Were it not for ReBirth there’d be no Reason – Propellerhead Software’s highly successful software virtual studio.
Thus it’s fitting that the Swedish company paid tribute to a tired product by not entirely taking it out of commission this September. It’s only unfortunate that it slipped out the back door with only those in the know noticing.
First released in ’97, ReBirth broke ground in the definition of ‘music software’. For a long time that term was synonymous with the slightly nerdy realm of sequencers, when suddenly this program had come along that was largely an instrument itself, not just a recording tool. It grew up all the way to v2.0.1 and still didn’t demand a high end computer, Mac or PC.
Based on classic and rare pieces of vintage Roland hardware (2 x TB-303 bass synthesizer and one TR-808 and TR-909 drum machine), ReBirth presented a graphical and sonically accurate emulate of highly praised and sought after rhythm creation devices. Roland quickly gave their thumbs up to the well engineered product.
Fans too lapped it up. Even without a sophisticated computer setup, users could penetrate the full potential of virtual copies of hardware that would not only take up space but drain the wallet. And not only that, there was a pretty handsome set of effects to bolt on to the instruments, as well as a step sequencer to sew those patterns together to create tangible largely dance orientated tracks with no other software intervention. Furthermore, modding (the ability to change the look and sounds of the machines) lengthened the longevity of the program and helped to bolster a strong and faithful community of users – who will no doubt remain.
The very first time I tried ReBirth in ’99, I was gobsmacked. This wasn’t my entry into the world of computer music, but never before had I seen a tool that wanted to say “hey, come and play with me!” Despite an extensive help menu I mastered all the workings of the program within a fortnight. This was due to how much fun it was to use. Persons with the inclination for beat and bass software will find this much more intriguing than a video game.
The drum machines are simple to operate – simply select an empty pattern, highlight in the relevant hits of the desired percussion element and turn on and modify any effects from the side of the machine. The bass synthesizer has a one octave display, where each beat of a bar can have it’s note selected (or turned off), the octave, and the option to accent or slide. The various controls above the key display will deliver the classic acid-y sound. It’s not as straightforward as keying in a bass line, but it works if you know what you want to program.
You won’t find reams of menus or confusing terminologies, ReBirth gives you the bare essentials. MIDI and ReWire (the ability to co-operate with other capable music software) is about as tough this gets. The MIDI portion allowing the attachment of a hardware controller, allowing you turn those virtual knobs, faders and switches via physical rather than point-and-click means.
The song building portion of ReBirth seems very archaic compared to software such as Propellerhead Software’s own Reason or competitors such as FL Studio, Orion and Storm, which not only expand on adding samplers, more synths, and more diverse effects, but also on their graphical approach to arrangement. ReBirth’s method is by no means difficult, but hardly intuitive: you can work by recording events in real time (as successors do) or by step recording, in where each bar of music is edited in a sort of building blocks style by selecting the patterns and effects active for that bar. But when you’re many bars in, without a graphical aid, you’ll have to rely on memory or mandatory playback to see where you are and how you can work from it. Tedious and trying at moments.
Despite this shortcoming I was addicted to ReBirth for a long time. I probably used it as much for mere fun than actual finished song creation. I learned a lot from it, and it instilled a faith in me that I thought was perhaps lost in modern electronic music production.
I eventually moved away from ReBirth, and not to Reason, but the mode of working in my current virtual studio software still owes heavily to ReBirth.
Though old, I wouldn’t hesitate fishing out my ReBirth CD again as in the fast moving world of software in general, it still cuts it. It’s still powerful enough to encourage inspiration and be fun at the same time. And now that it’s free, it’s perhaps a perfect opportunity for even in-dreams musicians to give it a whirl (if only to later move on, too) and even learn about the history of a phenomenal music software product at the well designed, rightly reverential ReBirth Museum site.