Propellerhead Reason Digital Audio Workstation (review)

Propellerhead calls their DAW “music production software”. And indeed, Reason is not a full-scale DAW. One thing it lacks is built-in synchronisation for the creation of music and sound for movies. That is not to say Reason isn’t one heck of a powerful application.

I intended to compare Reason to Logic Pro, but that’s a project I quickly gave up. There’s no comparison. Logic Pro is entirely different from Reason. Sure, you can make music with Logic Pro and you can do so without ever touching a keyboard or adding audio. Of course Logic Pro’s effects and synthesisers are great — in fact, some are better than Reason’s — but if music is what you want to create, I think you’ll ultimately be better off with Reason.

Screenshot of Reason's interface

Why? Because Reason looks and behaves like the real thing and Logic Pro behaves like any application. Reason’s interface shows you the analogue rack instruments and devices as what you’d find in any decent music studio. It’s a rendition complete with the cables connecting the equipment. Mixers, panels, effects devices… it all looks and behaves as in real life.

If you’re used to working in a real studio, Reason won’t hold any secrets. If you’re not, you’re in for a steep learning curve if you want to scratch deeper than the surface. Luckily, Propellerhead provides an excellent help file and some very useful tutorial videos.

I received Reason by postal mail. A download would have been fine with me, but Propellerhead’s PR insisted on a box. When I received it, it became clear why: Reason is dongle protected. The dongle itself looks like a small jewel — it’s very nicely done if you appreciate clever design.

Installing is painless, online registration is not. You’ll need to register online before you’ll be able to start using Reason, despite having the dongle. You can, however, download the registration codes from the Internet to the dongle and never have to log in again. One word with regards to registering and licensing: the update checker redirects you to your account page and there it urges you to register first. Registration failed as the product was reported as already been registered before, so I was left with no update at all. My copy being a review copy I understand I can’t upgrade, but point updates are included if only to make sure reviewers don’t run into trouble that an update has fixed.

Conclusion: it’s a system that ideally should be replaced by something less complicated.

Propellerhead Reason workflow

This music creation software’s interface at first is daunting. You get a couple of rack devices and a track panel below these (the Sequencer). From then on, it’s best to first read the introduction in the Help files. That will help you start quickly. For example, I quickly learned the cabling at the back of the rack instruments doesn’t really matter unless you’re after some pretty unique effects. Connections are created automatically, so that part of the workflow isn’t more complex than any other music editor.

Using the context menu, I was able to create an audio track, arm it and record some silly stuff to it via the Apogee Duet. What can I say? It works, it works as expected and the results are also what you expect. One major advantage of Reason, however, is that when you launch the app next time and the Duet isn’t hooked up, the software automatically selects an audio channel that is available. It might sound awful, but at least you won’t need to wonder where the sound has gone because there is no output.

Screenshot of audio recording feature

Reason comes with nine synthetic instruments built-in. Many more can be purchased from Propellerhead’s website. I don’t have a MIDI keyboard, but unlike Logic Pro, Reason comes with a full-blown on-screen replacement that you can control with either the mouse or the (typist) keyboard of your Mac. I found most of the synthesiser instruments to offer better control over the results than what I can get in Logic Pro. The latter’s Sound Sculptor is great but very hard for the untrained musician to get good results with.

With Reason’s Thor on the other hand, I was up and running in seconds and what I created was actually music (although I won’t win an Emmy Award with it). However, an instrument like Thor also comes with a whole SoundBank and some of these “effects” are actually much better than what I know from Logic Pro. I’m thinking of the Analog Cathedral (grand organ) here. Pianos (the Bosendorfer, Steinway and Yamaha kind) sound crystal clear. Horns are more natural sounding too.

I also found the tracks or Lanes panel to contain intuitive controls (e.g. a razor blade) and modes to create the audio. It works much like a video editing app. Reason also has a feature called “blocks”. These allow you to record audio in blocks (go figure!), meaning that a recording extending the block length will be ignored.

Reason’s transport controls are great. The metronome (called “Click” here) is user definable. You can even tap a button and tell the app the tempo and it will record and play back audio in that tempo — including tempos like “slow-slow-fast-fast”.

There was one thing that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about: the rack window takes up quite a lot of space at the cost of the mixer panel. I found myself trying to strike a balance between the three window panels, and I still haven’t made up my mind which is better. Unfortunately, that seems to be the way every DAW is conceived…

Screenshot of Reason's vertical mixer panel

One of the most powerful features available with Reason is the Combinator. This rack device allows you to combine multiple others into one instrument, allowing for sounds that are impossible with individual synthesisers.

Reason comes with non-destructive time stretch, which allows to record first and pick a tempo later. Reason allows to change the song tempo and all audio tracks will follow right along without any need for pre-processing of any kind. The time stretch also allows for creative effects when you follow the instructions as set out in episode 52 of Propellerhead’s video series (which I very much recommend you watch to get the most out of the program).

Conclusion

There is much more in Reason that is worth exploring. However, that would take me another month — to find it all out — and another 5,000 words or so to explain.

That wouldn’t be really effective, as I can’t let you hear the results of what you can do with Reason. You really need to experiment with this application yourself. If you do, you’ll find it is in a league of its own.