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Understanding and Using Reason

by the Tweak

Pros

  • Integrated music production package with synths, samplers, drum machines, effects, more
  • requires no external hardware/software other than a midi keyboard and soundcard
  • inexpensive

Cons

  • does not control external midi synths
Reason and Accessories 

 

Cakewalk PROJECT5 Soft Synth Workstation
Imagine a complete software synthesizer workstation that places no limits on your music. A flexible, expandable studio environment that engages your creativity, inspiring new musical ideas through its seamless integration of instruments and tools.

It was many years before the electronic revolution and I was in a grimy little club called Studio 29, somewhere in Texas.  The lights were dim and the audience sat in near-blackness.  A lone spotlight focused on two geeky fellows with a patchbay and 2 analog synths. Back in '81, synthesizers were on records but few people ever actually heard one played a capella.  The performance started with both synths droning on a simple sawtooth waveform in unison.

Then the Tweaks began. For the next 30 minutes or so, the beered-up but quiet audience sat sort of awestruck as the two dudes built up massive swept drones one on synth while the other did a percussive, blerpy sequence, both swapping cables and tweaking knobs to create a Kraftwerk-like sonic landscape.  Many in the audience left the show not knowing what to think. But I, at least, knew we had heard the future and in a few weeks I had my 1st synth. But I bring this up not for nostalgic purposes.  Later on, we are going to use these two guys and their synths as an example for understanding what Reason does.

Even if you are new to the craft of electronic music you have probably already heard of Reason, the self-contained software studio, developed in Sweden by the Propellerheads.  You may have heard the raves about what a great product it is for making trance and DnB music, how it has a variety of soft synths, drum machines, samplers and effects integrated with a multi track sequencer.  You might be wondering if Reason is for you.  That's what I hope to help you unravel, by taking you directly to the heart of Reason.

The Concept Behind Reason

To really understand the concept behind Reason we have to go back to the pre-MIDI days when one voiced analog synths, with their knobs and filters, ruled the electronic jungle.  That takes us back to the two guys.   The two synths in our example, I think, were the Mini Moog and Korg MS 20, but there were many more like them in those days.  Sequencers "back in the day" consisted of hardware boxes with 16 registers.  The sequencer sent out control voltages and gates, which would turn notes on in succession on the connected synth.  These notes could be modulated further by knobs and sliders which sent more sets of these controlling volts to turn on and off filters, envelopes, sweep resonance and the filter cutoff.  Even with our two friends plugging and unplugging and switching and sweeping in hyper mode, there was a limit to how complex things were going to get. After all, we only have 4 hands doing all the tweaks. There was no way for them to save their great work once performed, other than recording it to a tape deck.

What makes Reason such a phenomenal success is that it has gone back to this "control voltage" pre-midi analog technology and developed some extremely accurate models of these synths and added everything that has come after it too.  You have Subtracktor, the old style analog synth, with CV (control voltage) and gates on the back.  These can be controlled by the Matrix, modeled after a 16 note monophonic arpeggiator.  Then you have REDRUM, modeled after a vintage drum machine with 10 pads which can take any sample you through at them.  Next is the NN19 digital sampler which is the software equivalent of a hardware rack sampler.   Then we get to loops and the interface is the Dr. Rex Loop Player.  And you get plenty of effects.  Reverb, delay, foldback distortion, envelope controlled filter, phaser, compressor and EQ.  All of this is controllable by a fully automatable mixer.

 

 

If fact, nearly everything in Reason can be recorded and automated, from turning dials on the synths, changing patterns on the ReDrum machine or matrix sequencer to twiddling some of the knobs on effects boxes.  You can also use it as a straight ahead midi sequencer, playing Reason's instruments from your keyboard and recording the data. Reason stores all this tweak-data too. You can save a song and come back 6 moths later and all your Tweak's are still there, just as they were when you closed the project the last time. There is only one major thing you can't do with Reason:  You can't control external synths with it.  That's important if you are considering Reason as a one and only sequencer.  It can only sequence itself.

Now lets go back again to the two guys tweaking away in 1981.  If they had Reason back then, they could have gone over all their tweaks with the mouse and perfected them.  Instead of starting one arpeggiated sequence they could have started 10, 20, or 30 at different points of the song.  Instead of two mono synths, they could have as many polyphonic synths as they wanted.  Had our friends from the past been able to see what we have today, they might have ran away screaming in the night.  Now we are at a point where any 13 year old with a liberal allowance can be at the seat of totally unbelievable musical power. 

This is precisely the point.  When one enters Reason, you are entering a totally virtual studio environment where, sonically, anything is possible.  This is Reason's innermost beauty and its underlying experimental attitude.  To be sure, Reason comes with tons of material pre-tweaked and ready to let you construct Trance, DnB and many other flavors of electronica.  These supplied presets perhaps overshadow the fact that you can invent your own sounds and construct a musical fabric that is wholly unique.  You can tweak up incredible stuff by never touching a single preset, making everything as you go from raw waveforms. Uh Huh, diddy, you wanna sound like everyone else, Uh huh?  No prob. Wha..dude?! You DON'T want to sound like everyone else??????  No Problem!  Dare to use Reason without any presets. Keep On.

Note the graphical representation of Reason's Mixer tracks which can be automated with the mouse

Working with Reason

When one works "free style" with Reason, you don't typically sit down with a pre-determined idea.  You can work that way if you want, but it's not as graceful in this kind of flow. Other sequencers, like Logic, Sonar and  Cubase SX are better conventional, preset-based music, perhaps because the track, and preset selector has the focus.  While Reason does have a small arrangement grid, the focus is more on the Tweak's themselves, the things that generate the sound. 

I think the ideal way to work with Reason is like an inventor.  Start anywhere, a favorite sample you made, your own drum pattern, or just a plain old sawtooth waveform, and start wherever you like. Highlight 16 bars and set reason to repeat this loop. You never have to hit stop.  Spin the rack around and drag some cables to new effects.  Tweak knobs till you hear something you like.  Then define a new instrument out of thin air.  Route a matrix to it, swipe the mouse in a few random patterns and listen where it goes.  With every new tweak, it's like opening a door.  A new sonic vista takes form and mutates.  When you think you have something too cool to lose, move the bar markers down to the next 16 bar sequence. 

Once you get more material recorded, then you can start arranging and editing, using all the old rules of intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, break, chorus end if you want, or find a new form which matches the inner structure of your motif.

 

Using other sequencers

Reason works well with other sequencers using the Rewire protocol developed by Steinberg. Rewire allows the user to pipe Reason's audio directly into the host sequencer's mixer, where it can be recorded or effected with the host's plugins.  This dramatically extends Reason quite a bit, and it allows the user to re-arrange Reason's tracks in a more arrangement-friendly application.  The way to work here is to record parts of reason songs one bit at a time.  You solo tracks in reason and record or "bounce" them into the host as audio tracks, where they can be cut, paste, copped, looped, etc. 

Using Reason like an external virtual synth.  Rewire 2 is now supported by Cubase SX.  Rewire 2 allows you to play Reason's softsynths directly from the host sequencer.  For example, rather than using Reason's arpeggiator, the Matrix, you could use the Cubase SX midi plugin arpeggiator to control Reason's Subtracktor, for example. This is not possible with host sequencers that use Rewire's early protocol.  Logic is one of these as of this writing.  See my article on using Reason with Logic for more on this. 

 

Summing Up

Reason is a revolutionary product with tons of class.  Competition?  Nothing out there works just like Reason though Cakewalk has come up with a similar interface with it Project 5.   Out of the old pile of analog synths and voltage architecture has come a virtual studio environment that sounds refreshingly old and therefore refreshingly new at the same time.  Yet the power has been multiplied, squared, and has made a leap off the old map.  At its best, Reason is a tool to take sound into uncharted dimensions, and today's composer is in the cockpit. 

Rich the TweakMeister
A peek behind the rack.  You can plug and unplug these cables to create unusual sonic effects. 
Want to Discuss this article?  Go to the dedicated Topic in Studio-Central's Soft Synth forum

 

Tweak's Articles on Sequencers

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Pro Tools LE 8.1
Logic Studio 8
Review of Sonar
Review of Reason
Reason (1st review)
Ableton Live
Logic Pro 7
Logic Pro 6
Logic Platinum 6
Logic Platinum 5
Digital Performer
GarageBand
Sony's Acid
Vintage Sequencers
Early History of Logic
Mac vs PC for Music?
Project 5
Sequencer City!
Cubase SX (original)
Cubase SX3
Using a Mac Pro as your DAW
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