Propellerhead has been making one of the world’s best-loved DAWs for a while now, so what does the new Reason 8 bring to the party? Hollin Jones finds out in our world exclusive full review
Price: Reason 8: £349/€405/$449
Reason Essentials 8: £99/€120/$129
Reason 8 Upgrade (from any previous Reason version): £89/€129/$129
Contact: Sound Technology – 01462 480000
System Requirements: Dual-core CPU – Mac OS X 10.7 or later – Windows 7 or later – 4GB RAM – 3GB hard disk space
When Reason was first released it really shook up the music technology landscape. Here was a self-contained MIDI sequencer that didn’t support plug-ins (and still doesn’t, technically), but that was so much easier and more fun to use than almost anything else around at the time that it quickly became a huge hit worldwide.
Although it has come a long way since those early days, a version one user could look at version eight and still recognise it as a direct descendant.
Propellerhead has always practiced evolution rather than revolution, save for throwing us the odd surprise such as combining Record and Reason into one app and in the process making Reason capable of audio tracking.
And so it is that Reason 8 doesn’t throw out the rule book, but it does build on what is by now a very mature and stable foundation to bring the application up to date with modern workflow methods and also the increasingly popular ‘flat’ look that is gradually replacing the hyper-real metallic textures and gradients of recent years.
So What Is It?
Let’s start with a quick recap for those new to Reason. It’s a dual-platform MIDI and audio production environment with a focus on the ‘Rack’, a central area where you can load a near-infinite number of instrument and effect modules in order to generate and process sound.
You can keep going until your computer runs out of power, but Reason is so well optimised for modern hardware that any decent system should rarely come close to suffering actual performance problems.
The sequencer enables you to record, edit and arrange audio and MIDI parts, and the mixer contains pretty advanced channel strips and a master processing section for shaping your mixes.
There’s a lot of other stuff too, much of which has been in Reason for a little while. Automation of devices is straightforward, and an integrated system of internal controller assignments means you can quickly map controls to almost any parameter. Reason uses virtual patch cables to enable you to manually route sound anywhere, with a similar system for Control Voltage – just like you’d get in a real vintage synth.
A MIDI learn system called Remote lets you hook up one or more MIDI hardware controllers and have several people performing and recording from a single project.
New modules such as the Softube Amp sit alongside Reason mainstays Malström and NN-XT in the trademark Reason Rack.
Audio parts are automatically analysed for tempo information and made elastic, and there’s an advanced groove quantization system for MIDI called ReGroove. Direct sampling is available into many of the instrument modules and a pop-up wave editor lets you edit your samples easily. Rack Extensions are available from third-party developers to expand your toolset.
In With The New
I’ve mentioned that Reason 8 doesn’t break massively with tradition, but there is of course some new stuff. The most obvious change is the new flat look, with bumpy buttons and gradients out, and flat, minimal toolbars and menus in.
When you have been using version 8 for a while and then see screenshots of version 7, it feels a bit like the transition from iOS 6 to iOS 7. It didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with the old version at the time, but looking back, the new version is much cleaner and more modern.
The new look doesn’t particularly affect usability, it just feels more up to date. Some stuff has been moved around, though, most notably a shortcut to quantize settings in the Transport panel, which is handy.
Find My Stuff
Related to the new interface design is the second major new feature: the relocation of the Browser. As Reason has grown, and especially since the introduction of Rack Extensions, managing modules, presets and samples has got harder. Dealing with song samples had become fiddly and you had to do it from the Tool window.
In Reason 8 there’s an omnipresent browser (though it can be minimised) that provides a unified way to access all your instruments, effects, Rack Extensions and samples. Modules are grouped by category and there’s easy drag and drop of any module straight into the rack. You can also drag and drop patches from the Browser into the Rack to create a device, and clicking patch- or sample-load buttons anywhere in the Rack or mixer will correspondingly open the relevant folder or section automatically in the Browser.
The redesigned sequencer window is just one of the many welcome refinements to the familiar Reason layout
There’s easy file system navigation, favourites lists and text-based search that show all patches that match a query regardless of module type. One thing that’s no longer possible is live previewing of instrument patches from the Browser.
You used to be able to ‘pre-load’ a patch and play it via MIDI before loading it into the Rack, but a consequence of the new workflow is that you now have to load the module. It’s not a huge problem, but worth mentioning. On the other hand you can now drag and drop a patch straight from the Browser onto a module in the Rack to load it, which is nice.
The new Browser also has a Song Samples section, relocated from the Tool window, that makes dealing with samples you have recorded or those used in instrument patches a bit easier. Now you can edit, delete, duplicate or export samples from here and there’s live previewing of audio samples so you can hear them and view their information prior to dropping them in.
Audio recordings that you make in the sequencer are treated differently to samples, and if you want to bounce or export those you’ll have to do it using the File>Export command or the sequencer’s Bounce menu.
Rack ’em Up
In terms of the modules that come with Reason itself these are largely unchanged, though it’s still a great selection. Old staples such as Subtractor and ReDrum sit alongside the NN-XT multisampler, Kong Drum Designer, Thor synth and others.
There’s cool retro delay from The Echo, tempo-based trance effects from the Alligator, pitch correction, voice synthesis, dirt from the Pulverizer and excellent dynamics processing from the MClass effects, plus a fair few other units. With Rack Extensions you are free to try or buy from an ever-growing range by third-party developers who make utilities, instruments and effects of all kinds.
Rack Extensions kind of frees the Props up from having to make so many of their own modules, though they do continue to be active in this area. The only two new modules in Reason 8 are called Softube Amp and Softube Bass Amp, two amp/speaker emulators developed in collaboration with Softube (as the name suggests). These will eventually supplant the Line 6 modules (still available) and are really nice emulators that do a great job of warming up stringed instruments but also anything else you put through them such as beats or vocals.
Beyond these are many smaller changes and tweaks, some rearrangement of the furniture, and nice touches such as double-clicking to add or remove notes in the MIDI editor.
Reason To Be Cheerful?
Some clever stuff has doubtlessly gone on behind the scenes with Reason 8 in addition to the obvious changes. It’s always been among the very best optimised and most stable DAWs around, and in some ways version 8 feels like laying the groundwork for bigger structural changes in the future.
There are probably no really attention-grabbing new features here, though if you look at the package as a whole it is still remarkably well-rounded. The new Browser and Softube modules are welcome additions, and the whole thing feels slicker and more modern with its new look.
For anyone on version 6 or below the upgrade is a no-brainer, as you’ll get a bunch of new stuff in one fell swoop. For new users Reason 8 is an excellent package, offering a great selection of instruments and effects, and a recording, composition and production environment that’s easy to use but offers a depth of features should you choose to use them.
Certainly the workflow is made smoother by the new Browser, and Propellerhead continues to do a fantastic job of getting the tech-y details out of the way of your music-making. Whether the upgrade from 7 to 8 is for you will depend on whether you like the idea of an integrated browser, new look and the new guitar modules. What does seem likely is that more stuff will be added in the next minor updates, and for that you will need Reason 8