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Reason: Long Live Subtractor!

Reason Tips & Techniques By Simon Sherbourne
Published May 2023

Screen 1: Subtractor is great for gritty acid mono bass lines, especially paired with the Matrix.Screen 1: Subtractor is great for gritty acid mono bass lines, especially paired with the Matrix.

We revisit Reason’s venerable virtual analogue, Subtractor.

I was musing on what the core parts of the Reason Rack are, and looking back to the first release in 2000. That original release had a drum machine, a loop player, a sampler and a synth, and along with the step sequencer and effects it felt like enough to do just about anything! A large part of that was down to the combination of sonic versatility and processor efficiency of the synth: Subtractor. I also realised that I haven’t dropped a Subtractor into my Rack for years. Europa has become the modern workhorse synth in Reason, and there are so many other synth gems like Complex‑1, Parsec, Grain and Algoritm to explore.

I guess I assumed that Subtractor had been left behind sonically, as the next‑generation Rack devices could take advantage of faster processors and advancements in virtual instrument programming. So when I started thinking about devoting a Reason column to this classic device, I thought of it as an interesting throwback. But now I’ve fallen back in love with Subtractor and realised it still has lots to offer. As well as doing the usual things a virtual analogue subtractive synth can do, it has really interesting oscillators, and has a kind of bite and presence that feels right at home in the current revival of ’90s dance, garage and jungle vibes, as well as classic hip‑hop basses and melody lines grimy enough for contemporary drill beats. Subtractor surely contributed as much to noughties bass music as NI’s Massive. Instead of thinking of Subtractor as dated software, I’m now seeing it as a cult classic millennial sound module.

Modern Classic

As the name implies, Subtractor follows a familiar subtractive synth scheme, with dual oscillators (plus noise) running through two filters. Onboard modulation comes from three envelopes and two LFOs, plus there are straightforward ways to map in external mods from aftertouch, velocity, mod wheel, etc. In fact because everything is set up from dedicated knobs and buttons, Subtractor is a fantastic instrument to use to teach or learn synthesis.

I’m going to devote most of our time here to exploring the oscillators, as they are the main thing that make Subtractor interesting to this day. The oscillators are each capable of producing one of 32 waveforms. You can...

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