Reason’s new Player device specialises in the often overlooked art of sequencing chords.
Despite providing the fundamental structure of most modern music, chords sometimes take a back seat in the world of sequencers, synth software and music production technology in general. If you’re tinkering with your DAW or a groovebox and struggling to make something that sounds like a song, your best bet might be to step away from loops, rhythms and melodies, and get back to the basics of chord progression. Even if you’re an accomplished keyboard or guitar player and are used to this idea, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of familiar chords, finger shapes and progressions.
The idea of chord assistants is not new. Take the accordion (no, really) with its chord buttons as an example. Arranger and performer keyboards have one‑finger chord accompaniment features too. Closer to home, workstations like the MPC and Komplete Kontrol have ‘easy play’ chord modes which present groupings of chords on the pads or keys. They also have modes to turn single notes into chords, and Reason has a Player that does this too: Scales and Chords.
However, the latest Player device to arrive for Reason takes a different approach, and does a lot more. Reason Studios say Chord Sequencer addresses the question, ‘What comes next?’, and I can’t think of a better way to summarise it. It presents sets of chords to play, and makes colour‑coded suggestions about what chord to play next. It also has a built‑in mini timeline where you can arrange chords into sequences.
Like all the Reason Player devices, Chord Sequencer drops into the Rack right above whichever instrument you want it to play. Notes from your MIDI controller which would have gone directly to the instrument are intercepted. In the case of Chord Sequencer you don’t strictly need to have a MIDI input as it can play by itself, but you can trigger chords with MIDI and record with velocity, and you can also play notes over the top of pre‑programmed chord arrangements if you switch off the little MIDI icon in the chord grid.
The device is dominated by a central 4x4 grid of circles which store chords. You can trigger these from the mouse, or from MIDI notes C1 and upwards, repeated from C3. The chords that appear in the grid are determined by the Chord Set selector to the left, and the root note. The sets are genre/mood based. Notice that you don’t set a scale as you would with the Scales and Chords Player. The chord sets can have a mix of major and minor chords and are not necessarily limited to a single key.
What really makes Chord Sequencer useful, especially if you don’t have much grounding in chord and harmony theory, are the suggestions. Chords in the grid are colour‑coded in four shades. Bright green circles are the most obvious, typical places to go from the currently playing chord. Dim green is a less typical move. The darker blue/green circles are even more of a leftfield progression, and finally the black chords tend to be a change in direction: something that could still work but might initiate a move to a new section or idea.
The genius part is that each time you play a chord, the colours all update with a new scattering of suggestions. The actual set of chords stays the same, so you’re not just wandering off down an endless path. By following the colours you will get something that works, and should find opportunities to resolve back to the starting chord.
Let’s look at an example. In Screen 1 I’ve connected the Chord Sequencer to a piano patch from the Reason Sounds bank, and chosen the Pop In Minor Chord Set with root note A. After triggering the first chord (A minor), Chord Sequencer lights up the other chords with some suggestions. I chose Dm7, and in Screen 2 you’ll see that a different selection of circles gets the green light. I continued to take the top suggestions and went with G, then C: nothing revolutionary. Happy with this, I dropped the chords on to bars in the mini‑sequencer — more on that shortly.
I thought I’d try going somewhere different for the next four bars. In Screen 3 I’ve triggered F, and now see some musically sensible next steps. The only bold green option that I liked was to go back to the Dm again, but why not try something on the dark side? I chose the Bm7b5, and yes disco fans, if you’re playing along we’ve basically recreated ‘I Will Survive’. A couple of E variations complete the progression. OK, I did cheat and deliberately target this sequence, because it’s a brilliant example of how Chord Sequencer can build you a chord structure that’s harmonically coherent, can be as obvious as you like, but can take unexpected turns that still work.
Once you’ve played around with some chords and found an idea you want to capture, there are a few ways you can proceed. You could simply record the MIDI notes that trigger your chords into Reason’s sequencer (or your DAW if you’re in the Rack Plugin). When doing this it definitely helps if you have a 4x4 pad controller, as it’s easier than trying to remember which key maps to which circle in the Player.
The other option is to use the Chord Sequencer device’s built‑in timeline that runs in sync with your DAW or the Reason master Sequencer. This is pretty easy to figure out. You can choose a length from 1 to 16 bars, and a quantise grid from 1/16ths to bars. The View tabs page through sequences that are longer than four bars. You can simply drag chords from the grid down to the sequencing lane. From there they can be moved and resized.
You can also record directly into the sequencer by arming the device’s Rec button. Chords triggered from MIDI or the mouse will be printed into the strip as you go. When live triggering and recording from MIDI you can choose how velocity is treated. It can be ignored (by unchecking the MIDI to Velocity button) and you can offset it with a dial. (There’s no way to edit velocity for individual triggers in the mini‑timeline). While we’re looking at settings, there are Humanize controls for loosening up both velocity and timing within the sequencer. You can also choose to add extra root notes to the top or bottom, or remove bass notes either automatically or below a particular note. On the left‑hand side of the grid you’ll find modes for editing or learning chords: you can create your own complete sets if you choose.
If you’re tinkering with your DAW or a groovebox and struggling to make something that sounds like a song, your best bet might be to step away from loops, rhythms and melodies, and get back to the basics of chord progression.
You’re not just limited to one chord sequence. At the top of the device there are snapshot buttons for eight Patterns. Typically you’ll use these for setting up song sections like a verse and chorus. A cool thing about these is that each Pattern can recall a different Chord Set and Root Note, allowing for complex arrangements. As always in Reason, there’s no way to recall Pattern snapshots from MIDI notes (one day!). However, they can be sequenced in the main timeline using automation. To create a Pattern Select lane, right‑click any of the Pattern buttons and choose Edit Automation. A track will be created in the master Sequencer where you can record or draw in changes.
As with all the Reason Players, Chord Sequencer has a ‘Send To Track’ button at the top right, which will print the current performance as MIDI to the instrument track (and then bypass the Player). And also in common with other Players, this functionality is not available if you’re using the Reason Rack Plugin in a DAW. Hopefully Reason Studios will implement MIDI rendering in the RRP at some point. It is possible to record out MIDI from the Rack with some fiddling with the External MIDI device — a subject to explore properly another time.
This being Reason, a new device means new combinations. Chaining the Chord Sequencer with another Player is an obvious thing to try, and the Dual Arpeggiator does not fail to disappoint here. Place the Arp Player straight after the Chord Sequencer and your chords will be transformed into the multitude of interesting auto‑sequences possible with this Player. Try plugging into a monosynth instead of the obvious keys patches.
One more trick worth trying is playing with the CV outputs on the back of the Chord Sequencer. Specifically, there’s a Root Note out CV, and Chord Gate out. Connecting both of these to a bass patch will automatically layer in a simple bass line.