A synthesizer is an electronic instrument that reproduces a variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencies and waveforms. Propellerhead’s Reason features various forms of synthesis, and it’s often difficult for the user to decide which synthesizer to use.
In this tutorial, we’re going to explore the art and the science of synthesis, as well as discuss how Reason’s synthesizers can be used, and in which situations you should use them.
As of version 4, Reason features three different synthesizers:
- The Subtractor - An analogue synthesizer that features 99 voice polyphony based on subtractive synthesis with two oscillators.
- The Malström - A graintable synthesizer that uses a complex synthesis method called granular resynthesis.
- The Thor - A semi-modular, polyphonic synthesizer that features six oscillators and four filters, along with a step sequencer.
Let’s talk a bit more in depth about the type of synthesis involved in each of these.
- Subtractive synthesis: The oscillators generate a waveform from scratch, and then the sound is run through various audio filters. The filters then use a cut-off frequency to subtract various harmonic content from the sound, hence the title “subtractive.”
- Granular synthesis takes a sample of a piece of audio, and slices up the original waveform into tiny pieces, and then modifies them using the Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release (hereafter referred to as ADSR). It can also replay the pieces in a different order.
- Graintable synthesis: This is an interesting one, as graintable synthesis is a cross between granular synthesis and wavetable synthesis. The basic principle behind graintable synthesis is a sample sound that is processed, resulting in a set of periodic waveforms that can be manipulated by the synthesizer. It combines the best of granular and wavetable synthesis functionality, so in a graintable synthesizer, functionality from either or both can be used.
- Wavetable synthesis is essentially generating a waveform using an oscillator, similar to the Subtractor, and then modifying that waveform. The Malström gives us the best of both those worlds.
At the other end of this, the Thor synthesizer lets you basically do whatever you want. This is truly a beast, though it may not seem that way at first. Thor provides six open filter and oscillator spots, so you can load three different filters and three different oscillators at the same time.
This is one of the main reasons that the Thor synthesizer provides all new sounds and functionality in Reason 4. The release of this synthesizer was a big event in the scope of Reason 4 and synthesis development.
One last thing before we take a look at each individual synthesizer. I mentioned Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release (ADSR) above, but I didn’t explain it, so I will do that here. ADSR is a fundamental component of synthesis.
- Attack: How quickly the sound reaches its full volume.
- Decay: How quickly the sound drops back down to the sustain volume level.
- Sustain: The constant volume that the sound reaches after decay.
- Release: How quickly the sound fades to silence.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to look at each individual synthesizer in Reason.
As mentioned before, the Subtractor is an analog subtractive synthesizer. It generates waveforms using oscillators, and then filters are applied to change the harmonic elements. Looking at the Subtractor, let’s start on the left. First, there are the usual controls, such as portamento (how the sound slides from one note to another), polyphony, and legato.
Below that, there is the modulation wheel and pitch bend, both of which are commonly used in automation.
To the right, there is an external modulation section, allowing the modulation wheel to be assigned to various parameters.
The Subtractor has two oscillators, each capable of generating 32 waveforms. Oscillator 1 is always on, and Oscillator 2 can be toggled on or off using the button next to it. The mix knob next to the two oscillators controls the mix between the two. When the knob is at the left, the only sound in the mix comes from Oscillator 1, and when it’s at hard right it plays only Oscillator 2. Anywhere between is a mix of the two.
You can toy with the Phase knob with each oscillator. This will generate another wave of the same form, and offset it by the phase you set. Think back to physics class, when you had two waves that collided, and they would either amplify each other, or they would subtract from each other. You can then change the mode by clicking the button, which will tell the waves how to interact (X multiplies, - subtracts, and O means no phase modulation).
There is a noise generator, along with FM synthesis, and a feature for ring modulation. Then, in the filter section, which is a combination of a multi-mode filter and a second linkable low-pass filter. There are also three envelope generators, to control modulation, filters, and amplitude.
Next, we have the LFO section, followed by the play parameters that make the sound’s velocity dependent.
Also, just a neat fact for our all our trivia gurus out there: try spinning the screws on the Subtractor (use your mouse like you are trying to turn a knob). The Subtractor is the only device in Reason with working screws. So if you take anything away from this tutorial, be sure to remember that! But seriously, onto the Malström we go!
As I said before, Malström combines granular and wavetable synthesis. Some things here will seem familiar from the Subtractor, but there are other concepts here that are entirely new. As usual, let’s take a walk around the Malström. First off, we have the global settings area, same as with any instrument in Reason. This section contains the polyphony, portamento, legato, and modulation and pitch bend wheels.
Now, I’ve talked about Legato in passing, but haven’t really explained what it is. Legato essentially means that, if you change notes, there will be no silence. If you turn legato on, and play a note, and then play another note quickly, there won’t be a gap of silence. Instead, you’ll hear the second note as simply an extension of the first. Legato is commonly used in string instruments, vocals, and synthesizer leads.
Next up, we have Oscillators A and B, both of which can be toggled on or off using the buttons.
You can select a graintable by clicking the up or down arrow next to the name, or right clicking on it. The index slider is what controls playback, as in, which grain to play first. The motion knob then tells us how fast to play through the grains in the graintable.
There is a neat trick that you can use to hear all the grains in your graintable. Turn the motion knob to -64, all the way to the left, and then slide the index from side to side. Because the motion is set to -64, it will only play through the first grain. By changing the index, you’re changing which grain plays first, allowing you to hear each individual grain in the graintable.
Each oscillator also has an ADSR envelope, a volume control, and a shift knob (which chooses which harmonics to emphasize in the sound). There is also an octave knob, which selects which octave to play the sound in, and a semi and cent knob to help shift the oscillator.
There are two modulators in Malström that function as the LFOs, but also have a specific section for graintable synthesis. Mod A modulates the rate, index and shift functions. Mod B modulates the rate, motion, volume and filter. Using the switch, you can choose which oscillator (A, B, or both) the modulator affects.
What you might notice is that some knobs in Malström don’t seem to have any effect on the sound. This is because of the way that Malström routes the sounds. Similar to the Thor below, there is a path to how the sound travels through the components of the synthesizer.
If you follow the arrows and lines, you’ll notice that Oscillator A and Oscillator B are routed.
Oscillator A travels into the shaper, and then into Filter A. Oscillator B travels into Filter B.
These routes can be changed, using the various buttons to turn each path on or off. This may seem kind of confusing at first, but after a few seconds of toying with it, it becomes much clearer.
The filter knob in Modulator B won’t work on an initialized patch. You have to route Oscillator A through the Shaper (although you can turn the shaper off if you don’t want to hear the effect) and Filter A in order for it to have any effect.
There is one last feature of the Malström, which is the small output section. Obviously, the volume controls the volume output level, but the spread knob needs some explaining. The spread knob moves Oscillator A more to the left, and Oscillator B more to the right.
The Shaper deserves an extra mention, as it is possibly one of the most destructive forces in the Malström. The Shaper can take a mediocre initial Malström sound, and turn into into a beast. The Shaper wasn’t meant to be the defining piece of the Malström, but if you go overboard with it, it can completely dominate your sound. Sometimes this is useful, but often it is a little too destructive for most practical purposes, so keep it under control.
The Thor is an absolute beast. It boasts three changeable oscillator slots, and three changeable filter slots. It also has a mixer for mixing the output from each of the oscillators. It comes with an arpeggiator and a step sequencer. If you think of Reason as a rack of synthesizers, then using Thor gives you a rack of synthesizers inside a rack of synthesizers. It’s truly incredible.
Go to Create > Thor Polysonic Synthesizer. Click the Show Programmer button. I’ll pause so you can pick your jaw up off the keyboard.
If you look at the image following this paragraph, things won’t be as ridiculous, as I’ve set all programmable options to Bypass. On our left, we have the three programmable oscillator slots. If you click the gray down arrow in the top left of each space, you can choose an oscillator for each space.
The options we have to choose from are:
- Phase Modulation
- FM Pair
Each of these various oscillators brings different functionality and a different sound to the synthesizer. The analog oscillator is probably the most common, featuring the four major waveforms (saw, square, triangle, sine). There are more options available to us in the Thor than in the Subtractor (which also uses analog oscillators).
The wavetable oscillator brings 32 wavetable settings. Once a setting is selected, the position knob allows you to control which section of the wavetable is used. This is similar to the Malström (which combines wavetable and granular synthesis).
The phase modulation oscillator starts with a default wave that is then blended by up to two waveforms (First and Second). Once you choose a wave for First, you can adjust the phase modulation knob and hear the default sine wave slowly change into the wave of your choice.
The FM (Frequency Modulation) pair oscillator uses a modulator and a carrier to control sound. The carrier creates the main oscillator sound, while the modulator controls harmonics. If you leave the FM knob turned to 0, you will hear a sine wave, as the sine wave is the default for FM synthesis.
The multi-oscillator essentially emulates several oscillators all playing at the same time. However, there are controls to allow you to detune the sound, and also control the octave and toy with the way the sound plays back.
The noise oscillator is primarily used to add a grunge feel to sounds, as it generates various forms of noise that can be controlled using the mode knob. Each of the different settings produces a different type of noise.
What you then see is a bunch of arrows pointing all over the place. If any of you have ever taken a circuits class, think of this synthesizer as an electrical circuit (because it essentially is). Oscillators 1 and 2 both get routed into the mixer, and the balance between the two sounds is mixed and controlled using the rotary dial titled Balance 1-2.
The resulting output of that mix is then mixed with Oscillator 3 and controlled using the two sliders called 1+2 and 3. Next, the output from there is routed to either Filter 1 or Filter 2. The red buttons allow you to choose which signals actually get passed through the filters. There are various filter choices available to us:
- Low Pass Ladder
- State Variable
- Comb Filter
- Formant Filter
From there, the output heads on over to the next section, where an LFO and three envelopes are applied (or not applied if you deselect Gate Trig), and the resulting output is then passed to Filter 3. Once in Filter 3, the various other effects are applied, such as Delay, Chorus, LFO2 and whatever filter you select for Filter 3.
Hopefully that helps make a little more sense to you. I know not everything is covered, but if you start worrying about the details before the basics, it quickly gets overwhelming.
But wait, there’s more! There’s still an arpeggiator, a step sequencer, and a modulation matrix.
I’ll break down the basics of each of these now:
The modulation matrix allows you to choose a source, destination and amount in order to program the way you want the modulation of the synthesizer to happen. For the sake of not sounding like a signals and systems professor, I’m going to leave this relatively alone, as for the most part, this will be done for you by Reason. If you ever get curious, click the down arrow next to the source, and see what is available to you.
At the very bottom of the Thor is the step sequencer and arpeggiator. They are combined into one, so the Thor can generate patterns and/or notes. If you adjust the slider from OFF to Repeat and click Run, and begin to choose between the various settings, you can enable arpeggiation for a rhythmic feel.
Now, theory is all good and fun, but aren’t we really after the real use of these synthesizers? Of course we are, so now let’s take a look at the application. In the name of generalizing things, I’m going to try to break down the realm of synthesizer patches into several types:
In general (but not always), each of the synthesizers in Reason has a strength, a particular type of sound that it’s very good at. Obviously, you can use any synthesizer for almost any application, but these guidelines will help if you’re struggling to create a sound.
- The Subtractor is widely used for basses, and very flat leads. The Subtractor is excellent at generating waveforms, which is about all you need for a bass, or for a straight sine wave lead.
- The Malström is much more widely used for pads and for glitch effects. The filters and the way that the sounds are synthesized make it much easier for these sorts of things. Whereas in Subtractor turning knobs yields more subtle changes, changing a knob in Malström can completely destroy the sound (using the noise filter mode on the shaper is one such example).
- The Thor is still relatively new, but it has proved its usefulness in all sorts of sounds, but it is less commonly used for glitch and bass than it is for leads and pads.
Now, remember, this is generalized. I’ve heard some wicked bass patches from the Malström, and I’ve heard some great pads from the Subtractor. But if you are having trouble creating the sound you want, make sure you’re using the correct synthesizer for the task.
Just for kicks, I’m going to show you a quick application of the Thor synthesizer. I toyed around with the Low Pass Ladder Filter in the Filter #3 slot, and changed the Drive to 63 and the Res to 77, and then saved it as Epic Poly_Whisper.
This gave the synthesizer a “whispery” quality to it, as it is now more resonant and less direct. You can find it in the Play Pack for this tutorial.
Now, play the melody I have shown below:
Right click on the Thor icon in the sequencer, and go to Parameter Automation, and choose Mod Wheel. Grab your pen tool, draw a new group, then double click the pen tool, and draw a line looking like this:
We now have a very trance-esque synthesizer line with automation on the modulation. This sort of technique is used very often in electronic music. I’m going to go ahead and add in a Subtractor and a Malström line.
I’m going to use “WarmPad” for the Subtractor and “SoundOnSound” for the Malström. Nothing all that exciting, but I want you to see a practical use of each.
We’ve covered some of the scientific explanations of synthesis, and we’ve looked at the various synthesizers in Reason. As I’m sure you already figured out, there’s a near endless amount of things that you can do with synthesizers, far more than I could cover in 10 tutorials.
However, this tutorial should have given you the foundation and fundamentals to be able to use Reason’s synthesizers to their potential. As always, I’ll be checking comments frequently and will try answer any questions and concerns you might have. Happy producing!
- Reason 4 Source File
- Example Audio
- Synthesizer Patches