Over the last few years, a new retro music genre has emerged, bloomed and taken on a life of its own. Synthwave, or Retrowave is an electronic music genre heavily influenced by the sounds and aestethics of 1980s movies and its soundtracks (think John Carpenter, Vangelis etc) and video games. This nostalgia-induced style of electronic music pays tribute to the style, feel and sound of the 80s. Musically, Synthwave music often draws inspiration from bands that build their musical foundation on drum machines and (nowadays) classic synthesizers.
Emerging in the late 2000’s, Synthwave acts like Kavinsky, College and Com Truise were among the first to make the genre widely known and loved. Both Kavinsky and College were featured in the Synthwave-heavy soundtrack for the movie Drive, which definitely helped many discover the sounds of Synthwave and bring the genre into the mainstream. The Netflix hit show Stranger Things also features Synthwave music in its soundtrack and the whole series could of course also be considered an homage to 80s movies.
Synthwave music is often inspired by and based around 80s style components such as drum machines (such as the Linn Drum) and analogue synthesizers like the Roland Juno and Jupiter 8, mixed with more modern production techniques like creative use of sidechain compression.
With its rich plethora of drum machines and analogue inspired synthesizers, picking Reason to produce a Synthwave track is a perfect match. Here to show you how it’s done is producer and musician Paul Ortiz of Synthwave group ZETA.
Producer, musician and Reason producer Paul Ortiz (Chimp Spanner) is a member of Synthwave group ZETA, along with Daniel Tompkins (TesseracT) and Katie Jackson. Together they fuse the retro synth heavy decade of the 80s with futuristic and breath-taking imagery, bringing past and future together in a Cyberpunk-esque package that is ZETA.
Here's a nifty trick that might not have a occurred to you before. It comes - again - from my nasty shameful habit of using hardware, where often necessity can be the mother of invention.
We're going to use the RPG-8 arpeggiator to randomly generate a melody. You might think of this as a tool for inspiration, or perhaps even some kind of semi-generative, or algorithmic method of composing. I like to think of it as cheating.
The long and the short of it is that we're going to set up the RPG-8 to play a very slow arpeggio using a random pattern, but then we're only going to allow it to play the first note of the arpeggio. Essentially, for every note in the melody, instead of specifying a single note, we suggest several possibilities, and leave it up to chance which note is played.
First, decide the shape of your melody - where do you want the notes to play? Then decide which notes you want to select from. In this example, I've used the Akebono scale, quite common in traditional Japanese music. At each position on the grid where I want a note to sound, then, I've added all of the notes in the scale starting with A: A, B, C, E, F, and A. Where I felt the melody should descend, I used the same notes, but discarded the top A and played the E and the F an octave lower - see the screenshot below.
This clip is repeated throughout the piece - as you can hear, it plays differently each time.
The next part of the trick is setting up the RPG-8 to choose one of the notes to play at each step in the melody. Set the arpeggiator mode to random and decide on your range. If you want the melody to use ONLY the notes that you've entered, then leave the default range of one octave. I've selected two octaves, so that not only will the melody use the notes I've laid out on the grid, but also notes an octave above.
The most important step, though, is this: make sure that the step interval you choose for the rate is the same as the shortest gap between the notes in your melody. In the example here, no two notes are further than an 1/8 note apart, so I've selected a rate of 1/8.
It's adaptable, too. As noted above, if you feel that at a certain point the melody should descend (or ascend), you can shift your block of notes - all of them or just some of them - down (or up) an octave, almost like an inversion of a chord. You can add or remove notes from your block. Or, rather than leaving things up to chance, you can even remove all notes but one if it's important that a particular note plays at a particular point. And it doesn't need to be limited to melodies only - you could use the same technique to add some unpredictiability to your rhythm patterns, for example.
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.
With Reason version 4 came the RPG-8 Monophonic Arpeggiator. As most of you may already know, an arpeggiator can be used to generate rhythmic monophonic melody lines out of input notes or chords. This is exactly what the RPG-8 does - and much more if you dig a little under the surface. In this article we're going to have a look at how you can record and edit individual arpeggiated notes in the main sequencer to manually "fine tune" your arpeggio lines. We'll also show some other cool stuff you could do with the RPG-8 - things you maybe wouldn't consider using the arpeggiator for at first thought.
Rendering Individual MIDI Notes From an Arpeggio
A very nice feature with the RPG-8 is that it allows you to render the arpeggiated notes as individual MIDI notes. These notes can then be edited and treated just like any other recorded MIDI notes in the sequencer. Rendering individual MIDI notes from an arpeggio is made in two steps. First you have to record the notes that will generate the arpeggio, i.e. single notes and/or chords. Then, you can render separate MIDI notes from the recorded arpeggio. The following example shows how to go about it:
We have set MIDI input to the "Arp" track in the sequencer and connected the RPG-8 to an NN-19 device loaded with a percussive patch tuned to a fifth. We record eight bars with the RPG-8 in Manual Mode and 3 Octaves range. RPG8example1.rns
Now, we decide to switch Mode in the middle of the sequence to change the direction of the arpeggio pattern. We record a change of the Mode parameter from Manual to Down starting at bar 5.
Now, we're happy with the result so far and are ready to enter step 2 - the actual rendering of individual MIDI notes from the arpeggiated notes. We make sure the left and right locators are set to span eight bars to cover the entire length of the original recording. Then, we change from the "Arp" track to the "Arp Sound" track in the sequencer. We select the RPG-8 device in the rack and use the Edit menu, or bring up the device context menu from which we select "Arpeggio Notes to Track". Now, notes will be created on the target device track between the left and right locators.
Here comes an important thing to remember. At this point, we have two arpeggios, one coming from the "Arp" track, created by the RPG-8 and one being played as notes from the "Arp Sound" track. Before we proceed we therefore need to mute the "Arp" track. We will still keep the "Arp" track in case we change our minds later on and want to use other arpeggio patterns, ranges or directions for example.
We decide to modify some of the rendered notes to change the arpeggio "melody" a bit. We enter Edit Mode on the "Arp Sound" track and rearrange some of the notes.
Besides using the RPG-8 for generating melody lines, we could also use it as modulation source for modulating various device parameters. The following example shows how the RPG-8 can be used for modulating the filter frequencies of a Subtractor synth.
Here, we're using an RPG-8 connected to the Subtractor via a Spider CV device. The Spider device is necessary because we need several CV signal outputs when we want to control the filters. We create the Spider CV device by selecting the RPG-8 in the rack and choosing Create -> Spider CV from the menu. The Spider CV device appears and is automatically connected to the RPG-8. Then, we select the "Arp" track on the sequencer and record a couple of simple chords.
Now, we want to modulate the Subtractor Filter frequencies from the Note CV signal of the RPG-8. We flip the rack around to make some additional cable connections.
Since the Note CV Out of the RPG-8 is connected to the Split A input of the Spider CV device, we connect cables from two Split A outputs to the Filter 1 Freq and Filter 2 Freq inputs of the Subtractor device. Then, we crank up the modulation knobs next to the inputs.
Don't let the word Note CV limit your experimentation - it only implies that the output control signal level depends on current note value. The Note CV output signal can be used for controlling almost any type of parameter in Reason - not only notes and oscillator pitches.
Now, when we play back the sequence, the two Subtractor filters will open up according to the output Note CV signal from the RPG-8. The higher the Note CV out value, the higher the filter cutoff frequencies. The effect will be more significant if you choose a wide Octave range in the RPG-8 - in this example we've chosen 4 octaves range.
Another fun application is to use the RPG-8 for modulating sample start position. In this example we have connected an RPG-8 to an NN-19 Sampler via a Combinator device. In the NN-19 we have loaded a vocal sample which changes characteristics over time. By modulating the start position of the sample from the RPG-8 we can get really interesting rhythmic effects.
In the Combinator we have assigned Rotary 1 to the Sample Start parameter in the NN-19 Oscillator section.
If we flip the rack around, you can see that we have connected the RPG-8 Gate CV Out to the NN-19 Gate input to force it to continuously re-trig the sample. We have also connected the RPG-8 Note CV Out to the Combinator Rotary 1 modulation input and turned the modulation knob. This way we will get the Note CV signal from The RPG-8 to change the sample start position for every step of the arpeggio.