Has it really been almost ten years since Propellerhead unleashed Reason and, in many ways, changed the face of electronic music production? Consisting of an array of great sounding synths and effects, combined with a built-in sequencing environment, Reason made it possible for anyone with a few hundred euros and a decent computer to create quality tracks. Even on a laptop.
With each incremental update, they've steadily improved the product with everything from built-in mastering tools to powerful synths like Thor, which blurs the line between vintage gear emulations and deep modular synthesis tools. Reason 5 is no exception. While there are tons of new little amenities that streamline workflow and make the environment an even friendlier place to work and create, the biggest noise comes from its new synth and sampling tools.
Reason 5's Kong Drum Designer more or less supplants the venerable Redrum Drum Computer, which hasn't been updated since Reason's original version. Despite its appearance, Kong is far more than an MPC-like virtual beatbox. Instead, it's an astonishingly deep toolkit for creating wholly unique drum sounds entirely from scratch, provided you have a working knowledge of basic synthesis tools.
Each of Kong's sixteen pads begins with a user-selectable synthesis engine accompanied by two effects, which range from standard fare like reverb, EQ, compression and echo, to more exotic tools like ring modulation, overdrive/resonator and transient shaping. What's more, there are two synth-based "effects" ("noise" and "tone") that seamlessly blend the pad's triggered audio with the effect. While this may sound confusing at first, here's an example of how it works: You can start your sound with the physically modeled tom-tom generator to create a pseudo-acoustic tom sound, then apply the tone and noise generators to add a touch of old-school analog drum machine goodness to the acoustic sound, resulting in a drum that's a hybrid of the two approaches.
The various drum synthesis engines include both physical- and analog-modeled kick, snare and tom, as well as an analog model for hi-hats. A sampling module, based on Reason's NN-XT sampler is also included, as is an abbreviated version of the Dr. Rex player for adding loop-based content to a pad. There's also a single send effect bus for adding global effects in varying amounts to the elements of a kit, which is great for reverb and echo. Finally, there's a master bus for applying effects like compression or EQ to a completed kit.
For the intrepid, Kong is a superb tool for designing truly unique kits from scratch, but its depth may be daunting to newcomers. Fortunately, Reason 5 ships with an array of brilliantly designed—and truly useful—kits to get users started with a minimum of head-scratching. In addition to Kong, Reason 5 introduces the cheekily named Dr. OctoRex, which replaces the original Dr. Rex loop player. Whereas the original Dr. Rex could load, modify and play a single ReCycle-based REX loop through its synth engine, Dr. OctoRex can contain up to eight REX loops, each of which can be dynamically switched via real-time controls. Like the original, this module's synth parameters include filtering, envelopes and an LFO that can be applied globally to all eight loops. In addition, there are also controls for pitch, pan, volume and a few others that can be applied to each individual slice in a given REX loop. The upgraded Dr. OctoRex is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, but its inclusion in the latest Reason suite shows that Propellerhead has given some thought to keeping their tools current and relevant.
Also highlighted in this upgrade is the long-overdue inclusion of audio recording for Reason's array of samplers. In previous versions of Reason, users were required to record their own samples using a secondary DAW or similar audio software, and import the results into one of Reason's samplers. In 2010, that approach was circuitous at best, so they've added some simple but well-designed amenities that make it possible to connect a mic or turntable to your audio interface and sample your own material on-the-fly. There's even a basic sample editor for cropping, reversing, looping and/or normalizing the samples once you've got them recorded.
Note that these sampling tools are not designed for recording full-on instrument or vocal tracks like Ableton Live or ProTools. Propellerheads' new Record suite handles that task. These tools are strictly for recording audio snippets for use within Reason's synths and samplers.
Reason 5's additions are by no means limited to synth and sampling tools either. Users who rely on its sequencer for their productions will be pleased by the addition of a tool called Blocks. At its essence, Blocks brings pattern-based sequencing—similar to an Akai MPC or Ableton Live's session view—to Reason's arranging environment, giving producers the ability to create a track in chunks as opposed to a strict timeline approach. Since many dance music producers think this way, it's a very welcome addition indeed.
Each Block can contain all the parts for a given section of a track, including bass, pads, riffs, leads, drums, percussion and similar elements. For example, you could create blocks for your intro, verse, chorus, breakdown and outro, then lay them out quickly in Reason's arranging environment. From there, you can then modify a given block—either subtly or drastically—and it will be replicated across the entire arrangement. Alternately, you can work in a blend of Blocks and the traditional song arrangement view. Once you get the hang of switching between the two, this is a much more intuitive and streamlined method than previous versions.
After spending a few weeks with Reason 5, I can honestly say that there's a lot to recommend it as more than just an upgrade for current users. Even if you use a competing DAW like Ableton Live or Apple Logic, you can easily ReWire Reason and take advantage of its synthesis tools, while remaining in your preferred composition and production environment. Propellerhead has delivered an update that's both nicely designed and brimming with valuable new features.