Oldies but Goodies: Propellerhead’s Thor

 

Welcome to our new column, Oldie but Goodies.  This time we’ll look at Thor, one of the many great instruments included with Reason 8, a classic but a favorite of many.

 

by Rob Mitchell, Jan. 2015

 

With this article, SoundBytes inaugurates a new column, Oldies but Goodies, which will be dedicated to covering gear that has been around for a while and that might not be newsworthy at the moment, but that has captured the affection of the writer.  It may be that the subject of the review is unloved in the marketplace but worthy of attention.  Or it may be that the subject is well-known but the writer is just looking for an excuse to write about a favorite.  The common thread, of course, is summed up in the column name.  No matter what the motivation is, we hope you’ll find this series informative and just plain fun.  Enjoy!

 

Reason 8 is a DAW designed by the Sweden-based company called Propellerhead, and it has some impressive synthesizers, drums, and effects included with it. Instead of using the plugin type of format, Reason 8 loads them up on to what is called the rack. This is similar to how you’d see various units loaded up on a rack in a recording studio. There are other optional products available that work within Reason, and they call these rack extensions.

For this review, I decided to cover one of the synthesizers that ships with Reason 8. The one I picked to go over in this review is called Thor. It is a semi-modular synthesizer with many powerful features built-in. It has six different oscillator types, and three different filters can be used. In addition to this, there is an analog style step sequencer included, and nearly anything can be routed to modulate any other part that is within Thor. Audio can modulate control signals, or you might want to do just the opposite, which is possible as well.

 

Thor was first released in 2007 with Reason 4. This is an early sketch of what it looked like before the actual graphics and programming were done. If you look down below the sketch, there are some alternatives for the modulation bus. These were all made in July 2006.

 

Since Thor is included with Reason, it would be good to know what its system requirements are. For the PC, you’ll need an Intel Pentium or AMD Opteron dual core CPU (or higher), four gigabytes of RAM, and Windows 7 or later operating system. For the Mac, you’ll need at least a dual core CPU, four gigabytes of RAM, and OSX 10.7 or later operating system.

There is an iPad version of Thor, but I am not covering that version in this review. Thor is not available as a separate plugin for other hosts, but Reason does support ReWire. Using ReWire lets you use two DAWs at once, sharing some controls and the audio between them. You will need a large amount of RAM and a speedy CPU to be able to run the two DAWs at the same time.

Reason 8 uses CodeMeter for copy protection, and can be used with a USB Ignition key, which is basically just a dongle. Using it this way, you won’t need an internet connection. I didn’t use the Ignition key with my install, and used the software version of it instead. I will be getting an Ignition key soon however, as I have to login every time that I want to start using Reason. This can be a bit of a nuisance. What if I didn’t have an internet connection? I would be out of luck.


After loading it in to Reason, the initial interface you see is called the Controller panel. It has many of the main controls you will need access to. It takes up a smaller area of the screen, which is a good idea when you have a lot going on in a project. To see all of the other controls in Thor, just click on the “Show Programmer” button.

Before clicking that Show Programmer button, I’ll just go over this top section first. It includes the preset browser, pitch bend and modulation wheels, polyphony and keyboard mode settings, portamento controls, and some user-assignable controls over on the right side. Each of the user-assignable controls can be setup to control multiple parameters. The buttons can be used to switch a certain effect on or off, or you can set them so a certain key on your MIDI keyboard will enable it instead. While you hold down F1 on your keyboard for example, it could enable a delay while playing some notes with your right hand. When you release the F1 key, it would then turn off the delay effect.

The preset browser is easy to use. Clicking on the up/down arrows lets you step through the many presets that are on board. Alternatively, you can click on the Browse button to the right of the arrows, and a Browsing section will open up on the left side of the synth. From there, you can double-click on a preset to load it, or drag-and-drop it right on to Thor itself.

 

The Programmer Section

After you click on the Show Programmer button, a large display opens up with many more controls. This is where you can tweak existing presets, or start designing your own.

There are three oscillator slots available, and each one can have a different type of oscillator loaded into it. You have the choice of six different types: Analog, Wavetable (with 32 wavetables to choose from), Phase modulation, FM Pair, Multi Oscillator, and Noise. 

Each of the oscillator types (besides the FM Pair and Noise) has controls to change the waveforms, tuning, and some have special controls designed just for that type of oscillator. For instance, if you select the Analog oscillator type, you’ll see its tuning controls, a selection of waveforms, and a pulse width control. When you select the FM Pair, you are able to pick the frequency ratio for the carrier and modulator, and dial in the amount of FM.

Since you can load a different type of oscillator in each slot, you could have it set to use all FM oscillators, or use a mix of three different types for a more complex preset. You can route any of the three oscillators to either of the two main filters. Speaking of filters, there are four different types to pick from: Low Pass Ladder, State Variable, Comb, and Formant. The first two filters can be used in a few different ways. One oscillator could be routed to just one filter, or you can use the two filters in parallel or serial modes. They’ve also added a third filter in the Global section, and it has the same controls and filter types available with the other two filters.

After the sound passes through the first filter, you can use what is called a “Shaper”. It uses wave shaping to change the audio into a nice, warm-sounding distortion, or it can be used to really drive up the signal, making it more edgy sounding. There are nine different settings to choose from, a few of these include Soft or Hard Clip, Unipulse, and Rectify.

There are three ADSR envelopes available, and these include amp, filter, and modulation envelopes. In the Global section, there is an additional envelope which affects all voices. This Global envelope can be assigned to nearly anything you want in the Modulation section. Two LFOs are included; one of them resides in the main programming section, while the other is found in the Global section. The LFOs include eighteen different types of waveforms, Key and Tempo Sync, Rate, Delay, and Keyboard Follow. The first LFO is polyphonic, while the second LFO is not.

 

Effects and Modulation

The two effects included with Thor are a Delay and a Chorus. These both affect the audio after the Global Filter. The Delay effect can be synced to the host, and has controls for delay time, and feedback amount. Within the Delay section, they’ve also included a built-in modulation that is controlled by Rate (for its own LFO) and Amount knobs. The Chorus effect has the same types of controls as the Delay, except it doesn’t include the tempo sync.


Thor’s modulation bus section is very powerful. This is where you can have a modulation source affecting a target. A simple example would be the routing of an LFO to a filter’s cutoff. You can set an amount for the modulation, and also assign a controller using “Scale”, which could be used with a modulation wheel, or the Rotary controls. This way, you can adjust the modulation amount with a control that you’d like to use. Scale can also be used with another part of Thor, such as the Shaper, Filters, or just about anything else.

Even though the basic “pre-wired” setup of Thor works fine, you can also use the modulation section to change how the signal flows through the synth. You are able to get at many different sources, and you aren’t limited to just standards like the envelopes and LFOs. A few of the other sources include the Step Sequencer, Audio Inputs, and CV Inputs. Basically, you can hook up nearly any section of Thor to any other part.

They’ve also included three different modulation routing types. In the first section, you have seven slots with a Source, Destination, and Scale. There are four additional slots which have a Source, Destination 1, Destination 2, and Scale. The last type of routing has two slots available, and these include a Source, Destination, Scale 1, and Scale 2.

The four audio inputs I mentioned earlier are on the back panel, and these can be used to process other audio sources with the hefty amount of features included in Thor. There are many more inputs and outputs available on the back panel, and they give you a large number of ways to control and shape your sound. They’ve even included some great tips for sound design on that same panel. If you want to see the other side of Thor, just click Reason’s Options menu, and select “Toggle Rack Front/Rear”, or just hit the Tab key.

 

Step Sequencer


Along the bottom part of the screen is the Step Sequencer. It has sixteen steps available, and can be used to play a melody, or it can modulate other parts of the synth plugin. To turn a step on or off, you just click on its button. Above each button is a knob that can adjust different values, which you can select with the “Edit” knob. You are able to change the Pitch, Velocity, Gate length, Step duration, and Curve 1 and 2.

The Direction parameter has some useful choices included, and they give you many ways to playback the melody (or modulation sequence) that you’ve entered. It can be set to Forward, Reverse, Pendulum 1, Pendulum 2, and Random. The Pendulum 1 setting will play through to the last step, then reverse direction, and play it again from the last step to the first step.  Pendulum 2 is similar to Pendulum 1, but it won’t repeat the first or last steps when it reverses the direction of playback.

To play back the sequence, you just click the “Run” button. How it plays depends on the setting to its right, where you are able to switch between Repeat, 1 Shot, and Step modes. Repeat will just keep repeating the sequence until you stop it. The 1 Shot mode will only play through one time, and the Step mode will make it play one step at a time.


A handy feature that’s built-in to Reason 8 is the On-screen Piano keys. This is great if you are on the go, and using Reason on a laptop. One situation where that could be useful is if you’re on a long plane flight, and you don’t have access to a regular MIDI keyboard at the moment.

You can select to use either the mouse on a keyboard that appears on the screen, or use the actual keys of your keyboard to trigger notes. It has numbered buttons that can incrementally change the amount of velocity, and you’re able to set a random amount of velocity change as well. Making it even more usable are the Repeat, Hold, and Sustain selections on the left side.

 

Conclusion

Thor really sounds great, has lots of modulation options, and I think the interface works very well. The CPU usage was not bad at all on my older PC, and I was able to load up a few instances in Reason 8 and had no issues. Thor can go above and beyond what many people would probably use in their preset design, but it is nice to know that when you need the power, it is there.

As I mentioned before, Thor is not available separately, unless you want an iPad version. With that said, for the price of Reason 8, you really get a goodly number of quality instruments. There are at least four of them that I think are worth $100 (or more) individually. Even though I am not reviewing Reason 8 itself, I will say that it is easy to use, and has a lot of power under the hood. There are many optional rack extensions available for it, which makes an already well-rounded package even more enticing.

I can’t really complain about anything in Thor (Reason 8’s copy protection aside). My only wish is that Propellerhead would release this awesome synth as a standard plugin for use in other DAWs. Since it is out there for the iPad, then why not for Studio One, Cubase, Logic, and SONAR? As long as it’s priced right, it could easily compete with other synth plugins. As I mentioned before, if you have a generous amount of RAM, and a high-powered PC or Mac, you can use ReWire if your other DAW supports it.

Reason 8 is available for $399 USD, and you can get more information about Thor and everything else included in Reason 8 here:

https://www.propellerheads.se/products/reason/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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