Give Me A Reason!

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Martin French

Here in TheLab™, much to the chagrin of the bats, the in-house cat and the giant rats, we like to make a lot of noise and not just any noise, we like to make loud, incomprehensible music scores with our computers. The combined musical skill available in TheLab™ may well amount to the same as the entire cast of American Idol but even we can turn out something usable with the aid of a couple of impressive pieces of software.

That intro was a subtle way of saying let's take a look at one of the software packages you can use if you need some quick music but you lack the requisite training to compose that symphony you've always dreamed of.

Tick Tock

If there is one thing that computers are very good at it's keeping time and since a fundamental part of music is keeping time you can imagine just how helpful they are when putting together a composition. There is no doubt that the the software package we're looking at here, Reason 4, can create a full on professional soundtrack but if you're not a musician by trade you can just as easily make good rehearsal pieces, sound-scapes or experiment to your heart's content.

Reason 4, created by the Swedish boffins at Propellerhead Software, has been built from the ground up to resemble, in almost every way, a real world rack of music hardware except this rack of hardware isn't going to blow-up your speakers if you push the wrong button. The top section of the application window is the hardware and the bottom section is the sequencer, where you build your creation.

The level of graphical detail is such that by pressing the Tab key on your keyboard you can flip the hardware rack around and see all of the virtual cables that connect the pieces of faux noise machinery together. You can even unplug them and reconnect things to places they should never be connected and marvel at the cacophony of noise that spews forth from your speakers.

Because the mixers, synthesisers, drum machines, samplers and effects boxes all resemble real pieces of music hardware they are, at first glance, a little daunting but as soon as you get through the first chapter of the manual it all becomes very clear and very easy to use.

Mixing It Up

Each new Reason "Song" starts you off with nothing more than a mixer into which you plug the various bits of hardware. Each piece of hardware has a distinctive name and performs a specific task. The "Dr:Rex" loop player, as you would expect, plays drum loops, the ReDrum drum computer plays user defined drum sequences, the samplers play samples and so-on.

The mixer has 16 tracks so you can plug 16 pieces of sound producing hardware in at any one time. In theory you can plug more mixers into the first one for even more tracks but the total number of tracks you can play at once is limited by the power of your computer.

Each piece of hardware can have numerous effects boxes added to it (flangers, reverbs, delay lines, etc) to further augment or distort the sound of the pre-set loops supplied with the software to really make the sounds your own.

Our personal favourite is the "Scream 4 Sound Destruction Unit" which does exactly what you think it does, takes the nicest of sounds and turn it into something that terrifies the cat.

Reason comes supplied with thousands of preset sounds, called Refills, so there is plenty of noise to be made right out of the box. Each Refill type only works with one particular piece of hardware so you're not going to get confused about what to use for each piece of equipment.

The range of drums and samples covers everything from Hip Hop through Acoustic to Drum and Bass and the samplers can play a full complement of instruments from a simple piano to a string quartet. The variety of sounds you can create with the three built in synthesisers (Thor, Maelstrom and Subtractor) are too numerous to count. Experimentation is key to getting the most out of this software.

If the instruments that come with the software are not enough to satisfy you then tens of thousands more are available in various packs for as little as €50 (Euros) each.

Building A Song

Actually building a piece of music with Reason couldn't be easier, making it sound good is the hard part.

Each piece of hardware on the mixer has an associated track on the sequencer (see image) so when you have found the Refill you want to use for that piece of hardware you record it manually (using a MIDI keyboard) if you're using a sampler or synthesiser. If you're using a drum machine or loop player then you can let the computer do the hard part and simply send the loop to the relevant track.

Playback is controlled by the "transport" located beneath the sequencer. it features all the standard play, rewind and record controls along with the composition speed setting and time signature.

Reason 4 has a new trick up its sleeve in the form of "lanes". Each track can have multiple lanes with different sequences recorded into each one from the same instrument. The only downside is the lanes cannot be mixed separately.

Compositions can be edited down to individual notes within the sequencer to get things sounding exactly like you need them to. An automatic "quantizing" feature can keep manually recorded notes in time, if not always in key.

Just by using the loop player and the drum machine combined with a few effects you will be very surprised how easy it is to build a complex piece of sound. Add in a few synthesisers and a couple of samplers and you have all the makings of the perfect sound-scape for your next piece of choreography.

The two samplers included with Reason (the NN-19 and the NN-XT) can play back any sound you have previously recorded or captured from elsewhere. You can even assign one sound effect to each and every key on your midi keyboard for a truly nightmarish piece of sound design.

Arrangements can be edited with ease from within the sequencer and entire sections can be cut and pasted or simply re-arranged at will. It is very easy to see the music visually as it plays back along the sequencer so you can spot where changes need to be made in your opus.

If you're not happy with the speed or the time signature of your composition then you can change them both with ease. Reason will keep everything playing in time without distorting the pitch of your studiously crafted sounds no matter how hard you try to do the opposite.

Compress Compress Compress

Once you have your basic composition you can remix it at will and further augment the production using what the Propellerheads call the "Default Mastering Suite". The suite comprises an equalizer, a compressor, a stereo imager and something called the "maximizer". Basically all of these tools make your composition a lot louder and meatier than before. You should really play with those toys when your neighbours are tucked up in bed with their horlicks!

When you finally finish it's a simple matter of exporting your soundtrack and burning it to a CD, put it on your iPod or play it straight off the computer, whatever you want really.

Time To Play

Software packages like Reason are not a replacement for a real musician or a professional composer but they do give you the opportunity to experiment with creating music and sound in a very fundamental way no matter what your skill level may be.

I've only scratched the surface of what's possible with Reason in this piece. You can download a demo version of the software at the link below to have a play for yourself (save and export are disabled). There are also some video tutorials on the Propellerhead's website for you to follow that give you a good idea of how the software works. Since we don't mind putting our lack of musical ability out there for everyone to mock have a listen at the link below to something we made!

Once you learn the basics the learning curve does become fairly steep and the possibilities can be overwhelming at times. If you take things slowly however you should be able to use a tool like Reason very effectively within your work, even if its just to illustrate to a composer the kind of sound you are looking for and the tempo you need. Most importantly, there is a huge amount of fun to be had in the learning.

Reason 4 is available for both PC and Mac computers for €450 (Euros), prices vary dependant on supplier and your geographic location. You need a fairly modern PC or Mac with plenty of memory. No specialist hardware is required but a MIDI keyboard (available from €90) is a definite plus when using any music software.

[ Sample Music ]
[ Reason 4 Demo Version ]
[ Propellerheads Software ]

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