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Using Propellerhead Reason 4′s RPG-8 Arpeggiator

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Reason 4’s RPG-8 Arpeggiator device is a useful tool when you want to create any sort of arpeggiated melody from a chord progression or even lead line without hours of painful penciling. The RPG-8 was released with Reason 4 and was the first arpeggiator to come with the software; it’s not hard to use, but many users still approach it with some confusion.

The Arpeggiator Device

A fresh, blank arpeggiator device looks something like this:

There are three main sections to the device. The first deals with MIDI to CV conversion. The second section is all about the parameters of the arpeggios and how notes are selected. The third pane allows you to define the rhythmic pattern of the arpeggio so that notes only play when you want them to, and provides a visual representation of the arpeggio when you’re playing it back.

The first panel provides us with the following settings:

  • Velocity: this knob allows you to define a velocity value between 0 and 127 for the notes that are output via through the Gate CV Out jacks on the back of the RPG-8 (hit Tab to view the rear of the rack devices). If you turn the knob to Manual, the velocity is defined by whatever is recorded from your MIDI controller, or whatever you assign in the Edit mode as you pencil the notes in. Unless you have a reason to change it, leave this set to Main.
  • If the Hold button is on (lit), the RPG-8 will continue to arpeggiate the notes you’ve played even after they’ve been released, and will continue to do so until you play new notes. You can control the Hold button with your MIDI controller’s sustain pedal — if the pedal is down, the Hold button will remain lit.
  • Octave Shift transposes the CV output by octaves, and can shift the output anywhere from three down to three up.
  • The Rate setting determines at what rate the arpeggio is played. With the Sync button activated, this changes tempo resolution of the arpeggio — in other words, how slow or fast it will play in relation to the tempo of the song. With Sync selected, the arpeggio will be in time no matter what rate is set and has settings ranging from “1/1” to “Yngwie Malmsteen”*. The Free button allows you to choose the rate of the song in Hertz, which is tempo-independent.

The second panel of arpeggio settings contains the following settings:

  • The On button. An essential button in almost all devices from the humble toaster to the mighty RPG-8. This turns the arpeggiating abilities of the RPG-8 on or off.
  • The Mode controller allows you to determine the direction of the notes; Up causes the arpeggio to travel from lowest to highest note, Up+Down starts by going from low to high and then returns from high to low again. Down plays from highest to lowest, and Random does what it says. The Manual settings arpeggiates notes in the same order you played them in to begin with.
  • The Octave range buttons sets the maximum range of arpeggiation. 1 Oct plays only the notes you’ve included, whereas the other options include those same notes in higher octaves.
  • The Insert buttons add certain patterns to the arpeggio; 4-2 plays a pattern of 4 notes forward, 2 notes back. 3-1 plays three notes forward and one back. Low and Hi mean that the lowest or highest note (respectively) will be played between every second note.
  • The Gate length allows you to gate the length of the notes, with no output occurring at 0 and the notes ringing out in full length (with the gate effectively off) at full.
  • Single Note Repeat, when activated, allows you to play normal melodies and arpeggios at the same time by effectively turning the arpeggiator off when you are not playing more than one key. This is mostly useful for performance situations, but also in the studio when you want to record some melodies and an arpeggio section in one take.

The third panel contains the following settings:

  • The Pattern editor, when activated by pressing the “Pattern” button, allows you to determine your own rhythm for the arpeggio by inserting rests (whereas normally the arpeggiator will play on ever note at the rate you set earlier). You do this by clicking on the row of buttons above the monitoring panel to set played notes (by clicking on them until they are lit red) and rests (clicking on them until grey). When activated, you’ll find some pretty self-explanatory functions available in the Edit menu or by right-clicking on the device.
  • The Swing button tries to give your arpeggio a swing feel by delaying the 16th notes that fall between 8th notes.

Setting Up a Lead Arpeggio

I’ve created a Thor synthesizer and loaded up the patch FM Screamer. The RPG-8 Arpeggiator isn’t a stand-alone rack device — it works when attached to another synth or sampler device, much as the other effect devices in Reason do. You can easily create an RPG-8 attached to the device of your choice without having to fiddle with the wiring by right-clicking on your sampler or synth, going to the Create sub-menu, and selecting the RPG-8 Monophonic Arpeggiator option.

Your devices should look like this:

Go to Edit mode and select your Thor device, and draw in a simple monophonic melody. You can copy the one I’ve used if you like.

This is what your melody will sound like at this stage:

It’s pretty boring, and there’s no arpeggiation going on yet! Head back into the Arrange mode. You should have both a Thor and RPG-8 track listed.

Simply click on the clip you’ve created on the Thor track and move it down to the Arp track. Now we can see what the RPG-8 does to our single-note sounds with the default settings.

Well, that was… interesting! You might be thinking that the arpeggiator isn’t really worth the effort by this stage. But there are two main reasons that this sounds so horrible right now, and the lesser of the two is that we haven’t dialed in any settings. The main reason is one we’ll get to in a second.

Try changing your arpeggiator’s mode, octave and insert parameters to match the following:

The resulting sound is much more interesting:

But it’s still not great (although it could have a potential musical application in one of your compositions), and that’s because arpeggiators — by definition — are meant to be note-alternating melodies based on chords. Now that we’ve come to understand the basic operation of the device with a simple monophonic melody, it’ll be a piece of cake to do the same thing with chords.

Creating Complex Arpeggios with Chords

I’ve created an NN-XT device and selected a pad patch (Psapphia in this case). We won’t be arpeggiating this, just coming up with a simple chord progression, and using it as both a foundation to play under, and the basis for, our arpeggiated melody.

You won’t need to spend much time tweaking the sample if you don’t want to — I went straight to the Edit mode and penciled in some chords:

A couple of the notes in my progression don’t exactly line up at the end. It doesn’t matter. It’s good to leave some things unquantized, especially with the rhythmic precision of the RPG-8 in play. There are times when you need to make sure every note begins and ends in exactly the right place—but when you have the chance, let the notes relax a little. It’ll make a big difference if you find your music is often too stiff and mechanical sounding.

Here’s the progression I’ve ended up with:

Now, switch back to the Arrange mode and delete the clip we made on the Thor/Arp track before. Copy the chord clip to that track, in line with the existing chord clip on the pad track. You can easily copy a clip by holding down Alt and then dragging the clip.

The chord progression (which is based on the simple melody we penciled in at the start) makes for a much more interesting and lively arpeggio.

Sending Arpeggios to Track

Once you have your arpeggio set up the way you want it, it’s a good idea to send it to a track where it can be edited like any other clip containing MIDI information.

The first step is to place the Left and Right locator stalks in position, covering the space you want the arpeggio to play during your song.

Then select the target track — the original device track as opposed to the Arp track, since we won’t be using the Arpeggiator device anymore — and select the Arpeggiator device in the rack.

Right click the Arpeggio device and select the menu option Arpeggio Notes to Track and mute the Arp track in the Arrange view. Your Thor device will now play the arpeggio on its own — one you can inspect in the Edit mode and modify with more control than you had when it was being generated on the fly. Here’s a screenshot of my arpeggio in Edit mode:

I try not to think about how much time it would’ve taken to pencil that arpeggio in manually — thankfully, I don’t need to anymore.

* If you’re still looking for the Yngwie Malmsteen rate option, it’s not really there.

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