Propellerhead Reason 8 reviewed

December 18, 2014

A new version of Reason is always a welcome event. Over the past few years it has seen significant advances, notably the addition of audio tracks, the ability to transmit MIDI to external hardware synths, and the new Rack Extension (RE) format. Third-party developers have flocked to create new REs. Given that history, expectations are bound to run high. But what’s left to do? Reason 8 is only a modest advance over 7.1, but it does have one terrific new feature, which will have experienced Reason users dancing in the streets.

Overview

The big news is a vastly improved browser. No longer a pop-up window with its own eccentric navigation methods, the browser sits in a pane on the left of the screen. And it’s not just a traditional file folder tree: It’s smart, in ways that will make your workflow smoother.

Before we look at that browser, a brief intro may help newcomers understand what’s cool about the program. Reason is a cross-platform DAW (digital audio workstation) that can’t host VST or AU plug-ins, but instead comes with its own very capable synths and effects. You can do full-on music production right out of the box, without having to spend another nickel. However, you can purchase a variety of excellent plug-ins in the Rack Extension (RE) format from the shop on Propellerhead’s website.

Reason is unique in that the devices in its virtual “rack” can be flipped so as to view their “back panels.” Here you’ll find jacks for patching control and audio signals from one device to another. You could think of Reason as one enormous patchable modular synth with a built-in sequencer.

Other than that, the DAW features are fairly standard: audio track editing and comping, audio time-stretching and pitch-shifting, a great mixer with compressors and subgroups, and so on. The MIDI editing features are solid, but not stellar.

To use your favorite VST or AU plug-ins in a Reason song, you can patch Reason into another DAW using ReWire. You’ll have to save and load your project in two separate files (for Reason and the other DAW) but the technology does work.

The New Browser

If you spend a lot of time hunting for new presets and loops, you’ll love Reason’s new browser. It occupies space at the left side of the screen, which laptop users may find less than ideal, but it can be opened and closed with the F3 key, neatly complementing Reason’s use of F5, F6, and F7 for the mixer, rack, and sequencer displays.

Drag-and-drop is fully implemented, and works beautifully. You can drag a synth from the browser into the rack, or into an empty spot in the sequencer track window, and the new device will be created instantly. Ditto for preset files—drag one into a blank spot in the rack or sequencer track list, and you’ll get a new device that’s already loaded with that preset. Drag an RX2 file into the rack and you get a Dr. OctoRex device; drag it into the sequencer and you get an audio track.

When new synths are created, they’re given the name of the preset. If you drag a new preset onto an existing synth or double-click it in the browser to load it, the synth will be renamed in both the track and mixer panels. But if you’ve renamed the device manually, your new name won’t be overwritten by the new preset name. Perfect.

Click on the Browse Patch button (the little folder icon) on a device’s front panel, and the browser automatically switches to display the files suitable for that device. Drag-and-drop also works with Kong and ReDrum sound slots and Dr. OctoRex loop slots, but Reason doesn’t always know what type of sound you want to put in a given slot, so it doesn’t try to guess. A bit of manual navigation through the browser may still be required in this case.

Other New Features

The transport bar at the bottom of the screen has been redesigned with new graphics. Ditto for the track headers at the left side of the sequencer. The functionality is the same, but Reason now has a more “flat” look, not unlike the style of Ableton Live.

The sequencer has been tweaked a bit. MIDI notes can now be lengthened or shortened from either end, or erased by double-clicking. Automation clips can now be added to an existing track using a drop-down menu. (I’m not sure this is new, but I never noticed it before.) After selecting a group of notes, you can duplicate it using command-D (Mac) or control-D (Windows), which pastes a copy at the next quantize location after the end of the last note in the group.

The Line 6 guitar and bass amp effects, which have been part of Reason for a while, are still included in Reason 8, but the word is they’ll disappear in a couple of years. Similar devices from Softube are now included, so they should be used in new productions. The Softube bass amp is limited, but the guitar amp is quite nice, with a choice of four amps (Twang, Crunch, Rock, and Lead) and four cabinets (Bright, Room, Fat, and Tight).

If you prefer to create new rack devices from the pop-up mouse menu, you’ll be pleased to find that your device list is now organized into submenus by manufacturer. This is very handy if you have as many Rack Extensions as I do.


New(ish) Rack Extensions

The Shop page on the Propellerhead website offers more than 100 third-party Rack Extensions. All are available to Reason owners as fully functional 30-day trials. Here are four that recently caught our eye.

 

Synchronous (Propellerhead, $49). A terrific resource for rhythmic effects, Synchronous (shown above) incorporates its own distortion, multimode resonant filter, delay line, and reverb. Three synchronized curves can be edited graphically and used to modulate the effects’ parameters. The delay line has a “keep pitch” button, which isn’t a feature you’ll see every day.

Combo Compact & Combo Continental (Jiggery-Pokery, $35 each). These faithfully model the Farfisa Compact and Vox Continental organs. Cheesy? You bet. Great-sounding? That, too. There’s even a modeled spring reverb. All together now: “There is a house in New Orleans . . .”

SM Tritone (Sound Mod, $49). This muscular distortion effect splits your signal into low, mid, and high bands, with adjustable crossover points. You can then apply any of eleven different waveshaping algorithms to each band.

Mercury (Quadelectra Audioworx, $39). This RE takes arpeggiation to a whole new level. Reason’s CV note/gate signals are inherently monophonic, so Mercury gives you four CV output pairs, one for each voice, plus outputs for pitch-bend, mod wheel, and four patchable modulation CVs. Feel free to route each output to a different sound for an endless supply of amazing textures.


Conclusions

I use Reason a lot, and I’m always happy to recommend it to musicians who are looking for powerful, integrated recording software. It combines great, highly patchable synths and effects with smart audio track handling. The new browser in version 8.0 takes care of what was formerly a significant bottleneck in the workflow.

For current Reason users, is the $129 upgrade worth the money? If you’re strictly recording audio tracks, maybe not. If you do much MIDI sequencing, then yes. And if you haven’t yet considered using Reason as the hub of your music productions, there has never been a better time to try the free demo download. Like most full-featured programs these days, Reason 8 is complex, but once you get into it, you’ll be amazed at what it can do.


 

PROS

Still a terrific workstation. Significantly smoother workflow thanks to the new browser.

CONS

Not much is new, other than the browser.


Bottom Line

An already great program is now even better.

$399 ($129 upgrade)

 
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