Propellerhead’s Balance USB sound card bundle is the perfect home production environment
Modern sound cards can be loosely divided into two categories: consumer audio devices, which are designed to output gaming, music and movie audio, and more niche equipment aimed at musicians. Propellerhead’s Balance is definitely in the second category, with two XLR microphone inputs capable of supplying 48V phantom power (see FAQ), two 1/4in TRS guitar inputs, two pairs of 1/4in TRS balanced line inputs for taking stereo audio feeds from external sources, a 1/4in headphone output for monitoring and a pair of 1/4in balanced line outputs that are perfect for connecting a pair of studio monitor speakers.
What this boils down to is the ability to connect almost any electric instrument you could want to the soundcard, whether it’s a stage mic, electric guitar or a keyboard with stereo outputs. You can only record from two inputs at a time, but that’s enough for a guitar and vocal. Switching between input sources is fantastically simple – labelled buttons make it easy to switch the input for each track between mic, guitar, and the two line inputs depending on what you want to record. The whole unit’s incredibly well designed, with clearly marked inputs and controls and chunky volume knobs.
Recording is made brilliantly simple on the PC (or Mac) side of things by Propellerhead’s Reason Essentials Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, which is a fully-fledged production environment for both MIDI and PCM audio. Although it’s a cut-down version of Reason, it has everything you need to record, produce and edit music. Unlike many of its rivals, it’s so simple and clearly designed that you won’t need to spend hours with your head buried in a manual before you can use it. We produced a 3 minute song with a guitar line and multi-track vocal harmonies less than an hour after we first plugged the Balance in. Reason and the Balance integrate perfectly and you get easy access to features such as line input monitors – which allow you keep an eye on the gain levels of your inputs to avoid unwanted distortion when recording – and a handy guitar tuner. Built in guitar effects make it easy to apply distortion, flanging, phasing and a wealth of other modifications to your sound, and are easy to access if you just want to turn up the distortion and get in a bit of shredding for your own amusement.