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…