No Reason for Concern

We all want to control how others perceive us. That’s very natural — it’s why we comb our hair in the morning, for starters. But when money is involved, and corporate decision-making, the process gets a little more interesting.

I’ve just finished reviewing Propellerhead Reason 5 (with Record 1.5) for Keyboard. It’s a terrific piece of software, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the October issue to read the details. Part of the product review process is, the manufacturer gets to read and comment on a draft of the review before it’s published. That may seem a dicey proposition (and in fact it can turn out that way) — but that’s how it’s done in the music industry, and there are reasons for it. If nothing else, today’s software-based products are often so complex that a reviewer misses or misunderstands important features. Nobody wants bad information going into print.

We shouldn’t be surprised that many manufacturers view this “fact-check” as an open-ended opportunity to downplay or remove negative comments from the review. The review isn’t just checked by the technical staff, it’s read by the marketing department too. Positioning the product in a positive way is their job. So if you’re sitting in the editor’s chair, you just get used to the fact that manufacturers will sometimes try to manipulate your perceptions of the product. You weigh the points they raise, and sometimes you can see that they’ve made a legitimate point, sometimes not.

Nowhere is this process more acute than in the Pros & Cons box in a review. If they can convince you to delete a Con, they’re ever so much happier. They know that people read the Pros & Cons first, and that the information in that box tends to create a lasting impression.

Yesterday the folks at Propellerhead tried, very gently and politely, to suggest to Steve Fortner and I that two of my Cons, “Won’t host VST plug-ins” and “No video window,” were not something that ought to be mentioned in the Cons. All they said was, “There has never been VST plug-in support, or video for that matter, which is one of the reasons we have eschewed the ‘DAW’ terminology.” That’s perfectly true, and they didn’t make a big deal out of it — this was not a wrangle, just a nudge. But the context made it clear that they felt that those two Cons were not appropriate.

So let’s take a closer look at the question of VST plug-in support in Reason.

Reason is a self-contained recording system, and that offers substantial advantages — stability, for instance, and a consistent user interface, and the ability to share song files with artists that you’re collaborating with. But along with the advantages come certain limitations.

Let’s suppose you happen to want to use a good tone-wheel organ model (a VST plug-in) in your current Reason project. Or some of the amazing samples in Spectrasonics Omnisphere. Or a full-featured FM synth like Native Instruments FM8. Well, you can’t do that. Reason doesn’t have a modeled tone-wheel organ, and it doesn’t have a full-featured FM synth. In fact, there are many types of modules that it doesn’t have. That’s the whole point of VST plug-in technology — to allow the user to employ third-party software in a project.

If you want to use a tone-wheel organ plug-in, you not only have to buy the plug-in, you have to buy and install a DAW (a full-featured digital audio workstation). Once the DAW is in place, you can run Reason as a ReWire client, record the organ track in the DAW, and the music will sound the way you want it to. But: Not only did you have the extra expense and hassle of buying and installing a DAW, but now your project now has to be saved and loaded as two separate files in different programs. Your system is no longer as stable as before. And you’ll have to learn a whole new set of editing commands to use in the DAW, so your project no longer has a consistent user interface for sequence editing.

And then maybe you decide you’d like to process the signal from the tone-wheel plug-in with Reason’s Scream or Vocoder module. Now you’re in for some real trouble. You’ll have to export the audio from the organ track, import it into a Reason sampler module, and then manually synchronize its start time so that the organ part will line up with the rest of the music. If you should later need to change the tempo of the music just a smidgen, you’ll have to go through that whole process again. Why? Because Reason has no audio inputs under ReWire.

Sound like fun? Not to me.

Just to be clear: I’m not aware of any technical reason why Propellerhead couldn’t create a VST wrapper module for Reason. They just haven’t done it. Clearly, they don’t want to do it, because their product positioning calls for Reason to be something different, not just another DAW. That’s fine — they’ve done a lot of brilliant things with Reason, and quite possibly the product positioning is one of those brilliant things.

But with every choice come consequences. To give a simpler example, if you decide to design a vintage synth plug-in with strictly a lowpass filter, because that’s what the original instrument that you’re modeling had, then “lacks a multimode filter” becomes a legitimate Con. In fact, most modeled vintage synth plug-ins do offer more filter modes than the old instruments they’re modeling, because a multimode filter opens up lots of new possibilities for sound design. The advantages are significant, and the downside, in terms of loss of authenticity, is minimal. If someone wants to use the original filter mode, they can do so. Giving them more options doesn’t eliminate their ability to go with the original, authentic design. So if you choose to adhere more closely to the vintage vibe by leaving off the other filter modes, you’re bucking the trend and limiting your customers’ ability to make the music they may want to make.

In choosing not to implement VST plug-in support, Propellerhead is bucking the trend, and in a significant way. My job as a reviewer is to mention the fact. As I said, this is not a wrangle with my friends at Propellerhead, it’s just part of the review process. I mention it here only because space in the print magazine is so darn limited that I can’t really take three paragraphs to explain why being able to use VST plug-ins would add to Reason’s sound arsenal. I have to trust that readers will get it.

It would be nice to hope that someday Propellerhead will get it too. Reason is such a great program, it’s a shame to see it limited in such a needless and artificial way.

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