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Reason 4's New Sequencer

Reason Notes & Techniques By Simon Price
Published July 2008

Reason 4's overhauled sequencer is now more powerful but has caused head-scratching amongst users. If you're one of the confused, read on...

The new sequencer in Arrangement view. Tracks now have multiple lanes, and all data is stored in 'Clips'.The new sequencer in Arrangement view. Tracks now have multiple lanes, and all data is stored in 'Clips'.Although the Thor synth deservedly received most of the attention when Reason 4 was released last autumn, the biggest change in the software was, in fact, the new sequencer. The sequencer's redesign has proved controversial, and the transition has been awkward for many long-term users. So this month, rather than just explore new features, we'll look at the common causes of sequencer confusion encountered when upgrading, and hopefully make the process as painless as possible.

Track Changes

In Reason 3, you could create sequencer tracks freely, and assign them to any device (or no device, for that matter). You could also assign multiple tracks to a single device. In Reason 4, tracks are always associated with a device in the rack, and each device can only have one track. However, a track can now contain as many sub-tracks ('lanes') as you like, storing alternate takes, overdubs, pattern changes, automation and so on.

The old sequencer with user-defined data Groups. Data can no longer be 'loose' on the track, as in the fourth track here.The old sequencer with user-defined data Groups. Data can no longer be 'loose' on the track, as in the fourth track here.The screen above shows the new appearance of tracks. To the right of each track's master mute and solo buttons is the automation record button. You can arm any number of tracks for simultaneous automation recording. Note recording is armed on individual note lanes, and as well as individual mute and record-arm buttons each note lane has a pop-up menu used by the Regroove groove tool, which we'll be exploring in a future article.

When you create a new instrument in the rack, an associated track is added to the sequencer, is automatically armed for recording and becomes the focus for your master keyboard. Effects devices are not given tracks by default, but you can create a track for them (for recording automation) by right-clicking and choosing 'Create Track for [device]'. You can also delete tracks for instruments, should they be unnecessary. For example, if you are controlling an instrument from an RPG8 or a Matrix, these devices will have their own track. What you can't do is create more than one track for any device: all separate sequencer 'tracks' for a device are lanes within one track.

Clips

The biggest change — and the one that has caused the most confusion — is the concept of Clips. Previously, MIDI notes or automation were recorded or drawn freely into tracks, and existed just as raw data. To make arrangement and structural editing easier you could create Groups, which tied chunks of data together into larger blocks (see screenshot, bottom left). In Reason 4, Groups are gone, replaced by Clips. As far as the new sequencer is concerned, everything exists within a Clip: notes, automation data, even pattern changes.

This sounds reasonable and fairly innocuous. After all, nearly all other sequencing packages enforce some kind of region concept on MIDI data. Surprisingly however, this seemingly small change is rather awkward until you get used to how it works. Also, I think it's fair to say that the implementation has room for improvement. On the positive side, it is much easier to arrange a song from Clips than to try to lasso and move collections of raw data, as was often the case before.

Recording

By default, selecting a track makes it the focus for your master MIDI keyboard. However, you can now set a preference in the Keyboard and Control Surfaces Preferences that separates track selection and keyboard focus. When this preference is active, you need to click directly on the instrument icon to assign the keyboard. The track with input focus has a red square around its icon, and a mini keyboard graphic that lights up green to indicate incoming MIDI data.

Reason 4's New SequencerBefore and after dropping in on a track. Overdubbing always creates a new Clip, which also contains the original notes.Before and after dropping in on a track. Overdubbing always creates a new Clip, which also contains the original notes.Next to the Click button in the transport you'll see the new 'Pre' button. Yes, Reason finally has a count-in option (or count-off option for our US friends). This has no settings: it simply counts one bar in with the click before initiating recording from the Play cursor. The count-in does not pre-roll the actual song, so the click is always played, whether it is on or off. Note that if the Play cursor is not on a bar line, the count-in plays from the start of the bar before the one containing the cursor.

So far, so straightforward. However, the learning curve steepens when looking at how recording interacts with the new Clip paradigm. When you initiate recording on a blank area of track, a Clip is automatically created that contains all the data you record. The Clip will extend from the start of the bar containing the cursor. When you stop recording, the new Clip will be extended to the end of the current bar. In many cases, this will result in a Clip that is one bar too long, but you can trim the length of the Clip using the length handles at either end.

Overdubbing

Things take a peculiar turn when it comes to recording over previous Clips. Like most sequencers, Reason 3 had an Overdub/Replace switch. Recording over previous data with Overdub enabled simply added the notes to those in the track. With Replace mode active, the existing data was recorded over by subsequent recording passes or drop-ins. Reason 4 has no equivalent to Replace mode. Whenever you drop into record on top of an existing Clip, the original data remains intact. However, your overdub is not recorded into the original Clip. Instead a new Clip is always created over the top of the old one. What's unusual is that the data from the previous recording is moved into the new Clip (as shown in the screens at the top of the page). If you trim out the first clip, there will be no data in the area that was recorded over.

The overdub can be merged with the original Clip using the 'Join Clips' command.The overdub can be merged with the original Clip using the 'Join Clips' command.Extra note lanes can be used for overdubs and multiple takes.Extra note lanes can be used for overdubs and multiple takes.The situation is different during loop recording. The first pass will generate a new Clip as usual, containing any original data you might be recording over, and anything you play in that pass. Subsequent passes through the loop will not generate new Clips; MIDI data will be added to the current Clip, just as if you were using a traditional overdub mode. If you drop out of record, then back in, a new Clip will start to be written again. I don't really understand why the sequencer does this, but at least you can learn the behaviour and you'll have some idea what to expect.

One way to work with overdubs is simply to drop in and let Reason create a new Clip, then join the Clips back into a single block again. To do this, select the Clips, then right-click them and choose Join Clips (as in the screenshot, left). There is also some built-in functionality that encourages you to use additional lanes for overdubs (as in the screen below). If you click the New Dub button in the transport bar, a new record-enabled lane is created on the MIDI-focused track. You can now record into this lane with the same sonic result as recording over the previous lane. This also provides a work-around for the lack of a Replace mode: pick up your new recording and drop it on top of the previous lane. An advantage of this technique is that you can trim the boundary between the original recording and the drop-in, as you'd normally do in most other sequencers. When you're done, it's a good idea to Join the Clips, because, as we'll see in a moment, overlapping Clips can cause some problems.

The New Alt button has almost the same function as New Dub, except that other lanes are automatically muted. This assumes that the new lane will be an alternative take, rather than an addition to the previous lanes.

Editing

The sequencer still has separate Arrangement and Edit views, with the Arrangement view showing all tracks and the Edit view showing a detailed view of a single track's data. The Arrangement view is where most song structure edits and recordings take place, and is now best summarised as the place where you manage Clips. By contrast, Edit view is where you edit the contents of Clips. The familiar view toggle button still sits in the top left corner of the sequencer. However, you can now double-click to 'open' a Clip into the Edit view. To get back to the Arrangement view, either click the view toggle button, or press Command + E (Mac) or Ctrl + E (Windows).

A note Clip opened in the Edit view.A note Clip opened in the Edit view.The screen above shows a notes Clip in the Edit view. The view is split into separate sections, the top one mimicking the view of the Clip seen in the Arrangement window. Next are piano roll and velocity lanes. At the bottom, any controller data or automation is displayed. A major change is that the Edit view is always focused on a single Clip. You can only edit notes in the selected Clip, whereas before you could edit freely within the whole track. To refocus the Edit view to another Clip, double-click the Clip.

Notes that have been hidden as a result of trimming a Clip are still visible in the Edit view, but distinguished by a grey outline instead of black. In some circumstances, such as when a track consists of several long performances comped together, this means a lot of extra notes. Luckily, only the selected Clip's 'masked' notes (as they are officially called) are shown. If you want to remove the extra notes, right-click on the Clip and choose Crop Events to Clips. Also, when you Join Clips, the masked notes are removed. What can be a stumbling block is that if you drag a note to a new position outside the bounds of the Clip, the note remains attached to the Clip and becomes masked. To move a note to an adjacent Clip you must use cut/copy and paste.

Clips later in the timeline are always on top of earlier ones. Here a Pattern Change Clip is trimmed out, but slips behind the next Clip. This also happens with note Clips, and causes problems with both trimming and moving of Clips.Clips later in the timeline are always on top of earlier ones. Here a Pattern Change Clip is trimmed out, but slips behind the next Clip. This also happens with note Clips, and causes problems with both trimming and moving of Clips.The final thing to watch out for is the somewhat 'jenky' behaviour of Clips that overlap as a result of editing. When you record over an existing Clip, the underlying Clips are cut, so if you record a short Clip in the middle of a larger Clip, you get three Clips. This is the most intuitive result, as you can pick up any of the elements and move them, and they retain their size. However, if you pick up and drop a Clip over another Clip, the result is different: the underlying Clip retains its size, with one Clip overlapping the other. Whichever Clip is later in the sequence has dominance and the earlier Clip lies beneath the subsequent one.

A number of confusing situations arise from this behaviour. Firstly, if you place a region across the start of another, the part that you expect to overlap slips underneath the other Clip. When a smaller Clip is dropped in the middle of a larger Clip, the latter protrudes at both ends, which messes with your expectations in both the Arrangement and the Edit views. Secondly, if you have two adjacent regions and you trim out the earlier Clip to the right, the Clip again slides underneath the next one and no change results. This is particularly problematic when you're trying to edit pattern change Clips. To solve the problem you need to trim the start time of the second region, so that it doesn't overlap the first.

Final Thoughts

I don't wish to sound really negative about the new sequencer in Reason 4, as the overall concept is a big step in the right direction. I do think, however, that many of the stumbling blocks described here are design issues, rather than problems associated with learning new workflows. However, having addressed the initial teething troubles, we'll turn our attention in the coming months to the many powerful new techniques made possible by Reason 4's next-generation sequencer. 

Sequencer Q&A

Answers to more of the questions you may have about the new sequencer...

Q: How do I draw in notes or automation if there are no Clips?

A: Clicking with the pencil tool in an area with no Clips creates a new Clip. You can then draw data into the new Clip.

Q: Are pattern changes in Clips too?

A: Yes. Once any pattern change Clips exist, areas outside the Clips switch the device to 'no pattern', effectively stopping any pattern playback. One thing to watch out for is pattern change Clips not quantised to bar boundaries. This happens easily when overdubbing pattern changes, or editing with snap-to-grid disabled, resulting in patterns being played back out of sync. It's probably a bug.

Q: And automation?

A: Yes, this is in Clips too. This is interesting, as automation is vector based in Reason 4, something that's treated as a continuous entity in most DAWs. However, it's quite handy, as it makes easy-to-move blocks from significant areas of the graph. There's much more to be said about this in a future article.

Q: Where are the quantisation options?

A: These have been moved from the sequencer toolbar to the Tool window.

Q: Why do I get Clips for some MIDI controls and not others?

A: Standard MIDI controllers such as pitch-bend, mod wheel or sustain pedal get recorded on note lanes, and are shown superimposed on the note Clips. In the Edit view they are displayed separately, like automation. Other controls that are mapped to MIDI (or moved with the mouse) are treated as automation, and are recorded in separate Clips.

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