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Block Rocking

Reason Tips & Techniques
Published April 2016
By Simon Sherbourne

A song constructed from a  combination of Blocks and regular Song clips.A song constructed from a combination of Blocks and regular Song clips.

Reason’s Block feature is the key to turning loops and ideas into fully–fledged songs.

The perils of songwriting and arrangement in a linear timeline are oft discussed: it’s all too easy to get stuck with a single loop, adding more and more layers and losing sight of how those ideas could develop into a song. This doesn’t tend to happen with a traditional band or instrument, where you might work out several song sections in separation, then jot down a rough arrangement using that most old school of sequencers: pen and paper.

The idea of developing several song parts in isolation and then stringing them together as a higher-level arrangement has certainly existed in MIDI sequencers, drum machines and DAWs, but many of the dominant packages on the market have gravitated towards a single timeline–centric workflow. The obvious exception is Ableton Live, where the typical approach to composition is to capture and develop musical ideas as discrete ‘scenes’ which are then used to build a song.

Reason has a similar system, called ‘Blocks’, that can be used to work in this fashion. However, I get the sense that this is less understood and used than it could be, perhaps because it doesn’t present such an obviously different environment as Live’s Session view does to its Arrange view.

Foundation Blocks

In essence, Blocks are separate timelines within a project, giving you multiple workspaces where you can develop different song sections. Blocks can then be assembled in the main Song Sequencer to build the framework of your overall song structure. Blocks share the same tracklist as the main Song, and are worked on in the Sequencer, which is always showing either a Block, or the main Song.

To start working with Blocks, select Block in the view selector just above the tracklist in the Sequencer. To the right of this is a pop–up menu where you can flip between the 32 available Blocks. Above the Sequencer you’ll see the Block lane, which in this view displays the Block’s name and colour. You can rename by double–clicking here, and choose your own colour from the right–click contextual menu. Each Block can be as long as you like, with the length being set by the End (E) Marker. There’s no need to worry too much about this, as you can adjust Block lengths later without disrupting the Song Arrangement. Recording and editing parts within a Block is exactly the same as in the Song Sequencer.

Once you’ve got some kind of idea looping in your first Block, you can move on to another one by selecting another Block in the pop–up. Sometimes you may want to keep some elements from your first Block. This must be done with Copy and Paste, as there’s no Duplicate Block function. First select the clips you want to re–use, Copy, then switch to the new Block. Make sure the position marker is at the start of the sequence, then Paste.

Song Level Arrangement

When you’re ready to move from working on individual Blocks to putting a song together, switch to Song view in the Sequencer (above the tracklist again). All the sequencer lanes will be empty. Now switch to the Pencil tool (W key). In the toolbar section above the Sequencer you’ll see a Blocks section, with a drop–down menu for selecting a Block.

The active Block in the toolbar can be ‘painted’ into the Song by clicking and dragging in the Block Lane. Blocks are not treated as rigid objects of a particular size: you can draw in exactly the length of time you require and if necessary a Block will be looped to fill the required time. Block drawing is always fixed to the grid, with a minimum edit size of 1/16th notes. If Snap is active you can further constrain Block drawing, and in most cases you’ll probably want to work in bars.

Blocks each have their own timeline but share the same tracks.Blocks each have their own timeline but share the same tracks.As you draw in a Block clip you’ll see the contents of the Block appear in the Sequencer tracks, but tinted the same colour as the Block rather than the track colours. This is what will play unless something else is added at the Song level to override it. Block clips in the Blocks lane can be edited much like Pattern Automation clips for Redrum or Matrix devices: they can be moved and trimmed, and you can click on the down arrow in their centre to swap them out for a different clip.

Building On Blocks

With your song sketched out in Blocks you can now add to the Song directly in all the usual ways. In the main screenshot you can see coloured clips dotted around over the top of the Block data. Anything added at the Song level always overrides the underlying Block data, including note, audio, and automation data. This can be very handy for overdubbing fills or variations, or continuing to add substantial parts to a song. It’s very flexible in terms of how much or little you do in Blocks, and how much in Song view — in fact you can easily commit Block–based areas to Song mode, simply by right–clicking on the Block clip and choosing Convert Block Clips to Song Clips (you can see I’ve done this to the second chorus in the main screenshot). Do this if you want to edit the contents of clips in that part of the song only (editing in the Block will affect all instances of that section in the song), or if you want to use parts of the Block elsewhere. After conversion, the original Block data remains underneath, so if you want to return something to the original version simply delete the Song level clips.

Setting up an empty arrangement with Blocks can be a  fresh approach to song writing.Setting up an empty arrangement with Blocks can be a fresh approach to song writing.You also have the option to convert everything to song clips, by right–clicking in the tracklist and choosing Convert Block Tracks to Song Clips. If you do this you’ll notice that the Block lane still contains the Block clips, but all the Block data is no longer in the background underneath the Song clips. This is because the Blocks lane is automatically Muted, something you can also do manually at any time.

Block Tips & Notes

Here are some useful tips that will hopefully help you get the most out of Blocks. Firstly, don’t get too hung up on making lots of different Blocks for each variation of your song. Keep it high level because you can manipulate just a few Blocks in the Song view to create variation. A great way to do this is by muting clips within Blocks. This is done by clicking with the Mute tool (you can’t use the M key because you can’t select the clips). Muting affects the whole instance of the Block, so you can get finer control by cutting the Block clip with the Razor tool, as I’ve done to create a build–up at the start of the song in the main picture.

One behaviour to be aware of is that, wherever in the Song you draw in Blocks, they start at Bar 1, Beat 1 of the Block. For high-level section arrangement this is expected, but say you wanted to switch to a different Block somewhere within the natural loop length of the song (say, eight bars), or even part way through a bar for a fill. In this case you’d rather the new Block came in at the same point in the cycle. Live users will recognise this concept as ‘Legato Clip Launch’. In Reason you can achieve this using Block Offsets. Once a Block is drawn in, you can select it, and then you’ll see an editable value for its offset in the Toolbar, allowing you to adjust the point in the Block at which this clip comes in. Trimming the start of a clip will also leave the remaining contents in the same place, effectively adjusting the offset. Likewise, splitting a Block clip in the Song will not reset the Block start.

Finally, a couple of notes on editing Block arrangements. First there is no ‘Shuffle’ or ‘Ripple’ edit mode in Reason, so moving or trimming a Block clip never affects other Blocks in the song. Making high-level arrangement changes may require you to select and move a whole group of Blocks at once. Lastly, edits to the Block lane do not affect Song level data, so remember to select the Block(s) and any song clips within any range you want to move.

Prearrangement

An idea that can really help if you’re stuck in the classic eight–bar loop trap is to start with an arrangement template. In other words, decide on a song structure before you do anything else. This might seem completely unnatural, as it may seem instinctive to let the arrangement grow to fit the song ideas, but actually this can be liberating: you’ve got the outline there and you just have to worry about filling the gaps. A DJ friend turned me on to this idea and showed me that a lot of tracks meant for the dance floor follow similar templates as it really helps when mixing records live.

This screen shows an example of using Blocks to work in this way. I’ve named and colour–coded a number of Blocks in advance, then painted them into the Song sequence. With this in place, I can work on the different Blocks and the song comes together as if by magic!

Published April 2016