The latest version of Propellerhead Software's synth/sequencer package is Reason 2.0. This release adds several things to the original Reason, most notably an enhanced sampler (the NN-XT Advanced Sampler) and a totally new synth - the Mälstrom Graintable Synthesizer.
It also fixes possibly one of the most annoying things about the original Reason - it only used one single window to display both the sequencer and the rack, and the window could not be resized from its default width of roughly 800px. Reason 2.0's sequencer in now a separate window that can be moved, resized or (if you have a multiple monitor setup) shifted onto another monitor so you can monitor both rack and sequencer at the same time.
Finally, Reason 2.0 comes with two CD-ROMs full of samples and presets, in two packs: the Reason Factory ReFill, which contains hundreds of patches for each of the synths, and samples for the ReDrum drum machine and NN-19/NN-XT samplers; and the Orkester ReFill, which contains high-quality orchestral instrument samples designed for the NN-XT.
Reason's interface is designed to emulate a real-life rack of hardware. To create a song, you first set up your equipment. Unlike in real life, where you are limited to a certain number of components by space and cost issues, in Reason you can create an almost unlimited number of instances of each synth, sequencer or effects processor.
If you press the tab key, Reason flips the rack around to allow you to see the back of each of the components, and the cables that connect them. Each component has audio inputs and outputs, as well as control voltage inputs/outputs. All components have an audio output (apart from the Hardware Interface, which functions solely as the interface to the audio outputs of your sound card) and many also have audio inputs to allow their effects sections to be used on external signals.
The control voltage inputs hark back to when MIDI did not yet exist, and the only relatively standard way to control synths was to use analog voltage control, transmitting a variable voltage to control the pitch of the note, and a fixed voltage pulse as a trigger to actually play the note.
Reason uses CV control as a convenient metaphor to allow component parameters to be controlled from other components in the rack, like the Matrix pattern sequencer. Filter frequency, resonance, and various other parameters can be controlled by back-panel CV inputs, and it is also possible to use the CV inputs to trigger notes on most of the synths and sampler modules.
Connecting components is as easy as dragging a cable from the output of one to the input of another. To make your life even easier, when you create a new component, Reason automatically routes it depending on how you created it - if you right-clicked on a mixer and created an effects unit, it will automatically be patched into the first available auxiliary bus send and return on the mixer, whereas if you inserted the unit by right-clicking on a synth, the unit would be patched in between the synth and the mixer it was connected to.
Reason features the following components:
reMix 14 channel mixer
The mixer is the first thing you need to create when setting up the rack. The reMix is a 14-channel mixer, featuring four auxilary buses, and EQ, panning and volume controls for each channel. Fourteen channels may seem a bit restrictive, but if you run out of space, each mixer has a pair of inputs designed for daisy-chaining another mixer.
Synths and samplers:
SubTractor Analog Synthesizer
Not your average subtractive synth, the SubTractor features twin oscillators with 32 different waveforms ranging from plain vanilla sine wave to strange metallic drones. Each oscillator can also be doubled and subtracted or multiplied by itself for interesting effects. Frequency or ring modulation between the two oscillators is also possible. A noise source with independent delay and tone controls complements the twin oscillators.
The combination of a pair of LFOs, mod wheel, pitch bend, three ADSR envelopes, velocity sensitivity and external input from aftertouch, expression or breath controllers allows virtually every parameter of the synth to be dynamically altered.
The SubTractor may look somewhat intimidating the first time you load one up, but for sheer 'huh?!' factor it's hard to top the Mälstrom...
Mälstrom Graintable Synthesizer
The Mälstrom is large, green and - at least at first glance - very complicated. A lot of the Mälstrom's features are similar to the SubTractor, with two big differences - first, the oscillators, and secondly the 'Shaper' module.
Instead of generating simple waveforms that don't change over time like the SubTractor, the Mälstrom uses a unique technique called 'Graintable synthesis', a combination of two existing synthesis methods - granular synthesis and wavetable synthesis. Instead of the SubTractor's 32 waveforms, subtraction/multiplication modes and frequency modulation, the Mälstrom's oscillators use a bank of sampled waves ranging from simple waveforms to robotic voices to strange ambient noises that can be pitch-shifted, sped up, slowed down (with the possibility of slowing to a stop and just playing one period of the wave repeatedly) or reversed.
The output from the oscillators is processed through two filter modules and the Shaper module, which alters the waveform using digital clipping, saturation, bit reduction and waveshaping.
Of course, the Mälstrom boasts the usual complement of modulation sources, including a couple of enhanced LFOs which can operate in one-shot mode (like a complex envelope) as well as periodic mode. One of the reasons that the front panel looks so different from the rest of the Reason components is that the Mälstrom allows one to route modulation inputs and oscillator outputs to different places in the signal chain, depending on what type of effect you're trying to achieve. It's not a modular synth, but it comes a lot closer than the SubTractor.
All this flexibility means that it's very, very easy to make utterly strange-sounding patches with the Mälstrom - as can be witnessed by most of the patches in the Factory ReFill (incidentally, the patch names live up to the strangeness of the patches themselves: Retaligator, Trevlig Padson or Cyber Yawn anyone?)
NN-19 Digital Sampler
The NN-19 is a basic sampler. You load a sample into its memory, then press a key on the keyboard and it plays back the sample, pitch-shifted to the correct pitch. It can be configured so that different ranges of keys play different samples, and includes a single LFO, filter and amplitude envelope as well as mod-wheel and pitch bend controllers.
The NN-19 is fine for most of the things you'll need a sampler for. If you need more power, or you want to use the Orkester sampler patches, you need the NN-XT...
NN-XT Advanced Sampler
In sharp contrast with the NN-19's beige, somewhat plasticky interface and minimal blue screen, the NN-XT is sleek, charcoal gray and very professional-looking. It's divided into two parts: the minimalistic main interface, and the Remote Editor, with a huge light-blue screen and over sixty separate rotary controllers. The Remote Editor is designed to be slid away during normal song editing, and only brought out when you need to edit parameters for individual samples.
The XT is intimidating at first, but quite simple once you get the hang of it. The main reason it's better than the NN-19 is that unlike the 19, every single sample can have its own individual amp/filter envelope, filter settings, polyphony setting, mod envelope and modulation settings.
As well as configuring different ranges of keys to play different samples, you can also configure the XT to play different samples depending on how hard the key is hit - ideal for acoustic instrument patches.
Dr.REX loop player
The Dr.REX is a sampler designed to play back files created by ReCycle. Its main use is for sampled beats or grooves that have been sliced up into many slices, each one usually containing a single drum hit. The slices can be played back at any speed and in any order.
Apart from replacing sample playback with slice-playback functionality, the Dr.REX is very similar to the NN-19, with a single LFO, filter/amp envelopes, mod wheel and pitch bend.
ReDrum drum machine
The ReDrum, along with the Dr.REX, forms Reason's rhythm section. If you're familiar with Roland's TR-909 drum machine, the ReDrum might seem strangely familiar.
The machine has ten drum channels, each of which holds one sample. Samples can be loaded individually, or all ten channels can be set up at once using a drum-kit patch. All the channels share a set of common features - volume, pitch, panning, a simple amplitude envelope, and two effects sends. Some channels also have additional features - for instance, channels 8 and 9 are gated together, to allow a closed hi-hat sample to cut off an open hi-hat, and channels 6 and 7 have a pitch envelope instead of a simple pitch control.
The bottom of the ReDrum's interface is taken up by the pattern section. Like the TR-909, this allows you to program drum patterns up to 64 steps long. The ReDrum can store up to 32 patterns in four banks of eight patterns each. Each pattern has individual settings for pattern length and step speed.
As well as being controlled by its own built-in pattern generator, the ReDrum can also be controlled from Reason's sequencer, allowing it to be used as a simple sound module.
Matrix Pattern Sequencer
The Matrix is one of the few Reason components that is not based on real-world
hardware. It has two modes - Curve and Key. In Curve mode, the user draws an envelope on the Matrix's red LED screen, and the Matrix outputs a control voltage proportional to the height of the envelope curve at that point in time. In Key mode the Matrix outputs control and gate voltages designed to trigger notes on Reason's synth and sample modules.
The Matrix is perfectly suited to 303-style basslines as well as automatic parameter control, but for anything that requires more than one note to be played at a time, the sequencer must be used.
ReBirth Input Machine
The ReBirth Input Machine is designed to receive audio from the Propellerheads' ReBirth RB-338, which emulates a pair of 303s, an 808 and a 909, via the proprietary ReWire inter-application audio transfer system.
Although it's possible to construct a song just using Matrix sequencers and the built-in sequencer of the ReDrum, the Sequencer is what gives Reason its flexibility.
The Sequencer has two views - Edit view, which displays one track, and Arrange view which displays an overview of all the tracks in the song. Depending on which device the track is controlling, Edit view can be used to place notes on a piano roll, sequence drum events, alter various controls on the device in realtime, change patterns on the sequencers of the Matrix and ReDrum, or play slices in the Dr.REX.
Events can be entered into the Sequencer either by hand, using a mouse, or by using a MIDI keyboard or controller. While it's not too painful creating a song without a MIDI keyboard, it's nice to have one - and you can play Reason as if it were a normal sound module, for live use (or if you're just bored.)
Reason isn't exactly cheap, but its cost is pocket money compared to the cost of purchasing hardware that could fulfil the same function. Combined with a multitrack recording application, such as Cakewalk Audio's Sonar or Syntrillium's excellent Cool Edit Pro, plus a reasonable sound card and computer, and you have the elements of a very well-equipped bedroom studio.
Reason is available for both Mac OS (including a native OS X version) and Windows.
Propellerhead Software: http://www.propellerheads.se