Propellerhead’s Reason Balance Review: First Listen

This week, my Reason Balance audio interface finally arrived. Ever since I had seen the demo videos, I had wanted to check it out so when I saw a good price a couple weeks ago, I pulled the trigger. The combination of physical knobs, straight-forward buttons, and separate gain knobs for each of its two inputs, are a welcome change from the one big knob of the Apogee Duet version 1 that I currently use. But the Balance is a USB audio interface, and the Duet is a Firewire one. Additionally, the Duet is a high end device, while the Balance starts at a more affordable pricepoint. How do they compare? Well, since I haven’t had a chance to try recording with Balance (and since I need more time to feel comfortable with Reason itself) this review is more of listening review; a recording review and another review of Reason Essentials will be forthcoming. In this review, I will focus on Balance’s ergonomics and digital to analog conversion…basically how well it sounds.

While the Duet has served me well for the last couple years, it has not always been the easiest to get along with. Its clean, polished aesthetics have kind of made it a pain to use. I don’t like using Apogee’s Maestro software for setting up which of the inputs is set, nor do I like having to click the big knob to change input gain, headphone, or analog output levels; it’s all rather cumbersome. What I do like about it is Apogee’s signature clarity. The definition and high end detail of the DA, and the very nice built-in preamps and signature AD, have made me overlook the ergonomics at times.

Propellerhead’s Balance on the other hand, has none of the ergonomic foibles of the Duet. It has a big knob for main out, another big knob for headphone levels, a nice rotary knob for input gain for each of the two simultaneous inputs that you choose, and accompanying buttons to select the source. It has nice LEDs to let you know what you have selected, and if you’ve clipped on any source.

It also has a couple handy buttons that access Reason specific features. One is for activating Clip Safe which is Reason’s solution for saving recordings that are clipped. Basically, Reason records two versions of the same source, one at the level you’ve set, and one at a lower gain. If you clip, Reason can automatically switch to the lower gain recording at the clipped point, to save your recording. The other button is for Meter/Tuner, which allows you to preview recording levels and access a tuner if you’re plugging in a guitar or bass.

All of this lends itself to a very polished and easy to use layout; and it also doesn’t hurt that it looks great. Balance sits at a slight angle with a red underside that barely peaks out, and the surfaces are coated in a soft rubber. It feels pleasant and definitely helps Balance stand out in a sea of other audio interfaces.

I won’t get too much into the rear panel as the picture above pretty much tells you the whole story. I will say that it’s all laid out pretty logically. The phantom power for microphones can also be set with buttons here. The USB plug is at the top left of the picture. I should also point out that the headphone jack is to the right side of Balance, so if you’re planning on butting it up against something else, you’ll need access to the right side for headphones.

Ok, enough about its design…how does it sound? Surprisingly good for the price point, let alone anything costing double. Balance has a nicely pronounced low-end (probably to complement Reason’s history as hip hop and electronic music-centric software), with a smooth mid-range. High end is present, without being harsh. Compared to the first generation Apogee Duet, there isn’t as much sibilance on vocals, but crunchy guitars still sound with appropriate impact.

Definition is good, but instruments aren’t as separated or as detailed as the Apogee Duet, although that’s not entirely unexpected given that it’s the Duet’s strength. Sometimes though the Duet can be a little harsh in the high end, while Balance always seems to be smooth and pleasant.

One thing to keep in mind is that Balance is a new audio interface, while the Duet I’m comparing it to is a first generation version. I imagine that the new Duet has addressed some of the weaknesses of the first generation that I bought and it might be a very different comparison with the second generation one. This really is a testament to how fast music technology is advancing. These two interfaces are light-years ahead of both the M-Audio Firewire 410 and the Digi002 I used to record with.

On top of that, Balance comes with Reason Essentials which is all the basics of both Reason and Record, and contains all you need to record a full track. At around $400, that’s incredible value. Balance can also be used as an interface in other DAWs if you’d prefer. As for Balance’s role in my set up, I’m going to set up an aggregate audio device in OSX which will allow me to use both Balance and Duet as inputs. Having very different sounds from the AD and preamps will allow me more sonic possibilities for recording.

Stay tuned for a review of Balance’s recording capabilities, as well as one on Reason Essentials.