Reason Sound vs VST Sound

After yet another of the never-ending Reason doesn’t sound as good or “modern” as other DAWs or VST X, I threw down a challenge:

What I would hope from this thread is not for more of that endless opinion (and sniping) but actual results. Can YOU deliver a comparable sound in a similarly simple Reason session?

I must say that I am generally of the school that a tool is only as good as the person using it but I also have to say that straight our of the box many VST based DAWs sound big and fruity whereas Reason tends to be far less immediately exciting.

Sadly the thread devolved straight into opinions and the usual unhelpful posts with sentiments as noble as:

  • if only we had a muti-schlonged sprongulator like in DAW X
  • use a Combinator
  • my mixes sound great
  • your example is crap because I don’t like it and it uses DAW Y
  • EDM sucks

Ummm… (wonders why hangs out in forums not for the first time)

Cloudbursting

Not to please anyone but me I set about with a “typical” DAW that sounds pretty exciting from the first launch to make a little example piece to port to Reason and see if and how I could get the same result.

I don’t love EDM but I do have to admit that in many DAWs the first few sounds you lay down sound great. Fat, engaging, in-yer-face, fruity… modern! (whatever the hell that means). You get the drift. Reason doesn’t sound like that on first launch so I get why kids feel that it is an inferior platform.

I don’t pretend this piecelet is of any artistic value. It is merely representative of what someone might create in a first session. Whether you (or I) like this piece is irrelevant as it is only an example on which to compare a simple session in two software studios.

MuLab and Reason are different so they don’t compare. Thanks, Capt. Obvious but one piece of music is comparable to another so the rendered results are valid enough to represent what one may hear from a similar session in each style of DAW; just as people do when trying to find the right tool for their opus.

Here is my test session:

Let’s go up to the lab

MuLab SoundsOn the MuLab slab I laid out my funky tune. I deliberately used the default massively processed drum set that opens with MuLab. It sounds big and I feel good about myself.

I then cast about for a Bass sound. The defaulted “Moog” sound didn’t do it for me and the device seemed to have no proper synth interface. I could dig for it but remember I am supposed to be a newbie. So I preset dive till I find the MuSonic synth and tweak a sound till I get something I want. Finally, I complete my masterpiece with the Basic Synth that just screams club anthem. Drag my few bars out to make 34 seconds of choon and I am done and feeling pretty impressed.

MuLab Seq

MuLab MasterMy understanding is that I am supposed to Master my beat so I dive for a Limiter to pump the beat even more.

Seems like no matter what I do with this thing it goes from loud to louder.

Then it goes to overdriven loud and I am tempted to leave it that way as I feel like a master of the universe.

Time to render off my tune.

Cross The Border

I also export the MIDI file so I can use it in Reason. I open Reason and Import the MIDI File. Reason creates three ID8 instruments so I have all the notes playing but with a piano. Bogus dude. Ruins the vibe but knowing a thing or 30 about MIDI and DAWS I know that there is no way to translate a session in one DAW to another different DAW. Moving right along.

I decided that to be fair I should use the same exact drum samples as I did in MuLab. I created a Kong and dragged in the Kick. Bzzzzt. Turns out MuLab uses OGG files and Reason doesn’t read them – fair enough really as it is a slightly unusual format and lossy formats are hardly the best way to start out. Using a combination of a file format converter and even having to render off the Kik sample I got the drums in and dragged the MIDI notes to the right places so my beat was beating.

Reason Seq

Killing Me Softly

Only it was more like ticking. Not beating at all and I am depressed. Reason sounds like crap. It’s life but not as we know it. Phasers have been set to useless.

In MuLab (and most other hosts) your very first sound tends to pin the meters – make em peak at 0db – in the exciting red. LOUD always sounds better even, or especially, if a bit distorted. Reason has a protocol of having all sounds (and imported audio files) default to -12db. That is a long way down, like subjectively a quarter of the volume oomph. WTF?

Propellerheads are actually right to do this from a technical standpoint as every sound you add to a mix is liable to add +3db to the master level. So if your first sound is a 0db then by the time you have added as few as 3 sounds to your piece you can be at +6db which is not good when a CD or MP3 cannot handle anything over 0db. Splat on anything other than your studio PC.

Reason Master

Lucky that I know this wee detail so I immediately insert a device to up the overall level to the Masters by 12db. In my session, I used the Selig Gain RE but swapped at the end to the M-Class Compressor (cleverly set to no gain reduction). That effectively puts us on the same decibel field as MuLab. And I feel better about my ported piece as the drums sound about right again and my self-esteem feels saved.

Reason Sounds

I have the same drum samples as the MuLab session but I can’t use the same instruments as Reason won’t load VST (or whatever format MuLab’s devices are). However, I know that the stock Reason synths are worthy (several have big name designers behind them). This should be where the real test of Reason sound v.s. VST DAW sound will play out.

I made the Bass sound in MuLab so making it again in Thor isn’t too hard. I’m not trying to duplicate, simply to get something close enough to pass in a covers band down the boozer on a Tuesday evening (I’m flattered that someone wants to cover my tune but that is what happens when you use a normal DAW).

MuLab’s synths tend to have effects built into them using the modular system that hides below the surface. This is part of the sound from the get go so unless you realize this, Thor just sounds flat in comparison (worse if we hadn’t added that 12db to get up to par) as it is dry with no Chorus or Echo. But this is where Reason shines as we have that lovely Rack in which to add vast strings of fabulators.

ASIDE – but super-useful stuff people rarely tell you

In Reason, most effect devices will add the effect but at the same time subtract some overall level from the instrument. You may not notice it immediately but once you have a few effects in there trying to add to your sound you start to notice that the sound is getting smaller. Yep, a single Delay can drop the overall perceived oomph of your sound by 3-6db – that’s like half the impact. Remember that -12db protocol, this is the same reasoning so instead of your Delay adding 3-6db to the Masters, the overall level is kept the same. Some developers handle it this way and some let every process add more level.

It is easy to feel like your sounds are getting progressively worse, the more you work em. Some of that is that is the level adjustment thing, and the rest is the law of diminishing returns: one Chorus makes things lush, two can make it a bit lusher, three is probably adding nothing of much value at all. The same applies to vast chains of processors that perform different functions. Discretion is of great value. And remember that the kids can’t tell the difference in the mix so don’t waste your time, grief or processor power on what will be irrelevant in the end.

un-Super Saw

Back to my re-make session and the big sticking point for me is that Super Saw sound I used. It is such an obvious sound that I had to use it and it is the sort of thing a newbie will reach for every time as it embodies EDM.

I have to admit not being even an apprentice at Super Saws as I don’t really think I have ever made one worth a damn. I don’t think that Reason has anything for me to preset-dive that will sound like that MuLab synth that looks like a toy but sounds fabulously super.

After A/Bing I have something that is passable but sure lacks that big hyper-real vibe that I get in MuLab and just about any other DAW I have poked in the last 10years. Maybe this is my failing as there is some perfect preset that sounds just right but I don’t think so.

That means it is my considered opinion that despite having a Multi-OSC, Thor just isn’t cut out to make that sound. Maybe there is an RE for that like Rob Papen’s Predator or kHs One but it is not right there for a newbie in a first session.

It is not just the issue of the Super Saw though as comparing the two leads shows that there is a feeling that MuLab delivers that Reason doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter but at others it does. Sadly the times it does are those that kids looking for magic will notice every time for its apparent absence.

Reason offers everything anyone could need to make electronic music out of the box but it doesn’t offer that sound everyone want to hear every time they launch their DAW. Oddly while we have external developers building REs there isn’t necessarily a great sonic difference between Thor & The Echo and any of the REs. Makes one feel that there is something that we could call “Reason Sound”.

Hyperactive

With a bit of space between me and this dual-session (filled with music off my Plex to clear my palette), I notice that there is also a difference in the sonic fingerprint between the MuLab and Reason renders.

MuLab sounds warm, intimate and pleasingly furry-real. Reason, on the other hand, sounds bright, clear and sleek but a bit clinical. I also notice that the Shaker sounds way brighter despite being at the same mix level. The Reason mix is probably louder but that may be my fault as MuLab doesn’t seem to have any tools to help you know what levels you are running so I may have overcompensated with Reason. I may also have overcompensated because I was trying to get more oomph and more “furry-real” from my track?

Hard to say but if it happened to me then it happens to others.

Many years ago I did a very similar thing with a piece made in Energy XT (using my own SynStudio Pack VSTs) and ported to Reason to see which sounded more professional. The VST version sounded pretty analog warm and so did the Reason version. Sort of. I did notice that the Reason version sounded more bright, clear and sleek. I took that to be more professional and that version made the album. That track was “Ring Flyover” and I made the rest of the album in Reason and never went back to VST so while I have my suspicions, I have been very Reason-centric and expect to stay that way.

A Theory: As null-tests have proven again and again playing an audio file in any DAW (with no extra goodies in the chain) delivers perfect silence so the basic sound engines of DAWs are equal. But there is a difference somewhere in a synth session. It would appear possible to me that Reason is allowing synths to play very bright whereas many other DAWs have some sort of band limiting thing going on to flatter the output in some way. This would immediately give the sense of greater warmth in a head to head comparison.

This video was made by Alex CVX during a later discussion of various different FM synths in and out of Reason and how they sounded different – particularly the modulation depth and how bright (and noisy) they got. It shows a very interesting thing in the frequency plots of Thor compared to other more VST-like synths like Quad & Zero. I think this tells us a lot about Reason.

I hope this helps you in some way.

Word Up(date)

After a week of letting this sit – and get worried at again and again as I am wont to do…

Reason doesn’t sound like the typical DAW when you first launch it. But it doesn’t try to. Reason offers you a workspace in which you can carve out your own sound (or simply record your Octopus-Step quintet live and clean if that is pappa’s brand new bag). Reason gives you the option. I like that. If you are a sculptor like me then Reason is a very easy and open platform.

At the end of the day (or session) it is the track on tape that counts. A final mixdown in Reason is just as fat, wide and juicy as you make it. If it isn’t then either that is the way you want it to be or you lack skills.

This earlier article can help you with that.

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