Review: Propellerhead Reason 9

A raft of new features that make this a must-have update
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When I reviewed Reason 8, it felt like a rounding out of the program’s feature-adding spree with a proper interface overhaul to make it tidier and even more convenient to get great results fast. I wondered what Propellerhead would do next.

Fig. 1. Along with new devices, new sounds, and vocal Pitch Edit mode, Reason 9 sports a few aesthetic changes, as well, such as the optional color themes for the interface window; a blue one is shown here. Sure enough, as time marches on, DAW software inevitably raises the standard for stock features, and part of the Reason 9 update fixates on giving its users nice options that other workstations have added, such as vocal pitch editing and exporting monophonic audio to MIDI data (see Figure 1). Of course, the passage of time also reveals new trends in popular music styles, and Propellerhead has hit us with the mother lode of new Instrument patches. Reason 9 keeps all of its old Factory Sound Bank while adding more than 1,000 new and meticulously designed patches, the bulk of which focus on synthesizer sounds for trending dance-floor genres.

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Finally, some of the greatest new add-ons to Reason 9 have nothing to do with keeping up with the times, but rather they offer up some great homegrown Propllerhead tools called Players.

Don’t Hate the Players

Reason 9 adds a new class of rack devices, Players, to the Browser menu. All three of them are strictly MIDI tools to use in conjunction with Reason’s Instruments. They process, filter and/or generate MIDI notes to turn simple input into interesting musical phrases and progressions.

The Scales & Chords Player can confine any input note you play to a set key and scale, and you choose whether it mutes or corrects any played notes that fall outside the settings. The Chords function can generate chords of up to five notes from a single note (and keep them within the specified key and scale). But it really gets fun when you experiment with setting the chords to one of four inversions, or turning on Open Chords, which will play certain notes of a chord transposed by an octave up or down to space the notes wider apart. You can further beef up the chords by adding a note an octave above and/or below the root. Finally, the Color and Alter controls can introduce ninths, elevenths, thirteenths, or notes slightly outside the scale of the chord.

The Note Echo Player repeats the MIDI data fed into it up to 17 times (with tempo sync as an option). You have control over the number of repeats, the step length, changes to the pitch and velocity of the repeats, and the chance to “mute” repeats to create rhythmic patterns. Propellerhead described Note Echo as the easiest Player to understand, but the deepest to explore. It’s one of those things that you can just slap onto any Instrument track, dial in some settings, and you’ll always come up with something interesting.

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Without question, arpeggiators belong in every producer’s bag of tricks, yet in the era of sophisticated software, it’s easy to feel like you’ve seen them all. However, Reason’s Dual Arpeggio manages to freshen up the concept and offer something quite unlike even the full-featured arpeggiators that dot the landscape. This complex Player can create two arpeggiations from the same MIDI input, each with a ton of variability. For either arpeggiator, you can set the note input range, rate, direction, octave range, transposition, and gate length. You can also set the number of steps and draw in custom patterns and note velocity changes.

When you switch on an arpeggio’s Pattern, you can program up to 16 steps, with up to four notes on each step, making the arpeggio polyphonic. Options like that, as well as transposing one of the arpeggios above or below the other, allow you to create complex and expansive soundscapes from very simple MIDI input.

Fig. 2. Stacking multiple Reason 9 Player devices on a single track gives you endless ability to turn simple MIDI note inputs into thick musical arrangements. You can stack as many Player devices on a single Instrument track as you want (see Fig. 2). Using different combinations and settings for these Players, you could take a single hook from a song, duplicate the track, and create many discrete and varied new parts out of it to create the basis for an entire mix. (See the sidebar “Tips” on page 46.)

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Each Player has a Direct Record switch. When turned on, the MIDI notes that the Player generates will be recorded into a Sequencer track, so you can have that MIDI data for editing.

At Least the Singer Looks Good

Fig. 3. Here is Reason 9’s Pitch Edit view after performing a pitch correction on a vocal. From here, the notes can be stretched, shortened, transposed and moved linearly. There’s also fine control over pitch drift, note transitions, formant, and level. Reason’s new Pitch Edit mode throws vocal pitch, timing, note length and note level editing into the mix. In both form and function, Pitch Edit harkens to well-known programs such as Antares Auto-Tune and Celemony Melodyne. It’s a bit more limited than the full-blown versions of those stand-alone products, but for anyone using Reason exclusively. this gives them access to a potentially project-saving feature that produces great results without having to ReWire into a DAW, (see Fig. 3).

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To use Pitch Edit mode, make sure a Sequencer clip is set to Stretch and Transpose Type > Vocal in the contextual menu. The Reason 9 Sequencer toolbar now offers buttons for Slice Edit, Pitch Edit, and Comp Edit modes, so select the clip and hit Pitch Edit. Here you can quickly auto-correct the pitch of vocal notes by selecting them and hitting the Pitch Correct button or you can manually fine-tune their pitches, transpose notes up or down to your liking, quantize notes, as well as stretch or shorten notes, and manually adjust their timing and level. You can also correct “pitch drift” while preserving intentional pitch fluctuations such as vibrato.

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To use Pitch Edit more creatively, slice longer notes into smaller ones that you use to alter the melody, duplicate the lead vocal and using the dupes to create new harmonies, alter the timing and note lengths, and proportionally stretch multiple notes, etc. If you like, you can also use Pitch Edit to “flatten” notes, thereby achieving the well-known T-Pain effect, but that’s more of a deliberate choice you can make rather than an unwanted side-effect.

Ultimately, Pitch Edit is not as creatively flexible as, say, Melodyne 4 Studio. For example, when playing with the timing and note length in Reason’s Pitch Edit, the range is limited by the position of adjacent notes, so you don’t have full freedom to “rewrite” the vocal line. Also, Pitch Edit is strictly limited to monophonic material. I tried it on a background vocal track that had two singers performing the exact same line, but Pitch Edit would not handle editing that material the way Melodyne would.

Nonetheless, everything Pitch Edit can do, it does very well. You can transpose notes several semitones in either direction without it sounding artificial, and you can correct noticeable pitch drift aberrations while retaining the character of the singer’s voice.

More Bounce to the Ounce

In Reason 9, you can now bounce the output of any audio or Instrument track to a new audio track using Bounce In Place. Even more exciting is the new Bounce Audio Clips to MIDI function, especially in light of the highly flexible new Player devices. When used on monophonic audio clips (bass lines, lead synths, single winds, etc.), Bounce Audio Clips to MIDI creates a new MIDI track that should preserve both the rhythm, velocity and note values of the audio. From there you can choose a new instrument sound, edit the MIDI data, and so on. Polyphonic audio clips and clips with no note detected will bounce to MIDI with all notes on a C3 pitch, which will let you repurpose the rhythm of the original audio. This feature is great for taking a single theme or melody from an audio file and creating several tracks worth of variations from it, often while using the new Players (see the Tips sidebar for more details).

However, I found that it didn’t always successfully convert monophonic audio notes to a MIDI track with the proper pitch. Several times, the function converted a melodic synth or bass line to a monotone MIDI clip using only the C3 pitch. For example, a sub-bass clip converted its pitches to MIDI notes just fine, but another bass-line clip playing about the same notes were converted into C3 notes. In one instance, a synth lead converted to only C3 notes with a bizarre and incorrect rhythm. I suspect Propellerhead will be working on tightening up this feature.

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It’s Da New Sounds

Reason 9 places more than 1,000 new sound patches, divided into 13 sub-categories, into the Browser under the heading Reason 9 Sounds. The bulk of these fall into synthesizer patches for modern electronic genres. In keeping with the trends of “big-room house,” progressive trance and all kinds of splintering bass-music genres like neuro-funk, the general trajectory of the new Reason 9 sounds falls under headings like wide, spacious and huuuge. Plenty of them also feel appropriate for electro-cinematic music for picture.

There are plenty of basses, stabs, plucks, pads, synth leads, and most of them are wrapped up into Combinator devices using multiple Instruments, Effects, Utilities, and/or the new Players. So while Reason provides a sound-design environment of virtually infinite possibilities, it never hurts to have a big selection of finished new sounds to work with. And if you don’t use them wholesale, they’re great jumping off points for your own creations.

In addition to synths, you also get quite a few guitars, strings, brass and other acoustic instrument patches, as well. Along those lines, Reason 9 now bundles in a couple of ReFills that used to be separate purchases—the Electromechanical ReFill of electric pianos, clavs and organs and the RDK Vintage Mono ReFill of vintage drum samples.

Fig. 4. A former Rack Extension, the Pulsar dual-channel LFO Utility now comes with Reason 9 along with dozens of intricate Pulsar Combinator effect and instrument presets. As another bonus, Reason 9 includes the Pulsar advanced dual-channel LFO Utility, which previously sold separately for $49. Pulsar’s two separate LFOs modulate parameters in other rack devices and can also modulate each other. If you don’t want to mess with wiring it up to other devices, not to worry: The Browser includes dozens of presets using Pulsar in either synthesizer or effect Combinators (see Fig. 4). Within these inventive creations there’s a little something for everyone wanting to make spacey, groovy and/or kinetically energetic productions.

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That phrase—something for everyone—kind of sums up Reason overall. Does anyone really dislike this software? The bigger question may be whether Reason 9 demands your upgrade money or not. This program seems like one where you’d upgrade it every other version or so, and when you do, you’re hit with a ton of new advantages to enjoy.

In the case of Reason 9, the new features and high-class new sounds should make the most difference to the lives of musicians who use Reason as their main DAW. The Player devices, in particular, are a creative delight for anyone who uses the software. And I’m confident in saying that there will be more on the way in future updates. I’m not going to wonder anymore what Propellerhead can add to Reason 10; I’m just going to enjoy this perennial favorite.

Snap Judgment

PROS Player MIDI devices balance utility with deep creativity. Pitch Edit mode for correcting monophonic audio. Bounce Audio to MIDI function. More than 1,000 new Instrument patches. Pulsar dual-channel LFO device.

CONS Bouncing audio to MIDI doesn’t work consistently.

Bottom Line A raft of new features that make this a must-have update.

$399 street ($129 upgrade)
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