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This article was originally published in issue #46
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Mixbus workflow is either restrictive or streamlined depending on where you are on the learning curve, and with a bit of familiarity I found that I stopped worrying about options I didn’t have (or couldn’t find) and just got on with working.
Fast and easy to use
Basic package is cheap
Generous licensing model
You may need to allow for additional plugins in the overall cost
Looking for the sound of a vintage console from a DAW? It's not as hard to get as you might think, says Andi Picker.
Harrison consoles have been used on some of the largest selling records and films ever made. If the list stopped at Thriller and Back in Black they’d be legendary, but add in a bit of everyone from Abba to Led Zeppelin to Paul Simon to Queen to Spiderman and it’s clear that they’re a very major player.
In the days when the console was king, the sound of your desk was the sound of your recording. Preamps, EQs, compressors and summing all contributed to that sound, whether you liked it or not (and plenty of people do like it, very much). When the Digital Audio Workstation initially became popular, computing power was sparse and expensive, so programmers were restricted in what they could do. The concept of a plugin that you would use only where you needed it was born, and ever since then most DAWs have become cleaner and more accurate sounding, and the production of plugins available to colour them has become a major industry. Against this view, Harrison believes that the DAW should be the main tool for mixing rather than simply a frame to slot other processors into, and Mixbus is designed to do that, with a distinct sound of its own and console based workflow.
The original Mixbus copied the model of a hardware console almost to a fault, but since then Harrison has taken a couple of steps closer to the DAW mainstream with added MIDI and virtual instrument support, and video playback, plus a number of less visible improvements like multi core processor support and 32 bit / 64 bit versions. The basic Mixbus package supports unlimited audio and MIDI/instrument tracks, each with a fixed configuration including three band semi parametric EQ, high pass filter and compressor/limiter/leveller. The default project also has eight buses with three band EQ, drive (tape saturation) and dynamics and a master bus which adds a mastering limiter. Editing (audio and MIDI) is done in the main window which is great for efficient workflow and very disorientating if you’re used to a set of fully featured editors like the ones I’m used to in Cubase. You can record multiple takes as stacks on tracks, and functions like crossfades and dither are handled automatically.
Mixbus workflow is either restrictive or streamlined depending on where you are on the learning curve, and with a bit of familiarity I found that I stopped worrying about options I didn’t have (or couldn’t find) and just got on with working. The one thing that familiarity won’t do for you though is to provide much in the way of sound shaping options and virtual instruments. Those EQ, dynamics and drive options that I mentioned earlier are it, and if you want even basic reverb and delay you need to start adding plugins. Harrison does its own plugin bundles, and I’d say the ones I used were easily as good as many third party options, so it’s a bit of a shame that they use the proprietary LV2 format so I can’t use them elsewhere. You will also need to add any virtual instruments that you want; the package comes with a tone-wheel organ that’s decent enough, and a thing called Reasonable Synth that seems to be just a test instrument. For me, the big omission is NO DRUMS – seriously, I can think of a thousand great popular recordings without an organ on them, but not many without drums or percussion. The no-drums thing extends to editing too, you can add your own virtual instrument package, but I couldn’t find a drum editor, which makes life a little more difficult than it needs to be.
What Mixbus does well, very well in fact, is record and mix audio. In this application its workflow makes perfect sense, and I have to say that it sounds absolutely fantastic. This is NOT a clean as a whistle DAW, it has a sound that seems to do exactly what everyone imagines a great console will do, and it’s lovely to use. Most reviews of Mixbus V3 say that the addition of MIDI is the big thing in this version; I’ll go against the trend and say that in my humble opinion Mixbus excels simply as a great sounding software console. The basic package is very cheap to buy, but you may need to factor in the cost of at least a basic set of plugins from Harrison or elsewhere, and it’s going to be very easy to spend several times the cost of Mixbus itself if you need virtual instruments as well. That said, if you know how to use a search engine, there are lots of very good freeware plugins to be found with just a bit of key-tapping.
There are other DAWs that that can be had for not a lot of money, and some of them may offer a more complete out-of-the-box package for a general user or a beginner, but when you consider that Mixbus actually costs less than most console emulation plugins, it becomes a tempting buy even if you want to do all your editing in a different package; and if you already have a selection of plugins then you really can be pretty well set to go for a minimum outlay. I’m going to carry on using Mixbus alongside my existing rig just for mixing, because it’s quick to use and it sounds excellent – Jack (http://www.jackaudio.org/) is supported, but Rewire would be most useful if anyone’s listening!
Just to mention this – Mixbus uses a simple key file for authentication – you put the file in your root directory and off you go. The license is user based, and you can use it on multiple machines, so if you want a great sounding mixer on your studio computer and also a multi-track recorder on a laptop, you can do that! You can grab a demo version from http://harrisonconsoles.com/site/mixbus-info.html
In conclusion, this is not the most complete DAW package you can buy, but if you need a straight-forward recorder/mixer it’s got great workflow and sounds fantastic.