Propellerhead’s latest cheeky tutorial makes no apologies. Reason 7′s Audiomatic Retro Transformer is, they say, the equivalent of tapping a filter on a phone camera app like Instagram, bundling lots of different sound attributes together into a single push-button setting.

Ironically, their example is a send-up of the distinctive sound of Daft Punk’s poppy, fuzzy disco – meaning, they’ve got a preset for the band that says the problem with computers is presets. (And to think, you didn’t need to pay for all that high-end studio time.)

This seems likely to produce some controversy. In fact, I’d for some time pondered writing an editorial decrying the Instagram Music phenomenon – digital music covered in layers of crackly fuzz for no terribly good reason, uncreative cynicism and artificial nostalgia posing as authenticity.

But let me for a moment play devil’s advocate … with the voices in my own head. Maybe I never wrote that editorial partly because I found the effect fascinating myself. I started actually using Instagram and loved it as an experience that was entirely unlike the experience of using film. With similar effects in music, I had an equivalent feeling: this was a digital experience that was independent from the hardware these effects mimic. So maybe there’s something else going on here.

As this tutorial point out with Instagram, it’s natural for an end user to think about end results rather than the many individual components that might get there. It’s also easier to get the brain to try A/B comparisons of groups of settings than to try to parse even more choices one parameter at a time, especially when those parameters interact. That’s true whether you’re a newbie or a pro. In other words, presets may play to our perceptions. They group together related attributes we already find pleasing (the look cross-processed 35 mm film or the sound of a cassette tape). But just as importantly, they allow us to compare results rather than get mired in individual details.

This should still beg some questions about originality. But maybe there presets like Audiomatic Retro Transformer can have some potential. There are three ways I can see them doing that:

1. Use them on unexpected content. The best Instagram photos don’t obviously use certain filters; they might produce surprising results or simply fit the content so well that your focus is on the photo.

2. Try making your own push-button presets as a creative tool. The ‘grouping’ of qualities has clear value in practice. It could be the difference between finishing music and mucking around endlessly in edits. So why not try assembling chains of effects into something that forms your own distinctive sound, rather than only adopting someone else’s? (Reason’s own Combinator is an especially nice way of doing that; other tools, of course, have their own equivalents.)

3. Use turning these filters on as a way to turn them off. Because they’re easy to A/B, I find one of the best upshots of habit-forming presets is then forcing yourself to walk away from those habit-forming presets. It seems there are often times in which you spend lots of time turning on filters (images or sound) only to make your last step removing them again. Sometimes, in that final instant, you appreciate the value of the original without the filter. These can become valuable by their absence.

The spirit of a range of gear, with push-button access. Use them as-is for quick A/B modifications to your music. Or take advantage of the 0-100% wet range and CV connections to abuse this effect in new and surprising ways. (And, as such, it's perhaps a lot more flexible than Instagram.)

The spirit of a range of gear, with push-button access. Use them as-is for quick A/B modifications to your music. Or take advantage of the 0-100% wet range and CV connections to abuse this effect in new and surprising ways. (And, as such, it’s perhaps a lot more flexible than Instagram.)

There’s also to be said about why this stuff is suddenly becoming desirable now. Long-time Reason guru Marco Raaphorst weighs in on the new feature, and he reflects on why everything old is good again.

What sounded wrong in the past sounds perfectly normal today. Many years ago I disliked tape-noise, hum, overdrive but somehow I started to appreciatie it when I became more aware of the pros and cons of digital sound.

Like Instagram for audio: Audiomatic Retro Transformer

But I think as he talks about the ways in which digital doesn’t “lose” any content, he may also reveal why these qualities were negative before and positive now. On the original media, they were destructive. They lost some of the material you were working on. I’ll never forget a college film class where I met a woman doing compositing, who had switched from optical to digital. Did she ever miss the old tech? (Apologies I can’t recall her name.)

Nope. Never. “Digital is clean,” she said. The experience of working with optical and analog was a constant battle against “dirt.”

That dirt is suddenly more popular now because, beneath it, you can retain the original. (Hence, my reflection on the ability to switch it all off again and see the difference.) VHS tape editing, I recall, was especially excruciating: as you edited on VHS, you would watch your footage slowly look worse with each edit, the decks gradually scraping the magnetic particles off the film.

Alternatively, some people turn to that technology precisely because they want the control to say, you know, I can lose some content here from a recording perspective but retain its character. Marco notes you might even do this at a very destructive level, with the mic:

Dynamic and ribbon mics are nowadays sometimes a better choice for recording than ever before since they offer that natural high frequency roll-off.

It was harder to see that value when you didn’t have a choice. Now that you do, you begin to see why this “bug” might be a feature.

With digital effects after the recording, you have a lot of power over how you apply the effect – whether subtle or extreme, a little or 100% wet. Marco says he’s been experimenting with all those things.

Let’s get to some actual music. Here’s Marco doing some VHS magic on the master bus:

I’ve had a similar experience with some of the Universal Audio effects – and sometimes, switching them off becomes the creative breakthrough. It’s wonderful having this stuff in your arsenal, and the Reason effects are very different in character – enough that this is another reason to fire up Reason.

Now I just hope Facebook doesn’t buy Propellerhead and SoundCloud to make Tuneagram.

Audiomatic Retro Transformer [Propellerhead]

New in Reason 7

  • bored of canada

    im sure this is what boards of canada use to make all their music so retro

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      HA! Uh… possible. :)

    • mercury

      doubt it…no one here has ever been in a real studio?

  • http://jeffkocan.com/ jeffk

    Reminds me of this video, which makes me wish I’d kept my old tape deck:

    http://vimeo.com/19805122

    Might need to hit some garage sales this weekend!

  • well

    Disastrous.

  • Yanakyl

    Where’s the fun in all this?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      What, comments? Never worked that one out. ;)

    • Yanakyl

      We know that in secrecy you listen to random access memories every day ;)
      especially that casablancas song….

    • Saiswho

      Where is it NOT?
      Perhaps in the way it attempts to bypass our knowledge and insight as professional studio engineers? I think i would like to have something like this in my toolbox still…

    • Yanakyl

      I know what you mean, I’m just tired about stuff where you press a button and all the magic happens for you. Like a videogame where whatever you do you kill the boss.
      And to be fair I’m even more tired of complaining about it, but there I go again.
      In some years we’ll have the preset for making our track sound like in 2010′s with waveforms looking like a square waves and a nice reverb to pretend there is actually some space in the mix…

    • edisonSF

      how could you complain about this??
      sure the video is hella cheese…
      so is 98% of the ads, vids, demos, synth sounds and music you ingest everyday…
      new filters to slap on shit…. sign me up!
      they are tools..
      use em or don’t

      if you are bitter about sound design tools,
      you are too invested in what identity your purchases give you…

      they will DEFinitely bring back that 2010 sound in 2030…
      so what’s to fight?

    • Yanakyl

      I don’t mind that video and sure, tools are tools.

      At first I just thought about a dk7 song, then expanded why I thought about it. This talk about presets/not presets abit like analog/digital is kind of pointless and fun at the same time. A bit like arguing about sport drinking beer.
      At last I’m just making fun of straight and pointless complaining about some technology.

      So yeah, where’s the fun in all this??

    • edisonSF

      truetrue
      i hear you….

      as for the whole preset thingy…
      i think it’s like a dude saying he doesn’t jerk off..
      EVERYone use em sometimes bro…
      haha

  • MaydayDC

    What a shame. The Propellerhead´s advertising its so tacky and dumb. Seems that Reason its now directed towards kids. In the other hand, Ableton Live its the music production interface of the future. No doubt about it.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Okay, so guess you watched the video and didn’t read the article?

      I thought it was clear the tutorial was tongue-in-cheek. I realize it may not be funny to everyone. But like I said, it’s worth playing devil’s advocate as far as what these filters may really mean, without only dismissing them.

    • MaydayDC

      I did read the article.

      My comment was only about the tone of the ad.

      I did found interesting your analysis of the whole audio filter thing.

      But, It seems to me that mastering plugins have always had a category called “Special FX” with presets like “Radio”, “Tube”, etc.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      No absolutely. And for what it’s worth, I find some of the Props videos and tone grating. Comedy is tough, and it’s a big risk in this kind of context.

      Now I do feel doubly obligated to find some way to really abuse this feature, though.

      I mean, from the programmer’s standpoint it’s all easy to explain. You try to do this stuff to see how well you can do it. From the musician’s side, you try to make something that makes you happy and feels like it came from your head rather than the software. So there’s always this dynamic there.

      I do think in this case the musical parody of daft punk’s sound was funny. Maybe that gets lost in overplaying some of the other humor.

    • http://facebook.com/sequadion Sequadion

      Somewhat off-topic, but I really liked this:
      “[...] you try to make something that makes you happy and feels like it came from your head rather than the software.”

      Well said; most of the time I’m also a big fan of transparent tools. Other times you may just want to have some semi-random fun with cheesy effect presets such as these, and there is no shame in that either. :) You might even stumble upon something cool and usable. I know I have.

    • foljs

      “”"No absolutely. And for what it’s worth, I find some of the Props videos and tone grating.”"”

      Me too. But as a European I also find your tone a lot of times too serious, too American-West-Coasty, too white liberal hipster, and too artsy-fartsy.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Foljs: I’m not sure why you think stereotyping people in that way is appropriate in any context. I disagree. I thought it was wrong when people were making an issue of Daft Punk being French. And I don’t like it, not directed at me or anyone else, so consider this fair warning before I start deleting those comments. I love criticism, when it’s directed at my ideas and writing. But maybe you don’t actually have anything to say about that.

      Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I’m from Kentucky. You may be ignorant of American geography, so hint: it’s not on the west coast. I now live in Berlin, among white (and black) liberal artsy fartsy European hipsters.

    • ToneHead

      I look uncomfortably similar to Ned Beatty and once went to a boondocks bluegrass festival in Tennessee, and nothing happened but some awesome banjo, fiddle, and guitar pickin’. So I appreciate your sensitivity to stereotypes, because I was initially scared to go there and had to think about General Sherman a lot to get through the day! But just nice folks as far as I could tell.

    • foljs

      “”"Foljs: I’m not sure why you think stereotyping people in that way is appropriate in any context.”"”

      I’m from Europe. Stereotyping is what we do! We haven’t caught the PC madness much.

      “”"Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I’m from Kentucky. You may be ignorant of American geography, so hint: it’s not on the west coast.”"”

      Heh, I actually know the geography quite well. I’ve visited Kentucky 4-5 years ago (Louisville), mainly to pass by H. S. Thompson’s childhood home and to have a “hot brown”.

      My comment was mostly about a subjective feel of cultural relation to the west coast scene. You can find “Oregonians” in spirit even in North Dakota I guess.

      “”"among white (and black) liberal artsy fartsy European hipsters.”"”

      Yes, we got that pest over here too ;-)

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Let me elaborate on my feelings on the props videos. I love the product, and the work engineering has done to make what I think is one of the bet tools on the market. I also think their marketing quality is top notch. The issue I have with the videos is, while I think the humor is great, there is a risk of just losing some of the audience by distracting from the content. I think that’s illustrated by some of the comments here. And just winning over existing reason fans isn’t quite good enough.

      On the other hand, part of the beauty of the Internet is that users can make their own content and find their own tone. Marketing doesn’t, shouldn’t have to reach everyone. Since these are tools used by musicians with wildly different ideas and styles, I think that’s a good thing. And yes, you can even write about them as an artsy liberal American hipster.

    • foljs

      “”"The issue I have with the videos is, while I think the humor is great, there is a risk of just losing some of the audience by distracting from the content. I think that’s illustrated by some of the comments here. And just winning over existing reason fans isn’t quite good enough.”"”

      Maybe, but if it was just sterile and by the book what good would it be?

      Throwing in a little personality, even if it turns some people off, makes others more endeared to the brand. “Opinionated” works.

      As a “artsy liberal American hipster” you should understand that. Isn’t it what products marketed at hipsters do? Add some humor/offbeat/quirky/etc touches?

      People are more thrown off by other kind of Propellerhead videos, the empty, urban hipster lifestyle ones, like this:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kV4ntZTd1H4

      If you check the comments it’s the most hated and criticised Props video.

    • http://madameblavatskyoverdrive.com/ Ifthenwhy

      ‘In the other hand, Ableton Live its the music production interface of the future. No doubt about it.’

      And the 49ers have better uniform colors than the Raiders
      And Strawberry beats Chocolate!
      And Neil Young is better than the Beatles!

      No doubt about it! Cough, cough…

      And I will ALWAYS opt to use something directed at kids!

    • ToneHead

      You might not be old enough to remember the Mac vs PC or iOS vs Android or Ableton vs Reason of my dad’s generation: FORD vs CHEVY.

      I heard so much of Ford vs Chevy by the age of 5 that I was cured of that madness for life. Thank you Dad.

    • foljs

      “”"What a shame. The Propellerhead´s advertising its so tacky and dumb. Seems that Reason its now directed towards kids.”"”

      I had to grow old to learn how to draw as a kid (Picasso).

      People saying that “X is for kids” doesn’t sound mature. They sound like 13 and 16 year olds wanting to showcase how they are “not kids anymore”.

      “”"In the other hand, Ableton Live its the music production interface of the future. No doubt about it.”"”

      A meaningless sentence.

      Live is a DAW among others (as is Reason).

      Nothing of the singular “music production interface of the future” about it.

  • bjorn_nesby

    Vintage bit-crusher effect? Retrodigital style.

  • gunboat_d

    i was a little underwhelmed with Audiomatic when i finally got to use it; who needs an effect that mimics low-bit rate mp3′s?
    it’s a cute video and given all the stink Daft Punk has made recently about presets and digital music, this will probably get the intended attention. it’s clear that the joke will go over some heads (as it has on already on CDM’s).
    There is a place for everything in proper amounts. too much pushes it into cliche territory. but nobody is immune to the temptation of using a new tool for its own sake; both Daft Punk and the lowliest bedroom producer are guilty of it.

  • http://www.afrodjmac.com/ AfroDJMac

    I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, and as an Ableton user, just got a little jolt of jealousy in my blood. Last week I made an effect rack to emulate an old VCR tape, called the AfroDJMac VHS Rack. It’s free download for all: http://afrodjmac.com/2013/06/07/free-ableton-live-pack-80-vhs-rack/ :)

  • totomax

    Cracking the code of “humor” will be the next frontier in algorithm research it seems based on the responses here.

    The Combinator is already an excellent preset machine. I use it all the time to, drum roll, stack my favorite presets. You can stack loads and loads of modules, save that configuration as a preset, then delete everything and stack different modules and save that again and again, etc.

    When you purchase one of those Wave’s Signature Artist Series, aren’t you paying a lot for the sound someone else had when mixing that flavor of the month big hit? I don’t care for those but I say Good for them and Good for the musicians using them.

    Don’t forget that just by exclusively using a DAW or any instrument is kind of a preset mindset of how your creativity flows, as you need to “bend” your mind into using that particular tool. The level of consciousness and controls is higher than pushing one knob (like that plugin called “oneknob”), but don’t fool yourself: it is a preset.

    Life is a string of presets we chose all the time, all day long.

  • KNS

    Its funny how Propellerhead bring out anger in people who don’t use their products. Especially the Ableton users, laughable really. Why do guys get so mad? I actually like ART there are times when I just want to load something and turn a few knobs and see what happens. I like the “retro” sound. This comes from listening a lot of sound systems tapes and old records growing up. I don’t mind the hard work being done for me sometimes. If I did I would code my own DAW. I welcome this device for sure.

  • A

    (What I wish was)The important take away from tools such as this is to trust your ears and be open anything to use in a musical context. Don’t listen to the experts that tell you noise and distortion are inherently bad(or good), anything without MIDI is worthless, and you need the newest thing to make good music.

    It’s a cliche with some truth that hindsight is 20/20.

  • Katachi

    I wish there is something like this for Ableton Live, hint!

  • Stewart Walker

    At some point, I’d like to see an audio version of Kai’s Power Tools Texture Explorer. Maybe Reaktor’s Metaphysical Function comes the closest.

  • http://rekkerd.org Ronnie

    The video is a bit *daft*, but the effect itself is what it is, just another tool to shape your music/sound.

    I personally like a good amount of dirt in my music. Like recording digital tunes to cassette tape and back to the computer. So I welcome any tool that makes this type of thing easier to do.

  • Kobamoto rin

    I think this is a great tool Peter and thank you for being secure enough in yourself to spend the time on it here, it might have taken me allot longer to find out about it if you hadn’t written about it. I think it’s a wonderful sonic tool and its about time devs and end users alike get off their high horses. If it inspires your creativity that should be all that matters, of course I’ve held different opinions in the past concerning these types of things but one can’t stay stupid forever. I’m sure when speakerphone came out back in the day that all of the people putting down this effect module were giving it high praise, maybe the props should have charged $600 bucks for it,,, btw I don’t know how the hell you made it from Kentucky all the way to hanging out with black hipsters in Germany but you’re doing alright, don’t ever change that part of you. Close minded people are their own reward.

  • emmett

    WANT IT. even the mp3 setting:

    i remember hearing rumors back in 2006 about Danger Mouse using shitty mp3 codecs to process drum stems and make some weird tones. tracks like Beck’s “Modern Guilt” and “Walls” (2008) have some moments that definitely sound “lo-res” to me! emulating old school tones through entirely modern means that remind me both of classic Motown records and the early days of RealPlayer simultaneously? that guy is a genius.

  • erja

    Aw, I missed all the fun.

    I love Audiomatic, to my chagrin. For all the talk of “preset-itis”, consider: this is a convolution processor (with very short character impulses, primarily). How many of us actually record our own impulse responses? If you don’t, Audiomatic’s only sin is having an inviting, fun preset picker. (Notably, every preset actually consists of at least two impulse responses, with a control to let you morph between them, which adds a lot of room to tune the effect to the material)

    On the subject of “dirtifying” material: used tastefully, it serves a lot of musical purposes. It glues mulltiple instruments together, it adds harmonic content that can make single instruments stand out (subtly or aggressively), it covers up tonal shortcomings. Many of the Audiomatic effects have interesting non-linear LPF/HPF properties, which has obvious benefits during mixing. And distortion evokes some interesting emotions:danger, nostalgia, naturalism.

  • Aaron

    Tons of people already use things like Ozone for this by utilizing mostly presets rather than digging in deep with it.. they just dont admit to it.

  • Borl

    Moneygrabbing bastards.