Reason is an indisputably great program. But is the latest upgrade a must-have or just a misnamed decimal point upgrade? Jim Aikin tells all – in words, video, and audio.
When an important music program is updated to a new version number – not a point-X number but the main number, such as from 11.x to 12 – musicians have learned to expect major enhancements in the program’s features. When the update is not free, owners of the previous version are right to expect that they’ll see some significant improvements if they decide to upgrade.
Reason, the DAW from the company we’re not allowed to call Propellerhead anymore, recently updated from version 11.5 to version 12.2. I wish I could say I was knocked out by the new version, but all I felt was a whiff of air as the boxing glove whizzed by, several inches away from my face.
For the past five or six years, Reason has been my go-to DAW. I own Reason 11 Suite, and I’m very happy with it. It does everything I want, including some esoteric modular patching tricks. If you haven’t tried Reason and are thinking about it, I hope you won’t let anything I’m about to say discourage you! It’s a great program.
But if an owner of Reason 11 were to ask me whether the update to 12 is worth the $199 price tag, I would have to say no, it’s not. Maybe wait for 12.5. Reportedly, they’re working on some high-priority improvements, so it’s very possible that in a few months my advice will change. I’ll have a bit more to say, near the end of this review, about the features that I feel need to be added.
A review of the whole of Reason would take you days to read. It’s a massive DAW with a truly fine suite of built-in instruments, excellent audio editing, and a lot more. A large library of third-party Rack Extensions (extra purchases, but generally less expensive than plug-ins in other formats) adds to Reason’s muscular profile. Also, you can rent Reason instead of buying it outright.
What’s more, the Reason Rack (the instruments and effects, including any Rack Extensions you own) will run as a VST 3 plug-in in another DAW. If all you use are the included synths and effects while using the Reason Rack as a plug-in in Live or Cubase, the $499 purchase price is still a pretty sweet deal. [NB edit: Jim points out that contrary to what we previously reported, you can in fact automate Reason Rack parameters when it’s running as plug-in in another DAW.]
In this review I’ll zero in on the new things in the version 12 release. There’s a new granular sampler, called Mimic; the Combinator device has been expanded to allow users to design their own control panels; zooming the view of the application to a larger or smaller size is now supported; there’s a lot of new content in the included sound library; and there are some improvements in the Browser.
Let’s get the other stuff out of the way quickly and then dig into Mimic.
Zooming in & out. Not much needs to be said about this feature. In the Options menu you can select an Application Zoom value from 80% to 240%. If you have a huge monitor, or if your eyesight is impaired, you may find this useful.
All of the Reason devices and many third-party Rack Extensions have been updated with hi-res graphics so they’ll look crisp at a large size. The appearance at a standard size is subtly sharper too. Unfortunately, there’s no hot key for zooming in or out: you have to dive up to the menu to do it. Why no hot keys?
The first time you load a new device and hit the Tab key to turn the Rack around, it will take Reason five or ten seconds to respond to your key-press. Possibly it has to recalculate the high-res graphics for whatever back panel is now in the Rack. This is a bit annoying, but I’m hoping it’s a transitory effect.
Once each device has been loaded once, the new graphic data should be stored and available instantly. In general, though, I’m finding that sometimes (not always) R12 is more sluggish than R11 about loading and displaying devices.
Browser diving. Reason’s Browser is faster than before because the search engine has been streamlined. You no longer have to hit Return to initiate the search (a small but welcome improvement). More significant, you can now search all locations, including your patch library. When I typed “piano” in the search field, I got a list not only of instruments but of instrument patches, samples, and even effect patches. This is terrific.
I do have one little gripe that will take a moment to explain: Reason no longer saves the folded/unfolded state of your Instruments, Effects, Utilities, and Players lists. This is an issue because of my massive collection of Rack Extensions and VSTs.
The Browser displays are organized by manufacturer, and each manufacturer’s items can be folded up to get them out of the way, so you can scroll more quickly to the instrument you’re thinking of. In Reason 11, the folding-up of the manufacturer collections is remembered when you leave and then re-launch the program. If I seldom need to grab one of my Audio Damage VSTs, I can leave Audio Damage folded up in the Instrument display and scroll past it quickly. But each time Reason 12 is launched, the whole display is wide open, no matter how I left it when I saved my most recent song. The folded/unfolded status is no longer stored. I’m told they’re planning to add this feature back in.
New sounds. It’s not obvious how to find the new sounds in the Reason 12 library, but if you scoot over to this web page (and scroll down to the bottom, you’ll find a button to download a Favorites file and instructions on how to put it in your system. (The instructions for Windows don’t mention that it’s in a zip file that needs to be unpacked.)
Using strictly the new sounds, I did a quick video and audio. The sounds you’ll hear are all stock from the new collection, though I may have tweaked the filter on the bass. A few tiny bits of automation and Reason’s standard mix compression contribute to the audio.
Combinator unleashed. Reason’s Combinator is a wonderful utility device. You can load an arbitrary set of synths, effects, and utilities into it, patch them up however you like, and save the result as a single preset. This is incredibly convenient for sound design, and it also keeps the Rack tidy, because you can fold up the Combinator and not have to scroll down past the dozen modules tucked away inside.
Up to now, the panel of a Combinator had four knobs, four on/off buttons, and, around on the back panel, four general purpose CV inputs plus four more CV inputs that duplicated the functions of the four front-panel knobs. Each of these controls could be assigned to one or many destinations within the devices in the Combinator, This was all good, but occasionally it started to feel constricting. What if you need more knobs, or more CV inputs?
As seen in Figures 2 and 3 above, the new Combinator can have as many knobs, buttons, and also sliders as you might want, and a single device can have more than ten signals sent to it from the panel and CV inputs. (I don’t know the maximum number of either the panel devices or the routings.) The sliders are functionally the same as knobs, except for their appearance.
Once the controls are in place on the panel, the business of assigning them to your devices is much the same as before (see Figure 4 below), though the graphic design is different. A couple of modulation sources, such as velocity, have been added.
If you need more space for controls, you can increase the height of the panel. Several graphic styles of knobs and sliders are provided, and of course you can design and load your own underlying panel graphic.
All this is good. What’s a bit less than ideal is that the new Combinator, when instantiated, has its own built-in 8-channel stereo mixer, to which synths will be auto-routed when they’re dragged into the Combinator (unless you hold Shift while dragging, a standard Reason feature).
But this new mixer has no mute or solo buttons and no individual channel level or pan control! If you make a habit, as I do, of dropping a 6:2 Mixer module into a Combinator each time you start building a Combi patch, this new built-in mixer is just a pure waste of space. They could have instantiated each new Combinator with the 6:2 Mixer already in place and ready to go. That would have made a lot more sense.
The old Combinator made your labels for the knobs and buttons easy to read by providing a white background. That feature is gone: by default, the new Combinator panel shows the controls as medium-gray letters on a lighter gray background, so they’re harder to read (Figure 5).
Yes, you can create your own panel graphic with white background rectangles in those spots – but why should you have to spend an hour fussing with a graphics program in order to restore a bit of user convenience that was removed?
Mimic. Reason 11 Suite already included the Grain granular sampler, and the parent company’s Scenic is available as a paid add-on, so Mimic (see Figure 6 below) is their third granular sampler. It has some features not found in either of the others, but they both have some features Mimic doesn’t have. Maybe lumping it together with them is a mistake. Let’s just look at it as its own beast, and see what it offers.
Reason Studios has uploaded an excellent and only slightly hype-injected video to YouTube showing off the features of Mimic. Finding samples that will work as well in Mimic as the samples used in that video may not be quite as easy as the video makes it seem, but the explanation of the cool sample manipulation features is solid. No need to reiterate every detail of that information here.
Mimic has eight slots for loading samples. Each slot has its own basic set of synth parameters – two ADSRs, an LFO, a multimode filter, and a tiny effects setup (compressor, distortion, and low/high EQ). Each slot has its own stereo output, to which its sound will be routed if the output is connected to anything.
There’s no modulation matrix. So, for example, there’s no way to control envelope attack time from key velocity, other than by dropping Mimic into a Combinator. Nor can you control LFO rate from any other mod source. The feature lineup is good in that absolutely nothing is hidden, but there’s no denying it’s basic.
As a whole, the instrument operates in one of four modes: Pitch, Slice, Multi-Slot, or Multi-Pitch. In Pitch and Slice modes, only one slot (with its sample) can be played at any given time. And no, you can’t switch from one slot to another by recording the switching as automation data; when you switch by clicking on the slot selector during recording, your choices are not saved.
The other two modes give you access to all of the sample slots, up to eight of them, at the same time. In Multi-Slot mode the slots (that is, the samples in them, together with the Slot parameters) are assigned chromatically to the first eight MIDI keys in each octave. This is a sort of drumkit-style setup. While you get only eight drum sounds (as opposed to the 16 in Kong), you can use a speed-altering process to stretch the sample, which is not possible in Kong.
In Multi-Pitch mode, the slots into which you’ve loaded samples are layered, so that your keyboard can play composite sounds. This is nice, though it doesn’t do much that you couldn’t do in an instance of Reason’s NN-XT sampler with a little extra programming effort. The downside is that you can’t mute individual slots in order to hear how your layered sound sounds without one or another of the layers. You can turn the volume of a slot down to zero temporarily, but the absence of slot mute buttons is not very user-friendly.
The fun and musically useful part of Mimic is that each slot has a choice of stretch methods and a playback speed control. You have a choice of Tape, Advanced, Melody, Vocal, or Granular stretch, each of which processes the sample in a different way. Stretching a sample so that it plays ve-e-e-r-r-y-y slowly is a nice sound design trick.
In Slice mode, as seen in Figure 7 above, you can slice a sample (such as a recorded drum loop) apart and trigger each individual slice from its own MIDI key. This is a very handy feature, especially as it will load any sample, unlike Dr. OctoRex, which needs to be loaded with .rx2 files. You can move the slice markers around, delete them, and add new ones if needed, which again is something Dr. Octo won’t do.
There are limitations, though. In the Dr. Octo you can adjust the pitch, pan, decay time, filter cutoff frequency, and output jacks individually for each slice in a REX file, but in Mimic one set of sound parameters applies to all of the slices in the slot.
My first thought was to export the sliced-up sample as a new .rx2 file in order to import it int Dr. OctoRex, but Mimic can’t do that. This is a shame.
Author, Author! (ization…). Downloading and installing Reason 12.2 went without a hitch, but authorizing my local computer so that I don’t need to connect via the Internet every time I want to run R12 turned out to be more awkward. The instructions provide with the installation didn’t work. Eventually my contact at the company managed to sort it out – but if I needed another reason not to trust the Internet, today Facebook has crashed, though that hardly seems possible. I will always go for local authorization if it’s available.
Missed opportunities. The top two features I was hoping to see in Reason 12 that are not included are the ability to load and run VST 3 plug-ins and support for MPE (see below). Reason (the standalone DAW) supports VST 2.4 plugins, but not VST 3. Here’s what that means, and why it’s important:
According to Wikipedia, the VST 3 format was released by Steinberg in 2008, and VST 3.5 appeared in 2011. That’s upwards of ten years during which the company we can’t call Propellerhead anymore ignored the format.
Steinberg stopped maintaining the VST 2.x SDK (software development kit) in 2013, and in December 2020 stopped distributing the 2.x SDK altogether. What this means is that developers who already have the 2.x SDK can continue releasing their plugins in VST 2 format if they feel the need to do so, but new developers will only be able to use VST 3.
At present, most plug-in developers release both VST 2 and VST 3 versions, so the absence of VST 3 support in Reason is not yet a huge problem, but the landscape is changing. I’m told that VST 3 support is planned for a future Reason release, so I’m remaining hopeful.
MPE (MIDI polyphonic expression) is an expansion of the MIDI data format that allows modern controller hardware to add expressive nuance to individual notes within a chord or other polyphonic texture. The spec was released in January 2018. A number of VST synthesizers can now respond to MPE input. However, MPE requires that the host DAW be able to send the received MIDI notes and other data to a single synth while retaining the channel designations of the MIDI events.
This is a huge problem for Reason, because from version 1.0 on, Reason has simply discarded the channel information. My guess is that we won’t see MPE support added to Reason anytime soon, because the MIDI reception code is buried too deep.
Other Reason users may have other items on their wish list. I could add a few of my own. But no matter. Software developers can’t please everybody! In my opinion, VST 3 and MPE are the important slots that need to be filled.
Summing up. I’ve been using Reason for a long time, I enjoy using it, and I’m quite willing to put up with its little eccentricities. In the new version I really like the improved search function in the Browser. The hi-res graphics and the zoom function are nice, but if they weren’t there I wouldn’t miss them.
If you’re new to Reason, I hope you’ll try the seven-day free option on the rental version. And then maybe buy it. As long as you don’t need VST 3 or MPE, you’ll quite likely love the program.
But if you’re already a Reason user, are the new features worth the price tag for the upgrade? I don’t think so. Some people may like Mimic, but my reaction to it was summed up many years ago by Roger Miller in a song called “King of the Road.” Mimic’s feature list is “short, but not too big around.”
If the new release had bundled, let’s say, Algoritm and Complex-1 as stock synths (rather than leaving them as Rack Extensions that you buy separately, and preferably giving you a discount on the update if you already own them), I would absolutely tell current owners of an older version, “Go for it. It’s worth every penny.” But based on what’s included in the update from 11.5 to 12.2, I’m underwhelmed.