Up until July of this year, the Reason manifesto was well known and accepted—a closed software environment for creating "in the box" music with a fixed set of virtual devices, stressing consistency and stability with infrequent updates and a lack of support for realtime audio recording or plugins. This philosophy has stood out in stark contrast among the many alternatives out there in the world of DAWs, and the Reason user base has remained loyal in their support for the application's design.
There was some controversy then, when in 2009 the Propellerhead Software crew introduced Record, an entirely separate application geared towards real-time audio recording and editing. This was met with mixed reviews, with some users questioning whether the features should have been integrated into a new version of Reason, and still others wondering how the purity of the Reason environment would be affected by the new developments. For better or worse, those questions were answered with the release of Reason 6, which adds some new devices and workflow enhancements, but more importantly assimilates the entire Record product directly into Reason.
The first thing you'll probably notice when you open up Reason 6 for the first time is the new mixer view, which now sits above the standard Reason views that everyone is long familiar with (the device racks and sequencer). The mixer view houses the impressive Main Mixer device brought over from Record, which was supposedly cloned to recreate the legendary SSL desks found in major commercial studios. It can handle an infinite number of channels and houses an impressive amount of functionality behind its different sections, each of which can be shown or hidden on demand.
From the top down, every mixer channel houses sections that control input, signal routing, dynamics (compression and gate), EQ, up to 8 send FX, unlimited insert FX and the usual volume/pan/mute/solo controls. With the entire mixer actively displayed, things can appear a little overwhelming, but the navigational aids provide an intuitive window into each section. The end result is an extremely useful set of sound sculpting tools available on every channel, all requiring very little work from your CPU.
Speaking of navigation, it becomes evident as you explore Reason 6 that workflow improvement was high on the list of priorities. In addition to the on-demand display options on the Main Mixer device, there are buttons on each channel that jump to the devices and sequencer tracks associated with that channel. There are also buttons next to each of the three views that allow you to expand the real estate of any view to full screen (each view also has a corresponding function key that does the same), or split the views into separate windows to take advantage of multi-monitor setups. One of the biggest adjustments for previous owners will likely be found in the ability to have multiple device racks side by side, which should ease the monolithic rack syndrome that could develop while working in previous versions.
Beyond the organizational improvements, there are also some notable audio-recording workflow improvements built into this new version of Reason. Technically any audio-recording functionality would be an improvement over the previous versions, but all of the tricks that Propellerhead built into Record made their way over to Reason in one big swarm. That means the ability to record audio in the same way as MIDI, including support for the on-the-fly overdub and alt-take buttons on the transport bar. If you record audio in loop mode, Reason 6 automatically creates additional takes on the same track every time the loop starts over—and you can choose the best bits of each take while using the comp editing mode. This is a pretty significant feature, one that puts Record ahead of competitors like Ableton when it comes to recording live audio (although Ableton still has the upper hand when it comes to playback).
Audio track content is also automatically time stretched as needed, and you can choose from three time stretching algorithms—this is especially important if you decide to transpose the audio clips in the track. To round out the audio tricks, Reason 6 also provides Record's rather sophisticated methods for exporting audio, allowing you to bounce any number of tracks to another track, or to separate external audio files, with options to apply the mixer settings and send effects.
Despite a four year wait, Reason 5 was only packaged with two new device additions: Dr. Octo Rex loop player and Kong drum designer. It was a bit of a surprise then, only a year later, to see three entirely new devices introduced with Reason 6 (in addition to the devices brought over from Record).
The first of these new additions is called The Echo, a space delay unit modeled after the Roland Space Echo. There are some unique options for triggering the delay, including a "roll slider" that simultaneously increases feedback, moves from dry to wet, and turns off the input to the delay—great for creating "freeze" style effects.
Another new device which technically falls under the dreaded gater category associated with so many trance anthems is Alligator. Normally gaters are one-trick-ponies but this one challenges those preconceptions straight away. Can it make trance lines with the best of them? Sure, but when you realize that each of the three bands entertains drive, phaser, delay, volume and pan controls, things get interesting.
The final of the new devices is called Pulveriser, and does pretty much what it sounds like. It is a Swiss Army knife bent on destruction, with a compressor, distortion, filter, modulation, envelope follower and configurable signal routing all wrapped up in a trendy steampunk interface.
If you're comfortable hooking up gear, physical or virtual, all of the new devices have surprises hiding on their back panels. The Echo has breakout inputs and outputs that allow you to patch other effects into the delay feedback loop, and CV inputs to control various things like the delay time and filter frequency. Alligator has separate outputs for each of the three filter bands, and CV inputs to both trigger the gate and control the frequency of each band. Interestingly enough, next to each gate trigger input, there is text that shows that the gate of each band can also be triggered by a MIDI note. Finally Pulveriser, like many of the other Reason devices, has CV inputs for most of its controls, and CV outputs in case you wanted to use the LFO or envelope follower signal in another device.
Even with all of this new stuff, there are still some holes remaining to be filled if and when Propellerhead decide to relax their design philosophy a bit further. The most glaring of these omissions is the lack of MIDI out. Not only does this limit you from controlling external hardware from Reason, it prevents you from synchronizing other applications or effect units—Reason must always act as a "slave." It would also be nice to be able to use effect plugins within Reason, but that one is slightly more understandable. On the technical side of things, since Reason 6 runs in 64-bit natively, if you want to use it via Rewire with a 32-bit host (like Ableton Live), you either have to adjust the settings (in OSX) or install an entirely separate version of the application (in Windows).
The final negative we found with Reason 6 (and the one thing we wish had not come over with Record) is the Ignition Key, i.e. the dongle that is required to authorize Reason each time the program is opened. It's understandable that Propellerhead wants to beef up their copyright protection, but taking up 50% of a Macbook's USB ports (for example) to do so is punishing their customers. They do allow for the program to authorize over the internet if you don't have your dongle, but that requires a) an internet connection and b) you to type in your username and password each time.
Despite these negatives it should be clear that we came away impressed with what Reason 6 brings to the table. After the controversial release of Record, and the letdown some users had with Reason 5's rather modest upgrade after a long break, Propellerhead has made a strong comeback. The new devices, the more efficient workflow and the integrated functionality culled from Record have all beefed up the Reason environment considerably. If you are an existing Reason owner, the upgrade is certainly worth it, if for the Record features alone. Even if you're using another DAW, it might be worth checking out a demo—you could be surprised with what you find.