio recording in Reason! This is, however, a limited facility designed solely for creating samples that can be used with the built‑in sample players.

Reason's sampling functions are implemented 'system wide', so that they can be invoked from any of the sample‑based instrument devices (NN19, NNXT, Kong's NN‑Nano modules and Redrum — but not Dr OctoRex), or even without a sample‑based instrument in the rack. In all cases, the sample recording window is the same, and it couldn't be much simpler or easier to use. When sampling is initiated, a waveform is steadily drawn from left to right across the window as sound is recorded. One button halts sampling and closes the window. Another restarts sampling from the beginning, overwriting any sound already in the buffer. A third button ends sampling and opens the newly recorded sound in the sample Edit window. A simple but effective sample editor allows you to trim and tidy up your recorded audio.A simple but effective sample editor allows you to trim and tidy up your recorded audio.

The Edit window is only slightly more complicated than the recording window. The waveform display is larger, and zoomable, and allows selections to be dragged across it. Toolbar buttons along the top allow you to crop a selection, normalise or reverse it, fade in or out, and choose one of three looping modes (No Loop, Loop Forward and Forward and Backward). Loops can be crossfaded, as required. A root note can also be specified.

When you open the sample recorder from within one of the sample‑based instruments, the resulting file is automatically assigned to that instrument and loaded into the active patch. Both the recording and editing windows can be called up and used without halting sequencer playback. If sampling is initiated from an instrument such as Redrum or Kong (via the NN‑Nano modules), you can record, re‑record and edit samples while the song plays and the instrument is triggered, and immediately hear how different sounds sit in the context of the pattern. Single‑hit sounds, sustained pitched instrument notes, and even verse‑ or chorus‑length loops can be captured, trimmed, and put to work with the greatest of ease, and it's good, addictive fun. In an ideal world, it would be possible to invoke sampling from Dr OctoRex too, and define REX slices in the Edit window, but I suppose you can't have everything.

Given the ease with which live audio can be captured, Reason‑only users might be wondering if they even need to bother buying or upgrading Record. However, while it would certainly be possible to record and compile basic vocal or instrument parts from sequences of samples, there are certain practical limits: only 30 seconds of audio can be recorded into a sample, after which the recorder loops, overwriting the earlier part of the recording. For serious tracking, therefore, Record is still the way to go.

Published October 2010