Review: Propellerhead Reason 8

1 November, 2014 in Gear

Reason 8 mixer

The mixer is modeled on the SSL 9000K, and includes an emulation of the master buss compression

Stockholm-based Propellerhead has updated its flagship music-making software, Reason. Reason 8 has landed and we put it through its paces…

hat’s new in Reason 8? That’s the question that most people are going to be asking, so in this review we’ll be focusing on the new improvements. For the veteran Reason user, is the v8 upgrade worth your hard-earned cash? And for the songwriter looking for a new sequencing program to record his or her ideas, could the new version of Reason be the one for you?

The first thing you will notice about version 8 is that the look has been redesigned. Everything actually looks much as before – just greatly improved. The new layout seems more efficient and makes wonderful use of the screen space available; this is excellent news for users with laptops or in a small home studio. The design is minimal, clean and wonderfully ergonomic. Propellerhead has said its focus was on making the software transparent in a way that it doesn’t hinder music-making, and this has genuinely been achieved. In past versions, there used to be windows and tool bars that would clutter the screen enormously, but these have been replaced with the unified browser window.

The browser sits discreetly on the left of the screen, and is an immensely powerful tool that allows immediate access to almost everything, including instruments, effects, presets, files, loops, sound banks, songs and MIDI. The pièce de resistance is combining the unified browser with drag and drop functionality. allowing you to audition new sounds and effects seamlessly without interrupting the songwriting process. Keeping the momentum flowing is incredibly important when writing music, so this is a wonderful improvement to Reason.

Reason 8 arrangement window

The new-look arrangement window

Once upon a time, Reason always seemed like only a semi-professional sequencer, because it didn’t record audio or handle audio files very well. That changed with the arrival of Propellerhead Record, and subsequent versions (including v8) all have recording capabilities. With the new changes to the arrangement window, there was always a chance that simplicity might come at the expense of functionality, but thankfully this was not the case. I experimented with recording some guitar, and found the experience quite painless. The audio quality was a good 24-bit recording, but what really peaked my interest were the following functions: comp mode, slice markers, time stretch and clip to REX.

“Comp mode can be used for jamming ideas around a basic loop”

Comp mode allowed me to record the same part many times and then create a final part, which allowed me to select the best of all the takes. This is an excellent tool that can be used for jamming ideas around a basic loop or nailing tricky parts that may have been too complicated to do all at once in the past. Once you have your final recording, a simple double-click opens up what Reason calls ‘slice markers’. This finds key points in the recording and allows you to manipulate the timing in a non-destructive way. This is a wonderful tool and its application means that when a recording has all of the expression and feel but some tiny timing errors, you can correct them without losing an otherwise perfect take.

For producers looking to add a new dimension to their work, an interesting function is the ‘audio clip to REX file’ function. This takes the slice markers and, using the REX loop player, allows you to create instant mash-ups of your recordings. This will bring you into the MIDI world quite seamlessly. Established users will notice that the editing functionality of MIDI in the arrangement window has also had some nifty features added. Now you can double-click on MIDI notes to create or delete notes. This saves a lot of time and enables ideas to go from simple chord progressions to full on mash-up in a matter of minutes.

“There’s been a big effort to make collaborating with other artists easier”

In Reason 8, it seems there’s been a big effort to make collaborating with other artists a lot easier. As such collaborations increasingly happen over the internet, Propellerhead is keeping up with the times. If you have a version of Reason or extra rack extensions that your colleagues don’t, they can trial them for 30 days to make sharing song and collaboration projects easy. Another function that I think is outstanding is the ability to export various mixer channels all at once. So if at some point you may consider having your song professionally mixed or remixed, creating the stems is a 30-second job. This is also good news for people with computers that are not quite up to the specifications, as this feature allows you to bounce software tracks into audio and save on CPU power. Again, it’s a feature that keeps the musical momentum flowing.

Rack extensions have been around since Reason 6.5. These are extra tools created by outside developers, the idea being to enhance the sonic quality of your songs and improve the music-making experience. One criticism of reason in the past has been the difficulty of getting a good DI guitar sound. There have been Line 6 Pod-style tools in Reason for a while, which offered some redemption, but in v8 Softtube has really stepped things up with some quality amp simulation tools. These will provide guitarists and bassists with some much needed crunch, fuzz, drive and clean amp sounds to get a satisfying guitar tone from a DI recording. This really comes in handy when a real amp would be too loud or inaccessible, making it perfect for musicians on the go or for producing music at home. Best of all is that Reason 8 bundles the two Softtube amps and a nifty tool called Audiomatic in for free.

Reason 8 Sofftube amps

The bundled rack extensions include some tasty amp simulators by Softtube

If you are willing to pay for extra rack extensions, Propellerhead has opened up the floor to the likes of Izotope, McDSP, Cakewalk, Rob Papen, Softtube, Sugar-bytes, Korg and U-he to contribute. For me this really gives more credibility to Reason, because the giants of the industry were willing to collaborate, and it also broadens the sound palette for all types of musician. The most interesting tools for songwriters, though, would be the selection of products by a company called A-list. A-list boasts that these have all the flexibility and control of real instruments but with the ease of audio loops. You can purchase electric guitar, acoustic guitar and piano. In its most basic form, each is a sampler instrument, so you are always going to be restricted by the original recordings. They’re usable and would be great for jotting down ideas, but with some instruments over 1GB in size we have to ask: if you’re just sketching out ideas, why not just use the basic tools provided with Reason?

The last thing to say about the rack extensions is the excellent quality of some of the new synths that have been added. These may only take up around 80MB of hard drive space but they are incredibly powerful. This is especially true if you are looking to make electronic music: synths such as Antidote, Quad, Parsec and the Mono Poly will really max out your sound. These synths are of a professional standard and are inspirational to use.

Reason 8 synths

Some of the new synths available as rack extensions (sold separately)

On a practical level, downloading and installing Reason 8 was quite simple to do. The only downside is that to authorise the software completely, including rack extensions, you either need a dongle (which will take up a USB port) or you need to sign in every time you load Reason (which means you’ll need access to an Internet connection). This may cause problems when on the move and trying make your set up as mobile as possible.

That niggle aside, Reason 8 was very ‘plug ’n’ play’, meaning that when the software loaded for the first time it found my soundcard and MIDI keyboard instantly with no hassle at all. After spending some time loading many of the most power-hungry synths I was able to max out my CPU to the point where the song wouldn’t play. In previous versions of Reason this was near impossible, but with better-sounding synths there’s always going to be a trade-off. With the audio rendering features and a good computer, though, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Some of you out there may be completely technophobic, and just want a simple recording solution – in which case the new layout, sleek workflow and recording tools give you a real plug ’n’ play feel. Reason 8 will offers a decent hassle-free recording solution, though do bear in mind that if you’re brand new to recording, you will need some additional equipment as well as Reason to be able to record audio. But for the technophiles out there, Reason 8 packs a solid technical punch. The rewiring capabilities combined with the rack extensions mean that your sonic pallet is almost limitless, allowing for endless tweaking and sound manipulation.

Overall it’s a little disappointing that Reason 8 has technically hardly changed at all from v7, and some people upgrading may feel Propellerhead could have given us a little more bang for the buck. On the other hand, if like me you only get a limited amount of time to write music each day and want a new professional-quality sequencer that will do the job simply, quietly and efficiently, then Reason 8 is a real contender.

Verdict: Not the most radical overhaul in software history, but still packs a wealth of new features to make recording, editing and mixing audio quicker and simpler

Matthew Chapman

Specifications

  • Mixer emulates SSL 9000K
  • Many instruments and FX bundled for free
  • Rack extensions and External MIDI Instrument function allow for unlimited expandability
  • System requirements: Windows 7 or better and Pentium 4/Athlon dual-core CPU (PC), OSX 10.7 or better and Intel dual core CPU (Mac); 4GB RAM, 3GB disk space, monitor with at least 1280×768 resolution

Price
£290 (€369/$462) for the full package
£100 (€129/$162) to upgrade from previous versions
30-day trial available

Website
www.propellerheads.se

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