Vol. 27 Issue 2 Reviews
Propellerheads ReCycle!, ReBirth, Reason Audio Software

Propellerheads ReCycle!, ReBirth, Reason Audio Software

Reviewed by Michael Theodore
Boulder, Colorado, USA

[ Editor's Note: The web version of the review contains an addendum review of Reason 2.5 in addition to the original review of 2.0 found in 27:2 ]

Not many companies can claim to have changed the manner in which music is made, but Propellerhead Software has done just that with the release of its great product, Reason. Reason is a stunningly compelling array of tools, and has a much wider application than one might initially guess, i.e., it’s not just useful for dance music. Anyone experimenting with digital sound will find much of interest in Reason. And for people working in dance music, it’s nothing short of the Holy Grail itself (if this is you, don’t even bother reading this review; just get up right now and get yourself a copy).

However, Reason isn’t the only exceptional product offered by Propellerheads; the company has also released two other software applications, ReCycle! and ReBirth, both of which are reviewed here as well. All three are currently supported at 2.x versions, and all three were tested here on the Macintosh platform, although Windows versions of the programs exist. (The lighter weight of the two test computers was a G4 400 MHz machine, with 256 MB RAM).

Propellerheads’ first release was ReCycle!, followed by ReBirth, and most recently, Reason. We’ll consider each of these programs in the order in which they were created.

ReCycle! is mainly a tool for a special type of slicing of loops that permits flexible tempo transformations, as well as the editing and shuffling of resultant slices. Users launch sessions by dragging a soundfile onto the program icon, which causes a window to appear displaying the soundfile. A “sensitivity” slider controls the program’s response to transients. When the sensitivity level hits a certain threshold, the file is automatically divided into a series of smaller segments (visually indicated with dashed vertical lines). One can continue to adjust the sensitivity until the slices are in the desired locations, and one can also manually remove and/or move the slice locations. Finally, when adjustments are complete, one can export the sliced file as a REX file, along with an associated MIDI file.

As one would guess, REX files preserve the slice information. A growing number of programs are able to read and take advantage of the possibilities that the REX format offers. As stated above, one major utility is the ability to apply time expansion or compression algorithms. For example, it is possible to dramatically alter the tempo of “REX-ified” drum loops without drastically altering the pitch or quality of the sound. (Of course, the greater the deviation from the original the greater the chance of pronounced artifacts). One can also use MIDI to reorder the slices, or trigger them separately. The MIDI files created by ReCycle! may also be remapped to trigger other sounds, in effect preserving the onset information of one performance, but replacing it with the sounds of another (if you’ve ever wondered how to clone the “groove” of a classic performance, here’s one way).

ReCycle! also includes some excellent onboard effects, most of which apply some kind of amplitude-dependent processing to the file, slice by slice. A dramatic (and useful) range of shaping is available with these tools, from the subtle to the extreme.

Finally, ReCycle! is set up not only to export REX, MIDI, and sound files, but also to communicate with outboard hardware samplers (all major devices are supported). Overall, ReCycle! is an indispensable tool for anyone who works with loops on a regular basis. The slicing feature is also useful for anyone looking to reconfigure audio in a “transient aware” fashion (I’ve used it in many highly experimental, non-beat-oriented situations).

ReCycle! is essentially a utility, while the next two programs to be considered, ReBirth and Reason, are conceptually different in that they emulate hardware devices.

ReBirth sets out to reconstruct, in software, both the sound and the experience of working with three legendary (and long discontinued) pieces of hardware made by Roland: the TB-303 bassline synth (ReBirth includes two of these), and the TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines. In addition, several effects are supplied, including a delay, a distortion unit, a compressor, and an analog-type filter. While ReBirth is an excellent program, it is the least general of the three being considered, and is of particular interest to fetishists of the original gear (and those intrigued by these particular sounds and methods of programming).

Propellerheads decided to emulate the devices that comprise ReBirth not by sampling the audio from the actual devices, but by prying them apart and attempting to model the analog signal flow in software. By all accounts, A/B comparisons with the original devices show that they’ve done an amazing job. While there are some differences (the pitch of some of the drums, for example), for the most part ReBirth demonstrates uncanny fidelity to the original sounds. The programming interface is also nearly identical, although using a MIDI fader box (such as the Peavey 1600) with ReBirth enhances the programming experience considerably, and brings it closer to the feel of working with analog gear.

The program ships with some fancy demo songs that demonstrate just how much is possible. It also ships with a set of Mods, which are modifications of both the interface and the drum sounds. Users can create their own Mods using the Mod Packer Utility. ReBirth is an extremely popular program, and it’s quite easy to find devotee sites on the internet, which include troves of ReBirth-created songs and user-built Mods.

As previously stated, ReBirth is of greatest interest for those users looking for a particular set of sounds and methods of working. Those looking for a more generalized tool can skip directly to the mothership—Reason. I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I am with this software, and how seismic the impact of its arrival has been on legions of computer musicians around the world.

The “hardware emulation in software” model reaches a pinnacle with Reason; it truly is a “complete studio on a CD-ROM” (but make that three CD-ROMs). The first thing a user sees on launching the program is a scrollable rack full of gear (see Fig. 3). The devices include a 14-channel mixer, a drum machine, two different kinds of samplers, an analog-style synthesizer, a REX file loop player, a “graintable” synthesizer (constructed using an interesting hybrid of granular and wavetable synthesis), a “pattern” sequencer, and a master sequencer for all devices (these sequencers are the only things in the program that don’t attempt to emulate “real world” devices, although the pattern sequencer is similar to an analog step sequencer).

The number of instances of each device in the rack is limited only by the host computer’s processing power. Connections between the devices are made by flipping the rack around and connecting patch cables. A remarkable amount of care has been taken with the interface—all of the virtual knobs and cables look real, down to phony serial numbers and electrical warnings on the back. One funny detail is the fact that the nest of cables jiggles when the rack is turned around. One is able to get to work right away because the interface matches the familiar operations of typical gear with such fidelity.

As mentioned above, the mixer has 14 (stereo) input channels (one can simply add another mixer or mixers in a chain should more inputs be necessary). Auxiliary sends, muting/soloing, panning, and gain sliders are all present in their familiar locations. One wishes the equalizers were a bit more robust, as the current implementation only has knobs for treble and bass. One can always use the Parametric EQ device included with Reason, but given all of the trouble that they’ve taken with everything else, it’s a bit puzzling to find that there are no knobs for mid-range adjustments.

The Redrum drum machine is based on the pattern programming metaphor (similar to the 808 and 909). However, it is considerably more flexible. Each of the 10 drum channels is loaded with an audio file. Sets of audio files can be saved as “kits,” and any file on any channel can be changed at any time, making it quite easy to mix and match. Also, because the audio files can of course be any sound, it’s easy to use Redrum to program rhythmic arrangements of non-drum sounds. Users aren’t limited to programming in step mode, either, as one can program the drum machine by sending MIDI data from the master sequencer. Patterns that are created through step-mode programming can also be copied to the sequencer, where they can be varied and transformed in a host of familiar ways.

Subtractor, the analog-style synthesizer included with Reason, is described in the manual as being based on subtractive synthesis. This is only part of the truth, however, as it also combines elements of additive and modulation-based synthesis. The unit boasts 99-note polyphony, and is outfitted with two filters (which can be cascaded in interesting combinations), two oscillators (each containing a set of 32 preset waveforms), two low frequency oscillators (LFOs), envelope generators, and a host of modulation operators. Like all devices in Reason, Subtractor may be flipped around, allowing access to the many Control Voltage/Gate inputs (and outputs) on the back, for further modulation possibilities. Modulation parameters, filter center frequency, and amplitude can each be controlled by a series of envelope sliders, which control attack, decay, sustain, and release. Here is one place where I wish the program would offer more flexibility. While it’s certainly true that this is the (limited) degree of control one might expect from a real-world device, it would be wonderful to take advantage of the fact that Reason is in fact operating on a computer, and have a pop-up window in which one could make much more elaborate envelopes by using a breakpoint graph, or something similar. This would depart from the absolute fidelity to real world emulation, but so what? This is a quibble, however, as it is possible to make endless amounts of interesting sounds with Subtractor in its current configuration.

Reason also ships with another synthesizer, the Malström “graintable” synthesizer. The Malström offers an idiosyncratic hybrid of granular, wavetable, modulation, and waveshaping synthesis. The manual doesn’t spell out the process in detail, but the basic idea is that the oscillators read sampled sounds, which are then subjected to various granular processes, the results of which are a series of periodic waveforms that can be recombined to form the original sound. The output of this process, a “graintable,” can then be treated like a wavetable, i.e., it can be scanned at different speeds, in different directions, etc. The rate at which the table is scanned affects the overall evolution of the sound, and the rate at which individual grains are read allows for transformation of the spectral quality. The signal produced by the two oscillators is then sent through up to two modulators, two filters, and a waveshaper (with envelope shaping and modulation possibilities for all parameters). The Malström is in some ways the least predictable of all of the modules, but after a little while one starts to get a good feel for what kinds of knob pushing will create what kind of transformation. It doesn’t really allow for the creation of “classic” granular synthesis sounds (though this wasn’t what it was intended to do either), but instead creates a fairly unique set of new and rich sounds. Like so many components of Reason, one could spend a long time tinkering with just this module.

There are two samplers (more properly, sample players) included with Reason, the NN-19, and the NN-XT. The NN-19 is for quick and dirty sampling tasks, while the NN-XT allows for complex, layered mappings of samples. The NN-19 has the ability to load samples into key zones and maps, and can also do some processing of the samples, including tuning, amplitude shaping, and filtering. The NN-XT has all of these basic features, but also comes with eight stereo output pairs, which makes it possible to route different samples to separate processing paths. Most importantly, it allows the user to layer several samples on a single “key,” and to control which sample is played with various strategies (incoming MIDI velocities can be mapped to particular samples, samples can be mixed or cross-faded across a specified range, one of the layered sounds on a key can be chosen randomly, etc.). The NN-XT offers similar (if somewhat expanded) processing opportunities to the NN-19. Both read various file formats, including REX files, and the NN-XT also reads SXT files, which allows one to read in samples from the massive Orkester sound bank that comes with Reason. Orkester is a set of high quality orchestral instrument samples, and its inclusion greatly increases the value and utility of Reason.

Loyal users of the other Propellerheads products mentioned above will find ample support for them in Reason. The Dr. Rex Loop Player is a straightforward REX file player, with the some processing ability (tuning, filtering, and amplitude shaping) thrown in. As is the case with Redrum, the pattern of events contained in a Dr. Rex Player can be exported to the sequencer, allowing for the easy creation of variations. ReBirth users will be happy to find the ReBirth Input Machine, which streams audio directly from ReBirth into Reason (using Rewire technology, which will be described shortly).

Finally, there are two conceptually different sequencers. The Matrix Pattern Sequencer is similar in style to an analog step sequencer. It lives in the rack, and can send control and gate information to other devices. (Matrix is an excellent device for programming bass lines.) The Sequencer is not a part of the rack, and is modeled on the familiar software sequencer concept (i.e., the interface window looks similar to Cubase, Logic, etc). Given the astonishing amount of things this program already does, the Sequencer is surprisingly robust, and contains some nice features. That said, it isn’t developed to the level of sophistication that one finds in a dedicated sequencer. This isn’t all a problem, however, owing to the wonderful Rewire!

Rewire allows a user to stream audio directly from Reason into a Rewire-aware host. One can therefore work in a professional sequencing environment, but have all of the glory of Reason piped in as input. Rewire syncs the tempos, loop points, transport controls, etc., assuring smooth interaction between the two programs. The only hitch is that not all Rewire hosts have done a good job of implementing the technology. For instance, Digital Performer consistently crashed when I tried to use it with Reason (on both computers). By contrast, I’ve been having criminal amounts of fun using Ableton Live as a host application for Reason (with some Pluggo thrown in for fun), with almost no problems. (Using such an application as a host solves another problem, which is that there is no way to record audio directly into Reason. In my mind this is a bit of a puzzling omission—why not have a pretend multitrack machine?) One assumes that in time all major sequencers will have a healthy Rewire implementation.

Why would someone who already has a room full of gear want Reason? One simple answer is that Reason devices can be integrated with each other in ways that are usually impossible in the real world. Any Reason device can be connected to any other device and used as a modulation source. The signal routing possibilities are literally endless (although it’s a shame that there isn’t a Y-cord in the Reason universe). If you need 15 samplers, just put that many in your rack. Need each one to modulate some other signal in several different ways? Not a problem. You really can get rid of that room full of gear! (Many people already have. Of course, there will always be special pieces of hardware that have an irreplaceable sound. Hang on to those.)

Space doesn’t allow discussion of many other important features, such as the quality of the massive number of presets and included samples, the ready availability of REX file CDs for sampling work, the ease with which one can share completed work, and the large user community. (Indeed, the user community can be quite helpful when one runs into technical problems. American citizens who don’t buy Reason from Propellerheads directly must get technical support through Midiman, which offers the worst support I’ve ever experienced.) You needn’t be interested in creating dance music to find yourself hopelessly drawn into the Reason orbit. Granted, it doesn’t have the “beneath the hood” level of ultimate flexibility that Max/MSP or Supercollider offer, but the tradeoff is that the interface offers a set of very well made and fascinating tools, all beckoning for your immediate exploration.

Propellerhead Reason 2.5

Reviewed by Michael Theodore
Boulder, Colorado, USA

Propellerhead Software recently released version 2.5 of its flagship program, Reason. The following is an update to my review of Reason 2.0. Reason 2.5 is a substantial revision (and is free to registered 2.0 users), which both fixes and enhances the previous version.

On the fixing side, the problem of splitting signals has finally been addressed. Prior to 2.5, one couldn't take a single control signal and use it to modulate multiple targets (the clumsy workaround was to create multiple identical rack units). This is no longer a problem, thanks to the "Spider Merger and Splitter" (which comes in both audio and control voltage flavors). As the title of the unit suggests, multiple signals may now be merged to a single signal, and a single signal can be tapped multiple times. This one enhancement exponentially increases the power and flexibility of the program.

Reason 2.5 also includes four excellent new signal-processing units. The RV700 Advanced Reverb is a considerable improvement over the reverberation unit that came with prior versions of the program. The overall sound of the algorithms is much more professional, and the parameters have many more shaping possibilities, owing to the EQ and gating stages of the unit. While you probably won't throw away your best outboard processor unit (you know, the one that was a full order of magnitude more expensive than the entire Reason package), Reason is now definitely in the range of other common software reverberation solutions.

Another significant addition is the BV512 Digital Vocoder. This unit works both as a vocoder (with two source signals) or as an equalizer (with one). One can set the number of filter bands used to 4, 8, 16, 32, or 512. An FFT algorithm is used when the bands are set at 512, while band-pass filters are used for the lower numbers. While the 512 setting has admirable clarity, it is sometimes musically useful to use the cruder band-pass settings. The unit doesn't quite have the flexibility of Native Instrument's Vokator (which isn't a fair comparison, since Vokator is a standalone product, and costs two-thirds as much as the entire Reason package), but it is absolutely on par to that program with respect to sound quality.

Rounding out the update are two tasty units, which, while not as earth shattering as the already mentioned new features, are nice additions nonetheless. The Scream 4 Sound Destruction Unit is a fantastic sounding distortion unit (again, a considerable improvement on its predecessor), with flexible shaping options during the stages of processing. (The inclusion of an envelope follower on this unit was a great idea.) Finally, the UN-16 is an attempt to emulate the “Unison" button found on some old synthesizers. It (somewhat idiosyncratically) adds multiple detuned voices, fattening the mix. When used with percussive sources, it sounds a bit like a chorus. It can have a more marked effect on pitched material, sounding like the source is warbling under water (when set to the most extreme settings).

Of course, there are still some shortcomings. I continue to wish that there were a "tape player" module in the rack. One can always host Reason in an external environment by using Rewire, but this can on occasion introduce compatibility issues (beyond which, sometimes it’s just nice to stay entirely in one environment). With all of these wonderful modules already built, it's a shame to have to load up one of the samplers just to play soundfiles. Also, it would be great to be able to stream live audio into the program for processing (or even for triggering events with envelope following and gating).

No Reason user should be without this free update. It is a significant improvement to an already fantastic product, and one that many companies would have marked with an entirely new version number.