As some of you who follow me on Twitter (www.twitter.com/keyofgrey) will know, I purchased Propellerhead’s Balance audio interface, and Reason 6 upgrade (now upgraded to version 6.5) in February so this review has been a long time coming (here’s my mini review from back then). The reason (no pun intended) for the delay in releasing this review will be explained and actually plays a part in the whole experience.
This review will be pretty succinct considering the many products that are included in Reason 6. Reason’s modules are so deep that separate reviews could be made for each, but I will attempt to give a look at the product as a whole, and only briefly focus on a few parts that I found helpful in my day-to-day production work. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Reason is now a full-fledged DAW.
Propellerhead used to pussy-foot around the term DAW (digital audio workstation for those unfamiliar with the term). When Record was introduced with Reason 5, Propellerhead was quick to correct those who would call it a DAW. I’m not sure if this was to differentiate it from the stigma of DAWs (that they’re complicated and bloated).
Before Record, Propellerhead didn’t have a product to deal with multi-track recording; the idea was that you’d use Reason like rack-mounted gear Re-wired into your DAW of choice. To be honest, I have never really been a Re-wire fan. In Logic Pro, having to deal with automation in two places, and then plugging Reason into an auxiliary track so that I could feed it back and print it onto an audio track took up valuable time which could kill my motivation. I’m sure everyone has a different way of working with Re-wire but in the end, I just want everything that I’m working with to be in one place. For producer/songwriters, and remix artists, it wasn’t a very elegant solution.
With Record, suddenly I could do everything inside Propellerhead’s walled garden. Propellerhead wanted you to think of them as two separate products, but they worked seamlessly together to allow you to do everything in one place. Granted, if you wanted to use sample libraries in another format (I have a tonne of Native Instruments products), or you wanted to use your mixing/mastering plugins, you couldn’t. This is the same in Reason 6 which now integrates Record.
Reason has a store for third-party plugins.
Well, there’s some good news and bad news: the good news is that Reason 6.5 includes a store where you can now use third party plugins, the bad news is that it’s a new format and not everyone is developing for it…yet. For users like me, who rely heavily on plugins from companies like Waves, this means that you’d still have to export your project to another DAW to use them or Re-wire.
But wait, there’s good news on that front too; Reason has streamlined their export audio track process and what used to be minutes or hours of muting and unmuting tracks to ensure effects and processing got accurately captured (for those of us who bus and side-chain effects), can be done in seconds all at once. You have no idea how thrilled I am with the way Reason handles this as no DAW I’ve used so far makes it this easy.
Reason 6 is an efficient writing tool, especially with the addition of Balance.
I have been using Reason on and off since the early 2000’s as a synth rack. What I loved about it was that it didn’t tax my processor as much as other synths I was using. What I didn’t like about it, was that I couldn’t edit or record audio. When Record came out as a Beta, I was eager to test it out as Logic projects were maxing out my tired old Macbook Pro, and I was looking for something that wasn’t as bloated. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the stuff that comes with Logic, but the DAW itself is a huge resource pig, especially all the nice included plugins (I’m looking at you Space Designer).
I tried out the polar opposite as well in Reaper, but I honestly didn’t give it as big a chance as I could because it didn’t come with the huge instrument and effects library that Logic did (to be fair, it’s reflected in the price). Because I’m mostly a producer/songwriter these days, I was used to all the included stuff in Logic and missed it. I think that Reason 6 is a good compromise: it has a lot of great instruments and plugins (it had to since it didn’t allow third party plugins before version 6.5) and it’s fairly light on resources.
In a quick test (admittedly not an apples to apples comparison though), I opened a mixed project in Logic and then tried to re-create it as best I could with the same audio, but using Reason’s effects plugins. While Logic would sputter into Core Audio overload, Reason was able to chug along at about 50% processor load according to its meters…and this was using separate instances of effects on each track (I was using AUX sends in Logic for the plugins). To be fair to Logic though, I was using third party premium plugins while I was using Reason’s basic effects.
For those on the fence, Balance might push you over the edge into Reason territory.
These days, I’m mostly writing music, and not mixing other projects. This means my needs have changed considerably over the last several years. Where as before I had a mixing desk and lots of outboard gear in a purpose-built space, I now write in my spare bedroom where space is at a premium. I would rather have less gear, but with the best possible quality signal chain that I can realistically afford (or more so that my wife will let me buy).
I’ve gone from Millenia and UA pre’s and compressors, to in-the-box plugins and built-in preamps and converters in my audio interfaces. For audio interfaces, I switch between an Apogee Duet and Balance depending on the microphone and source. When I first saw the promotional videos for Balance, I thought it looked kind of like a toy. Years of cynical conditioning with audio gear has taught me that the more “designed” a piece of gear looks, the lower the performance will be.
However, when I saw how easy Balance integrated with the software, I suddenly became very interested in the Reason – Balance combination. Coming from using the Apogee Duet which only has one knob which controls input and output gain on multiple channels through Apogee’s Maestro software. While it makes the Duet look like a beautiful, uncluttered device in a direct copy of Apple’s design language, it’s terrible to use with actual projects. I absolutely hate clicking the knob to change from headphone volume to microphone input gain. Don’t get me started on having to go into Maestro to change the input from a Hi-Z guitar input, to microphone input.
Balance, in comparison, is a revelation. Propellerhead has done a great job with the way Balance looks; it could have been a Dieter Rams design. It’s a clean and simple design that incorporates all the functionality a solo songwriter might need, while remaining uncluttered and even elegant.
There are buttons to select between inputs, a big knob for headphone output, a big knob for speaker output, and knobs for input gain for your guitar or microphone. There are also buttons to access Clip-Safe and a tuner for your guitar. Clip-Safe is a feature of Reason that activates when recording audio and records the input at two different gain settings, one much lower than the other. If the main recording is too hot, the audio can be automatically merged with the lower-gain track to make one usable track. This is especially useful if you accidentally record too hot, but love the performance.
At first I was concerned that it would be a downgrade to use a USB audio interface, but many other quality cards are available using the same format these days. Once I started using Balance, it became clear that my worries were unfounded. Compared to my Apogee Duet, the Balance’s output (A-B tested using a set of M-Audio DSM3s) has a well-defined and tight bass, and a nice and clear high end while the Apogee Duet has more of a mid-range push and more detail in the high end. Honestly, Balance sounds more pleasant than the Duet, but I have yet to try out the Duet 2 to see if it has slightly muted the crispiness. I still listen to my mixes on both interfaces though so I get the best picture of all frequency ranges.
Recordings with Balance sound good if not particularly special. Really I’m glad that it just works and gets out of the way of the recording. Oh yeah, and one of the great touches that I haven’t seen on a lot of interfaces is a button that automatically mutes the speakers but leaves the headphone output. This is, of course, super useful for users who are recording themselves. It just shows how Propellerhead’s design team really considered its core user.
I should also note that Balance can be used with any other DAW, and Reason can use other audio interfaces; the two are not necessarily tied together, but it’s their tight integration that is their real selling point.
Reason has a lot of great modules included.
For those who are Reason users, you already know why Reason is great. For those who don’t already use it, download the demo and play around with Thor to get an idea why some of us are addicted to it. Reason 6 includes improvements to modules you already know (the switch to Octo-Rex is awesome) but there are a couple of dynamic plugins I wanted to touch on briefly that I love: Alligator and Pulveriser.
Alligator is a triple-filtered gate which allows you to create fluid and natural sounding variations in your music. Using a pad patch as a source, and just fiddling around gives you a lot of ideas and spices up an otherwise boring track. Automating changes lets the track evolve and prevents anything from getting too stale.
Pulveriser is great for dirtying and crushing your sounds up. Sometimes soft synths and samples are too clean. To make them sound “real”, they need a little grit and Pulveriser works wonders; even a little change that seems imperceptible can make a big difference. I usually use tube emulators to get this effect in other DAWs and Pulveriser compares pretty well.
So Reason and Balance are great, but it’s not all sugar plum fairies and rainbows: Propellerhead’s customer service is terrible, like unreasonably terrible.
So I already alluded to the fact that my late review of Reason and Balance was part of the experience of the product. I left this part to the end of the review because, honestly, most people won’t care enough to read this, and the information they need to know about the products is all above. Warning that this is a rant so feel free to skip this if you just want to know about the product.
I don’t know what their side of the story really is so I can’t speak for them, all I can do is tell you the facts of my experience. I bought Reason Essentials and Balance from an authorized dealer in February and received it promptly a week later. I decided that I wanted the full meal deal, so I bought the Reason 6 upgrade. After receiving everything I attempted to authorize my Ignition key on Balance (so I didn’t have to use up two USB slots). It didn’t work and I contacted Customer Support. A few days later they got back to me and let me know that their authorization servers were having problems and to try again. It worked this time, so I was happy.
I didn’t get a chance to record any music for a while, so I was only using Balance as a music playback device but when I did try to record in May, I found that even with the input gain turned all the way up the recorded track was so low it was unusable and yet Balance’s clipping LED was flashing. After trying various sources on both my Duet and Balance in Reason and confirming that something was up with Balance (and also trying both interfaces in Logic, different USB ports, and on separate Macs), I contacted Customer Support on May 11 to ask them what I could try to get it to work.
I didn’t hear back from them until May 31, and I had to actually contact them via Twitter to get them to respond. Once the person who runs the Twitter account contacted Customer Support on my behalf, I got an email letting me know that they would get back to me ASAP. I didn’t hear from them until June 12 when I had to once again take to Twitter. Finally they got back to me and asked me to try a few things which I had already tried and explained in my support ticket, but I did them again to make sure I hadn’t missed something.
They also let me know that they had been slow to respond because the developers had been working on the Reason 6.5 release. Apparently Propellerhead doesn’t have a customer support team because no one was available to acknowledge my questions for 3 weeks until I asked them (nicely I might add) on their publicly available Twitter feed. Who thinks that this is acceptable customer service practice?
I have worked as an account manager for a small software company before and also had to be a developer and customer service rep all rolled up in one. I know how stressful new releases are, especially for small companies; it was very critical in the insurance industry where I worked. However it is never acceptable to ignore customers who have already paid for your product. A couple days I could have accepted, but 3 weeks?! And I probably would have been waiting longer if I hadn’t asked on Twitter. Not only that, but apparently “ASAP” means an additional two weeks.
After all that, I was told to contact the store I purchased it from to get an exchange unit (which was an online store who treated me very well I might add). Then Propellerhead’s product rep in Canada had me test the same things Propellerhead Sweden had, before he could RMA Balance. All told, it took me until the beginning of July to get everything settled; I received a new unit and it works perfectly under all the conditions that the old unit failed.
During all of this I was told repeatedly by Propellerhead that mine was the first unit to fail worldwide. Lucky me. Perhaps other units failed but no one else wanted to go through the hassle of dealing with it. Oh, one more thing, when I got my new working unit, I tried to re-authorize my Ignition key with it. See where this is going? It took two weeks of trying their online server every day before it magically let me write the key. Awesome.
The bottom line.
I really like Reason. I really like Balance. Propellerhead has done an awesome job designing and implementing both. It’s even, at a risk of sounding cliche, fun to use which is in direct contrast to my experiences with Logic and Protools. With Reason 6.5 and Balance, it could take over for many people’s main rigs. I haven’t had a chance to check out the available third party plugins (which you can download and try before committing to buy), but I haven’t heard that there’s anything in there rivalling my trusty old Waves plugins, yet. So until that time, I’ll still have to
Re-wire into Logic.
Recently I bought a quad core i7 Mac Mini Server, so my processing limitations are not nearly as dire, but it’s nice to know that I have a lot of processing headroom. Unlike the Logic and Protools crashes I’m used to, Reason has been very stable; it’s nice to be confident that a recording won’t be ruined by the DAW suddenly crashing as has happened to me many a time. I like the way that Balance is set up with just the knobs and buttons you need, and none that you don’t. It sounds good, and records well and gets out of the way when recording. That’s all you can ask of a good audio interface.
Dealing with Propellerhead was very frustrating for me. I was ignored because they were busy and even though I was very detailed about my testing process, they didn’t think it could be a problem with Balance because they’d supposedly never had one fail. Their authorization system is terrible (most are), but this was on another level. 3 weeks out of the time (with two different Ignition keys) I was dealing with Propellerhead, their authorization servers were erroring out and I couldn’t write to any of my Ignition keys (Balance can work as an Ignition key in addition to the dongle). Sure Propellerhead has an internet authorization system you can use if you don’t have your key but it’s required every time you use the software. What happens if your WiFi connection is spotty (as mine often is)? No Reason for you!
Chances are you won’t have as many difficulties as me. If you never have a problem, you’ll find Reason and Balance brilliant. As for me, the whole experience gives me mixed feelings about recommending Propellerhead’s products fully to you. If someone from Propellerhead reads this, you really need to fix your customer service problem.