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In-Depth with Reason's Sequencer Pt 1

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:

While some producers, such as electronica producers, practically live in the sequencer, many home recording enthusiasts are totally unfamiliar with the concept—their work revolves around audio, not sequenced material.

Understanding the sequencer is a pretty hefty topic, so we’re going to get to know Reason’s implementation in this Plus tutorial.


Also available in this series:

  1. In-Depth with Reason's Sequencer Pt 1
  2. In-Depth with Reason's Sequencer Pt 2

Overview of the Sequencer

The sequencer itself usually sits below the rack (where Reason’s instrument and effect devices are). It has two modes: Arrange, which is what you’ll see by default when loading Reason, and Edit. Let’s have a look at them.

Arrange Mode:


Edit Mode:


The Arrange mode is all about working with the song as a whole, whether that means editing or choosing between different versions of a melody. It’s where I tend to record new parts, so I can deal with those new parts as they fit into the song before I edit them on their own.

The Edit mode is where you edit individual clips from different tracks. It’s about fine-tuning individual notes. There’s a lot you can do with your MIDI information in this view.

Before we move on, here’s a tip I wish I picked up on much earlier than I did: the sequencer window can detach from the main window. Reason’s main window has a set width and it can all feel very constrained, and it’s a waste of space to keep both windows attached if you have a large monitor or dual monitors.

To detach the sequencer window, use the Window > Detach Sequencer Window option.


Toolbar

Whenever I’m trying to get to grips with a new piece of software, or even a certain part of a piece of software as we’re doing now, I like to look at the toolbar first. The toolbar is what provides you with everything you’ll be using to interact with and manipulate your data, so—at least to me—it makes sense as a starting point.

As you might expect, the toolbars from each sequencer view mode are slightly different, though thankfully only slightly so. The Edit mode contains automation tools and a create pattern lane button, which the Arrange mode lacks—so when I talk about those buttons and you can’t find them, remember to switch views!


The image above is a picture of the toolbar in the Edit mode.

From left to right, it contains the following tools (the letters in brackets are the keyboard shortcuts you can use to access the tools):

  • A mode toggler (this button switches between Arrange and Edit modes)
  • Selection Tool (Q) allows you to select and move notes, clips, or other data, and perform certain manipulations such as resizing clips.
  • Pencil Tool (W) is used to draw in notes and automation data and creating clips.
  • Erase Tool (E) removes notes, clips and other data.
  • Razer Tool (R) slices up clips.
  • Magnify Tool (T) is used to zoom in and out on the Arrange and Edit sequencer areas.
  • Hand Tool (Y) is a navigation tool for moving around the sequencer area.
  • Snap to Grid (S) button turns snapping on or off, and the menu next to it determines how far data should snap to the grid.
  • Track Parameter Automation
  • Create Pattern Lane
  • The Position and Length fields show you the position and length of the selected clip or note. When a note is selected, there are also numerical fields for the pitch and velocity.

Tracks

The rack contains devices that set the parameters for a certain sound. Tracks are their sequencer counterparts—these contain the data that tells the rack devices what, exactly, they need to play.
Tracks can contain clips, lanes, and events, which we’ll cover soon.

Here’s a picture of what constitutes just one track:


On the left, there’s the track head. This is where you can name the track, mute or solo it, set it as the currently active recording track, create or delete new lanes and mute them, and set groove templates.

On the right is the associated sequencer lane for that track. This is where clips, containing information about the timing, pitch and length of each note as well as information as to how those notes need to be played—such as velocity—are contained. These things are all what Reason calls events—anything that can be contained within a clip, really.

Most of that data can’t be seen accurately from the Arrange mode, though you do get a “birds-eye-view” of the notes themselves. This way, you can easily spot which section is that pizzicato melody as opposed to the section of thick, atmospheric chords.

There are three types of tracks. The first is the Transport track. There’s only ever one, it’s at the top of the list of track headers, and it’s for automating the song’s rhythm data (specifically, tempo changes, and time signature changes).

The second is the most common type of track that you’ll be working with—the regular track that attaches to an instrument in the rack and contains notes, which it sends to that device.

Thirdly, there are tracks associated with effect and mixer devices. Since these devices do not receive notes and turn them into audio, these tracks are for automation only.

Creating Tracks
Tracks are all associated with a particular device, so to create a track you need to right-click on a device and click the “Create Track for…” menu option.

As there’s a limit of one track per device you’ll need to have deleted the track that was automatically created when you introduced the device to the rack, or it’ll need to be an effect or mixer device, as these devices don’t auto-create tracks.

Selecting Tracks

To determine which track your MIDI controller keyboard is controlling at any given time, it’s as simple as clicking on the track header and ensuring it’s selected. Touch a key to confirm, and you should be hearing the instrument of your preference.

When you select the track, the rack will scroll to the associated device automatically, making it easier to make alterations to the events in the track and the sound itself at the same time. You can select multiple tracks if you want to delete in bulk or perform other operations simultaneously by Ctrl+clicking on Windows or Cmd+clicking on Mac OS X.

You can still select multiple tracks in the Edit view, but you’ll still only be able to edit one of those at a time.

Basic Track Operations

To mute a track, simply click on the small M button in the track header. It’ll turn red, and the track will be muted. Just click this button again to unmute.


If you’ve got multiple mutes that you want to toggle, hit the Mute button at the top of the track header list (above the Transport track).


Similarly, to solo a track, hit the small S button which will go green. You can unsolo the track by clicking that button again, or toggle the solo on multiple tracks using the Solo button above the Transport track.


Organizing Tracks

A couple of hours into even the most mildly complex project, you’re going to have a lot of tracks in need of some organization—for your own sanity!

Of course, the fundamental organizing technique is naming. To name your tracks, double click on the label in the track list. You’ll then be able to replace the default name with one of your own. This will rename the associated device as well, though.

To move tracks around in the list so that the order suits your workflow better, simply click-and-hold on the dotted tab to the left of the track header (the strip that looks like grips on a handle) and drag to the desired location. If you can’t see the drag strip, your track may be folded—click on the small arrow to the left of the track header to fold or unfold the track.

When folded, the track will appear smaller in both the track list and the sequencer area. This is a great way to keep the focus on a handful of tracks that you’re working on at the time, while the others stay a little out of sight. I just find that it makes it easier to move between tracks without spending a whole lot of time scanning for them.

To delete a track, right click the track header and select either Delete Track or Delete Track and Device. If you’re deleting the track because you don’t want to use the events it contains or the sound anymore, use Delete Track and Device. If you wish to keep the device but use it on another track, just use Delete Track.

If you wish to color code your track headers, you can select a track and then use Edit > Track Color to pick a color. This is useful for groups rather than individual tracks, at least in my opinion; it allows me to group the strings versus the percussion, for example, which means moving from one part of my project to another is faster.


Finally, if you wish to copy a track, you’ll need to duplicate both the track and the associated device (one device can’t support more than one track). If you want to do this, right-click on the track header and click Duplicate Tracks and Devices. Be warned that adding another device will use up more of your processor, so be conservative.

Some of these organizational tricks may not seem worth the hassle, but being able to jump between track groups by color code or focus on a few expanded tracks at a time adds up when you’re using this software every day.


Lanes

Note lanes are a part of each track, and by default, each track is created with one. This is the strip for each track you see in the sequencer window, where clips can be stored (the clips themselves are what contain your music).

If you want to record multiple takes so you can judge which one is best later, or record overdubs, lanes are the way to go. You may even want to use them to simply store unused material just in case.
To add a new note lane, you need to select the track you want to have the lanes added to and click the New Dub or New Alt buttons on the Transport, tucked away next to the Record button:


Creating a dub means a new record-enabled note lane will be created without muting the note lane that existed beforehand.

Creating an alt will, on the other hand, mute the previous note lane.

So dubbing is about adding to the sound, and alting is about recording multiple takes that you can choose between later. There’s no inherent difference in the note lanes themselves, just their starter settings—in other words, you can easily turn a dub into an alt and vice-versa.

Something that could potentially trip you up: if you create a new alt lane while Loop is activated and the song position is inside the boundaries of the looped section, only the clips within the loop boundaries will be muted on previous lanes. Trust me, you’ll spend a lot of time in loop mode, so you’ve saved yourself some confusion by reading this!

Deleting is simple. You click the X button on the particular note lane in its section of the track header. Muting a lane works the same as muting a track, but when it comes to lanes record-enabling doesn’t just mean clicking on the track—you have to determine which lane is record-enabled by clicking on the red record button next to the groove pattern selector.

In this case, the first lane is record-enabled:


Organizing Note Lanes

Back to organizing! You’ll no doubt rack up a few lanes in your time. To rename a lane, double-click the little name above the lane’s strip of buttons. You didn’t even know lanes could have names until now? Yeah, they sure do tuck that little detail out of the way! Maybe I’m blind but I didn’t see the simple fact that lanes could be named for months.

Remember the handle we used to move the tracks around earlier? Each note lane has one of these, too. It’s just to the left of the record-enable button. You click and drag the lanes into place just as you do with tracks.

Finally, if you’ve been recording dubs, you might find it helps to merge note lanes once you’re finished with the recording process, so that you only have one lane to manage. Select the track itself (not any particular lane) and right click it. Then select Merge Note Lanes on Tracks from the menu. This just puts all off the clips on the top lane, and removes the empty ones.


Clips

We’ve gone from the Arrange window as a whole to tracks to note lanes; as we look at incrementally smaller components of your song, it is time to look at clips.

As I’ve mentioned, clips are containers that hold notes and information about how those notes are played. Working like this requires you to shift your thinking a bit, but it’s really much more convenient. It means you can easily copy and paste little sections—the guitar’s entire verse part or just a particular riff—if you think of the clips as building blocks with which you can build your song. This way of thinking works particularly well in heavily-structured songs, like most verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop tunes.

Clips are the blue items in this screenshot:


You select clips by clicking on them, and when you do, two arrows will appear—one on either side of the clip. These are used to resize the clip. Note that resizing the clip won’t delete the data inside it, but anything outside the bounds of the clip won’t be played until you increase the bounds of the clip again.

You can copy and paste clips using the Edit menu options or Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V on Windows and Cmd+C and Cmd+V on a Mac. A better trick is to hold down the Alt key while dragging the clip—this will leave the original in place, but put a duplicate in the spot you drag the clip to.

Since clips are the building blocks of our compositions, you’ll no doubt be using that one a lot!

You can cut clips up with the Razor tool (keyboard shortcut R) by simply clicking at the part of the clip where you want the split to occur with the tool selected. You can join clips back together by selecting the two or more clips you want merged, right-clicking on the clips and clicking Join Clips.

Deleting the clips is an equally simple measure—select one and hit Backspace or Delete on your keyboard, or right-click on the clip and choose the Delete menu option.
Use the Pen Tool (for which the keyboard shortcut is W) to draw new clips by clicking at a start point, dragging and releasing at the end point. Use the Edit mode to populate this with notes—if you’re using a keyboard, clips are automatically created when you hit Record.

At times you may want to mute individual clips, not a whole track or note lane. To do this, select a clip and press M on your keyboard. The clip will go a lighter shade of whichever color you’ve selected for it, indicating that it’s muted. To revert this, just hit M again with the clip selected.

Organizing Clips

Copying and moving clips isn’t an organizational thing with clips as it was with tracks, because they are building blocks by nature. We still have a few tools at our disposal, though—naming and coloring.

To add a name to a clip, right-click it and select Add Labels to Clips. A text box will appear on the label, where you can enter a name. Although clips don’t have labels by default and require you to manually add them this way, once you’ve added them, you can simply double-click on the label to change it.

To color a clip, right-click it and make a selection from the Clip Color submenu.

Match Values

If you want clips to line up in terms of either position or length, or both, Reason offers a simple way of doing so.

Select two or more clips and a new button will appear in the Toolbar—a red equal sign that sits beside both the Position and Length indicators. If you want both clips to begin at the same point, click the equal button—more accurately, the Match Values button—next to Position. If you want to match the lengths of each clip, use the button besides the Length indicator.

It’s a simple feature, but it makes something that could be ridiculously time-consuming really easy.
Sending Patterns to Tracks

Something that really frustrates most people who are new to Reason is trying to figure out how to get a REX loop or Redrum pattern to go to the sequencer so it can be arranged and edited.
The first thing you need to do is set the section you want the pattern sent to using the left and right locators (the two stalks in the meter at the top of the sequencer that say L and R). Once you’ve determined where you want the pattern to go, select the track that is associated with the device the pattern is in.

From here, it depends on the device.

REX:


In the picture above, locate the To Track button on the Dr. REX device in the rack. It’s above the black display in the middle and beside the Preview button.
Click this button and the loop will be placed between the locators in the sequencer. You can see at the bottom of the screenshot that the loop has been filled between the L and R stems on the meter.

Redrum:

Right-click on the Redrum device and choose Copy Pattern to Track. This will do the same thing as Dr. REX’s To Track button.
Overlapping Clips

A few notes about overlapping clips: clips that are hidden behind other clips—or the parts of those clips that are hidden, if only a section is overlapping—will not play. Put clips on separate note lanes or merge clips to hear all parts.

The clip that starts the latest will be placed on top. This is because you might want to throw a short clip in the middle of a longer clip and have Reason transition between the two.


Conclusion

Well, that’s quite enough to take in during one sitting! In the future, we’ll be covering more about events, the Transport, the ruler, recording notes and automation, and editing song structure. We’ll also be going into the Edit Mode.

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