Mackie's Tracktion sequencer makes an ideal budget Rewire host for adding audio recording and plug-in capabilities to your Reason setup, as we explain...
What if I told you there was a way to add multitrack audio recording and editing, plus VST plug-in capabilities, to your Mac or PC Reason setup for less than £50?
Yes, for a lot less than the price of many commercial plug-in processors or instruments, these two most desirable facilities can be retrofitted to Propellerhead's electronic music studio. Admittedly, I'm cheating a bit by using a Rewire host to do the job, but that host must be the cheapest currently available that offers all the basic facilities needed for the job — and it's cross-platform. My search for budget Rewire lead me to Raw Material Software's Tracktion, now being marketed exclusively by Mackie and costing a mere US$80 as a download from Mackie's web site. British readers may be aware of the US dollar's current poor performance against Sterling, resulting, as I write, in a £45 bargain. Mackie provide full support for registered users, and there's even a handy — and excellent — on-line user forum (www.kvr-vst.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=22).
Tracktion was reviewed in SOS back in April 2003, in the software's pre-Mackie days. Its Rewire capabilities seem to have been a little uncertain back then, but no more. This efficient alternative to the high-priced MIDI + Audio big boys hosts any Rewire-capable application with ease, and is compatible, on both platforms, with VST plug-ins and instruments. Feel free to import WAVs and MIDI files too. And if that's not enough, Tracktion actually comes with a suite of its own processors, plus a collection from shareware specialists MDA. A handful of virtual instruments are also included, and free, shareware and commercial instruments can be added at will.
Tracktion 's designer, Julian Storer, wrote the software deliberately to be unlike the competition. He felt other sequencers didn't work as they should to enable him to record audio (and MIDI) to his computer with as little trouble as possible. The result is a sequencer with an approach that will feel different to experienced users of standard MIDI + Audio sequencers, though it's completely logical and friendly. MIDI and audio tracks 'feel' similar in an operational way, but without confusing the two forms of data as some 'entry-level' music programs do. Think of how Ableton's Live is different from competing products, and you'll have an idea, remembering that Tracktion and Live are in no way equivalent products.
As a Rewire host, Tracktion is ideal. It's efficiently programmed — no wizzy graphics or bloated code — so will run well alongside Reason on a modest modern computer. It works fine on my ageing G4 and brilliantly on my more up-to-date P4 laptop. I'm a long-time user of the Cubase family, but (especially on my G4) there are times when attempting to run it alongside Reason at the same time as trying to record anything like a busy audio session results in frustration.
Of course, this solution doesn't work from within Reason, which remains as closed as it ever was, but at least it's cheap. Because of the way Rewire works, you can control the host or slave app from the transport of the other, thus you can create a skeleton arrangement in Reason and go to Tracktion to record any audio — vocals, guitars, whatever — for the length of the song, returning to Reason to flesh out the arrangement. When it comes to reorganising and fine-tuning the tandem result, edits and chops will have to be duplicated in both pieces of software. But Tracktion is so easy to use (once you've got the hang of how it does things) that this shouldn't be too much trouble.
Treating Reason audio via VST plug-ins hosted by Tracktion is straightforward. Just create more tracks and insert more instances of the Rewire 'filter' (Tracktion 's generic term for plug-ins, whether effect or instrument), choosing different audio streams for each one, passing audio out of Reason via the Hardware Interface device. A final mix can be rendered to disk from within Tracktion. This is a real-time procedure, though mixes without Rewire slaves can be done in faster than real time.
Tracktion saves all its audio and settings in a self-contained file (audio is data-compressed), but obviously it won't save Reason 's state. So unless you're just using Reason as a sound module (this is possible via Rewire's MIDI streaming), make sure you save the last version of an edited song before closing down.
So, while Tracktion may not be as cheap (ie. potentially free) as the Mac-only Garageband option I mentioned a couple of issues ago, it is cross-platform and much more of a serious composition and recording tool than Apple's offering. If you've come to computer music via Reason and want to add audio recording and plug-in capabilities cheaply, check it out.
As revealed in SOS's main news pages this month, digital video giant Avid have effectively taken over M-Audio, the company which distributes Reason in most markets outside Sweden. Of course, Avid also own Digidesign, the high-end audio sequencing company, so the move isn't, perhaps, all that strange: Reason Adapted, a cut-down version of the virtual studio, has even been a part of Digidesign bundles. So far, the move appears to be having no impact on Reason or other M-Audio-distributed products.
Sometimes, a couple of pages just doesn't seem enough for a column about a program like Reason! This became particularly apparent last month when, for space reasons, I had to lose a few extra bits that took the NNXT one-finger performance patch I explained even further.
As you may already know, NNXT is one of the more powerful devices in the Reason rack, and can accommodate a huge number of samples, each of which has the potential to become its own 'group' and have its own collection of synth and sample playback parameters. This aspect of the device means that it would require a MIDI spec the size of the known universe to make it possible to assign a unique MIDI controller to each NNXT parameter. For the same reason, NNXT only has a small collection of gate and CV control sockets on its rear panel. But if, when you're creating a layer such as we discussed last month, or something similar, you'd really like to be able to add MIDI, gate or CV control to a parameter or two of samples or groups in an NNXT patch — perhaps for triggered gate effects or to add some movement to a filter cutoff frequency — there's still hope.
Start by making use of the individual outputs on the back of NNXT. There are 16 stereo pairs (or 32 mono outputs if you use hard panning between pairs of samples or groups), and this facility means that you can treat almost any NNXT samples with Reason effects. To get the desired effect, why not start with the ECF42 envelope-controlled filter? You could, of course, use the filters of a Malström, as we did last month, but ECF42 uses less space and DSP resources! It's not quite as dynamic a filter as those on the synths or NNXT itself, but it is still quite capable, and two can be chained in series, or chained with other effects (such as the PEQ2 parametric EQ) to build on the sound. Patch different NNXT layers to their own ECF42, set up the filter parameters to suit, and assign triggers or variable CVs (and even MIDI controllers) to them. You'll be able to automate front-panel knobs in the main sequencer: assign each ECF42 to its own rack, then make sure each is highlighted and its track shows the MIDI icon, as you make the automation moves. And don't forget that spare modulation sources — LFOs or EG curves — produced by other devices can be routed to ECF42 CV inputs. As ever with Reason, experiment.
- Last month, I mentioned in passing that any key on an attached MIDI keyboard could be set to start Reason playback. Of course, you can also assign the transport's 'Stop' function to a key (as well as its Record, Fast Forward and Rewind functions). Choose notes at the highest range of your keyboard if you'd like to do this, as those notes will tend not to be played too often. In any case, as long as there's no MIDI icon assigned to any sequencer track during playback, your 'trigger' notes should not end up playing devices you don't want to play.
- Here's an easy way to add a sophisticated contrast between low-velocity and high-velocity playing on the Reason synths and sample players. Simply take your mouse to the device's velocity routing section, and turn the A(mplitude) Attack knob fully left. Now set the Amp Envelope Attack parameter to mid-travel (a value of about 64). Now, when you play softly, not only does the synth play quietly, but you'll get a gentle bowed effect (depending on the rest of the patch's parameters, of course). Play harder and the volume rises as the attack becomes more definite. Combine with other velocity-controlled parameters for a more dynamic-sounding patch.
- This isn't so much a quick tip as an observation: it's possible to play Reason on a Mac, under Mac OS X at least, when the computer is asleep. The software feels even less like software if you can ignore the computer!
- If there's one thing I'd recommend any Mac user — let alone the Mac-based Reason user — buy to improve their overall computing experience, it would be a dual- or multi-button mouse. Simply being able to do the equivalent of a Windows right-click when adding devices to, or customising devices in, Reason's rack is a revelation when it comes to your average workflow.
- Use Reason Songs as patch libraries for the older effects devices that have no saving and loading facilities. If you have favourite effect chains or configurations, with useful parameter settings, simply highlight the whole chain, copy, paste it into a 'library' rack, and save it. Then just highlight, copy and paste the chain back to any Song in future.
- Under both flavours of MacOS, devices that can save patches give you the option to save with or without a file extender. Choose to save with, if you think your patches might be imported in some way to Reason running under Windows, since the files won't be recognised otherwise.
Another use of NNXT's individual outputs in last month's patch could help keep distortion at bay — and this technique can be used with other devices. Yes, I know that Reason is technically not capable of distortion, but overloads do occur!
When designing a heavily-filtered sound with any of the sound-generating devices, you might find that unpredictable changes in level play havoc with the Audio Out Clipping meter, and the quality of your mix. It will probably occur with the textures produced by the NNXT technique described last month. Simply place a COMP01 compressor in line with any instrument or signal path that's causing problems. Even if you don't alter its parameters, the level will be tamed somewhat and you'll be able to more easily set up a balanced mix that doesn't blow out. Doing this has the additional benefit, with NNXT individual outs, of naming them sensibly on Remix mixer channel scribble strips, via the scribble strip of the compressor to which they're connected. Otherwise, individual output pairs turn up as something like 'NNXT 15-16', which is not always useful during a big mixing session.