I was confused. Not just by the unfamiliar environment of the interface, I mean that’s part and parcel to the job of reviewing the new and often as-yet-unexplored tools in our ever-evolving world of music recording, editing, mixing and mastering. No, this sensation was something entirely different: an uncomfortable sense of flabbergast analogous to a mariner staring at his ship’s deck and trying to navigate by the stars.
I sat there, my right hand limply resting on my mouse like a dirty napkin on a dinner plate, the rest of me unable to decide whether to twitch or follow suit into complete and utter malaise. The more I asked myself the obvious question (why?), the deeper my sense of uncertainty seemed to take hold. I got up and took a break, sipping some rancid coffee I’d brewed much earlier in the day and considered why I would be so much more particularly vexed by this particular piece of software, Mixbus ($79) by Nashville-based Harrison Consoles (http://harrisonconsoles.com) and, admittedly, things may have been compounded by the fact that I was reviewing the more fully featured Mixbus 32C ($299).
The stated mission of Mixbus is to bring a more artist-friendly analog-styled approach to the workflow, with the added benefit of running your audio through the brilliantly emulated signal path of what is considered one of the best sounding mixers ever produced. Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad albums, as well as Paul Simon’s Graceland and other iconic works by the likes of AC/DC, Queen, Led Zeppelin, and Supertramp were all mixed on Harrison boards, which demonstrates the amazing depth to the audiophile roots this digital audio workstation is based upon.
To my ears, the success of Harrison in actually bringing such an impeccably nuanced audio signature so faithfully into the digital realm cannot be overstated. This thing, in a word, sounds awesome. Not in that “sonic character” way that so many “noiseprint” algorithms emulate vintage digital gear for subsequent porting out into digital plug-in form. Harrison has gone immeasurably further into the comparatively molecular level. In their words: “Every resistor, capacitor, and transistor was modeled. To run this complex DSP on every channel strip was impossible just five years ago.”
Of course, actually getting to the place where that audio magic could be experienced was still a ways off from where I was…
Installation and setup were straightforward and easy, save for a slight hiccup with regard to the audio output, which had to be set in the preferences, and also at the master fader, which I found annoying.
There are several templates to get you up and running quickly, like Recording Session, Live Band, Podcast, etc. I chose the Empty template, as I wanted to work with a song I had mixed before in ProTools, using stems from that session as a means of comparison. Importing that audio was as easy as selecting those wave files and dragging them into Mixbus’ Editor window. Each of the stems was instantly assigned to its own uniquely color-coded track, named identically to the waveform.
Selecting a track brings up its corresponding channel strip along the left side of the screen, giving total access to any of that tracks parameters, including Input, Polarity, Plugins, four-band fully parametric EQ (including curve steepness switch), High and Low pass filters, Buss and Group assignments, Panning, and even an Input Trim knob for taming loud tracks or boosting weaker ones. Conventional long-throw Faders at the bottom sit alongside an excellent Compressor, which includes knobs for Makeup Gain and Attack, as well as a Selector button that lets you choose between Compressor, Leveler, or Limiter behaviors. These also have a red multi-segmented gain reduction meter that shows the amount of their effect upon the signal.
The plug-ins alluded to deserve special mention, as they are unique, great sounding, and perform admirably, although most are sold separately. Additionally, they come in the open-source LV2 format, which “allows you to share sessions with users on other platforms, and have your sound remain unchanged.” This means that while they require a license, they’ll still work in an un-editable mode for any users you share the files with. These are essentially proprietary though, as they don’t work in most other DAWs, such as ProTools and Logic.
In particular, the XT-EQ Equalizer works in a way I haven’t seen others behave. Most EQs have bumps and dips that can interact negatively with the settings of adjacent bands, introducing a bit of compromise when correcting particularly problematic signals. The XT-EQ allows you to “paint” over those crossover points so that you can achieve the exact curve you’re looking for. Also of interest were the Dyno-Mite, which is a quickie transient shaping tool, a quick down-and dirty multi-tap delay called the 3d Triple Delay and the XT-DS De-Esser. Your VST plug-ins can be loaded as well, so you still have a lot of familiar digital voodoo at your fingertips.
The mix busses and master output all feature revelatory compression, tape saturation, and great metering and as stated before; the sound of running your audio files through this hardware’s software is not to be missed.
Mixbus looks great and sounds phenomenal. Once I pulled my head out of the future and started using my analog mind to navigate through this signal path, I was comfortably surprised. When I subsequently began to add in the digital plug-ins and metering options, I was blown away.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer with experience in both the analog and digital audio realms. www.kaspro.com