Propellerhead Reason 3 review
The lack of an audio input for live recording limits its market, but for exciting, inspirational synthesis Reason can't be beaten
At a time when most music production software is branching out to cover as many roles as possible, Reason still follows the manifesto it set out at its launch four years ago. Rather than providing a complete audio and MIDI production environment, it specialises in software synthesizers, and throws in mixing tools and a basic MIDI sequencer with which to use them. As such, it includes everything you need to produce finished tracks, so long as you don't have ambitions to include a vocal, guitar or other live instrument.
Reason is also unusual in that it doesn't support VST or DirectX plug-in effects and instruments. In fact, its only acknowledgement of other music software is support for the Rewire protocol, which allows it to run alongside another audio sequencer such as Cubase or Sonar.
This lack of expandability might be considered a problem, but a quick listen to Reason's synthesizers soon lays any concerns to rest. This is without doubt the best-sounding collection of software synths available in a standalone package - you could easily spend a few hundred pounds on a VST plug-in to match any one of the six instruments included. The line-up consists of an analog-style synth, a granular synth (which uses banks of short audio 'grains' and modulates through them to create slowly evolving or wildly changing sounds), a beatbox-style drum machine, a sample loop player (using the ReCycle REX format) and a pair of general-purpose samplers.
All the modules come with a first-class, updated library of presets and samples, but a new module for version 3 pushes their capabilities even further. The Combinator isn't a sound source in itself - in fact, it's merely a shell in which to house other modules - but it can stack and layer modules in pretty much any conceivable way, allowing them to be performed from a single MIDI keyboard. The supplied Combinator presets demonstrate its huge potential, and we had great fun layering orchestral samples with abstract rhythmic synths and vocoded harps to create extraordinary monster synth sounds.
Reason 2's effects were criticised for not living up to the quality of its synths. A free 2.5 update sorted out the reverb and distortion effects, and version 3 takes care of the EQ and compression. The new MClass suite of effects is designed for processing finished mixes (known as mastering), which means they're more than up to the task of processing individual sounds. It's a shame Propellerhead doesn't throw in improved delay effects to complete the set, as the one that's included is as basic as they come. That said, a number of Combinator presets use multiple delays and other effects to give more sophisticated results.
The remaining new module is a stripped-down mixer. It isn't exciting in itself, but is just the thing for creating submixes without having to load multiple instances of the main mixer module.
There are two other highlights in the list of new features. The preset browser now includes the option to audition a sound with a MIDI keyboard. This, combined with the ability to browse by instrument type (such as bass, pads, textures and so on) regardless of synth type, dramatically speeds up the process of choosing sounds. Also very welcome is Reason's ability to automatically recognise a range of hardware control surfaces and keyboards, eliminating the chore of configuring the hardware and software so they work together.
Sadly, there are a few frustrations too. Support for Windows 98 and ME has disappeared, which is odd considering the lack of any fundamental changes to the software. Also, while the hardware analogy used throughout the interface looks great and provides highly flexible routing options, just like the real thing, wiring can get pretty chaotic - using drop-down lists to determine signal destinations would be far neater.