Review: Propellerhead Balance

In celebration of the recent price drop of Reason Essentials and Balance, I am going to feature a review on Propellerhead Balance.
The other day, I got a very adjective heavy phone call. It was one of my buddies who is in the market for a new USB interface. Apparently he is not happy about the options he had found. He went on and on about the fact that, yes, he enjoys the portability factor but also wants an interface to cater to his outboard pre-amps without him leaning over his laptop to connect each one up when he decides he wants to switch (I think he’s a little self conscious about his figure).  So after about 10 minutes of him rambling, I interrupted, first by yelling at him because he doesn’t regularly check this lovely site. His excuse: “why go to a restaurant when you know the chef. “ Then after realizing I have very lazy friends, I simply told him I had the perfect interface for him.
Much to his surprise, he didn’t even know the makers of Reason ventured into the hardware business. He had only known Propellerhead from his use of the program Record as well as Reason,  which made him even more apt to learn more about this all-too-perfect hardware solution. The icing on the cake? I just happened to have one.
Balance is Propellerhead’s first venture that I know of into the hardware world. Usually the newcomer has to make a few models to get its stride, but I’m happy to report, on the hardware side, I would choose this one over my Mbox any day, no hesitation.
On its stealthy wedged exterior, we have all of the controls clearly laid out on its flat black surface. They didn’t just stop there with the comfortable, familiar mixing board reminiscent design. Balance takes design one step further than the competition by gracing the bottom with a splash of red as well as this (pardon my basic explanation) awesome grippy coating all over the unit. All of these things combine to make this interface something you will proudly want to display on your desk next to that gorgeous Mac Book Pro. Color coating of the inputs on front and back also make life easier when connecting up all of your hardware. This unit is solid too. You definitely don’t want to lug around something that feels frail and would shatter to pieces if dropped on a concrete floor… ahem… mbox.
But just as we all know that looks aren’t everything, Balance somehow made the outside reflect what counts, the inside. The pre-amps are the best onboard pre-amps I’ve heard in a USB interface, and I’ve used a TON of these. I took it with me to a remote vocal session and confidently didn’t even bring one of my many outboard security blankets. I wouldn’t even do that when I had my Digidesign 003.
Acoustic guitars LOVE these pres. It seems to reach inside the guitar and pull the tone out on every take. Vocals are extremely transparent with plenty of overhead. I even tried it on drums by using a four channel mixer with the main out running into each channel. Each piece of the kit stands out in its own way without overpowering or distorting. Don’t believe me? Finish this review and there’s an audio clip of a full song with all parts recorded using Balance in Reason. But be patient and read more first.
I’m not going to get too far into Reason Essentials because I had a full copy of Reason I used instead. I played around with Essentials at first but I quickly missed all of the great features the full version has. I would strongly recommend upgrading to Reason. If you need convincing, or want a review on the full version, I’ve got you covered. The link is right HERE, but make sure you come back. That review could pertain to Essentials in functionality but take out several of the instruments, effects, and larger sound bank.
Don’t get me wrong. Essentials is more than enough to record a full song start to finish, but variety is the spice of life, and its bigger brother has more in the rack. Oh… I almost forgot. If you already own a previous version of reason and buy Balance, you get Reason 6 upgrade for free. Now THAT’s a deal, Also, if you can’t keep up with your USB key for Reason, Balance IS the Ignition key. One less USB port used!
So back at the beginning of this review I mentioned my friend wanted to plug all of his gear in and leave it. Balance has 4 separate inputs per channel. You have your mic input complete with phantom power, two more quarter inch inputs labeled line 1 and 2, and even a dedicated guitar channel with a dB pad to run direct in to use Reason’s Line 6 amp models. So basically you have, 8 channels of gear right on the back to select from on its two channels. Now don’t take this as you have 8 channels of audio to record with at once. You just get the selection per each channel. Changing inputs is a breeze with the buttons clearly located under each of the 4 options on each row. Something I really like about the input gain knobs are that they are stepped to make dialing in the same gain settings on a stereo channel very easy. The big out gains glide around to dial in the perfect level for your monitors (left knob) or the headphones (right knob). Also the headphone plug is tucked away to the right of the headphone big knob. Took me a while to find it but I’m an idiot. Also… I found myself just twisting these knobs even when you unit is not in use. They feel like they’re just barely floating above unit. Just try it… I’m not crazy.  It’s very calming.
Balance also gives you a direct monitoring / mute button so you can bypass any latency issues your computer might give you. The interface’s onboard clock is great though. My Mac Book didn’t experience any game stopping latency so I left it on the entire time I recorded. It is nice to have that option though. Two other buttons on the interface give you access to Reason features, such as the magical “Clip Safe” button and the Meter / Tuner.
The clip safe is great especially for beginners but is a nice failsafe for even the more experienced. The easy way to explain how it works is that it records another track of whatever you record but at a lower volume to give you the option of using if your perfect take has a few parts that distort from too much volume. I’ve tried to figure this out, but I can’t quite get my finger on how it works. I’m just glad they made it because one of my drum tracks distorted and I simply used the version they made. Consider it your own personal engineer in there.  The meter tuner is especially great as well. Just push it and they pop up. This makes life easy when you need to check levels or tune and don’t want to mouse over to find the option. It can also be viewed across the room in case you’re tracking guitars in the next chair.
I spent a great deal of time with this interface. I even used it in Pro Tools 9 and it works great with other DAWs too. So, if Logic is your forte, plug this bad boy right in and you’re good to go, but you do not get access to the Meter / Tuner and Clip Safe buttons; but everything else works just like it would in Reason.
So now I’m betting you’re looking at me, saying, “What’s the catch? You said nothing bad about this interface yet and you’re about to hit me with bad news.” Well honestly I can’t find anything wrong with it. If you can, I will gladly place it in my review if it is a well thought out issue.
My only gripe is the price. Even at the new price of $399.00, you’re in Mbox 3 territory. I’m not saying that because Mbox is better at all. The hardware part is no contest for Balance. It’s the limitations in the software that you’re getting with the unit. I’ve stated this in my previous review of Reason and I’ll say it again. Although a company wants to control the whole recording experience, the user misses out on other great plug-ins out there. This is why the price gets me. Sure you’re getting an easy to use, straight-forward piece of recording software, but I’m just not there yet with Reason. So if you asked me with $399, which one am I going to use for the rest of my life, Mbox with Pro Tools, or Balance with Reason, it would take me a while to answer. And if you’ve read this site, you know that is an AMAZING feat to accomplish by Propellerhead because any piece of hardware that would even make me think about giving up my Pro Tools is something to be considered.

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