Over the past few years, Reason has been transformed. The Propellerhead crew once defiantly positioned their flagship product in stark contrast to its competition. Then, rather suddenly, things changed. Reason 6 arrived, introducing audio recording and the beefy SSL mixer—two pretty fundamental features that transformed it from a rack of instruments into a more conventional DAW. Reason 6.5 came less than a year later with rack extensions, Propellerhead's version of plug-ins. Finally in April, they released Reason 7 and brought the virtual studio ever closer in line with its competitors. In our Reason 6 review, we mentioned a couple of features that still felt missing, the most prominent being the lack of MIDI-out. A few commenters also lamented the lack of integration with ReCycle, Propellerhead's tool to slice audio into the REX format. It seems these were popular complaints, as both appear in Reason 7.
The new version provides MIDI-out via a new device called the External MIDI Instrument. It's a simple rack instrument that allows you to choose an output from the MIDI interfaces that are installed on the computer. There are display/button combos that let you specify which MIDI channel to send to, which program number to utilize (if using program change messages) and a CC number to control on the device. The CC number, if enabled, allows CC messages to be generated either by the on-screen knob on the device's front panel or via a CV port on the back. This is a pretty handy trick that could, for example, allow you to modulate a CC number using the Pulsar LFO device. MIDI notes and pitch bend/mod wheel messages can be sent via the External MIDI Instrument, too.
The workflow around the External MIDI Instrument is complex, especially if you're used to something like Ableton Live's external instrument device that combines both outgoing MIDI and incoming audio into one neat package, complete with delay compensation. In Reason 7, in addition to creating and setting up the External MIDI Instrument, you have to create a new audio track, choose the correct audio inputs and turn on input monitoring for the audio track. Compensating for delay with this setup is a bit tedious: the manual suggests audio quantization and sliding MIDI using the ReGroove Mixer. Still, it's pretty usable and opens up Reason to hardware instruments.
When it comes to integration of ReCycle and Reason, Reason 7 now offers a straightforward way to get recorded (or imported) audio sliced up and ready to use in your favorite REX samplers. When you double-click a section of audio in Reason 7's sequencer, it now opens pre-sliced with warp markers placed via transient detection. You can add, remove and reposition slices one at a time or in bulk, and when you're satisfied with the results you'll find a new option—"bounce clip to REX Loop"—which will save the loop in the "all self contained samples" folder of the track. This REX loop can then be used within the current session by double-clicking the new file in the tool window, which creates a new Dr. Octo Rex device with the loop loaded on track one. If you want to use it in a different session, however, you'll need to export the REX loop to disk.
All told, this process isn't terribly complicated, but the workflow again leaves something to be desired. From start to finish, taking a loop from the browser and getting it into a sampler requires a seemingly unnecessary stopover in an audio track first (which needs to be deleted afterwards), and loading multiple loops into the same Octo Rex instance requires even more manual intervention. (Double-clicking a REX file from the tool window will create a new Octo Rex device by default.) Also, there are a few features of ReCycle that didn't make it into Reason 7, like adjustable threshold levels and stretch amount. Despite these complaints, the ability to quickly get a loop recorded and sliced up into Reason's samplers is a very handy addition.
As I mentioned, all audio loops are now automatically sliced by transient detection within Reason 7. In addition to facilitating the conversion of loops to the REX format, these warp markers allow audio quantization and automatic time-stretching. This can help you to fix sloppy timing on the keyboard part you've just recorded, for example, or you can get more creative and push or pull multiple markers within a clip. Audio playback will warp the timing in an interesting way, speeding it up or slowing it down automatically. You can also nudge individual slices in steps of beats, ticks or snap values via the keyboard, letting you get surgical with your edits.
The last of the major additions to Reason 7 are all related to the extremely versatile SSL mixer. This was an incredible addition in Reason 6, and it has gotten even better in 7. Each channel now has a pop-up spectrum display for EQ and low-pass/high-pass filter that is activated at the push of a button, and the incoming audio frequency is visually represented to provide a helpful guide in assisting your ears. The mixer also makes creating parallel channels easy, allowing for techniques like New York compression without resorting to complex workarounds. Finally, sub-mix channels are now possible with the addition of output buses on the mixer.
With these new mixing additions, plus the new audio slicing possibilities, it is clear that recorded audio has moved from an afterthought to a central theme in the space of two versions. The new MIDI-out possibilities continue to push Reason into the realm of powerhouse DAWs, and I expect that some of the initial growing pains that we encountered in tests will be smoothed out in the future. As it stands now, Reason 7 is definitely worth a look for anyone who wants a flexible, self-contained DAW that works as well on the road as it does in the studio.