Is there more to the latest version of Reason than a pretty face?
Reason 8 is the latest release of what is now a well-established DAW that has never been afraid to do things its own way. It comes relatively hot on the heels of Reason 7, released in April 2013 and reviewed in SOS in the June 2013 issue (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun13/articles/reason-7.htm). That review summarises the ethos and history of the application, describes most of its essential capabilities, and explains how in recent years it has broken out of what was originally an insular, self-contained vision. So if you’re completely new to Reason, or haven’t kept up with developments in the last couple of years, do take a look at that review.
With Reason already capable of driving external MIDI gear, and being extended with third-party instruments and effects in the form of Rack Extensions (Reason’s equivalent of plug-ins), where does version 8 lead this increasingly capable digital audio workstation?
It’ll mean more to some users than others, but Reason has had a makeover. In essence it’s now much ‘flatter’, shorn of the skeuomorphic shadows, reflections and 3D-like elements which in recent years have been deemed Very Bad by Apple and Microsoft alike. So if you like the cool, clear feel of Windows 8, OS X Yosemite and recent releases of iOS, Reason 8 should be right up your street. Or rather, parts of it will be. Much of the sequencer and transport have been positively steam-ironed, and now have a light grey look that is easy on the eye. But there are still some shadows lurking, there are virtual LED level meters in sequencer tracks, and an unusual 3D ‘paper fold’ motif used to separate out sections of the user interface. And then there’s the Mixer, the Rack, and all the devices which go in it, which are as photo-realistic, wood-grained and knee-deep in 3D as they ever were. So Reason 8 is an odd mix, actually, of cutting-edge and more old-fashioned interface design.
The changes that have taken place are not just for visual effect, though. The transport bar can dynamically resize and rearrange its contents to suit different window sizes. The three main window sections — Mixer, Rack and Sequencer — are now easier to open, close and detach using the mouse thanks to thicker, labelled header strips. And there’s clearly been some reassessment of how useful various parts of the interface are. Some fiddly ‘overview’ panels in the sequencer and mixer have completely disappeared, and Quantise features have been promoted into the limelight of the transport bar, squeezing out more niche controls (Blocks and ReGroove) to menus or smaller buttons. Overall, things feel slicker and more polished, and certainly none of the changes harm Reason’s long-standing ability to work well on both tiny laptop screens or multi-monitor desktop setups.
Part and parcel of the Reason 8 facelift is probably its most important new feature, the Browser. Now, Reason has of course had a browser for as long as anyone can remember. It would come into play when loading songs, patches and samples, amongst other things. But the problem was that it took the form of a dialogue box that would temporarily obscure anything underneath it, hijacking keystrokes and blocking interaction with any part of the main windows that was still visible. It was functional, but unwieldy. Meanwhile, applications like Ableton Live and PreSonus Studio One had long demonstrated how nice life could be when file and plug-in browsers were integrated into the heart of the graphical interface, letting users drag and drop to intuitively and swiftly create tracks, instruments and effects, place audio and load samples or patches. Many other DAWs have since embraced this way of working, and in version 8, it’s now Reason’s turn.
The dialogue box is now consigned to history (except for Save operations), and all its functions transferred to a brand-new panel that opens on the left side of the main window, running full height. It can be collapsed, but will open when necessary. Its most straightforward role is as a file browser for locating and opening songs, audio and MIDI files, ReFills and patches on your drives. It’s also a device chooser, displaying all available instruments, effects and utilities in categorised and alphabetised lists. ReFills can be explored, and there’s shortcut access to the factory sounds and patch collections. User shortcuts and favourite items can be added too, and there’s a file info panel with audio auditioning facilities.
To create an instrument, for example, you’d begin by clicking on the Instruments shortcut item, choose one by name or by scoping the thumbnail previews, and then either double-click or drag the thumbnail to rack or sequencer. Browsed audio files can be dragged directly to an audio track, to an empty part of the sequencer (where new tracks are automatically created to receive them), or to a rack device like the Kong Drum Designer, to load them as samples. It’s a flexible, helpful and intuitive system.
The browser also maintains a search facility which is claimed to be faster than before. It works, for sure, but it’s something of a blunt instrument. Searches take place in the part of the file system you happen to be in, which is to say you get most success and quickest results when you’ve already guided the browser towards the relevant folders or ReFill. It’s not so good for searching whole drives. The other big disappointment is that you can only search by name, and there’s nothing like the tag-based approach that is so effective and useful in hub software like Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol or Arturia’s Analog Lab. So there’s no easy way to pull together all vocal-type patches, for example, other than those that happen to have the word ‘vocal’ in their filename or enclosing folder.
Hand in hand with visual changes come less obvious functional enhancements. The main Create menu, and its pop-up right-click contextual counterpart, is much better organised. Propellerhead now have just three categories of devices — Instruments, Effects and Utilities — and have done away with the increasingly arbitrary distinction between ‘studio’ and ‘creative’ effects. What’s more, devices and Rack Extensions should be easier to find now that they’re categorised and grouped either as ‘Reason devices’ or by their developer’s name. And there’s a really nice touch in the way that Reason 8 keeps track of devices you create and use a lot, and dynamically assembles lists of them in the relevant submenus. That’s going to save a lot of mouse and trackpad zig-zagging.
Elsewhere, there are sensible improvements in track-naming behaviour, and some useful little tweaks of clip, note and automation editing behaviour in the sequencer that make for much less tool switching.
Here’s one of the other biggies of Reason 8: two new guitar amp devices. Amp and Bass Amp are part of the standard device bundle, but they’re actually developed by Softube, and are badged as such. Interestingly they’re not Reason 8 exclusives, and are available to purchase as Rack Extensions by users of version 6.5 or 7.
Both devices are very straightforward to use, offering straight amp and cabinet simulations only. There are five amps and four cabinets in Amp, two amps and three cabinets in Bass Amp, and both have appropriate gain, drive and EQ facilities. To my ears they sound incredibly convincing, and respond just like the real thing — no more, no less. If that isn’t the ultimate accolade I don’t know what is! They have a very broad range of applications too, from clean and jazz tones to high-gain stuff with masses of attitude. And while there’s no virtual miking or dedicated pedalboard-like environment, such as the one offered in Logic X, the amps can of course be combined with other effect devices, and lots of these more complex setups are provided as factory patches for Reason’s Combinator device.
Some hipsters may have wished for a more rarefied ‘boutique’ feel with these new amps, and clearer references to specific manufacturers and models from guitar history. However, even if the Softube amps look a touch generic, the sound is anything but, and they get the job done admirably.
Reason 8 has been marketed with typical Propellerhead self-assurance and a good deal of hype. But compared to what was offered in other whole-point releases (and even some incremental ones, like the groundbreaking 6.5) the new features are rather underwhelming, I think. Ignore the slogans, get down to brass tacks, and what we have is a rejigged browser (which refines rather than redefines how we work), replacement guitar devices, and user interface tweaks. Shouldn’t this have been a ‘point’ release, and provided for free to existing Reason 7 users?
Looking at it optimistically, maybe this first iteration of Reason 8 is the platform on which all sorts of tasty enhancements can be built in future. Perhaps it’ll be 8.1 or 8.5 that really knocks everyone’s socks off. Also I guess the new browser arrangements and interface changes might be a step towards a tablet and touchscreen-dominated future. Reason on iPad, anyone?
Back in the here and now, though, I’m surprised there wasn’t another new instrument or effect (such as a convolution reverb) introduced to sweeten the deal. And had the browser been equipped with tag-based searching and filtering, drawing together factory and third-party patches, that truly would have been a game-changer. Also, could this have been the moment to go even further with the user interface, better integrating the now-emaciated Tools window, on-screen piano keys, Spectrum EQ and Recording Meter?
Meanwhile, and rather depressingly, all the gripes I made in my last Reason review are still valid. Reason 8 soldiers on with no track and channel grouping facilities, no multitrack quantising or comping, and (incredibly) no proper audio clip crossfades. There’s a conspicuous lack of punch-in/out functionality or any sort of flexible marker system, a sequencer time ruler that only works in bars and beats, an absence of multi-channel support, and no way to load a video so you can score to picture. The bottom line is that, considered as a serious multitrack audio recording and mixing environment, Reason still lags far behind the majority of other DAWs in the completeness of its feature set, and remains far too basic to cope well with many kinds of audio production.
Before this all gets too gloomy, though, let’s have a quick reality check. Reason is still one of the very best DAWs for the bedroom producer, offering an inspiring range of bundled instruments and effects within an ecosystem that’s really easy to live with. Creativity-sapping authorisation headaches, plug-in incompatibilities and crashy instabilities just aren’t really a part of the Reason world. It boots up fast, runs lean, and feels intuitive and direct — and very often, its lack of typical DAW complexity can be seen as a strength. The learning curve is almost non-existent, and yet tremendous audio routing and synth-design flexibility is available in the rack when it’s required. Other notable aptitudes remain, too, such as great time-stretching and easy audio quantising, and the analogue-inspired monster mixer with EQ and dynamics on every channel and a superb control-room section, to say nothing of the huge potential for expansion and personalisation offered by third-party Rack Extensions. It’s great software delivered with vibe and panache, and if it suits your way of working there’s nothing much that can touch it for value. And the update for existing users is not so expensive
So Reason continues to hang on to the distinctiveness that has endeared it to so many users over the years (while infuriating others!). Where it goes from here we can only guess, and hope. And whilst Reason 8 might look like a rather modest update, it’s still the best Reason yet.
Few other DAWs can match the combination of Reason’s bang-for-buck, self-contained nature and vibey directness. Apple’s GarageBand has similarities, but feels more beginner-oriented, and while their Logic X matches it in value terms, it is a much more complicated proposition (which is good or bad, depending on your perspective). Bringing Windows users into the frame, Ableton Live has a similar individuality, directness of purpose and potential for exploration, but not the richness of bundled instruments.
There’s a flip side to Reason’s new Softube guitar amps: they’re being provided to replace the long-standing counterparts by Line 6, some licensing arrangement with Propellerhead obviously having come to an end. Initially you’ll still be able to use the Line 6 devices, but Propellerhead have already given notice that beyond October 2016 they “will no longer be available in the Reason rack”. Eek! No-one’s sure if that means they’ll just disappear overnight, in some ultimate expression of planned obsolescence, or if versions of Reason released after that date won’t include them. Either way, the situation feels a little awkward.
Inevitably, you need a pretty recent computer to run Reason 8. At least a dual-core Intel Mac, Pentium or AMD Opteron CPU is required, with a minimum 4GB RAM, and either Mac OS 10.7 or Windows 7 (or later). 20GB of disk space is required for installation and scratch disk operations, and you’ll need a monitor with at least 1280 x 768 pixels, a Core Audio or ASIO audio interface, and an Internet connection for initial registration.