A few years ago, Propellerhead was earnestly asserting that Reason was not just another digital audio workstation and that it belonged in a separate category. Since then, they’ve kept adding highly desirable features that make it look more and more like a DAW, notably multitrack audio recording in version 6 (reviewed Apr. ’12). That’s a good thing, since they’re still doing things their own way. Version 7 ratchets up the functionality several more notches.
Main arrange window - click to enlarge.
Mixer with EQ - click to enlarge.
The 7.0 release of Reason has three big enhancements: a MIDI out device for sequencing your hardware synths, better mixer bussing, and some very slick audio track editing. These new capabilities come on top of the marvelous Rack Extensions concept—essentially third-party plug-ins done Reason style—unveiled in Reason 6.5. [Read Jim’s roundup of rack extensions at keyboardmag.com/reason-rack-extensions. –Ed.]
For Mac users, Reason 7 requires OS 10.7 or later, so I had to buy the new OS. It also requires 4GB of RAM, so I had to upgrade my elderly MacBook Pro. My Windows 7 desktop machine, which is my main production environment, required no tweaking. If you need to install the 32-bit version of Reason in 64-bit Windows, which is necessary if you want to use it as a ReWire client in a 32-bit host, you’ll find easy instructions on Propellerhead’s website.
Reason is a complex program, with several dozen highly patchable modules for synthesis and sound processing, presented as a virtual studio rack that looks like hardware, right down to animated cables bouncing when you toggle the rear panel view. We hardly have the space here to recap Reason’s many amazing features—a good place to start may be the numerous videos on the Propellerhead website. For Keyboard readers, the biggest deal is likely the new MIDI output, so let’s start there.
External MIDI Instrument
Fig. 1. Reason’s new External MIDI device can transmit MIDI to any output port defined in your system. Configuration settings are on the right side. It’s always inspiring when a new device just works. That was my experience with Reason 7’s new External MIDI Instrument (EMI) module (see Figure 1). I never had to consult the manual.
I don’t own nearly the amount of MIDI hardware that I did 20 years ago, but I still have my trusty Yamaha Motif XS. I hauled it out and hooked up the audio and MIDI cables. Then I launched Reason, created an EMI, and started playing my M-Audio Axiom master keyboard. The Motif responded. Sequencing a Motif track was just as easy.
The EMI isn’t fancy but it gets the job done. The front panel sports a drop-down menu that lists all of the MIDI outputs in your computer. To the left are stubby mouse-controllable pitch and mod wheels, whose activity can be recorded. To the right are three settings: MIDI output channel, a program change number, and an assignable Control Change number, which is associated with a knob for recording controller moves.
The program change number can be automated, but the CC number and channel setting can’t be. However, the latter parameters can be addressed from an external hardware controller configured as a Reason Remote device. What’s cool is that the CC knob can be used to record MIDI control data for up to 120 different CC messages. All of these messages will be retained in the track. It isn’t actually a single knob, in other words—it’s 120 different knobs.
On the EMI rear panel are inputs for the Matrix Pattern Sequencer and “CV” inputs for mod wheel, pitch-bend, and the assignable knob. If desired, several EMI modules can be set to the same output channel, so you can use several Matrix sequencers to create polyphonic patterns on your hardware synth (a cool possibility that Reason’s internal instruments can’t manage).
There’s no dedicated panel control for Bank Select messages, but these can be recorded into the track as CC 0 and CC 32 data. The manual for your MIDI hardware should contain cryptic information on which combinations of these messages you’ll need.
After sequencing your external instruments, you’ll probably want to record their output into Reason as audio tracks. The manual gives clear instructions on how to do this, including some suggestions about managing latency compensation.
What’s missing from the EMI? It won’t record or transmit system-exclusive data, but that’s far less important than it was in the good old days. It also doesn’t handle polyphonic aftertouch. The big omission is that when Reason is running as a ReWire client, the EMI won’t transmit MIDI to the host software. If this were possible, you could use Reason’s sequencer and employ the host for running virtual instruments that are neither native to Reason nor available as Rack Extensions. Let’s hope Propellerhead adds this feature in the next release.
Next: Audio Editing
ReCycle—one of Propellerhead’s very first products—slices apart audio loops so they can be loaded into a sampler as single notes and then “re-grooved” via MIDI track editing or by simply playing notes. In the olden days, you’d load ReCycle REX files (since replaced by stereo RX2 files) into a hardware sampler. These days, software REX players such as Reason’s Dr. OctoRex use them—but up to now, you still needed a copy of ReCycle if you wanted to create your own REX/RX2 files. Now you can do it directly in Reason.
Audio tracks are automatically given slice markers as they’re recorded or loaded. There’s no sensitivity control for slice detection (a feature found in ReCycle), but after putting an audio loop in a track, you can add or delete markers by hand if needed, or drag them left or right to change the rhythm without changing the pitch of individual notes, or even quantize the slices. Changing the positions of the slice markers can be done with key commands or by holding Alt (Option on Macs) and using the mouse, and it works perfectly.
The sliced-up audio can be exported in RX2 format. This is ideal for drum patterns that you want to edit to add fills, or for snare substitution. Transferring an audio clip into Dr. OctoRex takes about three clicks—it’s totally easy. In addition to bouncing out as RX2, you can bounce the slices as samples for use in Reason’s NN-XT, Kong, and ReDrum instruments.
There’s an upper limit on the number of slices in a REX file. If your audio has more than 92 slices, only the first 92 will be transferred to Dr. OctoRex. Since MIDI defines 128 note messages, 92 is an odd limitation, but most loops won’t need more than 64 slices. If the 92-slice limit is a problem, you can easily split a long audio clip into two or more pieces and export the pieces to separate instances of Dr. OctoRex.
Because the audio is pre-sliced, if you later need to change the tempo of the song the audio will automatically be adjusted, and without too much degradation. I tried loading a drum loop in an obviously wrong tempo for my song and then stretched it by selecting all of the slice markers and dragging the one on the right end, slowing down the loop so that it lined up with the rest of the instruments. The workflow was easy, and the results sounded very acceptable. (Large stretches do tend to produce phasing artifacts.)
Parallel and Bus Channels
Fig. 2. The new in-rack channel strip (top) has a fader and pan pot for quick access. The Audiomatic preset effect (center) is a free download for Reason 7 owners. The Synapse Audio Antidote synth (bottom) is available in the Rack Extension store; the lower edge of its panel is not shown.
While not groundbreaking, the new mixer features are welcome. In previous versions of Reason it was possible to set up parallel mix channels, routing one source signal to two or more mixer strips, but you had to do it by hand using a Spider Audio Splitter or something similar. In Reason 7 the process is painless and easier to manage. Just right-click on a mixer strip and choose “Create Parallel Channel” from the pop-up menu.
You can create multiple parallel channels for a single audio source if you like. Using these, you can do tricks like compressing a drum track while mixing in uncompressed signal to add punch, or run a vocal through a filter but also bleed in the unfiltered vocal for clarity.
Also new are bus channels. Select two or more mixer strips and choose “Route to > New Output Bus” in the menu. Bus channels are ideal for multitrack drum recordings, horn sections, and so on: You can group the source audio and then mute and unmute, adjust the level, or add effects from a single channel strip.
The third new mixing feature is not in the mixer per se. The mixer input channel modules in the rack itself have been beefed up with their own faders, pan pots, and meters, which duplicate the functions in the mixer panel itself (see Figure 2). This improves the workflow, because you no longer have to switch back and forth from the rack to the mixer in order to make basic adjustments.
Next: Other New Features; Conclusions
Other New Features
Fig. 3. The Spectrum EQ gives you graphic editing of the EQ curve, on top of an animated display of the frequency spectrum.
Up to now, you could run Reason in one of three modes with regard to licensing: demo (fully functional except that your saved songs can’t be reloaded), with an Internet connection to verify that your account has a license, or using a USB dongle. There’s now a fourth mode: You can authorize your computer itself so that neither the dongle nor an Internet connection is needed. This is convenient if, for example, want to use Reason on a laptop while riding the subway.
At the top of each mixer strip is a button that opens a new interface for the channel EQ (see Figure 3). Called Spectrum EQ, this pop-up window has a real-time animated frequency display, on which you can drag colored dots to change the channel EQ. These dots duplicate the functions of the channel strips’ existing EQ controls.
A new plug-in effect, Audiomatic Retro Transformer (see Figure 2 again), is a free download (if you have Reason 7) from the Rack Extensions page in your Propellerhead account. Its features are minimal: 16 buttons for choosing a preset effect, a wet/dry knob, and a general-purpose Transform knob, which adjusts some parameter on whatever effect you’ve chosen. A couple of the effects, such as Tape, might be useful for processing an entire mix. Others, such as Cracked (distortion) and Psyche (a stereo flanger) would be better for processing single tracks.
Producing music in Reason has always been fun, but version 7.0 comes closer than ever to being a serious do-everything production studio, without sacrificing the interactive and intuitive workflow. If you own hardware synths, the External MIDI Instrument device is a must-have, and the audio slicing and time-stretching will be a huge plus for anyone who has an audio loop library or needs to stretch an a cappella vocal for a remix. While Reason 7 is not revolutionary in terms of having features nothing else has, what it does have is a huge step forward, and the way it integrates and presents these features is unique among music creation platforms.
PROS: MIDI out for external instruments. Improved mixer routing. Audio tracks automatically sliced for time-stretch and RX2 file use. Computer authorization now supported.
CONS: MIDI out not transmitted to host DAW via ReWire.
Bottom Line: A production powerhouse just got even better.
$449 list | $399 street | $129 upgrade
Jim Aikin has been writing for Keyboard for more than 30 years, and is an accomplished pianist, orchestral cellist, and electronic composer. His books include Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming (Hal Leonard) and Csound Power! (Cengage Learning).