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Review: Reason Studios Reason 11

John Krogh

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Should you upgrade to the latest revision of this popular virtual studio?

Reason version 11 is here, and with it, Propellerhead Software has brought some big news. For starters, the Swedish developer that created ReBirth, ReCycle, ReWire, and of course, Reason, has changed its name and rebranded to become Reason Studios, a move that reflects the company’s focus on their flagship DAW. Farewell, Propellerhead, long live Reason Studios! Okay, I admit I’ll miss the nickname Propheads, but I can get on board with the new moniker. 

More significant to end users, Reason 11 ushers in a major shift with the introduction of the Reason Rack Plug-in (RRP), which allows you to run all of Reason’s synths and effects—including third-party Rack Extensions—as plug-ins within a compatible DAW, just as you would with any other plug-in. As of this writing, RRP supports VST3 hosts, with AU support promised by the end of 2019 and AAX support still undecided.

Being able to load Reason devices in other DAWs is nothing short of a game-changer. For years we’ve enjoyed Reason’s sonic cornucopia within the confines of its dedicated DAW environment, and relied on ReWire, an interapplication “conduit” protocol, to route audio and MIDI between compatible hosts. This meant running two DAWs simultaneously, jockeying between MIDI and audio tracks, automation controls, mixer channels and more, which has become an acceptable-yet-disjointed workflow for many of us. RRP does away with all of this and streamlines the music-making experience, albeit with some serious limitations as of this writing (more on this later).

The flipside of these changes is that Reason no longer supports ReWire, which may not be an issue, depending on how you prefer to work. But to be clear, ReWire doesn’t exist in Reason 11.

As an aside, with ReWire no longer required to connect Reason into the broader DAW ecosystem, I do have some concerns for ReWire’s development going forward. Many users rely on this technology to pair Ableton Live with another favorite DAW of choice. If ReWire was to go the way of Yamaha’s mLAN, for example, many of us would be stranded without a path forward for playing and producing with Live in our host DAW, which has become a mainstay for musicians of all stripes.

Give Me Reasons

Perhaps a reflection of Reason Studios’ new product strategy, Reason 11 is available in three editions: Reason Intro ($99), Reason ($399), and Reason Suite ($599). As you probably expect, this good-better-best tiering gives you more features and devices the higher you go.

At its core, however, Reason 11 introduces five new effects along with a number of workflow enhancements to its DAW. Three of the five devices are actually existing processors—the Channel Dynamics and Channel EQ from Reason’s mixer, along with its Master Bus Compressor—repackaged as standalone effects. While they might seem rather mundane, having these utilitarian devices available separate from Reason’s built-in mixer is quite useful. It means you can now bundle them in a Combinator or RRP with any of the stock synths, which (to my ears) often lack the kind of production-ready polish of many third-party synths that offer onboard effects.

In fact, by simply by adding Dynamics and EQ to Subtractor and tweaking a few parameters, I was able to make this humble two-oscillator synth every bit as “competitive” as my favorite go-to soft synths. Productivity tip: Create a Combinator template with Channel EQ and Dynamics pre-loaded and then drop in your chosen instrument—instant punch and presence! (Check out the step-by-step video tutorial for details.)

The two remaining effects are truly new. Quartet Chorus Ensemble is a novel chorus/ensemble effect that offers four algorithms—Chorus, BBD, FFT and Grain—and the option to run in dual-mono or stereo. In addition to the Width, Dry/Wet, and Mod Depth settings common to all of the algorithm choices, you get dedicated parameters that give you detailed control of each algorithm. For example, with the Grain algorithm selected, you can adjust the grain size, density, and jitter (similar to the functionality of Grain Sample Manipulator’s Long Grain algorithm).

Moving into more animated territory, the Sweeper Modulation Effect is a phaser/flanger/filter that can also run dual mono or stereo and comes with some creative tricks up its sleeve. Though you can use only one effect at a time, you can modulate any of the effects with a multi-step envelope, which can be used to add periodic and rhythmic interest to otherwise static sounds. Modulation can also follow the audio input to produce wah-wah and similar effects. 

Both Quartet and Sweeper sound great and can add richness and width with subtle or extreme results. Mod effects of this sort may not be quite as exciting as other types of processors, but in true Reason fashion, these two new devices can be pressed into service to produce both classic and contemporary tones that fit nicely into a range of genres.

On the workflow front, Reason’s DAW environment now features the ability to draw curved automation data, mute individual MIDI notes within the piano roll editor, create seamless audio clip crossfades, and zoom tracks vertically on a per-track basis. To be fair, similar functionality is standard in any other DAW, and while some users were hoping for a scalable user interface, I’m certain anyone who uses Reason for audio and MIDI sequencing will appreciate the improvements.

Suite Deal

Featuring a whopping 28 instruments and 31 effects, plus 6 players, Reason Suite offers a staggering array of creative potential that could keep music makers of nearly all walks fascinated and inspired for years to come. That said, many of the devices making their debut in Reason 11 have been previously introduced as separate Rack Extensions. It comes with more than I have space to cover in depth here, and since almost all of the “new” Suite devices have been culled from the existing catalog of the company’s own REs, I’ll just hit a few of my favorites and refer you to other sources for additional information.

New Devices in Reason Suite 11

Suite is a version of Reason 11 that includes the following 16 additional premium Rack Extensions, which are otherwise available separately.

Scenic Hybrid InstrumentComplex-1 Modular Synth
Umpf Club DrumsUmpf Retro Beats
Reason Electric BassReason Drum Kits
Processed PianosLayers Wave Edition
LayersParsec Spectral Synthesizer
Radical KeysPolar Dual Pitch Shifter
Rotor Rotary SpeakerPolyStep Sequencer
Quad Note GeneratorDrum Sequencer

Topping my list in the synth category is Complex-1, a powerful modular synthesizer with robust, flexible patching capabilities and a 4x-oversampled sound engine. This is a beast that could go toe-to-toe with any third-party modular synth plug-in, but be forewarned: you could lose days (maybe years?) traveling the expanse of Complex-1’s sonic universe.

For authentic Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and Pianet-T electric piano tones, Radical Keys does not disappoint. It combines sample playback with physical modeling to give you great sound quality and a highly dynamic response that should satisfy serious vintage keys connoisseurs. On top of that, it comes with a complement of built-in effects with which you can coax timbres ranging from subtle and sweet to tortured and twisted. 

Processed Pianos is a retake of Propheads’ Reason Pianos refill that uses its three source multisampled pianos (Steinway D grand, Steinway K upright, and Yamaha C7) as jumping off points for much more experimental textures. You can load any of the three pianos into three “oscillator slots,” allowing you to play all three of them simultaneously and mix natural and processed versions of each. Those can be sculpted using the built-in lo-fi, multitap delay, reverb, frequency shifting, chorus, and multimode filter. You can further freakify the sounds using the modulation section, which includes two LFOs and an envelope follower. I could produce ethereal and disturbing atmospheres by blending straight and warped piano combos, or I could create more conventional results by stripping back the effected signals. This is a gem that can span a wide spectrum of musical applications from pop, EDM, and singer-songwriter to ambient, soundtrack work, and beyond. 

Scenic Hybrid Instrument

Speaking of soundtrack work, Suite also includes the all-new Scenic Hybrid Instrument, billed as a “cinematic dream machine of atmospheric sounds, textures, and powerful performance controls.” It features two sample-based sound engines, each with its own multimode resonant filter, filter and amp ADSR envelopes, and dedicated insert effects that include chorus, phaser, saturation, and a parametric 3-band tone shaper, as well as separate echo and reverb (in series). All of them are routed through a master effects section with a master reverb and compressor.

The sample engine offers two modes of playback, conventional and granular. The latter covers similar ground to the included Grain Sample Manipulator and Malstrom synthesizers, though Scenic lets you use multisamples, whereas Grain allows for only a single sample. Scenic’s user interface is divided between a simplified performance view, from which you can toggle individual sound-generating components and manipulate the sound using the three macro dials, and a detailed edit view that gives you access to the aforementioned synthesis controls. A 12×12 mod matrix affords a fair amount of programming flexibility. In particular, I appreciated Scenic’s Pulse modulator, which lets you modulate parameters according to a fixed set of rhythmic patterns (though you can choose the subdivision rate). 

Scenic comes with more than 100 multisamples and 140 presets organized into indicative categories such as Drones, Percussive, and Textures. It’s fun stuff that certainly adds value to an already impressive collection. As of this writing, it’s not possible to add your own multisamples, but Reason Studios tells me this is coming very soon, so be sure to check for an update.

That said, the number and quality of presets left me a bit underwhelmed. Given that granular synthesis is already well represented by previously included instruments, I was hoping for more. In practice, you could get very similar results ganging two Grains together in a Combinator. Still, I’m sure Scenic will find favor among many users looking to add atmospheric or ominous elements to their tracks.

Rack and Roll

The Reason Rack Plug-in works as you might expect. You can insert it into your DAW as you would any other third-party synth or effects plug-in, and once loaded, you’re free to add and combine any of the built-in devices within the RRP’s interface, which is essentially Reason’s rack and browser view. Note that it’s not possible to use third-party VSTs within RRP; you’re limited to Reason’s devices, which is a real shame, as it means you can’t use any Combinator patches that incorporate third-party plug-ins in your DAW. I’m hoping this functionality will be added soon, but as it is, I love being able to work with the built-in devices within other sequencing environments.

I’m also eager to see a couple of other serious limitations with RRP addressed. It has no MIDI out, which means it’s not possible to use Player devices outside of Reason, and you can’t export MIDI patterns from Dr. Octo Rex and ReDrum. MIDI drag-and-drop from the UI is standard functionality with other groove-based software instruments, so I’m a bit surprised this wasn’t part of the feature set at launch. 

Even so, I suspect Reason Studios is sensitive to these shortcomings, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed they add these capabilities sooner rather than later.

Reason d’Extra

The bang-for-buck factor with Reason 11, and Suite in particular, is massive. With the ability to use all of Reason’s wonderful built-in devices inside a third-party DAW, this upgrade will be a no-brainer for many. In fact, given Suite’s low price point relative to other DAWs and other similarly broad collections (e.g., Native Instruments Komplete), Reason Studios may see a flood of new customers who have long been Reason holdouts. 

However, if you previously purchased several of the Rack Extension devices that are now included with Suite, v11 may not be quite as compelling. Still, it delivers a stunning amount of music-making possibilities to explore, and if you’ve been a fan of Reason in versions past, I highly recommend the upgrade. 

Website: www.reasonstudios.com

Supported platforms: Mac/Win (VST3)

Price: Reason 11 Intro, $99; Reason 11, $399; Reason 11 Suite, $599

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