Propellerheads Balance & Reason Essentials - Full Review
We lay our hands on the new Balance USB audio interface bundle from Propellerheads and see if it really is a songwriters dream box.
A fair few eyebrows were raised when Propellerheads, the creators of Reason, announced their first venture into the hardware market. To me it makes complete sense. They want their software to be easy to access and straight forward to use, how better than to define the hardware that provides that interface. They must get an enormous amount of feedback from users on how they are using the software and what sort of things they would like to see in an interface. And so we have Balance – let’s have a look.
A slightly condensed video review is available on our YouTube channel (below) but in this written version we've been able to go into a bit more detail.
UnveilingPropellerheads are known for their clean lines and interesting design and they don’t disappoint - even the packaging is very pleasing to the eye.
It’s satisfying to hold the top section and watch the bottom half slowly reveal the Balance lurking inside. So, in an already upbeat frame of mind you pick up the interface are immediately impressed by the weight and the feel. It’s a wedge shaped desktop box that’s covered in a fabulously smooth and yet tactile surface. The layout of knobs and buttons is simple, clean, the white labels leaping off the deep, matte black background, and the red underside sort of hints at something exciting beneath the surface. It feels great – solid, weighty, looks amazing – it’s a totally enjoyable box opening experience which is the best way to start with any new piece of gear.
InstallationThe installation instructions are short and to the point – the main one being to install the Reason Essentials software off the CD first before connecting the Balance. This took a surprisingly long time as it had to copy and unpack the factory soundbank to your hard drive so it’s probably a good time to put the kettle on. It’s also a good point to look at the physical ins and outs.
HardwareBalance is a 2in/out USB audio interface. On the rear of the unit though there are 8 input options; two “Mic” with phantom power, two “Guitar” with pad and two lots of “Line”. The mics are on XLR connectors, the rest, including the stereo line output are on ¼” jacks.
The idea behind having all those inputs available is so that you can leave all your gear connected and are not having to swap mic and guitar leads, or pulling out leads in order to connect up your synth. This is undoubtedly a cool feature but does make you wonder a little why it’s only a 2 input interface. The two inputs you want to use at any one time are selectable via the two rows of buttons on the front. You also have a gain knob for each channel, a signal/clip light and each button lights up to let you know it’s selected. The lights are a little sedate and difficult to see in any kind of sunshine, but perfect for the low light conditions you normally find in a studio, or your bedroom. The layout couldn’t be simpler or more obvious. As someone who is often frustratedly fiddling with buttons on interfaces to get sound out of or into the right hole this is very refreshing. There are three other buttons that we’ll come to in a minute but rounding off the interface are two nicely large dials, one for the Main Out Level and one for Headphones Level, the single headphone socket being on the side of the unit. A single large knob controlling the output is a fabulous thing and aptly demonstrates the friendliness of this unit. The only thing missing is a MIDI interface and perhaps a second headphone socket would have been a nice touch.
The types of input suggests that the target audience is the singer songwriter. There’re no phono inputs for turn tables, no mapable MIDI control knobs, not your traditional Reason user but since the release of “Record” (which is now integrated into Reason 6) not unexpected to further reinforce the point that Propellerheads are about more than synths and drum machines these days.
Getting startedRight, a cup of tea and a few biscuits later Reason Essentials is installed and asks to reboot which we do. After waiting a little while in case further instructions are forthcoming we assume it’s all installed OK and plug in the Balance. It all recognises installs perfectly until a mystery window opens called “CodeMeter” – it appears to be an empty drive. Being experienced in the world of computer music I recognise this as a form of copy protection but there’s nothing in the Quick Start guide about it. I later discover that the Balance contains an “Ignition Key” copy protection dongle that allows you to use the software – it’s just not very well documented. Pushing on through I start up Reason Essentials, click through the various agreement and set-up pages (which you’ll only have to do the first time), opt for an empty project, create an audio track, plug in the guitar, press the “Guitar” button, click “Record” in the software and we’re off! Could not be simpler.
The Three Other ButtonsThis brings us to the first of the three buttons I mentioned – “Meter/Tuner”.
Press this button while in Reason Essentials and a big fat audio output meter arrives along with a guitar tuner. It gives you two vital bits of information without having to fiddle around with the mouse. The meter is relevant to whatever audio track you have selected – but it’s only on output so you have to be monitoring through the software to use it.
The second button is a “Mute/Direct Monitoring” button. With a single press you can mute the outputs (a very handy button indeed). If you hold the button for a second or two the interface switches to direct monitoring, bypassing the software – except that it doesn’t actually bypass the software, instead you get a mix of direct sound and sound through the software. To remedy that you have to turn off the monitoring in Reason. Some little bit of MIDI control would have been cool here to have the switch toggle between software monitoring and direct monitoring but it’s certainly easier to achieve and understand than many interfaces.
The third button is a superbly brilliant idea called “Clip Safe”. The concept is that alongside what you’re recording Reason is secretly recording a padded (lower gain) version, so that if you stray into the red the clipped recording can be replaced by the padded one and so remove the erroneous distortion. Reason shows you where the clipping occurs and with a click of a mouse the nasty bits are “healed”. This is phenomenally useful, especially in these times where music is supposed to be as loud as possible and so every dB counts. It’s easy when recording vocals to set the levels perfectly and then the singer leans into the mic just a little bit more on the take and it clips – with Clip Safe, you can instantly fix it. The process takes a couple of steps. First enable Clip Safe by pushing the button – it will light up green if you’ve selected an audio track and it’s enabled for recording. Then record away. If there was any clipping Reason will display some red lines above the recorded waveform.
Press the “CS” button on the top right corner of the clip to heal the audio – you should notice the waveform change (Propellerheads call the boxes of recorded stuff in the arrange window “clips” which may get confusing when talking about clipping). Where the clipping has occurred the healed audio will still be above 0dB and so you’ll still hear distortion on playback – this is the vital step that had me confused for a while. To remove the distorted playback you need to reduce the volume of the clip so that the loudest part is under 0dB. This is something that could perhaps be a bit more automatic, but it does give you the flexibility of choosing how best to treat that audio clip. Clip Safe is an awesomely helpful but beautifully simple technology that I would love to see supported in other recording software.
Reason EssentialsMost audio interfaces come with a bit of recording software that lets you make some music but with a large slice of the cool stuff you’ll find in the full version missing. Reason Essentials though is a little bit of genius because they really have kept the good stuff in it – or at least most of the stuff that I ever use. You get the SubTractor polyphonic synth; the NN-XT sampler; the Dr.OctoRex eight channel rex loop player; the Redrum drum machine; and the ID8 (a toolbox of regular piano and GM type sounds). These were the main features of Reason up to version 4 and with 1 GB worth of library and hundreds of patches it makes for a comprehensive palette of sounds. But that’s not all. They’ve also included the “Combinator” which is a way of creating new instruments by combining up others into a single interface. They’ve kept the background wiring which is where you can turn the synth rack around and view the back where every instrument is wired up with virtual cables. You can move these connections around to create very complex routings of audio and CV control between instruments.
We’ve not even mentioned the fist full of effects including amp modelling from Line6 for both guitar and bass, mastering effects, EQ and reverb. Rounding it all off is the essential Matrix Pattern Sequencer for creating awesome bass and lead lines with Subtractor or however you want to use it. The project arrangement window lets you record unlimited audio tracks and sequence unlimited instrument tracks – this is a wonderfully complete piece of music production software. Reason 6 has a lot more stuff and is definitely worth the upgrade but if this is your first foray into making music on a computer then Reason Essentials is more than enough to get you started and keep you going.
Balance and Reason Essentials Working TogetherThe integration of the software and hardware is great to a point. The functions such as Meter/Tuner and Clip Safe are excellent and the ease with which you can select inputs is all good. In some ways I feel there’s a missed opportunity in not having just a little bit more control on the Balance so that the guitarist could record a track without any mousing around. With the mouse you still have to select which input channel you are using and use the transport. A row of Start/Stop/Record buttons would, I feel, have made Balance a more complete interface – but that’s not to take away from how great this bundle of hardware and software already is. One last slight gripe is that with all these inputs encouraging you to plug your gear in you can only actually hear one thing in either channel at a time – there’s no internal mixer. So you can happily record a mic in channel 1 and a guitar on channel 2 at the same time, but if you had an external synth plugged into the Line input as well you wouldn’t be able to hear that. Remember it’s only a 2 in/out box but it is a little odd that you can’t hear all the things plugged into it at the same time. It’s like it needs a “Mix” button where all the inputs are routed to the stereo input, or a “Thru” button where inputs for monitoring are routed directly out again. Again this is criticising it for features it doesn’t have which is rather unfair, but perhaps if Propellerheads are considering creating a big brother to the Balance then these are things worth thinking about.
Using Balance with other softwareBalance has fully functional ASIO and WDM drivers and so works very well with software such as Cubase, Sonar, Pro Tools, Studio One, Reaper etc. You of course lose the Meter/Tuner and Clip Safe functionality but otherwise the same functions apply. One unexpected discovery is the absence of any kind of control panel. Normally an audio interface would have a piece of software somewhere that lets you adjust the buffer size of the inputs and outputs, but I can’t find one. In Cubase there’s a “Control Panel” button which would usually bring up the buffer settings but with Balance it does nothing. In Reason Essentials you can change the buffer size in the audio preferences, all the way down to 64 samples or 2ms, but if you return to Cubase it’s always the same – 5.8ms at 44.1kHz and 2.6ms at 96kHz. These are really impressive figures and with a little bit of testing the performance appears to be excellent (more performance testing coming soon) but it’s unusual that you’re not able to adjust the buffer size to tailor the performance to your situation. But, as I say the latency figures are excellent for a stereo USB box and the performance is superb so does it really matter?
Rewire64bit ReWire has been on many a computer musicians wish list for a very long time and finally with Reason Essentials and Reason 6 it’s here – cue fireworks and much rejoicing! The only snag is that it requires a host (Cubase, Sonar, Pro Tools etc) with 64bit ReWire implemented and at the time of writing none have done so that I’m aware of. So in order to use ReWire you still have to use 32bit versions of your host and the 32bit version of Reason. Ok, no big deal, we just have to wait for the hosts to get their acts together. In the meantime Propellerheads manage to create a lot of unnecessary confusion on 64bit Windows. When you run the installer it automatically detects the 64bit OS and installs the 64bit Reason with the 64bit ReWire. That’s fine but when you want to ReWire into Cubase you first discover that 64bit Cubase doesn’t support it (yet) and that it doesn’t appear in 32bit Cubase either. In order for 32bit Cubase to ReWire itself with Reason you have to install the 32bit version of Reason and ReWire. This requires you to fiddle about with adding switch commands to the installer - create a shortcut to the Reason installer file on the CD and add “ /32” to the “Target” section under the shortcut properties – then run the installer from the amended shortcut. Not a very elegant solution and also not made very clear anywhere other than deep in the online FAQ’s. This is a pretty vital bit of information that they should certainly make more fuss about to avoid people like me spending hours trying to unravel the problem. Rant over.
Once you’ve sorted that out ReWire remains one of the most useful bits of computer music technology ever created. If you’ve not encountered it before it allows you to run audio from Reason through the mixer of a host program such as Cubase/Sonar/Pro Tools and also lets you route MIDI from the host back to Reason so that you can play the instruments and integrate them into your project. One of the criticisms levelled at Reason is that it doesn’t support VST plug-ins but via ReWire you can add all the plug-ins you want and sync the Reason instruments up to other VST instruments very easily. This is how I’ve always used Reason, as a sound source, a synth workstation connected through Cubase. With the integrated audio recording and mixing in Reason Essentials and Reason 6 Propellerheads are suggesting that you wouldn’t actually need anything else to fully produce music, and they’d be right, but I’m really pleased that they’ve decided to keep the ReWire functionality as it makes Reason infinitely more flexible and useful in more directions.
Final ThoughtsThe look, feel and functionality of the Balance is exceptional. A great deal of thought has gone into creating a useful interface and it shows. The layout and clean lines make it a breeze to use and has an intuitiveness that many interfaces lack. Reason Essentials is a magnificent piece of software that has all the functionality of the full version (just not as many instruments or effects) including the routing and ReWire which really does set it apart from most bundled software. The drivers are great, the latency levels are excellent, the sound quality is easily on par with anything in its class. It’s true that I have a small wish list of things that I think would improve it further but as it is, it’s a great piece of gear. With a street price* of £329 inc VAT it does give you cause to pause – it’s not cheap. It’s twice the price of the Focusrite Saffire 6 and Roland UA-55, a fair bit more than the new generation M-Audio FastTrack C600 and Steinberg UR28M and on a par with the smaller FastTrack & Pro Tools MP bundles. There’s no doubting the quality of the unit but in comparison to what else is out there it seems a bit expensive which is a shame because I think it may get overlooked. However, Propellerheads have designed it as a kick arse interface for Reason songwriters or as an awesome bundle for first timers and that’s exactly what it is.
* Propellerheads have recently (mid March) seen fit to drop the price of the Balance to under £300 making it even more attractive and less troubling and puts it on a par with interfaces of a similar feature set and quality. Awesome!