Sections on this page: workflow, features, Reason 6, instruments

Within the world of digital audio workstations Reason has always held a rather unique place. While many people tended to call Reason a DAW it basically wasn’t. Not really anyway, because at first it couldn’t record nor process audio for a very long time. When version 5 came along the Record program was introduced for this, version 6 eventually combined Reason and Record, thus putting Reason closer to a DAW than ever before.

I’m tempted to say Reason has finally became one, yet still manages to retain the title of being the outsider of the flock.

What always made Reason unique to me was that despite the “lack” of certain options (such as support for incoming audio) it still managed to provide a very complete way to create music. Instead of looking at it as a DAW or simply put “music software” I’d like to describe Reason as: “A virtual 19″ rack in which you can put a variety of instruments and effects and connect them any way you see fit.“. Reason provides massive routing capabilities and some state of the art instruments and effects…

btw; you can click on the logo to visit Reason’s product page.

The complete package

Instead of chopping up its software into different versions like Ableton and Cycling ’74 do with their products Reason is basically “as is”, although a lighter version exists called Reason Essentials. However; this version is more targeted at usage together with Propellerheads soundcard /mixer (called “Balance”). I wouldn’t recommend ‘Essentials’ for day to day usage though because it is quite lacking. You don’t get instruments such as Thor or Malström, and it also lacks a decent arpeggiator. As such; although well suited for recording and audio processing I wouldn’t use it for music making.

So when you buy Reason you get the full deal; there are no “pro” or “light” versions perse and Reason doesn’t know anything about buying a music program without any instruments either. So; Reason 4 came with 7 different instruments, 16 sound effects and a variety of tools ready to be used in your setup whereas Reason 6 heavily extends on this.

There are however separate extensions which you can purchase, the so called Rack Extensions. These got introduced with Reason 6.5 and basically allow 3rd parties (and Propellerhead themselves of course) to provide extensions which are not part of the main Reason program.

Workflow (Reason 4 shown)

When working with Reason the first thing which you’ll notice is its somewhat specific setup. Where other programs allow you to ‘maximize’ their workspace or even set it to full screen (as can be seen with Ableton Live in the screenshot here) Reasons main window has a fixed size.

While you can stretch the window to make it longer the width remains fixed. This gives it an even more realistic feeling that you’re working with some form of audio rack instead of a mere music program. And although this is showing you the older version of Reason 4, the fixed width part still holds true in modern versions (see below).

Another aspect which can also be seen quite well on the screenshot is that Reason also tries to mimic an hardware look for the rack and its devices in order to make it more realistic. The 14:2 mixer here (14 tracks with 2 audio channels each) has a massive amount of sliders and knobs which you can use to tweak it. And if you think this looks impressive; the dedicated mixer section in Reason 6 even extends heavily on this.

Fortunately for us they didn’t make Reason also mimic the way hardware behaves. As can be seen with the green “strip” at the bottom. That is the Malström instrument which I collapsed. Any device in Reason can be collapsed so that it only uses a small part of your screen. This is very easy when you’re trying to work your way into setting up a variety of devices and don’t need the ones you’ve finished to remain visible (and thus taking up precious screen space).

Things which make Reason special

Apart from its looks the one thing which makes Reason stand out is its ability to “flip the rack”.  By pressing the tab button Reason will flip all devices around and show you the back side of the rack.  What’s so special about that you wonder ?

Just look at the screenshot here; this shows you the back of the rack which I displayed in the picture above. All of a sudden there are a variety of connectors visible and some of them are connected by virtual cables, even in different colours.

These cables allow you to setup your own routing schemes. In this particular example it’s nothing special: both instruments (‘Thor’ and ‘Malström’ (the green strip at the bottom)) have 2 audio cables (coloured red) which go to the input connectors of the first 2 tracks on the ‘Remix’ mixer device. The output of the mixer device goes to a device above it (the blue cables) and that device is connected to the first 2 connectors on the top device.

Without going into too much detail; the top device is the so called hardware device. It represents the physical audio output channels on your computer.

So anything connected is capable of sending its signals to the sound output(s) of your computer. And although this example is pretty sub-standard try to imagine what could happen if ‘Malström’ didn’t send its audio to the mixer but instead would send it to an audio input channel on the Thor synthesizer ?

That is the kind of flexibility which comes with Reason. With a simple click and draw you can make connections the way you want them. Where a program like Ableton Live can only route signals across tracks Reason takes this to a whole new level.

And there’s more…

Besides audio signals almost every Reason device also supports CV signals. CV stands for Control Voltage which is something quite common with hardware synthesizers. Control voltage is basically a small electrical current which is used to control devices. And since Reason heavily focuses on providing a virtual “simulation” of a hardware 19″ audio rack the same thing applies here as well..

Here in this picture you see the back of a device I created using a so called combinator. This is a device which can be used to “group” other devices together.

The cables you see here sort of match the ones shown above; 2 blue cables, many green cables, when you look closely you’ll notice 1 folded red cable in the middle and at the bottom there are many yellow cables.

Red cables indicate that a sound signal is being routed from either an audio out or audio input connector. Green cables indicate that a sound effect has been connected. And finally; the yellow cables indicate that you’re working with CV connections.

If you look closely you’ll notice that CV connectors are smaller in size than audio connectors. This is clearly shown on the right side of the Thor device; the two columns at the right are audio connectors whereas the smaller connectors on the left are the CV connectors.

CV signals can be used in many different ways and its usability entirely depends on the device you’re working with. For example; the Thor synthesizer here has a section at the top left called “sequencer control”. In other words; the connectors shown there allow you to somehow control Thor’s internal sequencer. This can be used to make Thor play a certain note.

At the top is another example; the 2 red devices are two 2-band equalizers, and they too have a CV connection. In this case the connection can be used to control the frequency of its filters. Thus giving you a somewhat “variable” equalizer.

Of course; if you don’t feel like going too deeply then you don’t have to. If you drag a device in or simply double click on the device browser then Reason will take care of all the basic audio connections itself. But if you want more then you’ll have to get your hands a little dirty.

So as you can see, while Reason may have looked a bit limited at first with regards to the processing of audio it more than made up for it by providing a large variety of instruments and effects as well through its massive routing and control capabilities. And guess what; sound support eventually caught up with it as well…

Reason 6: adding sound to the coolness…

Reason version 6 has seen a joining of programs which started out separately: Record and Reason itself obviously. Record was initially designed to provide audio recording and processing capabilities to Reason, but on an individual basis. As such users of Reason 4 and 5 could simply use Reason or Reason together with Record. Version 6 changed all this and brought the two together in a DAW unlike any other.

A look at the new rack in Reason 6
Reason 6 screenshot

Here you see how the rack in Reason 6 can look like; a full screen window in which you still have only a small portion of the screen which is used for the 19″ rack devices. You can still flip the rack around, you can still perform massive amounts of tweaking and…

Reason 6 mixer section.
Mixer section in Reason 6

Here you see the mixer section in Reason 6 (shown at the top). Right now it only displays one single track besides the main (Master) track; that’s because I only have one audio device sitting in the rack.

You can see clearly how Reason has been enhanced; while it still allows you to simply display the main rack without anything else (see above), you can also combine your screen with different sections. Here I’m showing the mixer and the rack section, you can also combine the rack and sequencer section or even all three together.

Reason 6 GUI

The advantage should be obvious: someone like me who’s mostly using Reason as a rewire device is only interested in the rack, and if you look closely you’ll notice that the pictures above don’t even show the main transport bar at the bottom. And with one push of the button (F5) I can tell Reason to show me the mixer section fullscreen. This gives me full control over every aspect of the sound. And with another push (F7) I can tell Reason to display the sequencer fullscreen. Although I use Live as my main environment you can easily use Reason’s sequencer to extend heavily on Live’s workflow.

And all of this is ideal if you’re working on a 1024×768 resolution, I can tell you that.

Another interesting feature is that you can nowadays also expand your rack with multiple columns (“rack sections” ?), up to several sections at once. Simply drag a device onto the empty space at the right side of the screen and it will be immediately hooked up onto a completely new rack.

This can make it very easy to separate related devices which are still kept together as part of one big rack setup.

Using Reason with another DAW ?

The last feature I’d like to discuss, although this isn’t something exclusive to Reason, is the option to connect it to another DAW. Say you’re using Ableton Live most of the time yet also have a serious interest for the things Reason provides (not unthinkable). So how would you go about in using the two together?

You could consider exporting your work as an audio file (“bouncing”) and then importing that audio file into Live. But what to do when you need to make any changes to your work in Reason? That is going to be quite a tedious job indeed; every change would require exporting your entire track out of Reason again and again..

Fortunately for us the Propellerhead Software company also foresaw these caveats and helped us by developing the ReWire protocol. Rewire is supported by all major DAW’s and can be used to virtually connect one program to the other.

Every DAW which supports Rewire does so by either providing master or slave capabilities. A master program is basically in full control of your audio and midi hardware (at least on Windows) and can listen for incoming rewire requests. When a master has been started you can simply start a rewire slave program to start using it. It should detect the master and immediately start in slave mode.

A rewire slave will listen for incoming MIDI data sent by the master, and then send back its generated audio signals to the rewire master instead of your computer’s audio hardware.

Reason is a program which solely supports the rewire slave standard. And this makes it ideal to be used in combination with any other DAW which supports being a master (most DAW’s will support the master mode instead of the slave mode, some programs like Ableton Live even support both).

Here you see what Reason’s hardware device looks like when you started Reason with a rewire master present.

And to use the actual rewire connection all you’d have to do is setup the routing in your rewire master so that it knows about Reason.

For example; with Ableton Live a very easy way is to setup a midi track and pull in the “External Instrument” device, which can be seen to the left. When Reason has been properly installed it should be listed in the “MIDI To” drop down box.

Then as soon as you select Reason the second drop down box will show you a list of all the Reason devices it could find which can be used to send midi to. In the example here it sends its data to the “Live Synced” device, which is a combinator I’ve setup in Reason to be used within Ableton.

After that the only thing left to do is to start playing. Live will send the midi signals it receives on this track to Reason, Reason will in its turn process the midi and send it into whatever devices you setup and finally all produced audio signals are being send right back into Live again.

After receiving these signals the External Instrument device picks them up (provided you setup the right audio channels of course) and sends it to wherever the Track’s i/o settings tell it to.

As you can see its really quite easy to setup and use rewire to work with Reason within another DAW like (in my case) Ableton Live.

The Reason instruments

And finally here is a list of the instruments which are included with Reason. Keep in mind that these are my own impressions and experiences being mentioned, to go to the official product page just click on the device itself:


Thor is Reason’s powerhouse. This is one massive semi-modular synthesizer unlike any other. This is the small version, the moment you click on “show programmer” it’ll display the programmer section as well. Thor can use up to 3 different oscillators at the same time, and each slot has a total of 6 different oscillators at its disposal.

Analog Wavetable Phase modulation FM pair Multi oscillator Noise
  • Analog: This osc. produces an common analog-like signal. With 4 waveforms its a source for basic sound signals.
  • Wavetable: Instead of generating this osc. provides 32 wavetables which consist of several waveforms giving you a rather varied kind of sound. Needless to say you can control the way in which the wavetable is processed.
  • Phase modulation: The most obvious use of an FM synth. is to modulate one signal with another. This osc. uses 2 waveforms and modulates the phase. By playing both waveforms individually (not mixed) this can give very distinguished sounds.
  • FM pair: FM synthesis in one single osc. You cannot control the waveforms being used but only the pitch (/ frequency).
  • Multi oscillator: 5 waveforms which get de-tuned in a specific way; ranging from random detuning to a linear way or shifting the octave up and down. This can provide rather specific harmonized sounds.
  • Noise: This osc. can provide common noise as well as specific signals which can be used to modulate others.

Next it has 3 filter slots (two dedicated and one global) which can use up to 4 different filter types.

Low pass filter State variable filter Comb filter Formant filter
  • Low pass: Not only can it perform regular filtering its also capable of self oscillating. In other words: providing a (controlled) note pitch on its own and applying that in the filter as well. Not your average LP filter, that’s for sure.
  • State variable: A bit like the previous filter but offers additional modes like bandpass and highpass filtering as well.
  • Comb: This filter basically delays your signal and adds that to your original sound thus providing a kind of effect which the above multi oscillator creates. Only this time the effect is applied to your entire sound signal.
  • Formant: This filter generates “voice like” sounds. Perhaps better described as vowel sounds. A very unique filter indeed.

The one thing which makes Thor so powerful are its internal routing capabilities. Almost any inlet can be connected to any internal section or outlet. For example; the formant filter above is something specific for Thor, Reason doesn’t provide any separate formant filters. Still, that doesn’t mean the formant filter is restricted to “Thor usage” only, quite the contrary.. Just send a sound signal into one of Thor’s sound inlets, route the inlet to the ‘audio in’ of your formant filter and optionally route the output of the formant filter back to a dedicated audio outlet. The sky is literally the limit here…

Thor's step sequencer
Thor’s step sequencer section

And as you can see Thor also provides a nice step sequencer.



Subtractor is somewhat the opposite of Thor; it provides an analog (-like) signal which can be tweaked in a very large variety. What makes me favour Subtractor a lot is the way it seemingly can blend in with Ableton Live’s ‘Analog’ synthesizer. When you setup both devices to provide a raw signal (as far as that is possible) you’ll notice that the two produce an almost exact opposite signal.

Each of its 2 oscillators support up to 32 different waveforms. And although its routing capabilities aren’t as extensive as those of Thor it still manages to pack quite a punch. For example; do you notice how the first LFO can be (re)directed to several destinations besides the two main oscillator(s) (both or individual) ? Applying an LFO on a frequency setting or to control the phase of an oscillator? Subtractor provides those functions out of the box.



Malström is the main reason besides Thor why I bought Reason. This is a so called graintable synthesizer, meaning as much that it supports granular synthesis. For more information on the subject I suggest checking up on Google or Wikipedia, but in short it boils down to the synthesizer producing a large stream of very small sound segments (called ‘grains’) on which it applies its property changes. This sound signal is then combined with the more general wavetable synthesis which eventually can produce sounds which are totally out of the ordinary.

And Reason wouldn’t be Reason if it didn’t provide for some routing options as well. As can be expected the oscillators in Malström are quite special. As such Malström has 2 dedicated sound outlets for both its oscillators.


Dr. Rex loop player

The Rex loop player is an instrument I actually use the least. This is mainly because I always use Reason rewired into Live. So when it comes to creating, mangling and playing loops I usually resort to what Live can provide me with. Although the Rex loop player is in fact more powerful because it can apply several effects on a single (or more) part(s) of a loop I think this is also its weaker point.

The Rex loop player only supports so called Rex audio files. And to create or edit such Rex files you’d need Propellerhead’s Recycle software which provides a full blown Rex editor. Only problem for me; its almost as expensive as Reason itself. Still, this doesn’t change the fact that the Dr. Rex loop player is very extensive indeed. The ability to mangle individual slices of a loop can really produce very specific and interesting sounds. And fortunately there are plenty of Rex files included with Reason to work with.

In Reason 6 this instrument has been replaced with the Dr. OctoRex (see below).



This is Reason’s sample player. It has rather basic capabilities, personally I tend to compare this with Ableton Live’s Simpler device. It can load samples to play and/or process using its filter and several of the other sections you see in this screenshot.



Although this screenshot is smaller the NN-XT is actually the bigger brother of the NN-19. Just like with Thor above you don’t see the entire device here; when clicking on the arrow at the lower left corner of the screen the editor section will be shown. This too is a sample player yet it supports several extra enhancements over the NN-19: support for soundfonts, has 8 stereo outputs, can layer sounds (so basically play 2 or more samples at the same time) and it can play sounds based on incoming signals (for example a specific key velocity or key range).

The fun part is that the NN-XT isn’t in any way a replacement or such for the NN-19. A good example for that is when trying to setup a sample player for a “quick” sound. Chances are high that for a quick setup the NN-19 will easily prevail over the NN-XT, whereas for more extensive control over your samples the NN-XT might be the better choice.



Last but certainly not least is the Redrum drum sampler. Each of its 10 channels can load a sound file which can then be played in a certain order. By using its step sequencer (which can be setup for each individial drum ‘channel’) it provides a quick and good way to generate percussion sounds.

And for those of you who are now under the impression that Reason only provides sample-based percussion: think again!

Don’t forget my comments about ‘CV signals’. When you build yourself a nice percussion sound in either Subtractor or Thor there is nothing stopping you from using Redrum to actually trigger those sounds.


Reason 6 instruments


The Kong drum designer.The Kong drum designer may look like a regular drum machine at first, but don’t let the familiar “pad look” fool you. In a way the Kong is just as extensive for percussion as Thor is for sound synthesis. It provides 16 pads which can each hold a specific sound, these sounds can be generated by using samples, Rex loops or sound generators which can utilize physical or analog modelling. Needless to say; these generators are fully aimed at percussion.

NN Nano sampler.NN-Nano Sampler

NurseRex loop player.Nurse Rex loop player
  • NN-Nano: The NN-Nano is the mini version of the NN-XT, it plays samples and allows you to tweak these in many different ways.
  • Nurse Rex: This is the mini version of the Dr. OctoRex loop player. It provides a way to play Rex loops but also to handle individual slices in order to generate high quality percussion.
Physical bass drum generator.Physical bass drum Physical snare drum generator.Physical snare drum Physical tom generator.Physical Tom Tom
Bass drum synthesizer.Bass drum synthesizer Snare drum synthesizer.Snare drum synthesizer Tom Tom synthesizer.Tom Tom synthesizer
 Hi-Hat synthesizer.Hi-Hat synthesizer
  • Physical generators: The physical drum generators use physical modelling calculations to generate percussion sounds which are as close to the original as possible.
  • Drum synthesizers: The drum synthesizers on the other hand use analog modelling to generate classic percussion synth sounds. The Hi-Hat generator is ideal to be used for generating the typical hi-hat sounds of some classic drum machines.

Apart from the drum generators the Kong also provides two support generator modules; these can help enhance the percussion sound by adding some specific sounds of their own.

FX Noise generator.

FX Tone generator.Here you see the two sound generators which can be used as audio (FX) effects in order to add something extra to the sound generated by the drum module. Apart from that they can also be used individually (stand alone).

The noise generator can be used to generate some static or white noise. You can control several options such as the pitch, resonance, and its envelopes (attack / decay).

The tone generator is in many ways the same as the noise generator, apart from the fact that it doesn’t generate static noise but a specific sine waveform of which you can control the pitch and shape. Its pretty substandard but still a very valuable addition which can really spice up some of your sounds.

Apart from the common parameters you can also specify on both sound generators which hit type they should use. Some generators allow you to setup up to 4 different hit types. For example; the hi-hat which can be used in an open state, half-open state and also closed state. All of which generate a different sound.

And finally there are 9 FX effects at your disposal. These can be used in one of the two pad FX slots or you can use them in the main bus FX or master FX slot.

Compressor.Compressor FX FilterFilter FX Overdrive / Resonator.Overdrive FX Parametric EQParametric EQ FX Rattler.Rattler FX Ring modulator.Ring modulator FX Reverb.Reverb FX Echo.Echo FX Shaper.Shaper
  • Compressor: Makes loud sounds softer while compensating for the loss of audio.
  • Filter: State variable filter which can be used for low, band and high-pass.
  • Overdrive / Resonator: Combines distortion and resonance. To some extend comparable to the Scream 4 audio effect.
  • Parametric Equalizer: A single band parametric equalizer which can control center frequency, bandwith and gain.
  • Rattler: This adds the effect of a snare drum to whatever sound you feed into it.
  • Ring modulator: This multiplies the incoming sound signal with an internally generated sine wave signal.
  • Reverb: An ideal effect to add some more ‘room’ to a sound.
  • Echo: An effect mimicking the classic tape echo effect.
  • Shaper: A transient shaper, its result can be compared to that of the compressor.

And as if all of this wasn’t enough; Kong also provides some routing of its own. For example; all the FX effects which were mentioned above can also be used to enhance sounds which you can feed into the Kong filter section. The Kong pads can be used to trigger other pads (or group several pads together) but can can also use these to trigger other devices, just like other devices can also trigger individual pads.


ID8 instrument device

ID8 sound generator.

The ID8 is a relative simple device which main use is to quickly generate specific sounds such as those of a piano, electric piano, organ, guitar, bass, strings, synth, drums, etc.

A vast variety of sounds can be quickly made using the ID8.


Dr. OctoRex loop player

Dr. OctoRex.

The OctoRex loop player allows you to load up to 8 different Rex loops and switch between those at any time. This can make the player ideal to load up a specific instrument part where it can take care of an intro, chorus and end loop.

Apart from playing a loop it can also separate the loop into different slices and apply audio effects on a per-slice basis. You can change things such as the pitch or delay, but can also reverse a slice playback.



And there you have it…

You can see that Reason is a very extensive environment which provides a vast variety of instruments and effects. Although its workflow is completely different to that of any other DAW don’t let this overwhelm you. It takes getting used to, but once you do the sky becomes the limit.

The latest version of Reason is 6.5, but as of March 2013 version 7 has also been announced. This version is said to be released in the 2nd quarter of 2013.