Balance is the first piece of hardware to come out of Propellerhead, the masterminds behind Reason (and ReBirth, ReCycle, Figure, and so on). We’re really taken with its gorgeous looks and its excellent sound quality, have a couple of reservations about its flexibility outside of Reason and its price, but things – like usual – go deeper than a few words can convey. Read on for our full Propellerhead Balance review…
Build and Controls
Balance really does look like nothing else. In a world of pretty similar looking little boxes, Balance is a treat for your desk. Coated with that almost velour-feeling soft plastic coating, its big dials for your main/headphone levels and input selection buttons are always tilted toward you in a very ergonomically satisfying way. There’s a real sturdy feel to Balance, in a very different way to most other small audio interfaces. While other developers use metal chassis and industrial design, Balance is soft, gorgeous, and sleek. I would feel a little more conscious of it rolling around in a kit bag, but can you blame it for being pretty?
The buttons themselves press well. The indicator lights aren’t very bright, but they get the job done – and in fact casting an eye over the studio, it’s the big bright lights that are the most annoying over time so this is probably for the best. The big dials for main/headphone outputs are lovely, with a completely smooth rotation, and the smaller gain knobs for the inputs are stepped, which helps to ensure you set both inputs to the same level in the case of stereo inputs. It’s a shame there’s no transport button section on the unit, because I think it would really help in a lot of use cases Balance seems to be designed in mind of!
Inputs and Outputs
It’s not just looks that set Balance apart, though. Despite being a 2/2 channel interface, there are two sets of stereo inputs, two high power mono guitar inputs with pad and two XLR mic inputs, each with 48v phantom power capability. Only two inputs (two monos or one stereo )are capable of being recorded or monitored at a time, but Propellerhead have a point in that – for a home musician at least – even though you may have many things you use to record with, most of the time you don’t record more than two simultaneously. You might have a guitar and mic, perhaps a stereo input coming out of your turntables… but for those occasions where tracking multiple outputs from (for instance) an MPC would save time, or if you’re recording a jam, or even live performance situations where multiple outputs come in handy, you’re out of luck.
I’d really like to see at least some kind of internal summing so that I could record a mix of all inputs if I wanted, just to record an idea as much as anything else, or even to have a thru for the other inputs so that I can at least hear them.
I’d have liked to have seen MIDI DIN sockets on Balance, just to make things just that bit more compatible with older gear. Also, because everything’s 1/4” it would have been nice to see a couple of phono to 1/4” adapters thrown in… just to appease some people who might need to pop out to the shop for them so they can plug their stuff in.
You’ll know whether or not having just two ins and two outs is an issue for you, just as you’ll know whether or not the simple input switching is a godsend or somewhat pointless for your setup. If you do have a few different things you use to input – in the studio we had the MPC going into one input, decks another, and a mic connected to perform some test sessions – being able to simply press a button to choose really does make things easy, and perhaps because when you actually want to record you never seem to have the right thing plugged in, it made the ‘studio experience’ just that little bit less technical and more creative.
Taking the technical out of the recording process seems to be one of the main goals Propellerhead had with Balance. If you use Reason then there’s just no setup required at all; it’s a real joy to pair Balance with Reason, and the driverless install – in fact, absence of install – means you can get started with Balance as soon as plugging it in. It even doubles up as a dongle, which means you don’t need to use your Ignition key.
Clip Safe is a nifty feature that pretty much removes any chance of clipping an input. It really is completely transparent, and as long as it’s turned on via a button on the front of the unit, recordings in Reason can be pulled from the brink if there’s any digital clipping. This works by tapping the input at a low level before the adjustable gain stage, so if you do clip, you can swap over. Of course, the SNR’s not going to be as good as a properly calibrated recording, but it’s better to have a little bit more noise than a completely ruined take. That said, if you set your input levels conservatively by habit Clip Safe does become a little redundant.
Big Meter and Tuner are nice ideas too; if you record some distance from your screen you can enable a large meter that’s easily visible from a distance that shows input level and pitch accuracy. Unless you trail Balance over to your playing position with a long cable, if the levels are wrong you still have to wander back to the unit to set them, though (and you’ll still have to hit record somehow regardless, another argument for on-unit transport controls), which defeats the object a little bit.
If you don’t plan to use Balance with Reason, you’ll need to install the supplied ASIO drivers in Windows and you’ll lose the cool tricks like Clip Safe and Big Meter. Considering part of what you’re paying for with Balance is a Reason Essentials licence, and you lose some of Balance’s best features when you use it with something else, it’s probably not the wisest purchase if you genuinely don’t want to use Reason.
Sound Quality and Latency
Of course, most people would prefer to have a couple of channels of amazing quality audio than 10 that sound like a ghetto blaster rolling down a hill in a dustbin. Balance is capable of 24/96 I/O, and fortunately it sounds absolutely pristine. Crisp, clear, and low noise. We tested it against a few things: the Mac’s internal audio, Native Instruments’s Komplete Audio 6, and the Apogee ONE. It stands toe to toe with the KA6’s output, and my personal favourite for home studio level raw audio quality, the ONE, perhaps edges it on the clarity front but Balance makes a great showing. The low noise inputs are excellent, and are really demonstrated with clip safe – even large amounts of amplification provide a pretty crisp sound.
Balance is capable of very low latency, both in CoreAudio and ASIO, but for those times you need direct monitoring its available simply by holding a button down on the unit until it latches. The pedant in me would like to see a form of integration with Reason on the direct monitoring toggle, allowing you to switch off software monitoring from the Balance unit too to make things even less confusing for newcomers, but never mind.
Software, Price, and Other Considerations
Price is the biggest hurdle that Balance has to leap. Direct from Propellerhead, it’s over €420 – and considering that the bundled Reason Essentials is available for €120, Balance is just about the most expensive 2/2 home/project studio audio card on the market. Is the ability to switch inputs without changing cables really worth all that much, especially when there are other cards of a similar quality with more simultaneous inputs and outputs? To be completely honest, we’d have to say no. However, it’s not quite as simple as that – and I’m not suggesting that all you’re paying for is the input matrix!
Take a look at online stores, and you may find a very different price to the one that Propellerhead quote direct. In the UK, Balance can be had for as little as £260 (as of June 2012); assuming around £100 value for Reason Essentials makes Balance a much more tempting proposition at this price. Not only that, but Balance qualifies you for a specially price Reason 6 upgrade, and a little arithmetic (counting on my fingers) makes Balance a cheaper proposition still if purchasing Reason 6.5 was always part of the plan. Everywhere that’s offering lower prices on Balance and other Propellerhead software is keen to point out that these are limited time offers, though, just so we’re clear.
I really struggled with the Balance value proposition, and we nearly instigated our first dual OD score because of how differently we think two people with different use cases will perceive it. Balance is especially good value if you do one or more of the following:
- Record a lot of voice, miked, or DI’d instruments
- Don’t own any software so far – perhaps recording to a classic multitrack
- Own a full version of Reason 1-5, as upgrade to full Reason 6.5 is free. This even allows you to transfer your Reason Essentials licence to a friend!
- Intend to buy the full Reason 6.5 and an audio interface
And it’s not so good if one or more of these is true:
- You never record live inputs
- You have no intention to use Reason
- You already own the full version of Reason 6.5 (this is somewhat ironic! We couldn’t find a rebate option anywhere, so if you buy Reason before Balance it’ll end up costing you a lot more than buying Balance then upgrading to Reason)
As a quick side note, Reason Essentials is an excellent piece of software that includes many of the tools that the full version of Reason 6.5 does. To make a broad statement, if you’re planning on using Balance and Reason to record acoustic performances you may find Essentials is all you need, but if you’re a mainly electronic musician you might find yourself wanting for some of the advanced instruments and effects that have been saved for the full version of Reason.
Propellerhead Balance Review: Wrap Up
In short? Balance is a great looking and great sounding card, but in comparison to competing efforts from other similarly priced audio interfaces it’s decidedly light on simultaneous inputs and outputs. Reason Essentials is an excellent piece of bundled software, and the value of the Balance/Essentials bundle will depend on what you want to do with it. We might go as far as to say that those of you who record your guitar/voice frequently (especially if it’s your main method) will have more to love about Balance than those who stay in the box, who might struggle to see where your money went. Weigh up your needs – Balance will either be your best music related purchase for some time or cause you a bit of buyer’s remorse…
We love bass, so we decided to take a look at the latest low end monster synth on the market in our Sugar Bytes Cyclop Review. Cyclop has huge possibilities for dubstep – read on to find out just how worthy it is of your hard earned…
Cyclop is, initially at least, pretty confusing to look at. It doesn’t take too long to get your head around things if you’ve got a sound understanding of basic synth principles, but Cyclop is probably a synth that you’ll get the most out of if you’re already somewhat au fait with synths in general. It’s got a pretty big GUI, with a central section that has multiple pages that have their own subpages, and until you ‘get’ how it all works you might get a little frustrated. Once you do, though, things turn out to be quite logical and the layout of the GUI more or less mimics the signal chain, or at least, as much as it can when that chain can be rearranged.
Oscillators and Filters
There are two oscillator sections in Cyclop, plus a sine wave sub osc just to make sure there’s always some knee shaking sub on offer. The main oscillator sections allow you to choose an overarching synthesis type and then tweak them further, with FM, saw/double saw/square wave sync, a supersaw creating ‘saw regiment’, a granular wavetable (that supports wav import), a spectral shaping oscillator ‘spectromat’, and a phase distortion unit that creates harmonics out of pushing sine waves out of phase and accentuating their clashes. This is a lot of potential, and if I’m to be completely honest I found myself neglecting the phase stressor and spectromat in favour of the simpler and perhaps more versatile analog sync, FM, and saw regiment types. Over time I think the extra oscillator types will be something I’ll delve into more, as the subtlties of their character starts to win me over. It’s clear that there’s a great deal of sonic potential in the oscillators, though, and even the basic waveforms sound excellent.
The filter section is similarly well endowed, with ten different types of filter on offer – high pass, band pass, mid boost, three low pass types, comb, ripple (a sort of band pass/comb hybrid), and band stop. All the filters can be set to operate as formant shifters too, which works especially well when certain filters are combined with rhythmic modulation. All the filters are tweaked to be ‘bass appropriate’; they’re very smooth, and even high resonance settings are accessible without ruining the patch in key pitch zones.
For even more flexibility the oscillators and filters can be run serial, with the sum of oscillator 1 and 2 going through filter 1 then 2 (or the other way around), parallel, with the sum of the oscillators split and running into each filter individually, or in split mode, where oscillator 1 runs to filter 1, oscillator 2 to filter 2. Experimenting with just how much this could change the sound was eye opening, and this semi-modular approach to Cyclop is definitely one of its strong points.
Whilst it generates some pretty gut wrenching bass straight off the bat, it’s the modulation options that set Cyclop apart; rather than creating a sound and then warping and shaping it with DAW automation and further plugins, Cyclop really wants you to program every aspect of your bassline, from the wobbles to the tone changes, in its own GUI.
Each of the main controls on the oscillators and filters can be modulated individually by an ADSR envelope, a ‘sound’ dial, a step sequencer, an LFO, and the ‘wobble’ dial. The wobble is a special control that is really at the heart of Cyclop; essentially, wobble is a tempo synced LFO, and every rhythmic interval – 16th, 8th, etc – can have its own shape. This can lead to some very interesting wobble bass patches, where different LFO speeds have character over and above just the rate at which they bounce between settings. For even more fluid changes, the shapes and rates can be interpolated between each rhythm division. Experimentation is key here, and indeed there’s a randomisation button to help you to do so.
On top of all this modulation capability, you can even rhythmically automate these modulation parameters from within Cyclop. You can get so deep with Cyclop that it stops becoming about twisting knobs to get a bass sound and more about getting the meat of your entire track, leaving you to simply play notes and let the automation you’ve set up take care of the rest. I didn’t find myself using even 50% of the total capability of Cyclop in most instances, but it’s nice to know that if you have a certain mutation in your head, you can probably achieve it.
Oh, there’s more. On top of all this, the effects (described below) can be turned on and off in sequence, and there’s an amp gate that’s designed to give rhythmic qualities to held notes. In short, a well programmed Cyclop patch can more or less completely take care of everything that makes basslines interesting except the pitches of the notes in them.
Sugarbytes’ existing calibre with effects is evident with Cyclop. There’s a whole page dedicated to the internal effects – reverb, delay, phaser, chorus, vinylesque wind downs and ‘scratch’ sounds, loops and pitch rolls, each with their own variations. You can layer these effects, with reverb, delay, phaser and flanger as one choice, the vinyl effects another, loops another and pitch the last, in order to create weird and wonderful sounds.
There’s no way to alter their order in the signal chain, but even if it were possible I don’t think it would make much difference to the final sound. There are, though, individual wet/dry controls for delay, reverb, phaser, and chorus, which gives a little more control over these important effects.
As I touched on previously there are eight separate effects settings available, and these can be selected at will either manually or rhythmically to further mess up the sound emanating from the bowels of Cyclop. You know, in case you didn’t have enough sound mangling options already.
We’re still not done! The main signal (not including the sub osc, which runs separately to ensure it simply provides a pure sine bass tone), as well as the pre-filter signal, can be distorted by one of many models, from bit crushing to saturation to downright nasty overdrive. These are set and forget settings (something had to be), as are a general bass tweaking dial that smooths out the high end ‘woofing’ bass and boosts up lower end grunts and a stereo dial that widens out higher frequencies whilst keeping bass in the middle, opening up the sound to proper arena shaking effect.
As interesting as Cyclop is, it’s not perfect. First off, it’s a shame it’s monophonic. I realise that Sugar Bytes are aiming specifically at the bass market with Cyclop, but it would be nice to have just a little bit more versatility – and this is something that polyphony would really facilitate.
In addition, modulation is reset on a note off command – which can at times be frustrating. You can of course simply overlap notes to keep things working through the rhythm schedule, but I would have liked the opportunity to turn this functionality off and have the rhythmic modulation independent of note. It’d also be nice to have a note latch for many of the same reasons.
An arpeggiator might just be too much to ask from Cyclop, but I feel like with the rest of the features it’s crying out for one!
There’s one thing missing from Cyclop’s internal signal chain, and that’s some kind of limiting device. It would be fantastic to have a multiband compressor inside Cyclop somewhere, but then again I think perhaps because Cyclop already does so much inside its own engine I’m just wishing for the world when in reality dropping an external plugin over the top of Cyclop is a fine workaround.
As you can see, Cyclop is a vastly configurable synth. It’s very much suited to a particular type of sound – the huge, tearing basses that are so popular in dubstep and rougher house music – and for those it’s one of the best synths we’ve tested. It’s not particularly versatile though; the massive amount of modulation possible makes Cyclop able to create interesting, evolving sounds, but it’s all geared towards that sound. Sugarbytes are very open about this, and it’s not a bad thing by any means – it’s better to be the best at one thing than okay at a bunch of them. You can get lost in Cyclop, but when you start to learn your way around it’s a very rewarding piece of software.
Win a Copy of Cyclop (ended)!
The good folks over at Sugar Bytes furnished us with one full licence of Cyclop to give to one of our lucky readers – the competition’s over now, but make sure you Like our Facebook page and register for free so you’re first to know about future competitions!
Evolve is, at its heart, a Native Instruments Kontakt Player sound library much like Damage before it. To say ‘before it’ is a bit of a stretch, though, because a Kontakt 2 Player version of Evolve has been around for a few years now. The update we’re reviewing brings it into line with NI’s latest Kontakt Player, version 5, and with it comes a few improvements. Continue Reading
UVI Instruments have just released an entirely free instrument for their UVI workstation player. Based on the Roland EP-09, a simple four voiced keyboard with a basic arpeggiator, Analogic Piano 09 is a good looking, simple to use if somewhat limited instrument, given extra value by the additional free content in the UVI Workstation.
Each and any of the four voices – two different electric pianos and two harpsichords – can be used in conjunction with each other to get a unique timbre, but there’s not a great deal of science here; press buttons until you get a tone you like and you’re done. The sounds lend themselves very well to lo-fi, almost chiptune styled (need an instrument for our recent assignment?) aesthetic – the expressiveness through playing is pretty much limited to volume, and they’re by no means go-to sounds for electric piano or harpsichord. That said the harpsichord sounds are somewhat ‘truer’ and AP09 does make a fairly good stab at them, but the whole point of this instrument is to give some character to your productions rather than fidelity.
On top of the arpeggiator, voices, sustain and tuning options present on the actual EP-09, the AP09 integrates some of the functions of the UVI Workstation system and allows you to dial in chorus, delay, and reverb – all of which are basic single knob effects that go from fully dry to fully wet – as well as a ‘speaker’ switch for speaker or amp emulation and allow you to very quickly dial in some spice to your sound. More interesting are the pages that are actually part of the workstation rather than the instrument itself. You can load in additional effects and use the very well featured arpeggiator that’s built into the UVI Workstation, and there’s real sonic potential in the free effects that are included as standard, not to mention the myriad options available in the arp, which also includes a step sequencer with adjustable volume on each step.
I did notice a little more crackling than I would expect from the sound engine in the UVI Workstation, even using it on multiple cards to test, but it tended to be when mashing as many keys as possible to see how far I could take it. It would be preferable to have an easy to find polyphony selector to make sure you stay in the realms of your capabilities, though.
The AP09 might be a teaser to get you interested in further, paid products for the UVI Workstation system, but even if you’re not interested and just want some new, free sounds to play with, the AP09 and the contents of the UVI demo pack are worth a download. Just ‘like’ UVI’s Facebook page and follow the instructions.
Audio Technica have a bit of a hit on their hands with the ATH-M35s. For their price, they easily stand up to competition even if they’re not perfect. If you’re in the market for some affordable, good quality headphones without too many issues, read on. Continue Reading
Propellerhead’s baby feels like it’s been around forever – that said, I remember opening up the beta of Reason 1.0 for the first time like it was yesterday. In the more than 12 year lifespan of Reason, it’s undergone a few major upgrades, but a quick ‘what’s new’ just isn’t good enough for us… Continue Reading
We wrote a full editorial review recently, now here’s our video review after the operating system update. It’s our longest review yet and we still couldn’t include everything we wanted to, let us know if you got bored, wanted more, have any questions, and so on!
I hope you live somewhere cold. Honestly. It makes all the difference if, when removing the OP-1 from its packaging – which is an exercise in artistic design in itself – if the aluminium chassis is cold to the touch. The build quality of the OP-1 is fantastic; it’s unbelievably solid, from the encoders to the buttons, and the OLED screen is beautiful to behold. Does the sound match up to the looks though? Let’s find out.
The aesthetic qualities of the unit are only really only a value adder to the hard and fast audio capabilities of Teenage Engineering’s flagship OP-1, of course. What the OP-1 comprises is eight synthesis engines, a drum machine, effects, a step sequencer, and a flexible recording system that emulates reel to reel tape recording. There’s more besides, such as the gyroscope that can be assigned to many of the parameters, an inbuilt FM radio, internal speaker… It’s a huge amount of stuff to cram into one unit, and thus it’s not surprising that the OP-1 doesn’t have best in class performance of any single feature. What it does do, though, is combine its functionality with its form to enable it to be an inspiring instrument to use – velocity-free note keys notwithstanding.
The OP-1 can have eight simultaneous instruments loaded at once – any combination of the same or different engines that it produces – although it’ll only play one at a time. The synths in the OP-1 are all very simply designed, with an emphasis on making tweaking them fun and easy. Having only four parameters means that they’re not hugely versatile individually, but between them the breadth of sounds that the OP-1 can produce is very impressive.
A run down of each synth engine:
- String: with the ability to change string taughtness, impulse from a morphing slider of very dull to very metallic sound, impulse decay for wetness, and detune, with the right settings you can achieve some quite realistic string sounds – just don’t expect string concertos to make their way out of the OP-1 any time soon.
- Pulse: A simple PWM synth, with the ability to modify the width and height of two pulses and modulate the rate at which they shift.
- Cluster: One of the more versatile engines, Cluster allows you to combine up to six waves and change the envelope to get anything from pizzicato to drone effects. Spread and unitor controls allow you to widen the waves right out and detune them to get expansive sounding patches; it’s good for anything from raspy electro leads to warm atmospherics.
- Digital: Reminiscent of video game sound chips of yore, digital allows you to play with the wave shape, alter the timbre with ring mod and the octave of overtones, and then dial in ‘digitalness’. Chiptune fans rejoice, basically.
- FM: As you might expect, there’s a pretty wide range of sounds to be had out of the FM synth, and modulations can provide wild digital sounds. That said, it’s one of the more abstract interfaces – perhaps because FM synthesis is a constantly surprising synthesis method when turning dials anyway, there’s very little to indicate where parameters are at any given point.
- Phase: Based around putting two sine waves out of phase, the phase synth is capable of some really growly basses. There’s no in-built mechanism to retain the sub bass that is often lost with phase, but there is interesting wave distortion and phase tilt that can really squeal.
- Dr Wave: An wavetable synth with simple controls for wave shape, filter, phase and chorus; Dr Wave sounds great and really benefits from the wave display on screen, as it really shows you how the synthesis can sound so radically different with small changes in parameters.
Damage is a triple A rompler that uses Native Instrument’s Kontakt player to house a massive soundbank of devastating percussion sounds that smash their way through your productions. The Kontakt player concept has been gaining traction for a while, and revolves around a self contained, non-editable version of the Kontakt sampler; Kontakt has a very clever scripting engine built into it that allows ambitious mechanics to get distilled into simple to use top level controls, and when combined with custom user interfaces the Kontakt Player can be made to feel like an instrument in its own right. NI are obviously very happy with Heavyocity as shown by the advertising co-branding, so let’s take a look at the ins and outs to see if it’s worth the pretty large price tag…
Requires: Win/Mac, standalone or VST/AU/RTAS, 30GB for install
|Price at Review: £239 Damage is packed with unique, dirty sounds. It’s not going to be your go-to plugin for main drums, but it’s great for cinematic sounds and garnish. Just make sure you have plenty of free space for the install.|
Like any good rompler, the included sounds are very unique. Heavyocity have gone fire and brimstone on everything from burning pianos to smashing cars with wrecking balls, but they’ve dialled things in a little and recorded some classic snares, cymbals, and other percussion staples with world class equipment to make sure that the resultant collection still resembles drums. The quality of the sounds is pristine, and ensembles were recorded with unbelievable precision, but don’t expect to load up Damage and smash out your main drum section if you’re producing any dance or beats music. The sounds in Damage are huge and intense, and there’s little if anything in the way of clean, snappy hits that you might typically use to drive a track. Damage comes into its own when using it as the bells and whistles (not that there are many bells and whistles included) of the percussion of your track.
there’s an array of amp envelope sequencers that can be set to note on messages to allow you to switch between them
The loops are split into a few different general feels, ranging from ‘mangled pop’ to ‘epic organic’. In the broader categories, there are patches that load in loops on every key over two octaves, allowing you to layer up and create big parts. It’s impressive how well the timing and general sound of all the loops sync up, even if it does feel a tiny bit lazy to use them, and to really get busy with tweaking individuality there’s an array of amp envelope sequencers that can be set to note on messages to allow you to switch between them. There’s also the option to load individual loops into the player, which brings up a different interface page.
In the individual loop mode, loops are sliced and individual slices can be panned, pitched and level adjusted, and there are four controls each for randomness, freeze, and ‘slice drop’ (which skips slices rhythmically). The four controls for each make the effect incrementally stronger, quicker, or larger, and everything keeps time no matter what happens. There’s a reverse loop button too, but weirdly it doesn’t follow the behaviour of the rest of the controls and actually shifts the playhead back; rather than playing from slice five after hitting reverse on slice three to get a 1, 2, 3, 2, 1 effect (as you would get if you froze slice three for two slices using the freezer), it plays from slice two again. Each slice in the loop can also be individually triggered, and all the effects are also triggered from keyboard keys. You can also drag the loops, with timing data in tact, into your sequencer – great for putting your own spin on things after using a loop for inspiration.