Reason is a great program, but v.11 has some fatal flaws for this Synth and Software contributor.
Reason and I have had a long, fruitful relationship. I started using it back before it included audio recording – I think that was version 2. In the past I’ve helped the company that makes it, Reason Studios (formerly Propellerhead), by troubleshooting new releases and giving feedback on new features as well as features I’d like to see.
I use Reason in all of my classes: in the electronic musical instrument design course I wrote about here a couple of months ago, it’s the students’ sound engine. In my electronic music ensemble it’s responsible for 90% of the sounds; and in my beginning computer music class, I use Subtractor to teach the rudiments of analog synthesis, and NN-19 to get the students started with sampling. Its RV7000 is an excellent way for those same students to learn about algorithmic reverb, and its DDL-1 is an easy introduction to the joys of delay.
Because the architecture of every module is right out front, there’s no need to “look under the hood” to understand what’s going on. The sounds may not have the accuracy of a Synthogy Ivory piano or the sweep of a Spectrasonics Omnisphere synth, but they’re pretty darn useful, and the opportunities for customization, not to mention MIDI control of almost every parameter, are right in front of you.
Since I use multiple software synths, I don’t use Reason’s sequencer. Instead, the program usually lives inside my DAWs: Digital Performer and ProTools. Setting up Rewire, the program’s inter-application MIDI and audio bus, was only slightly more complicated than installing a plug-in in either of those programs. Except for the fact that students sometimes forget that the host DAW has to be launched before you can launch Reason, it rarely causes any problems.
I always look forward to a new version, because I can count on it having some neat new tools I haven’t seen before. So my anticipation was high when Reason 11 was announced.
I bought it back at the end of the spring semester: 20 copies for my labs and my home studio. But due to the pandemic, plans for the fall semester were up in the air: we didn’t know if students were going to be working from home or coming into the labs, and I didn’t even know where I was going to be. The cautious road I took was not to install the new Reason, just in case any problems cropped up that would be hard to solve remotely.
Then we went on winter break, and I figured it was time to try out the Reason 11 at home. If everything was okay, I would install it in the labs before the students came back. It wasn’t, and I won’t.
And until the developer makes some big changes, that’s the way it’s going to stay.
Here’s why: with the new version, Reason can now be used as a plug-in. This should be good news, since the company could now (and did) dispense with Rewire, and Reason could fit into my DAWs like any other plug-in. But to my horror, I discovered that when you use Reason in this way, you can only address a single MIDI channel. It’s as if the creators forgot that MIDI has 16 channels, and they took away the ability to use more than one at a time.
You can put any number of modules into a Reason rack plug-in (RRP), but whenever you send MIDI to any of them, they all play. Let me say that again: if there’s a note-on on any track being sent to a Reason rack, every device in the rack will respond to it. The multitimbral character of Reason, critical when using it within a DAW, and a feature of almost every other “shell” including Kontakt, UVI, and SampleTank, is kaput.
I know I could address other modules individually by opening up additional instantiations of Reason and putting each module in its own window, but for my beginning students, that would be impossibly confusing. And for me, how many windows do I want to keep track of at a time? In addition, if I wanted to use a common processor, like a reverb or a flanger, with more than one module, I couldn’t. Similarly, there is no way to pass control voltage signals between modules if they are in different instantiations.
To make things worse, you can’t use any MIDI controllers outside of modulation wheel and pitchbend on a device in a Reason rack plug-in. Want to write a filter sweep into your sequence? Want to change the LFO rate on the fly? Want to slow down the envelope attack so you can vary note articulations? Want to change an instrument’s pan position? Want to change the friggin’ level of an instrument either by itself or through a mixer? Sorry, you’re SOL. Even the Combinators have this restriction: none of the programmable rotaries or buttons respond to MIDI.
And to add insult to injury, Reason no longer tells your DAW the names of its devices. In Digital Performer I just get a generic “Reason-1-1” (or “-16”—it doesn’t matter) as my destination for all of the modules.
But what about standalone mode? Surely that still allows different MIDI channels to address different modules! Yes, it still does – if you’re playing live or you’re using Reason’s sequencer. But with the demise of Rewire, Reason will not run in that mode within a DAW – it doesn’t even know the host exists.
(And speaking of playing live, while they’re fixing this, couldn’t the folks at Reason Studios make it possible to use more than four USB MIDI input devices at a time?)
I actually couldn’t believe that the company had done this, so I played their tutorial, hoping they’d let me in on the secret of how to address individual modules. Nice video, but no dice. Dozens of other users are complaining about the same problem on the Reasontalk.com forum, but there are no official responses there. Users have come up with various proposals for the developers to solve the problem, including putting an Advanced MIDI module in the Reason Rack Plug-in, or having a parameter on the front (or back) panel of each device in the rack that lets you select a MIDI channel, either of which you’d think would be relatively easy to implement and would do the trick.
So all those licenses for Reason 11 are just going to sit on my shelf for the time being, and my students will continue to use Reason 10. It’s a perfectly good program, and will keep them happy for the entire semester and beyond. But when they ask me, “Hey, why aren’t we using the latest version of Reason?” I’ll just have to tell them something I usually only have to say about Apple when they release a new OS: “Because they broke it.”
Paul D. Lehrman, a former columnist for Mix magazine, is the director of the Music Engineering program at Tufts University in Massachusetts.