Posted Sept. 28, 2020, 1 p.m.
The Neo Soul sound pack is a celebration of modern beat tape culture. If you enjoy laid-back music from artists like Tom Misch, Keifer or Bad Snacks, you’re going to love this pack. It has dreamy pianos, warm, lush pads and analog-style bass sounds that are perfect for creating cozy and soulful instrumentals. Just play some jazzy chords, add your favorite hiphop or electronic drums and you’ll have your very own mixtape in no time!
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Getting the sound
To create this sound pack, Reason Studios teamed up with Ireland based producer and musician Seán Murray. The patches he produced immediately gave us the warm and fuzzies. I had a chance to catch up with Murray on Skype to ask how he created these amazing sounds.
“I spent years making house and dubstep with really digital, pristine sounds. It was fun, but I think the world has moved on from that. Now people want to hear less ‘digital’ sounding music. They want character and imperfections in the sounds and that’s what I’ve tried to do with this pack.”
One listen to the patches and you’ll understand what he means, but I asked him to elaborate further. “I love old analog synths with all their imperfections. When I’m designing presets, I try to capture or recreate those imperfections as much as possible. That might mean creating subtle movement with LFOs [so the pitch isn’t too perfect] or using Reason’s Audiomatic device on the tape setting to add midrange saturation and hiss.” He stresses that he’s not concerned about technical accuracy or perfect replication of any vintage synth. It’s just about getting the right feeling. “I might even use two Audiomatics--one on a VHS setting and the other on Vinyl if it helps me get the sound I want!”
Exploring the patches
One of the things I loved about these patches is that the Combinator controls are clearly labeled and mapped out in fun and meaningful ways. By having these curated controls at the surface of the patch, it means you have a ton of great variations available to you (like turning a knob for more “LoFi” or “Piano Noise”) without having to open up the devices and dive deep into a patch.
Some of my favorite sounds from this pack include:
Lo-Fi Piano — This old “wobbly” piano with midrangey crackle triggered instant nostalgic vibes and good feelings in my brain. Reason’s Radical Piano forms the core of the sound that is brought to life with multiple Audiomatic and The Echo processors as well as several other devices.
Tip: If the default sound is too “old school” for your track, you can always turn down the LoFi Machine knob or switch off Drive. Both of these can bring back the fidelity but in different ways so be sure to explore them. The same applies to the Piano noises--if they are too loud or distracting in your track, you can dial them back using the Piano Noise knob. You can even automate this between, say, verses and choruses to keep things sonically interesting for listeners!
Classic Bass — This bass sound has a wonderful Moog-like growl on low notes. As Murray says “I really wanted a Moog-style bass with lots of character and flavor” and I think he nailed it here. Most of the sound in this patch comes from Reason’s Monotone synthesizer with Europa providing additional texture. “What I really like about Monotone is that the filter sounds really good and the envelope is super-snappy.”
Tip: Use the Chorus knob to add some phased thickness to your bass. If you’d like more “bite” to your bass, just turn up the Cutoff frequency to let more of the high frequencies pass through the filter. If that’s not enough, you can always switch on Drive to get a more “assertive” sound!
Noisy Keyboard — As Murray says “I was very happy with this sound! There’s definitely a Tom Misch inspiration for this one.” For me, this patch is proof that even basic sound sources (a triangle and sawtooth wave) can be transformed into beautiful, spaced-out sounds by using tiny amounts of modulation along with a lot of delay, reverb and chorus. In this patch, that tiny modulation was done by using Europa’s sample and hold noise (oscillator 3) as a pitch modulation source for the oscillators.
Tip: One of my favorite things about this patch is its tempo-sync’d sidechaining that you can dial in. If you’ve played some chords and like what you hear but wish it had some more “bounce” just turn up the Sidechain knob for some subtle (or not so subtle) automation in volume.
This monophonic lead sound is classic Dr. Dre! It’s amazing how effective a simple sound like this can be at cutting through a mix and introducing a strong melodic element.
Hip Hop Lead — This monophonic lead sound is classic Dr. Dre! It’s amazing how effective a simple sound like this can be at cutting through a mix and introducing a strong melodic element. The default legato and portamento settings of this patch really invite you to play simple top line melodies. As Murray says, “When I set up the patches, I hope the first sound you hear inspires you--and almost forces you--to do something or play in a certain way.”
Tip: One mistake a lot of newer producers make is to jump to sound design without really getting a feeling for how to play the original sound. With a sound like Hip Hop Lead, it’s all about making sure Legato is switched on and then dialing in the portamento time to give you a nice glide between notes. Sounds like this don’t need complex performances with lots of notes--just play a simple melody with just the right amount of portamento (glide) and you’re in business!
Focusing on instruments first
You may notice that this sound pack does not include any drum patches. This was a deliberate choice on Murray’s part. “When I was creating this sound pack, I decided I wanted to focus on the instruments since many beat tape producers find their drums on Splice or elsewhere [after deciding the chords or sounds]. I focussed on making inspiring instruments to help people get their songs started.”
This is a good point. In some genres like EDM or club music--the kick and the snare drums and rhythm are critically important and are some of the first things to be decided since they set the tone of the whole recording. With beat tapes, however, the critical factor isn’t the drums but the overall “vibe.” Vibe is a loosely defined term but, in general, we’re talking about things like the choice of instrumentation, melodies and chord changes, ambient sounds and the general feeling you are trying to evoke. These things, in turn, determine what kind of drum sounds you’ll want. For example a “slow, rainy day at home” type track will need a relaxed drum sound with soft transients whereas a “sunny day, driving down the open road” track might want a brighter, more punchy drum sound. The drum sounds follow the vibe, not the other way around.
The good news here is that Reason ships a ton of great drum loops and samples that you can use right out of the box. Of course, you can get drums and loops from other sources and if you’re feeling adventurous--you can even try recording your own loops and oneshots!
“Reason is a great sandbox of amazing synths and effects. The ability to connect anything-to-anything makes it easy to experiment.”
Seán Murray’s tips for sound designers
I asked Murray if he had any words of wisdom for people interested in sound design. “Reason is a great sandbox of amazing synths and effects. The ability to connect anything-to-anything makes it easy to experiment.” In other words, don’t be afraid to try things out.
One technique he found particularly effective on this project was to use lots of small noise and distortion effects. “Bring in the distortion here and there. Lots of little touches here and there make a really rich sound in the end.” This is a great tip. The effect of one small distortion may be barely noticeable, but the cumulative impact of many small effects throughout your patch really add up. The result is often much more sonically interesting than simply using one huge distortion.
Another great tip for Reason users: “Use an envelope in Europa as an LFO because you can draw in the exact shape you want. And then assign it to a Macro control to dial in how much of that modulation you want.” This can be really useful, for example, when creating a rhythmic or pumping effect in a pad. Being able to control the “shape” of the modulation really opens up a lot of creative possibilities.
If it wasn’t abundantly clear, I’ll come out and say it: this is a fantastic sound pack! It has lovely sounds with tons of character and I’m sure they will inspire lots of great laid back tunes.
Happy music making!
Leo Der Stepanian