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. We covered much of the Arrange mode last time, and in part two we’ll look at the edit mode, transport, tools, and more.
Also available in this series:
- In-Depth with Reason's Sequencer Pt 1
- In-Depth with Reason's Sequencer Pt 2
The Ruler is fairly straightforward: it tells you where each clip, note and event takes place, and allows you to navigate around the project with ease.
However, you may have noticed a few “stalks” on the ruler with letters in them. You can move these around the project as you wish and each one does something different.
- L is the Left stalk, denoting the lefthand boundary of a section of the song you wish to playback in loop mode.
- R is the Right stalk, denoting the righthand boundary of a section of the song you wish to playback in loop mode.
- E stands for End, and denotes the endpoint of the project. You will not be able to create clips or events past the End stalk, but it is easily adjusted as necessary.
- The stalk with a downward-pointing triangle instead of a letter is the Song Position stalk and indicates the place that you will begin playback from should you press the play or record button. It’s the most commonly used tool for moving around the project.
The Left and Right stalks don’t just create sections for looping, though. If you need to insert a few new bars between sections of the song, simply place the Left stalk where you wish the new bars to begin and the Right stalk should be placed depending on how many new bars you want. If you want six new bars, place the Right stalk six bars after the Left stalk. The Left stalk determines where the new bars will be inserted and the Right stalk determines how many of them there will be. Once you’ve finished positioning, right click on the ruler and press Insert Bars Between Locators (locators is the technical term for stalks, but it also contains a few more letters, making it a less preferable term for this writer!). You can do the opposite with Remove Bars Between Locators if you want to get rid of a section.
The Transport Controls
The transport bar contains all the usual audio application tools that are needed to traverse the project’s audio — playing, stopping, forwarding, rewinding, recording, and so on. In the last tutorial we looked at a few of the less familiar features, such as the new dub and new alt buttons. Let’s go over the rest.
On the left we start with some meters that you should keep your eye on. DSP stands for digital signal processing and the meter shows you how much of your computer’s processing power Reason is eating up. If this starts getting red, you’re adding more instruments and effects to your project than your computer will soon be able to handle. If your computer hasn’t got great specs, you might want to keep your eye on this before adding that next sampler.
Underneath that, we’ve got a faux LED that’s labeled “AUDIO OUT CLIP”. While we’re not recording audio in Reason and don’t have to worry about incoming signals clipping, we sure do need to make sure the way our signal chain is managed regarding outgoing sounds does not lead to clipping. Mix low, master loud — and watch the button!
The next section is the click track controls.
There are two buttons here — pushing Click turns the click track on, and pushing Pre tells Reason to give you one bar before recording begins. There’s also a knob labeled Click Level — of course, this determines how loud the click sound will be. Studio engineer anecdotes suggest that musicians playing to an overly loud click (or too loud of a monitoring mix in general) will play too quickly, and if it’s too quiet, they’ll play too slowly.
There are tempo and time signature controls next to the click controls, and they’re quite self-explanatory—change the values to whichever time signature and tempo you want. You can alt/option+click these to automatically bring up the relevant Transport track lanes.
To the right we have position indicators that will tell you down to the tick or millisecond where the song position stalk is. The great part about these are that they help you to not only see where you are very specifically, but navigate to a very specific point in the song. The ruler stalks and forward/rewind buttons don’t allow for any sort of minute specificity. You can drag the numbers on these indicators to change by exact amounts. Simply click on the value you want to change and drag — if you want to skip from bar to bar, drag on that number, but if you want to be on a certain sixteenth note, drag the number just above the 1/16 label.
Beneath what are traditionally known as the transport controls — the stop, play, record, forward and rewind buttons — are two checkboxes. The first is Automation as Perf Ctrl, which is shortened from Automation as Performance Control. This means that whenever you use a control that is usually recorded as automation while recording from a MIDI controller device, it’ll be recorded as performance automation in the clip itself — not in a separate automation lane. The idea is that this makes it easier to move these recordings around in a self-contained format, otherwise you need to copy and paste automation data as well (which is no fun at all).
The second is Quantize During Rec, and this is shortened from Quantize During Record. When switched on, this will quantize all notes you record to the quantization specifications set in the Tools window (as opposed to the Snap option in the Arrange/Edit toolbar which can look like a quantize feature to new users). I probably wouldn’t use this unless you’re having significant trouble getting a section recorded in time, because auto-quantization tends to suck the life out of music.
The next checkbox is Loop On/Off and this tells Reason whether or not to start from the Left stalk once the Song Position stalk hits the Right stalk during playback — in short, it allows you to loop a section of the song. Beneath this checkbox are position indicators for the Left and Right stalks, and they work just like the song position indicators — drag a number to set the stalks in position. The L and R buttons move the Song Position stalk to the Left and Right points respectively.
The Regroove Mixer button brings up the Regroove Mixer, unsurprisingly, but this feature in itself is a topic for another day. Finally, the Automation Override indicator on the far right lets you know if you’re overwriting automation data — the technique for recording automation data on its own is also for another tutorial.
The Transport Track
The Transport track helps you accomplish two things: automate changes in the time signature, and automate changes in the tempo. It’s the first track in the list in Arrange mode.
This is a feature that not a whole lot of amateur musicians use — most amateur music tends to stay in the same tempo/time signature range for some reason — so the feature is underutilized. But for everyone from the more experienced amateurs to the professionals, this feature will be used in almost every project. Don’t skip learning it, seeing as it only takes a few minutes to do!
The Transport track is folded by default, so click on that little arrow to get it fold out. You’ll see two lanes here — the first is time signature, the second is tempo. Before we proceed, I thoroughly recommend everyone sets their Snap To feature to one bar, otherwise things get messy, and nobody ever changes tempo or time mid-bar.
Automating time signature changes is very easy. Simply draw in some clips using the pencil tool for each stretch of a certain time signature. Then switch to the pointer tool and double-click the clips as if you were going into Edit mode. Instead, this will bring up a menu that allows you to select the preferred signature for each clip.
Tempo works a bit differently. As you’d expect, wherever there is no clip present on the transport track, the project will default to the tempo you set on the transport bar.
The easiest way to change tempo is to draw clips where changes from the default will occur, and everywhere that the default tempo will be in effect, leave the area on the tempo track free of clips. Then select the clip you want to edit, press Enter, select the pencil tool and draw in the changes approximately. It’s impossible to draw them in accurately. Once the little circles are in the clip (every one bar, if you’ve left your Snap To settings in place), you can click on them using the pointer tool and change their value in the Value: field on the toolbar.
In this screenshot you can see the tempo lane with four tempo changes in one clip, as well as the Value editor:
The Edit Mode bears many similarities with the Arrange mode. It has the same transport bar, the same ruler, same track selector, and the toolbar is by and large the same. The differences occur in the editing area where, in the Arrange mode, you edit clips and lanes, and in the Edit mode, you edit notes and their variables.
This is what the Edit mode looks like in action:
To enter the Edit mode, you can click on the left-most button in the toolbar which toggles between Arrange and Edit. Most often, however, you’ll enter the Edit mode to work on a specific parts of the song. To edit a clip in Edit mode you simply double-click on it with the pointer tool while in Arrange. It’s quite annoying to find a clip from the Edit mode itself, so you’ll rarely reach for the toggle button.
There are several main components to the Edit window when you open a clip:
The Summary is a little strip beneath the ruler that shows a summary of the notes in that timeframe. Often if there are only bass notes or high melodies being played in a certain section, it’s hard to find that section as they’ll be outside of the default view range (when you switch to Edit mode it centers on middle C) and this strip allows you to see whether there are notes outside of the area you’re currently viewing. It also provides you with tools for making clips longer or shorter — you’ll spot these little handles on the edges of clips quite easily. You’ll find you need to add or remove space to work with quite often in Edit mode, and this saves you from flicking back over to Arrange mode.
The Note Editor is where the notes themselves are edited — pitch, position and length. On the left there’s a piano roll so you can determine the pitch of each note, as well as audition certain notes and even record melodies if you’re awesome with your mouse.
The Velocity Editor makes editing the velocity of individual notes quite easy. This editor is placed right under the note editor, rather than tucked away in another window, because velocity editing is just as important as note editing if you want to make programmed music sound somewhat realistic.
Other Automation Lanes will appear if you have recorded or manually added other automation data for the track (but will not appear by default when empty like the velocity lane).
Creating and Editing Notes
Once you’ve learned how to use the Arrange mode, most of the same tools apply and work the same way when dealing with notes. The following information should be pretty intuitive for you by now, and the main difference is the addition of a pitch variable to work with. The simple rule is that pitch is the vertical axis and time is the horizontal axis. This is true in the majority of sequencing software (in audio software, the vertical axis is typically the amplitude data of a waveform).
You can’t edit notes until you’ve opened a clip. You can do this by double-clicking them whether you’re in the Arrange mode or Edit mode. To create new notes, select the pencil tool and draw them in on the preferred note and position, and drag to the right until the note is the length you want. Notes will obey the rules of the Snap To setting, so for more freeform composing, turn it off. Also, if you simply click (as opposed to clicking and dragging to determine length), the note will adopt the length of the Snap To setting.
If you’re not happy with the note, switch back to the pointer and you can drag the note to a different pitch and position, and when the note is selected, you can use the arrow on its right to change the length. The eraser tool will help you remove notes, but most of the time it’s more practical to select the note with your pointer tool and just hit the Delete key. You can also split notes with the razor tool.
One of the most annoying things that’ll happen when you’re moving notes is accidental transposition when you’re trying to change the start point, and an accidental change of start point when you’re trying to transpose. To avoid this, click Shift and then move in the direction appropriate to the task you’re trying to complete, and it will stick to that direction — if you move vertically initially, you won’t be able to move horizontally until you release Shift, for instance.
Nudging is another useful tool. Select a note (or notes) and press Command/Ctrl and the left or right arrow to move a note in either direction. Nudging obeys the Snap To setting, so this allows you to fine-tune the movement of notes. If you want to nudge in single beat increments, make your selection and press Command+Shift/Ctrl+Shift and the left or right arrow. You can also move in ticks by using Command+Option/Ctrl+Alt, but you shouldn’t need to do this very often — ticks are a tiny unit of measurement (not to mention a very nasty insect).
Editing velocity data is quite easy. If you wish to draw in patterns across time, rather than nitpicking over individual values for each note, grab the pencil note and simply draw a line in the shape you want horizontally over the velocity area. All the notes will change their velocity values to match the line as closely as possible. Simply bring the line you’re drawing upwards where the velocity gets harder and down as the tune gets softer.
Alternatively, you can select individual notes and edit their corresponding velocity values using the inspector in the toolbar. With a note selected while in Edit mode, you’ll see a Vel: field in the toolbar — simply change this to the preferred velocity. If you want to increase by percentage or scale, use the velocity feature in the Tools window.
Whenever you open Reason, you’ll see a separate window floating around called the Tool Window. This window has several uses but those most relevant to sequencing are on the middle tab, named Tools.
As far as assisting you with note editing in the Edit mode goes, the most useful features here are:
- Pitch (Transpose)
We’ll look at each of these more closely in a moment, but it’s good to be aware of the other tools which I’ll cover in the near future:
- Note Lengths
- Legato Adjustments
- Scale Tempo
- Alter Notes
- Automation Cleanup
This is where you set your quantize settings so when you Quantize During Recording or right click on a selection of notes and click Quantize (or even Apply the quantization on your selection from the Tools tab itself), the notes will be automatically brought in time according to the decisions you make here.
The first, and most important, setting is Value. While “Bar” may have been a fine setting when it came to Snap To in the Arrange mode, it certainly isn’t (generally speaking) here. You want a setting that is going to bring your recording in time without throwing the rhythm off. Generally speaking, the best way to choose a value is to find the shortest note or dotted portion of a note in your piece and set that as your Value. If you’ve got nothing shorter than a 1/32nd note, set that as your value. If your shortest note is a 1/4th note but there’s also a dotted 1/4th note in the piece, you’ll need to set the quantization to a 1/8th note. You need to include rests in your factoring, since if there’s nothing shorter than a 1/4th note but you’ve got 1/8th note rests all over the place, the quantization will totally change the rhythm and note placement of the piece. We don’t want to change the piece; we want to make small corrections to it!
The Amount field determines how far the note will be moved towards the nearest quantize value. This is a way of helping you retain some of the realness of your original performance. If the amount is 50% and the value is 1/16th note, the note will only be moved halfway towards the nearest 1/16th of a bar.
The Random field is also part of an effort to help you make your quantized MIDI retain some realness, and the variable is counted in ticks. When you hit Apply, Reason will move your notes to the position determined by the Value and Amount variables and then randomly offset it from 0 to n ticks, where n is the number of ticks set in Random.
Transpose is a fairly easy-to-grasp feature. You select a bunch of notes — even a whole clip! — and tell Reason how many semi-tones up or down you want the passage transposed by using the Semi-tones variable. You then click Apply.
Of course, you are probably wondering about this randomize feature. My advice is to leave it alone. Nothing good can come of it! But if you want to know, you set boundaries in the form of an upper pitch limit and lower pitch limit, hit Apply, and watch as Reason randomizes all the note pitches in your selection (ie, ruins them). Good for five seconds of fun, and generally never touched again.
The Note Velocity tool is useful when you don’t want to draw velocities in with a pencil, but you don’t want to set a specific amount either — you want to reduce or increase it be a set amount, or a percentage or scale. You can even randomize the velocity within a certain percentage, which is the most useful aspect of this velocity editor — get your velocities to reflect the progression of the song in the Edit mode, then select all your notes, set the percentage really low, and randomize. This way all of your notes will have a slight variance, even when the song has a fairly even passage in which you would’ve normally left all velocities the same. It gives a bit of life to programmed music.
Usage of the tool is simple and uses the same technique even if you’re not randomizing — making a selection, select the change in velocity you want to occur, and press Apply!
By now, you should thoroughly understand the sequencer aspect of Reason. There are many more tricks to learn — this is very complicated software — but through the two parts in this series of Plus tutorials you’ve now got the kind of good understanding that would’ve taken me six or seven regular Audiotuts+ tutorials to convey. If you understood Reason’s rack before reading this, you’re pretty great at Reason now. If you didn’t, don’t worry — we’ll cover that soon!