In this tutorial, I’m going to show you a few interesting ways you can use the RPG-8 Arpeggiator in Reason 4 and above. We’ll first cover the basics and then move into more interesting territory in Part 2. For this tutorial, I’ll run through setting up an RPG-8 device, and then explore all the device parameters.
To start, the project files for both Part 1 & Part 2 can be downloaded here: arpeggiator-fun. The files are fairly self-evident. You have one .rns file which shows you the basic RPG-8 setup, and a few combinators to showcase some of the tricks I’ll show you. The file is available in zip file format.
Arpeggios for Dummies
The RPG-8 is a device that allows you to play arpeggios. What’s an arpeggio? In simple terms, it’s a “broken chord” whereby the notes of a chord are played successively rather than simultaneously. To think of this in simple piano terms, if you were to play three notes in a triad (first, third, and fifth, for example), you would place all three fingers on the three different notes and press the keys at the same time. This produces a chord. Instead, an arpeggio plays the chord in succession: your first finger goes down on the first note, second finger then goes down on the third note, and third finger then goes down on the fifth note. The notes are played one after the other.
Setting up the RPG-8
Before jumping into an explanation of setting everything up and exploring all the parameters, I thought I would put together this video and show you visually and audibly how it all works. Then you can read the full explanation below.
Setting up the RPG-8 is fairly easy. Create your sound device (Subtractor, Malstrom, Thor, NN-XT, for example), then create the RPG-8. Everything is automatically routed up for you. From then on, all you need to do is enter some notes on the RPG-8 track (NOT THE SOUND DEVICE), and you’ll hear the Arpeggios playing from those notes. Of course, if you set up the RPG-8 inside a Combinator, you might want to create a special track for the RPG-8 in the sequencer — though placing notes on the Combinator track will trigger the RPG-8 to play (because the RPG-8 is set to Receive notes in the Combinator). Just make sure that any notes you want to play arpeggiated should reside on the RPG-8 track or in the Combinator that houses the RPG-8 and you’ll be safe.
It should also be noted that the RPG-8 is a monophonic device. In other words, it’s one note at a time. You can create polyphonic setups by duplicating the device (both the sound source and the RPG-8) and then sending the audio output from both devices to different channels on a mixer or merging them together using a Spider Audio Merger/Splitter. This is a common setup or workaround to making your arpeggios polyphonic. Yeah, it’s a bit of a pain. But it’s not a major hassle either IMHO.
So now that you understand how an arpeggio operates, we can easily make a few connections on the RPG-8 device. Open one up and you’ll see the following controls:
Note: The RPG-8 is divided into 3 main areas. On the left, you have the “Midi-CV Converter” area. Translated into english, these are your “Keyboard” controls. This includes the Velocity knob, Hold button and Octave Shift settings. Generally, these controls relate to how notes are input from the keyboard controller (or other midi controller device). In the middle, you have the “Arpeggiator” controls, which affect the way the arpeggios operate. Finally, on the right side, you have the “Pattern” section, which can add a separate internal rhythm to the arpeggios.
Velocity: As with any other device, the Velocity value is determined by how hard you play your keys on the keyboard. The harder you play, the louder the notes will sound (depending, of course, on the velocity levels you set up in the device being controlled). When this knob is set fully right, you are in manual mode, which means the velocity is determined by how hard or soft you play the keyboard (this is the default). If, however, you set the knob anywhere else on the dial (left of the manual position), the velocity level is fixed, based on the dial. For example, if you set the knob to 64, then no matter how hard or soft you play the keyboard, your velocity level will remain on 64 (ie: 50% or half-level velocity).
Hold: This is one of the best features of the Arpeggiator device in my humble opinion. Using this simple button can free you up to do other things on your keyboard while the arpeggio continues. The way it works is you turn it on, then play a chord. Then lift your hand off the keyboard (Release). Notice that the Arpeggio continues to play? Now play a new chord. The new chord will overwrite the old chord and continue to play. Turn the “Hold” button off, and the arpeggio stops playing. In this way, you can continue to maintain an arpeggio playing while jumping off to play other devices. Or you can create a series of Arpeggiators and play different rhythms on each device to have them all running their own rhythms and chords simultaneously, without ever entering more than one chord on each device. One of the most useful features of the RPG-8 to be sure!
Note: If you have the Arpeggiator On/Off button (see below) turned off, adding a new note will not overwrite previous notes. Instead, the Hold will leave the gate open, meaning the notes will be “additional” to the previously held notes. This may be what you want or intend. But usually, you want the notes replaced when they are held. Still, it’s nice to have options.
Octave Shift: This allows you to transpose the notes up or down 3 octaves each way. You can use this to shift notes up or down an octave in a “live” setting, or if you find you’ve input notes on the sequencer that are too high or too low, you can adjust them here. Nothing too exciting, and I think the idea behind this feature is pretty self-evident.
The Arpeggiator’s “On” button: 99% of the time you’ll want to leave this button on. It simply turns on/off the Arpeggiator section of the device. See the above note for a situation where you may want this button turned “Off.”
Mode knob: This can be thought of as the “direction” of your arpeggio. If you think in terms of the previous triad I was explaining, up would play the root, third and fifth in succession, while down would play the fifth, third, and root. Up/Down would play the root, third, fifth, third, root. Random would play the notes in a random order. Finally, manual creates arepeggios that move in the same direction that the notes are played when they are input. Input a C1 and then a C2 and then a C0, the notes will arpeggiate up from C1 to C2 and then down from C2 to C0. It basically follows the direction you play manually.
Octave: This determines the range of your arpeggio. Using our example, If you set this to 1 octave, the arpeggio will not stray from the octave that is played. The triad will be played in succession and within the octave that is initially input. If you enter 2 Octaves as your parameter, the triad will play within the range of the current octave plus an additional octave above. It’s important to note that the octave range increases. It does not decrease. If you wish to extend the range one octave below the current octave, an easy solution is to set the Octave Shift parameter to “-1” and then select the “2 Oct” button. This essentially places the arpeggio within the two octave range; one octave below the current octave AND the current octave being played. Sounds confusing, but becomes obvious once you start applying the parameters to an arpeggio which is currently playing.
Insert: Probably the most complicated aspect of the Arpeggiator section, the best way to think of the insert function is to understand that it injects a rhythm to the Arpeggio by altering the sequence of notes being played. This is another one of those “great to have” features because it can add a lot of interest to the sound, without having the arpeggio sound static or dull. “Hi Insert” will start by inserting the highest note, then play the next note in the arpeggio sequence; inserting the highest note after each subsequent arpeggio note (after every second note). “Low Insert” will start by inserting the lowest note, then play the next note in the arpeggio sequence; inserting the lowest note after each subsequent arpeggio note (after every second note). 3-1 and 4-2 are more rhythmic in nature and don’t actually add any new notes into the sequence. “3-1 Insert” plays 3 notes forward, and then goes back 1 note, then starts playing 3 more notes from there. “4-2 Insert” plays four notes forward, and then steps 2 notes backward, and plays the following 4 notes. Hi and Low Insert can be thought of as introducing new notes, while 3-1 and 4-1 Insert simply reshuffles and restarts the arpeggio sequence at a different point in time (either 1 note back after 3 notes are played, or 2 notes back after 4 notes are played).
Here are some examples using real-world arpeggios for a C Major chord (C, E, and G) with the Inserted notes listed in rounded brackets and restarted notes listed with square brackets (with the Arpeggio Mode set to “Up” and the Octave setting set to “1 Oct”):
No Insert: C – E – G – repeat
Low Insert: (C) – E – (C) – G – repeat
Hi Insert: (G) – C – (G) – E – repeat
3-1 Insert: C – E – G – [E] – G – C – E – [C] – E – G – C – [G] – repeat
4-2 Insert: C – E – G – C – [E] – G – C – E – G – [C] – E – G – C – E – [G] – repeat
Notice that the 4-2 insert is identical in sequence to the “No Insert” setting. This is because the way the algorithm works on a triad is indiscernible to not having any insert set. If you were to create a 4-note chord, however, the 4-2 Insert will have a noticeable difference. The moral of this story: Insert values sometimes don’t have any effect on the arpeggios you are playing.
Rate knob: This determines how fast the notes are played. Very simple. You can have it free-form, meaning that the rate is not tied to the song’s tempo, or you can have it synced, meaning the speed is tied to the song’s tempo.
Note: if you want to tie the rate parameter to a Rotary within a Combinator, you can expand the capability by assigning both the Free Rate and Sync Rate to the same Rotary and then tie the sync parameter to a button. With this setup, you can use one Rotary to change both the free and sync rate, and switch between the two via the sync button on the Combinator. Easy as pie!
Gate Length knob: This determines when the gate is triggered. If it is fully left, the gate is “tied,” meaning that the gate is always on. In other words, the notes are meshed together and seamlessly play from one to the next, with no “breather” or “break” between the notes. If the gate length is further to the right, the gate breaks up the notes more and give a sort of “staccato” feel. Fully right and the gate makes the note extremely short, if not inaudible.
Single Note Repeat button: This is one of those parameters I think should be under the “Keyboard” section, but anyway. It basically determines how the Arpeggiator works when single notes are played. If left on (default), playing a single note triggers the gate over and over. So the note repeats based on the “Gate Length” setting. If turned off, any single notes that are played will not repeat, but playing multiple notes at once (polyphony) results in the Arpeggiator being triggered. This can work very well if you want to play a monophonic synth line, and break into an arpeggio when more than one note is played simultaneously. Very dynamic when used correctly.
Pattern button: This turns on the “Pattern” section of the device. The pattern section can best be described as a mini-matrix or mini sequencer inside the RPG-8. You can use the +/- “Steps” buttons to reduce or add steps into the pattern. By default, when you turn on the pattern, all steps in the pattern are enabled. This means the arpeggio plays through from the beginning of the pattern until the end. If you click on the pattern step buttons above the pattern window, you end up removing notes inside the pattern. This means the pattern will “skip over” those steps and move on to the next step which is enabled. It’s very similar to the way the Thor step sequencer works. Use the shuffle button to add a sense of shuffle or swing to the pattern (similar to the shuffle button on other devices like the matrix and Redrum).
Note: One really neat thing is that you can program the pattern to be changed on the fly by controlling it via one of the rotaries on the Combinator. This gives you access to 127 different patterns. However, if you automate it directly in the sequencer, you have access from -32768 to +32767 pattern variations. That’s a total of 65535 pattern variations. Yup. You got that right. So automate this sucker in the sequencer if you’re in the studio, and map it to a combinator if you need to play it live.
Note: The pattern window helps to show you which notes are playing within the arpeggio. It can play the full range of notes from C-2 to G8, but the pattern window will only display notes from A-2 to D#7. That’s why the notes appear so flat. It has to show 8.5 Octaves worth of notes (103 notes in total). But it does! Perhaps that’s where the “8” comes from in the name of the device?
So that’s the RPG-8 in a nutshell. Stick with me and I’ll show you some further tips on how to use this device in my next tutorial. Drop me a line and let me know what you think so far, or if you’re looking to do something specific with the device. I’d be happy to try and help you out. All my best!