Create your own custom GUIs in the new Combinator.
In the March 2022 issue we explored Reason’s Combinator, which takes multi‑device patches from your Rack and packs them into self‑contained units. In particular we looked at the new features that have been added to the Combinator in Reason 12. I promised that we’d pick up where we left off, so now we’ll get into custom panel designs and other Combinator ideas.
As well as assigning controls, the Combinator has always allowed you to import your own backdrop graphics, for custom panel art and branding for commercial sound packs.
The original Combi has a fixed 2U panel layout (Screen 1), with four knobs and four buttons available for user‑assignable macros, and two additional buttons that bypass the effects and start/stop any sequencers in the group. There is also the familiar pair of virtual pitch and mod wheels. As well as assigning controls, the Combinator has always allowed you to import your own backdrop graphics, for custom panel art and branding for commercial sound packs.
The Combinator MkII still defaults to this classic appearance when added to the Rack, but you can now alter just about every aspect of it, from its size and backdrop to the number and type of controls. This means that you can go beyond the four macro limit, and access a raft of possibilities for turning your patches into custom instrument and effect devices. You can create everything from a one‑knob compressor to a complex new layered synth.
This functionality is accessed in the Editor Panel, which unfolds from the bottom of the Combinator. The main Editor page is where you assign the mappings and ranges of controls on the panel, which we covered last time, and will be familiar from earlier Combi versions. All the panel design controls are accessed by clicking the Configure button from within the Editor (Screen 2).
The Configure panel is split into four sections. The leftmost column is the palette of control types you can add to the main control panel. Next is a selector for focusing on existing elements for editing. In Configure mode, clicking directly on a control on the panel has the same effect as selecting it in this list. To the right of the control list is a section for editing the focused element. Finally, on the right is a set of global controls that adjust the general size and appearance of the Combinator.
While in Configure mode you can’t operate controls on the panel; instead, clicking on a control will select it and let you reposition it by dragging or using the cursor keys. A selected control can be removed by hitting Delete on your keyboard. When moving controls, guides appear to aid with alignment against other elements, and you can automatically align or space a group of selected controls via the small pop‑up menus.
As with the classic Combinator there are two main macro control types: Controls and Switches. Below these in the ‘Add’ list you’ll see Wheels, Run and Bypass FX. The default Combinator already has both wheels in place, but they can be re‑added from here if you delete them. Run (sequencer start/stop) and Bypass FX are no longer present on an initialised Combi, but can be added if you need them. Note that the original Combinator also had switches on the main panel for opening the Programmer and Devices views. These have been replaced by the Editor and Devices buttons in the top patch selection panel. However, pre‑Reason 12 Combi patches with custom graphics will automatically run in Legacy Backdrop mode (also switchable from the right‑hand Configure settings), as these buttons will have been built into the design.
As well as being able to change the number and position of controls, there is also now a selection of different visual styles, colours and sizes to choose from in the Style menu (Screen 3). As you can see from the screenshot, you can now go beyond the simple macro concept and create something closer to a true user interface for your patch. The style library has already been expanded since the initial Reason 12 release, and includes various knobs, buttons and sliders with new designs and clones from classic instruments.
As well as the style of the control element itself, you can adjust the appearance of the text labels and scale markings. Both Scale and Text Color menus offer a choice between Dark and Light. This is primarily to allow visibility of the legending across both dark and light background colours and backdrops. Position lets you place the text label above or below, or to either side of the control, giving you more flexibility over layout choices. In the general settings section you’ll find equivalent settings are available for the Combinator’s main Bypass/On/Off switch. You can also choose to hide the text labels, and switch scale marks off, allowing you to imprint these yourself into a custom panel graphic if you prefer.
If you want to go the extra mile with customisation you can set your own device size, colour scheme and backdrop graphics in the rightmost Configure column. Size can be adjusted from the customary 2U to anything from 1U to 6U. Colour is selected from a pop‑up palette, but will be masked if you import your own panel graphics from the Backdrop selector. If you have Default set in the Backdrop menu, your selected colour will also feature a nice brushed metal texture. If set to None you will get a flat colour.
The final backdrop option is Load... which is used to import a custom panel graphic. This can be loads of fun, and a deep time sink if you really get into it! For fun you can import any random picture file and it will get scaled to fit the panel. You can also find backdrops that have been shared online. The best results however come from putting together your own skin in a graphics editor, tailor‑made to the size and control layout of your custom Combinator project.
In the past, backdrop creation was made easier if you downloaded a template, but now the size and layout is flexible it might take a little more thought. The Configure panel helps by telling you the optimal dimensions of your picture file, based on the current device size. This is always 3770 pixels wide. If you follow the height suggestion your graphic will fit the main panel area. However, I like to add an extra 3U’s worth (1035 pixels) at the bottom as your design will then also flow around the Editor panel. If you don’t do this, you can just pick a similar device colour to blend the transition.
Screen 4 is the result of some fairly amateurish experimentation with Adobe Illustrator’s Gradient Tool, optimised for a 3U panel size plus extra at the bottom for the Editor bezel. I set this up to work ideally with eight rotary controls using the Vintage Big style option, with Scale set to Light. This is a prototype version where I’ve experimented with adding a label strip, and using either dark or light text and scale marks around the knobs.
Rack controls are designed to look like they are lit from directly above, and Reason renders shadows below Combinator control elements onto your custom backdrop. In order to make your panel design consistent, follow this same lighting scheme for any 3D elements, bevels, etc. you add to your backdrop design.
Backdrops can be JPG or PNG image files. PNGs with transparency can be used to layer a custom graphic over the top of the chosen device colour. You could take advantage of this simply to create a backdrop that places your logo over the Combinator, which could potentially work with different panel sizes or colours.
If you add label backgrounds to your backdrop, consider how wide these need to be. The maximum label length is 16 characters.
My example backdrop was produced mostly by trial and error, adding the controls after the backdrop, then going back and tweaking the circles so that they sat centrally in the device. Another (possibly smarter) approach would be to create the panel design first, then take a screenshot of it and load it into your drawing app as a guide.