Updates come and go these days, but few are able to generate the kind of excitement that surrounded the release of Reason 4. In the eyes of many, Reason practically invented the 'virtual studio' concept, and since the launch of the first version in 2000, it's become one of the most popular DAWs on the market.
But there's always room for improvement, and Reason 4 promises a complete overhaul and a raft of new features for Propellerhead's fanatical user base.
One of the most impressive additions is the ReGroove mixer. This is essentially a groove-quantise and shuffle-inducing hub, offering up to 32 independent channels of groove and shuffle control. Each of these is freely assignable to any track you like, whether it's a loop, drum machine part, keyboard riff or arpeggiator pattern. And for each, you can control the amount of shuffle or groove-quantise applied, completely non-destructively, using the mixer's faders and knobs.
But this function isn't much use without some great grooves, and Reason 4 has plenty of them (it's easy to add your own, too). There's a large selection that were obtained by extracting the grooves (including velocity) from classic funky tracks. A multitude of other styles are covered too, with plenty taken from bespoke loops recorded by some damn fine session drummers. Finally, the famous grooves of the highly coveted Akai MPC60 have been perfectly mapped as well.
While the ReGroove mixer is our new feature of choice, we're sure that many will be saying the same about Thor. Named after the Norse god of thunder, it's the answer to the prayers of those who knew in their hearts that Reason was previously lacking a heavyweight synthesizer.
In technical terms, we're looking at a synth with three oscillator modules, each of which can use one of six oscillator types (analogue, wavetable, phase mod, FM, multi and noise). Filtering is handled by up to three filter slots (each of which can be filled with a low-pass, variable state, comb or formant model).
Next up in Thor's semi-modular architecture are four envelopes, a shaper and two LFOs, and the whole thing is rounded off with chorus and delay modules, and a superb stepsequencer. And thanks to its semi-modular design, Thor offers endless modulation routing potential.
If you find all that confusing, it basically means that Thor can fire out a staggering range of sounds, emulating just about every type of synth you could wish for. Demonstrating this is a sizable collection of presets - they're perhaps not the most imaginative or groundbreaking ever devised, but among them you'll find tones that are close to just about every synth sound you can think of. Combine this with Thor's well laid out interface and you have one of the most educational and user-friendly synths around.
Aside from Thor, the only other new rack unit is the RPG-8 arpeggiator - but what an addition it is! It's a beauty, and enough to get anybody hooked on evolving melodic riffs, regardless of their musical proclivities.
The arrangement screen has been totally redesigned, allowing for clearer and more controlled editing and arrangement. Each device in the rack now only ever links to one track, each of which has multiple lanes.
Accompanying these changes is the new floating Tool Window, which combines all of the complicated editing options and other functions (like transpose) that used to clutter up the main interface or be hidden in menus.
Considering the sequencing section was previously the most criticised aspect of Reason, it's good that Propellerhead conceded that there was room for improvement and set about making amends. While it has improved, some small niggles persist. Strict Reason users will appreciate the update, but if you tended to arrange your Reason ideas in another sequencer before, we suspect that won't change.
Some other highlights include true multilingual support, a pre-count function, an updated Factory Sound Bank and a higher sequencer resolution rate, all of which are extremely welcome.
A step forward
Reason 4 is an evolution rather than a revolution. Everything that was great in version 3 is now just as good or better, and the new features take it up a notch in terms of power and potential. Crucially, all of this has not affected the stability one jot.
But for a few ongoing omissions and idiosyncrasies - such as the lack of any audio recording tools - this would be a no-brainer for top marks. Nevertheless, Reason is still one of the most fun and inspirational pieces of music software on the market.