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Software Review: Reason

Remember when the synth player in a band was the equivalent of a mad scientist working feverishly in his laboratory? Barricaded inside his chamber of instruments, with knobs and keys and cables everywhere, the synth player of yore lived a cumbersome existence. Like so much technology these days, the bulky mass of keyboards from a few decades ago can now be fit into a single, portable device. We'll let the people who review laptops, tablets, and smart phones worry about this physical end of the equation. The question here is this: What software package will best help you recreate the truckload of gear that used to give hernias to the roadies for Vangelis and Depeche Mode?

One strong contender is Propellerhead's Reason. First launched in 2000, Reason is now in its fifth version. As it always has, the program combines a bevy of virtual rack components – synths, drum machines, effects units, and a mixing board – with an easy-to-use sequencer. Though the folks at Propellerhead are always adding new features, the heart of Reason is its core of classic sound generating devices: the Subtractor, Malström, and ReDrum.

The Subtractor is a polyphonic virtual analog synthesizer. In other words, you can play whole chords at a time, while sounding like you're playing one of those cool '70s machines that requires an engineering degree just to eke out a single note. Like all the components of Reason, it's loaded with large banks of preset sounds, from the classic and straightforwardly named "Simple Square" to the sick-sounding bleat of "Crazy Omar." The patches are wonderfully malleable, too, with all kinds of sliders and knobs for adjusting oscillators and filters. The layout will make sense to seasoned synth users, but it's also accessible for novices who don't know an LFO from ELO. And the Subtractor has that most irresistible feature of all: the pitch bend wheel.

The Malström is another synth, which Propellerhead says uses Graintable technology. Whatever the heck that is, Malström offers more of a digital '80s sound. Its patches tend to be brighter and more shimmery; they're thinner than the phat analog sound of the Subtractor, but without feeling watery or limp. The two synths complement each other well.

Of course, you also need something to keep a beat. ReDrum is a sample-driven drum machine and pattern sequencer. It comes with lots of great drum sounds, but you can also add your own. Redrum allows you to program up to 32 four-measure patterns, which I've always found to be more than ample. Its three-tier dynamic range, however, is a little limiting. You can't really imitate the subtleties of a jazz player, but the device works well enough for pop, R&B, and, of course, most strains of electronica. Much more expansive is one of Reason's newer drum modules is Kong, in which you can go so far as to adjust the size parameters of your floor tom.

All of Reason's synths, drum machines, effects units, and so on are arranged like rack gear, with one colorful, virtual interface atop the next. One of Reason's cutest features is its unique patching ability. You can toggle to the backside of your gear rack and attach cables from the back of, say, the Thor synth to a delay effect, and then output that sound to the mixer. While this is nifty, it's also a simulation of one of the peskiest aspects of being a real world musician: dealing with cords, cables, wires, and all the other crap that gets tangled around your ankles while you're trying to groove. Of course, Reason's virtual patch cables aren't all that messy, but the novelty factor does wear off, and the toggling can grow irksome. While the routing options are great, controlling them from the front view of the Reason rack would be nice.

All of these sounds, beats, and processors would be pretty useless without a sequencer telling them when to play what notes and for how long. Reason's sequencer is pretty intuitive, with very simple icons in the toolbar and an easy switch between edit and arrange mode. For each synth, you can pencil in notes of varying duration and volume. For drum tracks, you choose which pattern you want to play when, bouncing between different kinds of beats and throwing in fills. If you're already comfortable with the MIDI sequencing in your favorite VST program (like Pro Tools, Cubase, or GarageBand), you can control Reason from one of those, instead.

Or, you can wait until September and get Reason 6.0, which is slated to combine everything in the good ol' Reason suite with Propellerhead's Record program. You'll never guess what Record does! Okay, so the name's not too clever. Nonetheless, it will be a boon to Reason lovers to be able to seamlessly integrate all of the current synth and sequencer features with the virtual recording studio aspects of Record. Even without this coming upgrade, though, Reason is a pretty amazing system. Its sounds are excellent, it's quite flexible, and most of the features make good, intuitive sense. The last thing you want is a giant learning curve standing between your creative impulses and achieving results. As Benjamin Franklin once said, "If passion drives you, let Reason hold the reins."

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