Workflow in a DAW

I have too much music software. The good part about this is, when I think about how I might want to write and record a piece of music, I can contemplate various options in detailed ways.

At present, my main DAW (digital audio workstation — terrible acronym, but we’re stuck with it) is FL Studio 10. It’s an amazing program. Last month, though, I wrote a review of Reason 6 for Keyboard. I’m also working on a new text adventure game that will have my own music as a soundtrack, so I decided to do the music in Reason.

Each program has strengths and limitations. Reason is thoroughly annoying in that it won’t host 3rd-party plug-ins. Also, it has no MIDI output, so you can’t sequence hardware synthesizers as part of a Reason production.

In spite of these issues, I think I may want to use Reason for a larger project this summer. For two main reasons. First, the workflow in its sequencer feels more natural to me. Second, it truly invites multi-layered sound design through its Combinator device.

I could use both, of course. Launch FL Studio and then launch Reason as a ReWire client. This would give me the best of both worlds in terms of sound design — 3rd-party plug-ins plus Combinator patches. But the workflow gets nasty. You have to manage and save your project in two separate programs. Ugh.

The thing about sequencer workflow is, the music data in FL Studio is managed in patterns, and each pattern can contain data for an arbitrary number of devices. Let’s say you put the drums, bass, and electric piano for a four-bar riff all into a single pattern. You then insert this pattern into the playlist eight times, and you have a 32-bar verse. Very convenient — except, not. First, those eight instances all contain the same underlying data. If you edit one of them, they all change. In order to edit one without editing the others, you have to use the Make Unique command. This creates a copy of the pattern, gives it a new name (such as, perhaps, Riff #2), and inserts it in the pattern list. But you can’t order the items in the pattern list, so as you add more patterns, the list quickly grows unwieldy. And if you later decide you want to separate the drums, bass, and electric piano into separate patterns, you have a nice complicated housekeeping process to go through.

In Reason, each device has its own track in the sequencer, which is basically more sensible. And each time you copy a block of data further down into the track, the copy is new data. If you edit the copy, you won’t be editing the original at the same time. This makes it easier to add fills and variations, which I like doing. (I basically hate music that loops. It’s the classical musician in me.) Reason also lets you set up multiple lanes within a track, so you can store alternate takes very conveniently.

Also worth note: Reason’s sequencer can easily change time signatures at any bar line. If you have an ounce of prog rock in your soul, you’ll understand how useful this is. In FL Studio you can certainly write music that changes time signatures … but the sequencer doesn’t know about the changes. It just chugs along in whatever time signature you started out with.

On the other hand, when you’re starting a new piece, FL Studio makes it very easy to sketch out six or seven different riffs using some or all of the same instruments. You don’t have to park them in the playlist at all until you’ve decided which of them you like. And if I want to do anything with microtonal tunings (as I sometimes do), Reason is completely useless, because its instruments just plain don’t want to know about anything other than 12-note-per-octave equal temperament.

For now, anyway, as much as I like my 3rd-party plug-ins (Zebra, Stylus RMX, Omnisphere, Reaktor, Alchemy, and all the rest), I think Reason is the right choice.

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