At Propellerhead, we’ve always held the belief that our products and marketing should focus on making great music, not impressive technical specifications. We think that what you create with your gear is far more important than the impressive technology that went into the gear. This doesn’t mean we don’t obsess over making every single detail as perfect as possible—we absolutely do.
Since the launch of Balance, we have received many questions from customers, dealers, and reviewers wanting to know what we did to make Balance sound so great. We’re really thrilled that people have noticed the high sound quality and are actually comparing Balance to far more expensive interfaces.
Since so many people wanted to know, we’ve decided to break from our tradition and let you in on some “insider” technical details:
Propellerhead is well known for its software, but Balance was our very first hardware product. Since this was our first piece of hardware, it was very important for us to make a statement and establish ourselves as a premium hardware manufacturer. To do this, we hired some of the best engineering and industrial design consultants in the world to help us realize our high expectations. Every aspect of music making was scrutinized, from user workflows, to product’s shape, sound quality, and even the feel of the knobs and surface finish of the product. If you’ve ever used a Balance interface, we hope you’ve felt the quality and attention to detail.
Here are some notable technical details:
Stepped gain knobs — When you turn the gain knobs on Balance, you’ll notice there are 21 separate “steps.” This type of stepped knob is commonly found in the high-end equipment used by mastering engineers and is really handy when you need precise recall of settings. For example, if you open an old session to re-record a part, you can set your gain levels to exactly what you had in the previous session. This ensures perfect consistency in your sound. Stepped knobs are more expensive than standard (smooth) ones, but we felt discerning customers would appreciate this unique feature.
Quality preamplifiers — One of the most important parts of an audio interface is its preamplifiers. Preamplifiers boost faint signals from microphones, instruments (guitars, basses), and line-level sources (synthesizers, drum machines, etc.) so that they can be converted into digital audio and sent to your computer to be recorded.
For Balance, we chose to use preamplifiers from highly respected manufacturer Texas Instruments (TI). TI makes many classes of preamplifier chips and we opted to use their premium “TLC” line. These high-performance, low-noise chips are used in situations where high precision is a must (for example, professional test and measurement equipment).
We designed our signal path to be extremely “clean” since it is easy to add “color” to your signals (using Rack Extensions, for example) but it is not possible to remove it. This way, you can decide to leave your recordings clean and crystal clear or full of color and harmonic richness.
Eagle-eyed users may have seen that the maximum preamplifier gain level of Balance is not as high as some other interfaces. While many audio companies have taken a higher-is-better approach, the reality is that driving many preamplifiers beyond their “sweet spot” results in decreased overall performance. For our Balance interface, we intentionally limited the preamplifier gain to 40dB in order to achieve the best possible signal-to-noise and THD+N numbers (this is what many engineers refer to as more “musical” sounding amplification). We may not have the highest number, but we encourage users to compare Balance to any other interface in terms of clarity or overall sound quality.
High-grade Cirrus Logic converters — If you spend any time with recording and mastering engineers, you quickly discover the importance of analog-to-digital (A/D) and digital-to-analog converters (D/A). These are the chips that convert analog signals to digital and back to analog again. There are many companies that make converters at varying prices and levels of quality. When we designed Balance, we didn’t cut any corners—we went straight to one of the top names in A/D and D/A conversion: Cirrus Logic. If you’ve recorded or played anything back through Balance, we hope you’ve noticed how clear everything sounds.
During the development of Balance, we conducted many carefully controlled listening tests in our professionally designed studio. During each of these tests, we compared pre-production Balance models to other highly regarded interfaces (including products nearly twice the price!) After each round of tests, we took feedback from listeners and made tweaks to our products until we felt a hundred percent satisfied with the result.
100% Passive analog level controls — If you turn the Main and Headphone Output knobs on Balance, you’ve experienced their smooth action and crackle-free operation. What you may not have realized is that you’re turning a very high quality, 100% passive analog attenuator.
This is important to sound quality because it means the premium Cirrus Logic converters are always playing back at full-scale (i.e., maximum volume) where they sound their best. The Main and Headphone Output knobs then attenuate (reduce) this full-scale signal in the analog domain to your preferred listening levels.
It’s possible for manufacturers to save cost by using cheaper knobs that simply send control voltages to an interface’s D/A converter or microprocessor. This sets output levels in a different way (often in the digital domain), but it means the D/A converter is not playing back at full-scale and you’re not hearing all of the information in your recordings.
Balance in a Nutshell — While Balance looks very futuristic and employs the latest advancements in technology, in many ways, it’s actually a very old-school product: It sounds great because we hired world class engineers, used high quality parts, and did not cut any corners to save costs.
We think Balance is one of the best interfaces on the market today, but don’t take our word for it. If you’re in the market for an audio interface, we encourage you to try Balance for yourself.
The Propellerhead Team