July 10, 2012

Reason 6.5 and Rack Extensions

Reason, the well loved all in one software package by Swedish design freaks, Propellerhead, has come a long way. Those of us running with it since the earliest versions will often report having been around for its predecessor ReBirth. ReBirth was an 808, 909, sequencing emulator that ran well on older PCs at the end of the 90s and had one of the sexiest interfaces of its time. Looking at it, you could almost see Reason coming. The beautiful graphic interface was nice enough, but eventually it went through a series of customized versions and developed a very enthusiastic user community. This was at a time when jumping into recording on the home computer was having mixed results for anyone who didn’t build their system with exactly the right components. I remember these dark days well. I think around the time I got into ReBirth I was using CakeWalk Pro 8 or 9. (For those of you too young to remember, this was Sonar’s daddy.)  This was a process that amounted to constantly wandering around and bumping my head on the ceiling of what computers could do at that point. I had started really messing with SoundFonts, an E-MU sampler format that had a proprietary relationship with the Sound Blaster cards. Don’t get me wrong- some of those cards were nice, and I believe it was around the time of Sound Blaster Live that we got the glorious “Record What U Hear” feature. I know it sounds crazy, but before this moment, recording synths generated in the computer involved sending them back out through a mixer and back in through a separate full duplex audio card. Somewhere around this time, I also switched over to Cubase. Long story short, one day (while really pushing it using programs like Acid and Fruityloops) my last Frankenstein PC grew tired of my antics and made one of those “whirr-click-ick-ick-ick-ick” death rattles before going into a full on coma. I had repaired my share of PCs before, but was now really leaning towards Apple. Maybe that’s why I made the questionable decision to chuck the chassis and everything in it down the stairs.

This was how I came to pick up my eMac in 2002. There was about a 3 month gap of having no computer around this time. I slowly went crazy, but was holding out for MacWorld to announce this rumored $799.00 beast machine. I ordered mine as soon as they were out. It was then that I quickly discovered I was a long way from having a full studio. I had sold off so much gear in the couple of years leading to this day, dreaming of the “in the box” future so many were proclaiming was near. Yet, there really wasn’t a full studio solution presenting itself at the time. At least not one that appealed to me. Then Reason hit version 2. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with version one; I had just been spoiled for choice in the cracked warez of the PC world and hadn’t given it as much time as I should have. My Apple purchase had been part of my greater desire to go “legit” and get professional about the whole computer recording thing. Reason was competitively priced so I raced out and got my own copy and an Oxygen 8 USB keyboard. (Topically enough, given the recent acquisition of M-Audio by Jack O’Donnell, the Oxygen 8 was then a MidiMan product.) I went home, installed all manner of drivers and discs and updates and, within no time at all, was happily lost in a synth/sampler/effects wonderland. This was the grail. If I remember correctly, at the time there were only the little red box effects, the Matrix, the Mackie-esque 14 channel mixer and other routing tools, Subtractor, the NN-19 sampler, the Dr. Rex ReCycle file player, and the Redrum drum machine. I might be forgetting something, but this was not any kind of handicap at the time. At the time, so many other programs were still just a gateway to more purchases. While Reason had no means of recording audio, and when I first purchased, required me to go into OS 9 to run it; it was a Godsend. I had a Line 6 Pod (version 1) and was quite happily dumping Reason mixes into the version 5 based Pro Tools Free available for education purposes at the time and adding guitars and whatever else I could squeeze through the built in Apple sound input.

The history of the program since then has been a steady stream of improvements. Versions 2.5, then 3, then 4 brought a stream of new, now indispensable devices. An insanely devoted user group (and one of the most wonderful message boards on the web) formed around the program. Version 5 saw Reason pair off with a new companion by the name of Record. With Record, the audio recording issues had been resolved, as well as made extra sexy with the upgrade to an SSL modeled console that includes (and why shouldn’t it?) the famous master bus. Meanwhile, a live sampling feature had been developed within Reason. So many problems that had been regarded as holding the program back were resolved through a stream of releases. Finally, in the recent release of version 6, Propellerhead smashed the two programs together, added the Kong Drum Designer, Pulverizer and the Alligator effects unit, among other things, and in the eyes of the dedicated users, had really brought the program a long way. There was much rejoicing, and James Bernard came out to visit us and we talked to him about the most recent additions to the program.

However, there remained three major complaints about the program. Some of us have always wanted to make Reason the place where we did everything. We long bemoaned the lack of MIDI output for driving our outboards. We are just cherry picking, but would really like it to be the Rewire Master sequencer. Finally, it sure would be cool to use some of our favorite plugins. In a world where the ancestor of our beloved Reason had become an app we could have on our freaking phones, it seemed absurd to still be denied these simple little joys. I can’t really speak for the devs, but the answer we have typically been given was always that the build of the program would have to be reworked to integrate these features. Similarly, the philosophy behind keeping Reason from being a big old resource hog has always been to keep it subject to the odd strains and constant revisions associated with accommodating multiple plugin formats. People cry “LIARS” and get angry because their all in one wonder has limitations, but the Propellerhead team has always been pretty stand up. I truly do believe the limitations they impose come from their reported desire to make sure Reason projects always travel well between systems. These complaints aren’t the only ones, but they are the most often mentioned limitations of the program.

reason 6.5

Slow to move they may be, but not immovable. Behold, the release of 6.5 is the dawn of Reason’s very own plugin-esque system: Rack Extensions. This is not a plugin in the truest sense, as it is entirely proprietary to Reason and can’t be used outside of the program (short of using ReWire to bring Reason to the DAW of your choice, which is pretty much business as usual.) The long and short of it is that Propellerhead have opened up their happy little system to 3rd party developers. So long as they fit within the Propellerhead system, it appears outside parties are free to bring their plugins to the Reason package. Korg have jumped in with a Polysix plugin, Izotope have brought over the well loved Maximizer from their Ozone package, and Audio Damage have brought their Rough Rider Compressor to the party. This is just a handful of the offerings that can be found in the new Rack Extensions Shop. The great news about all the extensions is that you can download and try full featured versions for thirty days, though they require an internet connection to remain functional (trial license formality). 

Propellerhead have their own extensions on offer as well. The first is the FREE Pulsar. Pulsar is a dual LFO utility processor that allows you to take advantage of the CV routings available on the back of most Reason devices for entirely new modulation possibilities. I found myself immediately wiring it into the back of Subtractor to breathe new life into an old friend. We’ll show off some of the possibilities in an upcoming tutorial. The second is the insanely versatile Polar Dual Pitch Shifter. Polar is essentially a modulation processor capable of doing anything from creating detuned effects to widening sounds to turning loops into glitchy craziness. Polar, and this is important to note, is free until October 1st. This is obviously to encourage folks on the fence to make that upgrade they have been putting off. Meanwhile, not so free is the Radical Piano. This extension aims to replace your sample collections and give you an infinitely tweakable piano based on three different models (Home Grand, Deluxe Grand, and Upright). Using the blending and tweaking options onboard, one can adjust things ranging from microphone type to velocity response. Pedal noise can be adjusted, an onboard compressor and EQ allow for honing position in the mix and a number of other physical parameters can be adjusted. The coolest thing I can see, is that, like so many other Reason devices, Radical Piano can have other audio sources routed through it and have the simulated sound of them resonating the strings piped through it. On a basic level, I see some pretty cool emulations of jazz ensembles possible here. On the freakish sound design level, I see some insane possibilities once this thing gets tied to the other new rack extensions and all the other classic Reason processors.

In the next couple of weeks, I will be spending some solid time with my old friend Reason and demonstrating the new devices and how they interact with the not so new ones. That is the coolest thing about Reason: The system has always been so modular that there’s always something new to be done with it. With Rack Extensions, there are all new possibilities. The fact that third parties are wading into the pool; is very exciting because I have always found that one of the greatest things about settling into a Reason workflow is that the cozy interface tends to drive ideas to completion in a way typical DAWs and even Ableton hasn’t always done for me. I often have used it as a place to go to let the colors and friendly interfaces drive away writer’s block. With the friendly export options or simply the ReWire facilities, it is simple enough to go back at the end and chuck the lot into Ableton for more chopping and mangling in the Ableton way, or stem out to Pro Tools and Logic for all those other toys you are upset about not having in Reason. Yet, the magic of Reason for me is often the closed, all in one system. Limitations are good for the zen end of creativity. Making do with what you have and using that to drive ideas to completion can often avoid those wasted Saturdays of hitting one snag only to shop aimlessly on the internet before settling into some useless political debate on Facebook.

If you already own Reason 6, the upgrade to 6.5 is absolutely free. Similarly, incoming purchases simply need to register and they will be issued their new license for 6.5. Those of you who have been sitting on the fence will find that the path to version 6/6.5 is not too terribly expensive. Finally, extensions have also made their way to the slimmer “Reason Essentials 1.5,” which is most accurately described as the slimmed down package more like the original Record release, but with some of the other classic Reason devices made available. Limitations exist, but when you bump your head on them, once again, the upgrade path is clear. Also worth mentioning is that, through a partnership with Line 6, Pod Rack units made their way into Reason back during the Record release and are still with us in both Essentials 1.5 and Reason 6.5. Reason also have their new Balance interface, which is an article unto itself, but does include Reason essentials, with its (is there an echo in here?) free upgrade path to Essentials 1.5.

There’s a theme here: Propellerhead want you to come in and try everything. They’ve gone from software staples like ReCycle in the past to the iPad and iPhone apps of today (don’t even get me started on how much I like Figure- especially since they finally gave us exporting and saving.) They know what they’re doing and they want you to come by for a test drive, or take a second look at that upgrade. We’ll be looking more in depth at the 3rd party and Propellerhead extensions in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, check out their site and let them clear up anything I’ve left out here. If you’ve never taken it for a spin, I highly recommend it. I don’t care what kind of music you make, from Country to House to Dubstep to something no one has thought of yet; Reason just has that vibe about it that makes you say “feels like home. I like it here.” With Extensions as the custom icing on the cake, they’ve found a way to let you make renovations to the place.


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