Delivering on our #1 feature request, VST plugins have come to Reason. It's the creative flow you know and love, coupled with any plugin you want. This is music-making unlimited.
In this video we'll walk through the ins and outs of using VST plugins inside reason, from initial loading, basic sequencing, parameter automation, and then onward to advanced control voltage modular routing only possible with VST plugins in the Reason Rack.
We're very proud to announce that Reason 9.1 is now available, featuring support for Ableton Link!
Like many of us here in the office I'm in a handful of bands, so when Ableton approached us with integrating Link in Reason I was both professionally and personally intrigued. Making music together is something entirely different from creating by yourself. It's not better or worse, but it's different and incredibly rewarding. Sharing your ideas and inspiring each other will lead you to musical results that never would've happened otherwise. With Link in Reason, it's easier than ever to make music together—regardless of your software of choice.
To update to Reason 9.1, simply launch Reason 9 and download your free update. And if you're on an earlier version or don't own Reason yet, there's never been a better time to get started. It's been really fun working on Reason 9.1 and I'm sure you'll have even more fun making music with it.
Discovering Reason is a series of articles created especially for people who have been using Reason for some time, yet can't help but feel they've only scratched the surface. While many of them were written for much older Reason versions, they're more retro or classic than out of date.
Reason's endless possibilities are not always obvious and there's a myriad of nifty tricks hidden in this open-ended production environment. We are creatures of habit, and it's easy to become lazy and get stuck in routines - routines which are often a heritage from other production environments that emphasise on quantity and diversity rather than flexibility and experimentalism.
The articles will assume that you have a fair amount of experience with Reason, and will not cover all the details of certain basic operations. Consult the Reason Operation Manual if you stumble upon something unfamiliar.
This tutorial discusses the concepts of control voltages (CVs) and Gates in Propellerhead's software. Of course, they're not really voltages because everything is happening within the software running on your PC or Mac. But the concepts are the same so, before going on to discuss how to use them, let's first take the time to understand where CVs and Gates came from, what they are, and what they do.
We'll begin by considering one of the most fundamental concepts in synthesis: there is no sound that you can define purely in terms of its timbre. Even if it seems to exhibit a consistent tone and volume, there must have been a moment when it began and a moment when it will end. This means that its loudness is contoured in some fashion. Likewise, it's probable that its tone is also evolving in some way. So let's start by considering an unvarying tone generated by an oscillator and make its output audible by playing it through a signal modifier — in this case, an amplifier – and then onwards to a speaker of some sort. We can represent this setup as figure 1.
Figure 1: A simple sound generator
Now imagine that the amplifier in figure 1 is your hi-fi amp, and that the volume knob is turned fully anticlockwise. Clearly, you will hear nothing. Next, imagine taking hold of the knob and rotating it clockwise and then fully anticlockwise again over the course of a few seconds. Obviously, you will hear the sound of the oscillator evolve from silence through a period of loudness and then back to silence again. In other words, your hand has acted as a controller, altering the action of the modifier and therefore changing when you hear even though the audio generated by the source has itself remained unchanged.
Twisting one or more knobs every time that you want to hear a note isn't a sensible way to go about things, so early synthesiser pioneers attempted to devise a method that would allow them to control their sources and modifiers electronically. They found that they could design circuits that responded in desirable ways if voltages were applied at certain points called control inputs. So, for example, an amplifier could be designed in such a way that that, when the voltage presented to its control input was 0V its gain was -∞dB (which you would normally call ‘zero', or ‘off') and when the voltage was, say, +10V, the amplifier provided its maximum gain. Thus the concepts of control voltages (CVs) and voltage-controlled amplifiers (VCAs) were born. (Figure 2.)
Figure 2: Shaping the output from the amplifier
The next thing that was needed was a mechanism to determine the magnitude of the control voltage so that notes could be shaped in a consistent and reproducible fashion. Developed in a number of different forms, this device was the contour generator, although many manufacturers have since called it (less accurately) an envelope generator, or “EG”. The most famous of these is called the ADSR; an acronym that stands for Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release. These names represent the four stages of the contour. Three of them - Attack, Decay, and Release - are measures of time, while the Sustain is a voltage level that is maintained for a period determined by... well, we'll come to that in a moment. (Figure 3.)
Figure 3: The ADSR contour generator
If we now connect this device to the VCA in figure 2 it should be obvious that the contour shapes the loudness of the note as time passes. (Figure 4.) But how do we trigger it?
Figure 4: Amplitude control using a triggered contour generator
Let's consider what happens at the moment that you press a key on a typical analogue monosynth. Many such synths generate three control voltages every time that you do so. The first determines the pitch of the sound produced, so we can replace the concept of the oscillator in figure 1 with that of the Voltage Controlled Oscillator (VCO). The second is called a Trigger. This is a short pulse that initiates the actions of devices such as contour generators. The third is a called a Gate. Like the Trigger, the Gate's leading edge can tell other circuits that you have pressed a key but, unlike the Trigger, its voltage is generated for the whole time that you keep the key depressed, which means that it can also tell those other circuits when you release the key. (Figure 5.)
Figure 5: Pitch CV, Trigger & Gate signals
If we now return to the contour generator it's clear that the Gate is important because it tells the ADSR how long to hold the Sustain level before entering the Release phase. This means that I can redraw figure 6 to show the ADSR being triggered and how the note's shape is influenced by the duration of the Gate. (Figure 6.)
Figure 6: Controlling the ADSR
It should now be obvious why we need timing signals, but why do we need two of them? There are many synthesisers that work with just a pitch CV and a Gate, but consider what happens when you hold one key down continuously (resulting in a continuous Gate) and press other keys, perhaps to create trills or some other musical effects. If there are no subsequent Triggers, the Gate holds the ADSR at the sustain level until you release all the keys so, after the first note, none of the subsequent ones are shaped correctly. This is called "single triggering". However, if a Trigger is generated every time that a note is pressed the contour generator is re-initiated whether or not a previous note is held, and subsequent notes are shaped as intended. ("Multi-triggering".)
Putting it all together
At this point, we have a VCO controlled by a pitch CV, plus an ADSR contour generator whose initiation and duration are controlled by a Trigger and a Gate. In principle, this is all that we need to programme and play a wide range of musically meaningful sounds, but let's now extend the model by adding a second ADSR and a voltage controlled low-pass filter (VC-LPF) to affect the brightness of the sound. Shown in figure 7 (in which the red lines are control signals of one form or another, and the black lines are audio signals) this is all we need for a basic synthesiser.
Figure 7: A basic voltage-controlled synthesiser
Of course, real synths embody a huge number of embellishments to these concepts, but we can ignore these. What's important here is to understand the differences between the three control signals and to be able to recognise one from another. However, this is not always as straightforward as it might seem. Imagine that you replace ADSR 2 in figure 7 with the triangle wave output from a low frequency oscillator. Now, instead of having an articulated note, you have one that exhibits tremolo. In other words, the oscillator's triangle wave is acting as a CV. But what happens if we simultaneously replace the Trigger in figure 7 with the pulse wave output from the same LFO? The LFO is now generating a stream of triggers that regularly reinitialise ADSR 1 to shape the brightness of the sound in a repeating fashion. As figure 8 shows, it's not WHAT generates a signal that determines whether it's a CV, Trigger or Gate, it's WHERE you apply that signal that counts.
Figure 8: An LFO acting simultaneously as a CV generator and a Trigger generator
Of course, oscillators, filters and amplifiers need not be affected only by pitch CVs, contour generators and LFOs. There are myriad other voltages that can be presented to their control inputs, including velocity, aftertouch and joystick CVs, the outputs from S&H generators and voltage processors, envelope followers, pitch-to-CV converters, and many more devices. Discussing these could form the basis of an entire series of tutorials, but at this point we have to take a different direction...
So far, we've only discussed how things affect other things within a single synthesiser, but CVs and Gates also make it possible for separate instruments to talk to one another. Take the simple example of an analogue sequencer driving a monosynth. In this case, the voltages generated by the synth's keyboard are replaced by those generated within the sequencer, which sends a stream of Gates to tell the synth when to play and how to articulate the notes, and a stream of CVs to tell it what pitches those notes should be. If you're lucky, the sequencer may even be capable of producing a second CV (usually called an Auxiliary CV) that can affect other aspects of the sound while the sequence is playing. (Figure 9.)
Figure 9: Connecting a synth and a sequencer
But that's not all because, with suitably equipped instruments capable of generating and receiving various control voltages, the CVs, Triggers and Gates generated by one synthesiser can control what happens on a second (or a third, or a fourth...). Furthermore, CVs generated by any of them can be mixed together (or not) and directed to control the actions of things such as effects units, sequencer controls, panning mixers and much more. (See figure 10.) It's simple, and can be wonderfully creative. The only problem is that, with a fistful of patch cables and a bit of imagination, you'll soon be on your way to creating a multi-coloured mess of electrical spaghetti.
Figure 10: Connecting multiple devices using CVs and Gates
CVs and Gates in Reason
You might be wondering what all of the above has to do with digital environments such as Reason or Record. The answer is that control signals do not have to be analogue voltages; there's no reason why CVs should not be represented digitally as streams of numbers, nor any reason why Triggers and Gates should not be represented as streams of Note On/Off messages. Furthermore, there's no reason why the human interface of a digital system need look like pages of computer code because it should be possible to represent the connections using graphical representations of cables, just as it's possible for softsynths to represent their parameter values using on-screen knobs and sliders.
Let's turn to Reason (or Record) and create instances of, say, Thor and Malström and then hit the TAB key to reveal their back panels. (Figure 11.)
Figure 11: The rear panels of Thor and Malström
If you've not looked at these before, you may be surprised to discover the wealth of control options that they offer. What's more, there's nothing arcane about them because, as postulated above, they are indeed represented in the form of CV & Gate inputs and outputs that allow you to interconnect all manner of disparate devices – not just the synthesisers, but the sequencers, effects units and other modules within the software – and make them do things that would not otherwise be possible.
Create an instance of the PH-90 Phaser and look at its rear panel... there are the frequency and rate CVs that I implied in figure 10. Create a Mixer and look at its rear panel... there are the level and pan CVs that I drew. Create a Spider CV merger and splitter... there's your CV Mixer. Create an RPG-8 arpeggiator or a Matrix sequencer... you'll find CVs, CVs everywhere!
At this point, it can be tempting to start connecting dozens of virtual cables, and you'll soon be on your way to that mass of multi-coloured spaghetti that I mentioned above. So, to conclude this tutorial and illustrate what we've learned, I'm going to discuss a simple audio example that uses just two auxiliary CVs, each of which is generated by one instance of the Matrix sequencer.
Like its inspirations from the 1970s, Matrix generates three control signals: a pitch CV (which Propellerhead calls a Note CV), a Gate, and an auxiliary CV called the Curve CV. If you create an instance of Matrix with Thor already in place, it will automatically connect its Note CV output to Thor's main CV input, and its Gate output to Thor's Gate input, ready for use. However, I'm also going to connect its Curve CV output to Thor's CV1 input (see figure 12) and, turning to the front of the rack, use the modulation matrix in Thor to direct CV1 to the Y-axis of the Formant Filter in my patch. (Figure 13.)
Figure 12 – Connecting Matrix and Thor
Figure 13: Adding interest to the sound by controlling the filter with the Matrix's auxiliary CV
I'm now ready to programme a short sequence. I'll use the Note CV to determine the notes played, and the Curve CV to determine the characteristics of the Formant filter in the patch for each note. The Gate will act just as on the analogue synths described above, controlling the ADSRs that shape the notes generated by Thor. Sound #1 demonstrates this sequence without the Curve CV connected:
While sound #2 demonstrates it with the Curve CV doing its thing:
Next, I've added this sequence to a backing sequence generated simultaneously using a second instance of Matrix, a second instance of Thor, plus Redrum and a few other bits and pieces. Again, I've recorded two versions – one with the Curve CV disconnected:
...and one with it connected .
Finally, I've used an instance of Spider plus the Curve CV in the second instance of Matrix to pan the pitched parts left/right/left while the sequence is playing, and (using a CV inverter) to pan the rhythm part right/left/right to create a cross-panning effect between the drums and the bass lines:
Once you start to experiment with your own sounds, sequences and effects, you'll soon find that CVs and Gates are superb tools, and you'll never get tired of finding out what happens when you ask this device to control some aspect of that device and make it do something weird'n'wonderful just to see what the results might be. The only caveat is that – even in a digital system – the multi-coloured spaghetti is never far away. (See figure 14.) Now it's time for you to cook some of your own.
Figure 14: Some of the connections that generated sound #5
Yours truly is old enough to have been around when digital samplers first arrived. Admittedly I never touched a Fairlight or an Emulator back when they were fresh from the factory – those products were way out of a teenager's league – but I distinctly remember the first time I laid hands on an S612, Akai's first sampler. Its modest 128 kB RAM could hold a single 1-second sample at maximum quality (32 kHz) – but none the less it was pure magic to be able to record something with a mic and instantly trigger it from the keyboard. I spotted that particular Akai sampler hooked up in my local music store, and tried it out by sampling myself strumming a chord on a Spanish guitar. My first sample...!
As the years went by, I gradually became spoiled like everyone else; there were tons of high quality sample libraries available on floppies, and soon enough the market was swamped with dedicated sample playback instruments such as the S1000PB, the E-mu Proteus, the Korg M1 and the Roland U-series to name but a few. This trend carried over into software instruments; manufacturers and others kept sampling like crazy for us so it seemed more or less superfluous to do it yourself. Propellerhead was no exception – with no sampling facilities and no hard disk recording, Reason remained a playback device for canned samples for almost 10 years – but in Reason 5 and Record 1.5, they got around to adding a sampling feature. In typical Propellerhead fashion, don't do it unless it's done right. The trick to doing it right was to bring back the simplicity and instant gratification of those early samplers – just plug in a source, hit the sample button, perform a quick truncate-and-normalize in the editor, and start jamming away.
Setting Up for Sampling
The sampling feature is part of the Audio I/O panel on the hardware interface. On the front panel there's an input meter, a monitor level control, a button for toggling the monitoring on/off and an Auto toggle switch – activate this and monitoring will be turned on automatically while you're recording a sample (figure 1).
Figure 1: Reason's Hardware interface now sports a sampling input
On the back, there's a stereo input for sampling and this will be hooked up to audio inputs 1 and 2 by default. In case you're sampling a mono source such as a mic, and the source is audio input 1, make sure to remove the cable between audio input 2 and sampling input R - otherwise you'll get a stereo sample with only the left channel (figure 2).
Figure 2: The default routing is Audio Input 1/2 to Sampling Input L/R
Now, if you're sampling with a mic you may want some help with keeping the signal strong and nice without clipping, and perhaps a touch of EQ as well. In that case you can pass the mic signal through Reason devices such as the MClass suite and then sample the processed signal (figure 3).
Figure 3: You can process your audio input prior to sampling, for example with EQ
Sampling devices or the entire rack
You might wonder "hey, what's the point of sampling Reason itself when I can just export an audio loop?" Well, there are situations where that method just doesn't cut it. A few examples:
When you want to sample yourself playing an instrument, singing, rapping or scratching, you're running the audio through Reason's effect units and you want to capture with the sample.
When you want to edit something quickly without leaving Reason, for instance if you want to reverse a segment of your song or reverse single sounds such as a reverb 'tail'. Just wire it into the sampling input, hit the sample button on the Kong/NN-XT/NN19/Redrum, pull up the editor, reverse the sample, done.
When you want to sample the perfect 'snapshot' of instruments doing something that's non-repeatable, for example when a sample-and-hold LFO happens to do something you wish it would do throughout the entire song.
When you're doing live tweaking that can't be automated, such as certain Kong and NN-XT parameters.
It's a straightforward process where you simply take any Reason devices you want to sample and plug them into the Sampling Input. In this illustration, Reason has been set up to sample from a Dr. OctoRex (figure 4).
Figure 4: Routing Reason devices to the sampling input is this simple
When you sample straight from the Reason rack, you'll want to make sure to enable the monitoring, because unlike situations where you sample an external acoustic source, you'll hear absolutely nothing of what you're doing unless monitoring is enabled (figure 5).
Figure 5: Turn on monitoring so you can hear what you're doing
These utilities let you sample just about anything straight into Reason: iTunes, Windows Media Player, YouTube, Spotify, anything with audio (including other music and audio applications of course). Now let's have a look at using one of these utilities, SoundFlower — the setup procedure is similar for all these utilities, whether on PC or Mac (consult the included documentation for specifics).
After installing SoundFlower, start up Soundflowerbed (it's in the application folder). Now you should have a flower icon on the Menu bar. Pull down the menu and make sure that the built-in output is selected in the Soundflower 2CH section: (figure 6)
Figure 6: Make sure to select the built-in output
Next, open System Preferences and select "Soundflower (2ch)" as both input and output:
Figure 7: Open System Preferences to select the correct input
And finally, open Reason Preferences and select Soundflower (2ch) as the driver on the Audio tab:
Figure 8: Now set up the input in Reason's Preferences
Now you have set everything up so that Reason can tap the audio stream, and anything playing back over the built-in output can be sampled. Though in this particular example, do not enable monitoring on the Sampling Input panel since this will create a feedback loop!
The Sample Editor
The editor is very simple and straightforward to use — it lets you trim, reverse, normalize and loop samples – so we won't go through the basics here. Instead we'll explore the fact that you can edit not just your own samples, but even those contained in ReFills, and the edited samples can then be self-contained in song files so that you can share songs without the recipient owning the actual ReFill(s).
So, any sample you load into NN-XT, Kong, NN19 or Redrum can be edited manually. This means that you can also edit individual REX slices, since those can be loaded as patches into NN19 and NN-XT. While the new REX player DR. OctoRex lets you reverse individual slices, it doesn't always yield the desired results since there's often a very long 'tail' at the beginning of the slice so it has to be triggered way in advance. And sometimes there are 'bad' slices that aren't trimmed properly, end too abruptly, and issues like that. But by editing the slices manually you can shape them just the way you want, trim, reverse, fade in/fade out, normalize slices you find too quiet even at max volume, etc. Or you can create weird 'beat repeat' glitches by making very short loops on individual slices.
Here's how you do it: Create a Dr. OctoRex. Load up the REX file of your choice. Copy the notes to the Track. Then create an NN-XT and move or copy the OctoRex notes to the empty NN-XT track. Now, open the patch browser and load the same REX file into the NN-XT. The slices will show up in the NN-XT Editor window like this: (figure 9)
Figure 9: A Rex loop opened in the NN-XT
Now you have REX playback with the option to edit each slice. Simply select a sample on the NN-XT Editor display, and then right-click and select "Edit Sample" or hold [Alt/Option] while clicking on the Sample button. (figure 10)
Figure 10: Reason's built in sample editor
Here's one of those samples that are difficult to use when reversed, because it's about 10% percussive sound and the rest is just a hint of reverb. So what we'll do is reverse it and trim off most of the 'tail' by using the Crop function... (figure 11)
Figure 11: A long tail can be cropped
...and then, create a short fade-in on the trimmed tail by highlighting the beginning of the slice and clicking the Fade In button... (figure 12)
Figure 12: Fading in helps the sample start smoothly
...and now we have a more manageable reversed slice.
As mentioned earlier, another thing you can do with slices is to create very short loops to get that glitchy digital hiccup feel. It might look something like this: (figure 13)
Figure 13: A short sample with the loop mode set to back/forth
Here's an example of a factory soundbank REX loop where individual slices have been reversed and/or looped in the editor. Bars 1-2 and 5-6 play the original loop for comparison, bars 3-4 and 7-8 feature the tweaked loops played by the NN-XT.
As a quick demonstration of what you can do with just a mic and whatever potential sampling sources you have lying around, I went to the kitchen and spent half an hour recording random stuff with a Sennheiser e945 hooked up to an Apogee Duet. The song file below is based entirely on the following self-contained samples:
Bass drum: Large empty drawer closing Snare drum: Small drawer (full of utensils) closing Closed HH: Water tap, short burst Open HH: Water tap, long burst Additional percussion: Scissors, more drawers closing Bass 1: Microwave starting up Bass 2: Slapping the top of the microwave Bells: Butterknife against large beer glass Poly synth: Microwave "ready beep" FX drone: Dishwasher starting up
Sampling may seem a chore at first, with lots of trial and error, but it's actually quite easy, and ultimately it's rewarding to make music with your own unique sounds. When someone remarks "cool snare, where'd you get that?" you'll be able to say "oh, that's just me vacuuming up some Lego bricks". So grab a mic and go on a quest for hidden sonic treasures in your garage, your kitchen, your car... but go easy with the bathroom samples.