Hands on with Propellerhead's Reason 6 and Balance interface

I've always been curious about Propellerhead's Reason software, but since I'm not really an electronic music-making enthusiast, and the fact that up until more recently Reason had no audio recording capabilities, I've always turned to other recording platforms for my music-making needs, that is until now!

For those of you that don't know, Reason is a virtual studio rack for your Mac. It even looks like a rack filled with loads of fantastic studio equipment. It has all the tools required to produce music: compressors, reverbs, synths, delays, a whole bunch of instruments...the list goes on. Previously, though, you'd have to connect this virtual rack with a DAW (a digital audio workstation like Pro Tools, Logic, Reeper or even Propellerhead's own DAW, Record) in order to actually record something through it or capture something produced form it. However, with the latest version of Reason, Record (with all the fine features you've come to expect from a DAW) has been totally integrated into Reason. With Reason 6, Reason and Record are now one, and all the better for it.

To top that off, and really hit home the fact that Propellerhead is taking audio recording very seriously. It's produced its own audio interface hardware, too -- Balance. With Reason 6 and Balance, Propellerhead provides everything the home recording enthusiast needs.

Balance is a high quality 2-in by 2-out audio interface, meaning you can record up to two sources of audio at a time. This may appear meagre, but for the average home recorder, you're not going to be recording more than two sources of audio at a time -- say a guitar and a vocal. However, you are going to add other instruments to your track by layering recordings on top of each other. Maybe add some piano and some percussion? Balance has two XLR microphone inputs (with 48V phantom power), two 1/4" guitar inputs with padding and four 1/4" balanced line inputs (two stereo pairs). This means you can have up to 8 audio sources plugged in, setup and ready to go without having to fiddle around with cables and wires while you're in the creative zone.

Another unique feature of Balance is Clip Safe. How often have you recorded the perfect take only to discover that it clipped because the level was (unexpectedly!) too hot? Clip Safe automatically does a backup recording of your take at a lower level, allowing you to go back and readjust the input level of your take after you've recorded it.

Are Balance and Reason 6 as good as they, uh... sound? Propellerhead sent TUAW a review unit of Reason 6 and Balance so I could find out.

Physically, the Balance unit is very appealing. It's all black and with a soft rubber feel, but the unit itself feels rock solid. Unlike many smaller audio interfaces, all the controls, dials and lights are raised towards you for easy visibility and access. The two most important dials, the main output level and the headphone level, are the biggest, making them easy to find and use. The other two smaller dials are the gain levels for the two inputs. For a novice user it couldn't be simpler. Hit the source selector for the input you want, adjust the input gain level, adjust the main out level and you're on your way. All the source inputs and the audio outs are neatly arranged on the back of the unit. There are no breakout cables, covers or flaps, the design is clean, simple and clear. And, of course, the audio? The pre-amps sound fantastic, especially for the price point.

It's also worth noting that the Balance interface is not tied to Reason. The interface is Core Audio compatible and will work with the DAW of your choice, though the Clip Safe feature is a Reason exclusive. Being Core Audio compatible (like just about every other audio interface for the Mac), Balance works straight away with your Mac. Run the Reason installer disc, plug it in via the provided USB cable and you're on your way.

As for Reason 6, well... I have no real previous experience with Reason (and bearing in mind that approaching any DAW for the first time can be a bit of a learning curve), I was quickly up and running recording tracks and engaging with the huge array of instruments and gear in no time. It's clear there's a vast depth to Reason 6. And while it may take a bit of time learning how to get there, the new user can happily get along simply skimming the surface, while the more advanced user will find all the power, flexibility and detail they'd expect from any other DAW.

Like Balance, Reason 6 feels clean, clear and polished. It's designed to get out of the way so you can get on with making music. It is extremely stable, too. Which brings me to my last point, Reason is a locked environment, you can't use any third party plug-ins with it. Some may see that as a deal breaker. However, there are a plethora of Reason ReFills -- additional Propellerhead approved, high-quality instruments and sounds for expanding on Reason. Seriously, I'd say you can get just about everything your home studio will need in the Propellerhead universe. In part, Reason's exclusivity is probably what makes it so sturdy.

To find out more about what Reason 6 and Balance has to offer, check out the Propellerhead website here. I also recently had an interview with UK singer-songwriter Olivia Broadfield, who is an exclusive Reason user. You can read the interview here.

Balance comes bundled with Reason Essentials and is available for around US$500.

Finally, until the end of January, TUAW is a hosting a competition with Propellerhead, SoundCloud and Olivia Broadfield, giving you the chance to win a copy of Reason 6, a Balance interface, a SoundCloud premium subscription as well as some TUAW goodies. Check out further details here.