Make light work of song arranging with Reason's new Blocks feature.
One of Reason 5 and Record 1.5's major new features is 'Blocks'. It's a system that allows you to easily construct and edit song structures and repeated accompaniment patterns, making Reason and Record feel less 'linear' and more pattern‑based. For those working in musical styles that rely on a lot of repetition, it could be hugely beneficial and a serious time‑saver. There's nothing quite like it in any other DAW, though, so read on to find out how it works, and whether it might suit your way of working.
A Little Background
First, a brief history lesson. Back in the not‑so‑distant past, when tape ruled in the studio and computer printers could give you hearing damage, it was the drum machine that formed the backbone of many pop songs. You'd start by programming multiple short patterns, then use an on‑board song sequencer to tie those together into larger structures. Entire songs could be created with just a handful of patterns — main grooves, alternatives, fills and so on — replayed in an appropriate order.
These days, the pattern/song approach has mostly become confined to hardware groove boxes (the modern-day descendant of the drum machine) and the dusty corners of the odd DAW. Whatever its potential benefits, it's also got the potential to be somewhat limiting, and, in any case, mouse‑driven graphical interfaces have established alternative ways of working.
Now, back to Reason and Record. Never ones to turn down the opportunity to incorporate retro concepts into cutting‑edge software design, Propellerhead have resurrected the pattern/song idea in the form of Blocks. Actually, we already had it, on a small scale, with Reason's pattern‑based Redrum and the Matrix Sequencer. But Blocks is a much bigger deal: a single pattern (or rather 'Block') can be an entire multi‑track song section, such as a verse or chorus. String some Blocks together and you've got yourself an entire song. Want to try a different structure? Just re-order or change the length of the Blocks. Want to use Blocks for a sequenced backing but add linear‑style guitar and vocal tracks over the top? No problem. This is a powerful new feature that could change the way you work in Reason and Record for ever more. But it's also very flexible; you needn't use it at all, you can use it a bit, or you can commit to it 100 percent and never work in a linear way again.
Blocks is simplest to use and understand when you start a new Song with it, and in the new versions of Reason and Record it's enabled by default. You can't really miss the on/off button: it's a great big square in the Transport. With the feature enabled (in which case the button turns blue), a subtle but crucial change occurs in the Sequencer: at top left, two new buttons marked 'Song' and 'Block' appear, along with a new Block track.
Here's how it works: If you click that new Block button in the sequencer, you effectively go into a sort of 'pattern edit' mode: Block View. In many ways, the sequencer behaves the same as it ever did; you add devices and tracks, record and play back as normal. But look at the Blocks track. It's filled with a solid coloured bar that displays a name for the current Block (always 'Block 1' by default for the first one). Also, the End Marker (the 'E' flag in the time ruler) becomes very important, defining the length of your Block and causing the transport to loop back to the beginning whenever it's reached.
So let's say I commit to making a song using Blocks. What's my workflow? Well, to begin with, I might work on an eight bar Chorus section. I'd drag the End marker to the beginning of bar nine to indicate an eight-bar Block length. Then I'd build up my arrangement in the normal way, adding tracks and switching between Arrange and Edit views as necessary. Oh, and at some point I'd double‑click the 'Block 1' name in the Blocks track and rename it to 'Chorus'.
Next, I need a verse section. From the Blocks track pop‑up menu, I'd choose the next Block in the list (Block 2). The track lanes empty, although the actual tracks remain, and once more I can set the Block length, build my arrangement, and rename this Block to 'Verse'. And so on, then, for any other main sections of my song, such as middle eights and bridges. I might well copy and paste some backing material such as drum loops between Blocks as I go — and that's perfectly permissible.
What I've got now are a bunch of separate sections, but no sense of running order. This is what Song View is for.
If I click the Song button at the top left of the sequencer, the track lanes empty once more, and that includes the Blocks track, indicating that I'm not working on any specific Block any more. Now comes the fun bit.
After switching to the Pencil tool (click its button, or press the 'W' key), some pop‑up menus appear in the inspector section above the time ruler. These include one labelled 'Block'. The idea is that you now draw song sections into the song. So let's say I want to start with two verses back to back. I'd choose 'Verse' from the pop‑up menu, and then in the Blocks track I'd click and drag over 16 complete bars. As I do this, the verse section I've been working on begins to fill the individual sequencer tracks, as if by magic. (It's a good idea, by the way, to have Snap enabled and set to Bar before doing this, so you don't have to worry about being too accurate with the mouse.)
Next, I might choose 'Chorus' from the inspector panel pop‑up menu, and draw in a Chorus directly following my verses. And on it goes for the other sections, with a song literally appearing before your eyes.
What's really cool about working in this way is that you're effectively creating song section 'clips', and they behave in a very similar way to any other clip. With the Selection (arrow) tool you can drag them, duplicate them (holding down the Alt key as you drag), or select them and drag their left or right edge handles to adjust the Block start and end times. Making massive changes to Song structure is as easy as rearranging a few building Blocks — hence the name! You can also reassign Blocks: each clip has a pop‑up menu triangle next to its name. Click that and you can switch that clip to play another Block.
What's maybe a little less cool is that the contents of your individual tracks are not editable; you can see them, but they're greyed out. It's understandable, of course — Reason/Record is referencing the separate Blocks and merely displaying the contents in Song View. But what if you need to edit something, or make localised changes? The great news is that you have loads of options.
Firstly, there's nothing to stop you clicking the Block View button once again, and going into an individual Block to change it in some way. When you click back to Song View, those changes will be incorporated into the song, any time that Block is used. It's very much a 'live' link between Blocks and your song.
Secondly, in Song view you can use the Mute tool ('T' key) to silence individual track clips within a Block: just point and click, and they become greyed out. This is really handy, allowing you (for example) to create just one fully worked 'Verse' Block, but mute different tracks in it every time it's used in the Song. That can provide a great sense of variation, and saves you having to create and maintain lots of separate 'Verse' Blocks that just have minor differences between them.
Thirdly, you can freely record and add non‑block material anywhere you like in Song view. It really is just like the normal, linear sequencer of old, except that it's got that extra Block track. This makes the system hugely flexible. And thank goodness, because it's pretty much a necessity when adding vocals in Record. Think about it — you might use the same 'Verse' Block three times, but if you'd recorded a vocal as part of it, you'd get the same lyrics three times too. Not usually what you want! So the solution is to use the Block/Song system to lay out your backing track, but then in Song View create a vocal track and record on to it in conventional linear fashion 'on top of' the Blocks. Doing this requires no special consideration, and no extra steps — just work as normal.
This sort of 'linear overlay' can also be used to create little links between sections/Blocks, or to add tiny localised variations. You can record right on top of Block material, in any track, and linear song‑mode clips always have priority over Block material. To give an example, if I needed a simple, one-bar song intro ahead of a 'Verse 1' Block, maybe a drum fill and a bass lead, I almost certainly wouldn't bother trying to create it in a separate Block. What's the point? It would only happen once, and doing it in Song mode would allow me to hear much more easily how it integrates with the verse.
The final word in seizing back editing flexibility is to convert Block data into old‑fashioned linear data. You can do this in Song View. Just select a Block clip, right‑click, and choose 'Convert Block Clips to Song Clips' from the contextual menu. Any unmuted clips represented by that Block are transformed into linear, editable copies. In fact, though, they're just overlaid on top of the referenced Block material, so nothing gets deleted. If you want to convert an entire arrangement from Blocks to fully editable linear data, right‑click in the track list and choose 'Convert Block Track to Song Clips'. The Blocks content is still retained, but Blocks‑style replay is automatically disabled (via the Blocks track's little 'On' button), and you'll be back in a completely linear world once more.
Blocking Your Old Songs
Blocks is a beautifully simple concept when you build brand‑new songs with it. But what if you're mid-way through a project that is built in a linear fashion, and you'd now like to 'convert' to a Blocks workflow? Simple answer: cut and paste. Make sure Blocks is enabled and that you're in Song View. Start by dragging a selection over everything you'd like to represent a Chorus, say. Hit Command‑C (Mac) or Ctrl‑C (Windows) to copy it, and click into Block View. Paste this into an empty Block, adjust its length, and rename it as appropriate. Back in Song view, delete what you just copied, and immediately draw the block equivalent into the Blocks track with the pencil tool. Carry on like this for each section until the entire linear arrangement is represented by blocks.
Spot Mute Trick
Using the Mute tool to silence individual track lanes of a Block in Song View is a very effective arrangement device, but it's an all-or-nothing situation, and Reason/Record won't let you mute just a bit of a block. However, there's a fabulously easy workaround. In Song View, take the pencil tool, and simply draw a new clip where you'd like your 'selective mute' to occur. Because this is linear data (albeit empty!) it takes priority over the block data and for that moment, nothing happens!