Reason’s virtual rack format was a big hit when it appeared in 2000. The idea of emulating a customisable rack full of synthesizers, drum machines and audio effects had instant appeal, because it was so easy to understand. Since then, Reason has kept the core model and added new features.
What’s different in Propellerheads Reason 4.0 is that not much is different. The biggest addition is the Thor softsynth, which is a multiformat monster packed with synthesis and modulation options. It’s so powerful you can almost ignore the older softsynths because it can cover most of the same ground – although big patches can be processor hungry, so the older softsynths like Subtractor can still fill in handily for smaller jobs. The sound is good, but not earth-flatteningly massive. There are some clever effects, but there are so many softsynths available elsewhere now with so many features that Thor struggles to stand out sonically.
Also included in Propellerheads Reason 4.0 is an arpeggiation module cannily called RGP-8 – perfect for trancers – and an updated sequencer with better automation and clip support. It doesn’t support audio loops, however – you’ll need to load them into a sampler module, which isn’t the most intuitive approach.
There’s also a unique ReGroove mixer included in Propellerheads Reason 4.0. Expert sequencer users know that tiny timing and volume changes lock listeners in to the beat. With ReGroove a groove feel can be applied to an entire song – or each track can have a subtly different feel. It's a clever and original idea, and in gifted hands can breathe life into songs that otherwise sound mechanical and sterile already.
If you love Reason already, you’ll love the new features in Propellerheads Reason 4.0. If you’re new to sequencing and synthesis it’s a good entry-level environment, and for the price you get a fantastic range of virtual instruments and effects – almost literally a studio in a box.
The catch is that once you get more experienced, Propellerheads Reason 4.0’s rigid format starts to get in the way. Big patches suffer from endless up-and-down scrolling as you change settings. Reason’s improved sequencer still isn’t as polished as it could be. And it’s still odd that you can’t record and process audio with it.
Propellerheads Reason 4.0 is good value for money, packed with excellent features. But for bigger projects the interface can feel awkward and inflexible, and you’ll get more done more quickly using an external sequencer connected via Rewire. A rethink for Reason could go a long way to opening up what it can do.