Getting Started with Reason

Getting Started with Reason

When MIDI instruments first were made (long ago, in the 1980’s), they were actual hardware instruments that made sounds. The new thing about them was that they could communicate with each other, and with the computer.

In recent years, MIDI virtual instruments — software applications that emulate actual MIDI instruments — have become popular. So instead of having a big, expensive box that makes sound, you can buy a less expensive program to run on your computer. MIDI systems have become both cheaper and more portable.

Reason is a software synthesizer and sampler that runs on both Macintosh and Windows systems. However, Reason is more than a virtual instrument: in addition to sound-making capabilities, it includes a full-featured sequencer, and it lets you work with audio tracks as well as MIDI tracks.

In our classroom, we use the Korg Triton Le as a MIDI master keyboard: when you press a key on the Triton, it sends a MIDI message to Reason, and that causes Reason to play a sound. So the sounds you hear are produced by Reason — they come from the computer’s audio output jack, not from the keyboard.

For people taking the online version of this course: your MIDI keyboard may have different knobs and wheels, but the basic ideas are the same.

In this tutorial we explore making sounds with Reason. You’ll experiment with several techniques special to playing an electronic keyboard.

Goals of This Tutorial

  • Learn how to make a rack of sound-making devices (instruments) in Reason.
  • Experiment with playing Reason devices using a MIDI keyboard.
  • Learn about different types of electronic sounds.
  • Learn to use Reason’s Help manual.
  • Find some sounds that you like and will want to use in your sequences, later on in the course.

Putting Together a Reason Rack

Reason contains many different types of device: synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, effects units, pattern generators.

You will set up a rack of three different melodic or chordal instrument devices — such as SubTractor, Malström, Thor, NN19, NN-XT, etc. — in any combination. Note that the ID8 will be a little too limiting.

  1. Launch Reason. You will see a choice of authentication methods. Click the Multi License button. After Reason finishes loading, you will see an empty document. Note the four main sections: Mixer, Rack, Sequencer, and the Browser on the left.
  2. Drag the SubTractor Analog Synthesizer from the Browser into the Rack. Note that the Browser window has changed to show SubTractor patches.
  3. Play a note on your keyboard; you should hear a bass sound.

    If you don’t hear anything, check the following settings.

    • In the Reason sequencer at the bottom of the window, the track called “Bass Guitar” has an instrument icon just under the track name. This icon should have a gray arrow on it. If it doesn’t, click the icon. The gray arrow means that SubTractor is selected for MIDI input, and so you hear that device when you play on the keyboard.
    • The computer audio output should be turned up and not muted. To check this, look for the speaker icon in the right part of the menu bar (Mac) or in the right part of the task bar at the bottom of the screen (Windows). Make sure the volume is turned up.
    • Make sure your headphones are plugged into the computer’s audio output (or an output from your audio interface). If you’re using an audio interface, choose this in the Reason Preferences Audio tab.
  4. Choose a SubTractor sound to play.

    1. In the right part of the Browser window, double-click any of the .zyp patch files there, or open one of the category folders to find many more patches. SubTractor now displays that patch name, and will play that sound.
    2. Use the up and down buttons (on your computer keyboard, in the Reason browser, or next to the patch name on the SubTractor instrument) to select other patches in the same folder.

Try Some Playing Techniques

  1. Experiment with velocity sensitivity.
    1. Patch to load: Monosynths folder > Matrix3.zyp
    2. Explanation: Each synthesizer key has a sensor underneath it that registers how quickly the key travels when it is pressed. When you press a key forcefully, it travels quickly; when you press softly and carefully, it travels more slowly. Velocity sensitivity (sometimes called “note-on velocity”) means that a synthesizer patch is programmed to respond to key velocity changes: the patch will sound different if you play softly than it will if you play forcefully.

      Try it and listen for the changes in sound: first play softly, then play the same note forcefully. Nearly all synthesizer patches will respond to key velocity. Usually, greater velocity makes a louder sound, but there are other aspects of the sound that can change, typically tone color. Try to figure out what varies with velocity.

    3. The Monosynths folder holds patches that play a single sound at a time. These patches are often used for playing solos or melodies.
  2. Experiment with aftertouch.
    1. Patch to load: there are several in the Monosynths folder: LeadSwell, 70s Synth Lead, Duophonia, HarshLead, SF Lead
    2. Explanation: The term “aftertouch” means what it sounds like it should mean: it refers to what happens after you press a key. On keyboards that generate aftertouch, you press a key and keep it held down. Continue to press down, but now press more forcefully, deeper into the key. A sensor underneath the key registers the changes in key pressure. Some Reason patches, but not all, respond to aftertouch. Many small USB keyboards do not generate aftertouch.
  3. Korg Triton joystick

    Some keyboards have a joystick to the left of the keyboard. Others have a modulation wheel and a pitch bend wheel in that spot. The mod. wheel moves freely, whereas the pitch bend wheel and joystick are spring-loaded — they snap back to the middle position when you let go.

    1. Patch to load: Monosynths folder > Wheel Wah Lead
    2. Explanation: A joystick combines several functions in one physical control:
      • Bend wheel in Reason's SubTractor instrument

        Pitch Bend: Play a note and, while holding the key down, move the joystick right and left. The pitch rises and falls. Notice also that the Bend wheel in SubTractor goes up and down. It’s controlled by the joystick’s horizontal motion. Or, if you have a bend wheel on your keyboard, it works like the one on screen in SubTractor.

      • Mod Wheel: Play another note and, while holding the key down, move the joystick up. Listen for a change in the sound quality. Notice also that the Mod Wheel in SubTractor goes up, because it’s controlled by the joystick’s vertical motion. Or, if you have a mod. wheel on your keyboard, it works like the one shown in SubTractor.
  4. Experiment with amplitude envelopes.
    1. Patch to load: Pads folder > Dreamy FM Pad
    2. Explanation: From Reason’s Help menu, choose Reason Help. From the Contents list on the left, choose SubTractor Synthesizer. Then choose the Envelopes - General section.

      Read the opening paragraph with the envelope diagram, and the descriptions of Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release. Then read the Amplitude Envelope section only. (You don’t need to read the Filter Envelope or Mod Envelope sections now.)

    3. Now play a few notes using the Dreamy FM Pad patch. Find the Amplitude Envelope section, and notice that the Attack and Release values are fairly high (75 and 78). One at a time, drag the Attack and Release faders down so they have very low values, and listen to how the sound changes when you play notes again.
    4. The Pads folder includes patches that sound best when playing long slow notes. Typically they fade in and fade out gently, and several notes can be played at once. These patches are often used to provide a backdrop for other sounds.

Try Effects and Other Instruments

  1. Get ready to add a second instrument device: on the left panel of the Browser, choose Instruments. Drag the NN-XT Advanced Sampler to the Rack.
  2. As you did with SubTractor, use the Browser to select a patch to play. Choose Brass folder > Soprano Sax.sxt, double-click to load that patch, and play a few notes.

    Does this sound like a real saxophone? It might, or it might not, partly depending on how you play. Experiment with playing the keyboard in a way that makes it not sound like a sax. How you play is important! Try playing notes in the low register (left end of the keyboard), the middle register, and the high register (right end of the keyboard). Play notes with a variety of lengths: some short, some long.

    If you have a small, two-octave keyboard (25 keys), it may be difficult to try different registers. But your keyboard will have buttons that let you shift the note range of the keyboard.

  3. Let’s add some reverberation to the sax sound. Here’s how:
    1. Click anywhere on your NN-XT device to select it. The device in the rack now has a blue outline.
    2. In the left panel of the Browser, choose Effects. Locate the RV-7 Digital Reverb, and drag it into the rack just below the NN-XT.
    3. Play a few notes, and listen to how the sound has changed. The default effects patch is called Hall; use the up and down arrows to select MediumRoom instead. Play again. The reverb effect should sound less extreme now.
    4. Press the TAB key on your computer keyboard. The rack swivels around to show you the connections at the back. When you create the NN-XT device, Reason also creates a channel for it in the Main Mixer and wires things up correctly. (Later, when building complex racks, you may want to change the way devices are connected by manipulating the patch cords in the back of the rack.)
    5. Notice that the 1/L and 2/R Audio Outputs of the NN-XT are patched to the Inputs on the RV-7, and that the outputs of the RV-7 go up to the Mix. This means that the entire sound of the sampler goes into the effects device.

      This is called an insert effect, since you’re inserting the effect between an instrument and the mixer. (If Reason didn’t patch this correctly, it’s because you didn’t select the NN-XT before creating the effect device.)

    6. Press the TAB key again to return to the front of the rack.
    7. Fiddle with the RV-7 effect controls. You might want to adjust the DRY/WET mix so that you can hear some of the dry NN-XT sound mixed in with the “effected” sound. Finally, try the three different positions of the bypass switch on the RV-7, and note what happens to the sound.
  4. When you’re hunting for patches to use in your music, you often don’t care about devices. Instead, you want a specific type of sound, such as a bass or a guitar, no matter which device produces it.

    To search for a type of sound that might be available from any of the synthesizers and samplers, do this:

    1. Click on the Reason Sounds folder in the Browser, and then explore patches in the various instrumental categories.
    2. If the Browse Patch area of a device is colored in orange, then double-clicking a patch name in the Browser will load that patch into the device. Or, if the patch requires a different type of device, the old device will be replaced with this different one.