Harrison Consoles Mixbus 4

A DAW With the Personality of an Analog Mixer
Each input channel of Mixbus 4 includes built-in EQ and compressor sections.
Sound Byte

TRY THIS If you want to make a channel strip wider, just double click on the trackname field. If you hold down Shift while doing it, all the channels will get wider. Mixbus automatically adjusts the fader size to match the resolution of your computer monitor, but sometimes you’ll want to shrink the channel strips more if you have a large session. To do so, go to Mixbus 4/Preferences/Appearances and pull down the Mixer Strip Scale menu. There you can reduce the channel strip size in increments of 5 percent, down to a minimum size of 70 percent.

Back in 2009, Harrison Consoles decided to dip its toes in the DAW market. Using the open source DAW Ardour as the engine, Harrison created Mixbus, a multitrack recording and editing application with a mixer section designed to re-create the signal flow, workflow and sound of the company’s 32 Series and MR Series consoles.

Now in its fourth major release, Mixbus, which runs on Mac, Windows and Linux, is more fully featured and versatile than ever. It’s not yet on par with other major DAWs when it comes to MIDI and arranging features—though it does have those capabilities—but it offers a significantly different mixing environment that really does feel more mixer-like. And it sounds great. 

STRUCTURE

Like many DAWs, Mixbus’ two main windows are an Editor and a Mixer. The essential functions of the Editor are what you’d expect—viewing track lanes, editing audio and MIDI, editing automation, changing meter and tempo, and so forth—and the features give you everything you need. The MIDI editing, like the MIDI features in general, are rudimentary but functional.

Whether for MIDI or audio, the track structure in Mixbus is versatile. Not only can you record on multiple playlists, you can also record in layers on a single playlist. It’s a pretty flexible system, although it lacks a swipe-comping feature.

The Mixer window is where things really get interesting. Like on a studio console, each input channel has built-in EQ and compressor sections. Harrison stresses that although you can add plug-ins, it isn’t strictly necessary, and the company includes a group of its own plug-ins in Mixbus. There are some useful utilities included, but most of the processing plug-ins are just demos. You can unlock them and purchase others through the Harrison online store. Considering the low price of Mixbus itself, spending a little more for plug-ins is not unreasonable. Also included is a collection of open source plug-ins from the Ardour community. Mixbus supports the AU and VST plug-in formats. VST support for Mac is new to Mixbus 4.

The three-mode compressor built-in to each channel is versatile and sounds quite good. Its features include a threshold slider and a ladder-style gain reduction meter that runs parallel to the fader and channel level meter. It also has a makeup gain knob and a variable parameter knob that changes func- tion depending on which compression mode you’ve selected.

The compressor’s default mode is Leveler, which is quite transparent and does a good job of keeping dynamics under control. Here, the parameter knob governs attack time. The second mode is simply called Compressor. It gives you a more noticeable compression; the variable knob controls ratio. The third mode is a Limiter with a fixed, high ratio and a very fast attack. The parameter knob controls release time.

Each Mixbus channel sports a 3-band semi-parametric EQ with a highpass filter. I found it convenient to have the EQ controls always available, rather than having to insert and open an EQ plug-in. I like to highpass most tracks, so it was great to have the control right there. In addition to wishing the EQ was fully parametric, my main gripe with it is that the knobs are too small, and they kind of get lost visually in the dark colored GUI.

LIFE IN THE BUS LANE

The Mixbuses are the key to the program’s analog-mixer-style workflow. Eight bus tracks reside on the right-hand side of the mixer and function as subgroups to the Master Bus. Any track in a session can be easily routed to any Mixbus by simply pressing the corresponding button on the track ’s channel strip.

Mixbuses are more than just glorified aux busses. All the Mixbuses and the Master Bus have a good-sounding Tape Saturation effect built in, which can be applied with a knob located above the fader. Like the compressor and EQ, the Tape Saturation quickly becomes a part of your workflow, thanks to its easy availability.

Each Mixbus also has its own compressor, offering the same three flavors as the track compressors, plus a fourth, Sidechain. You can route individual channels to a MixBus’s sidechain compressor using buttons located on each tracks’ channel strip. Assigning tracks to sidechains on third party plug-ins is achieved through the Pin Connections dialog, which is accessed by right-clicking on a plug-in that’s been instantiated in the mixer.

Additional controls on each Mixbus include a Track Width button for narrowing down the stereo field, and a “Spill ” button, which hides all other channels except the ones routed to that Mixbus. Both of those features are new to version 4. I found the Spill feature, in particular, to be extremely useful. On any DAW, it’s not unusual in a large session to have to do a lot of scrolling around searching for tracks. The Spill button makes it easy to quickly focus on a group of specific tracks. For example, if you had all the drums routed to one of the Mixbuses, you could press its Spill button, and all you’d see in the track area would be the drum tracks. Spill buttons are also available on Mixbus’s VCA faders.

Mixbuses and the Master Bus contain a “Tone” section, consisting of Low, Mid, and High EQ knobs at fixed frequencies and a limited gain range of ±6 dB. Although they’re anything but surgical, they’re handy for subtle tonal tweaks. Each Mixbus is routed by default to the Master Bus, but you can easily change its output, making it possible to use Mixbus with summing hardware.

In addition to its VU-style meter, the Master Bus has a separate K Meter that can switched in the preferences between K14RMS, K20RMS, as well as several IEC standards and more. Also on the Master is a switchable brickwall limiter that keeps peaks below -1 dBFS. Again, it’s nice to have that built in.

NEW AND IMPROVED

Most of the improvements put into version 4 were designed to streamline the workflow. These include redesigned transport and channel-header controls, and the impressive new Tempo Map feature, which simplifies the (always tedious) task of creating a grid for a session recorded without a click.

The VCA implementation is another key addition. VCAs can be assigned to any track or Mixbus, and are particularly handy for controlling several Mixbuses at a time. If you have, say, background vocals on one Mixbus and lead vocal on another, you can assign both the same VCA slider.

The new Navigation Timeline at the top of both the Mixer and Editor screens functions similarly to the Universe View in Pro Tools. Click on specific times, measure numbers or markers in it, and the transport will jump to that point.

Speaking of Pro Tools, Mixbus 4 also includes a new feature that’s technically still in beta, called Import PTX PTF. It’s designed to let you import audio and MIDI files from a Pro Tools session file into Mixbus. Its performance was inconsistent when I tested it, but assuming they get the kinks worked out, it should be quite useful.

For those comfortable with scripting, the new LUA scripting engine can be used to create a wide range of triggerable custom actions. Scripts can be triggered by keyboard commands, actions, and by using one of the eight Action Buttons. 

MIX AND MATCH

The more I use Mixbus, the more I like it. It’s not going to replace my regular DAW for tracking and arranging, but I’ve already mixed a couple of projects in it and could see doing more. Harrison has done a good job of translating the analog-console vibe and sound to its software. If you’re one of those people who misses mixing on a console, Mixbus could be an appealing option.

You’ll also want to check out Mixbus 32C version 4 ($299) which should be out by the time you read this. It’s basically the same feature set as Mixbus, but with some upgraded aspects including a fully parametric channel EQ based on the one from the Harrison 32C, and 12 Mixbuses instead of eight.


PRODUCT SUMMARY

COMPANY: Harrison Consoles
PRODUCT: Mixbus 4 (Mac/Win/Linux)
WEBSITE: www.harrisonconsoles.com
PRICE: $79
PROS: Console-like workflow. Built-in EQ , compressor and tape saturation. Spill buttons make focusing on specific tracks easier,. Good VCA implementation. Highly customizable.
CONS: Channel EQ’s not fully parametric, EQ knobs hard to see. No usable reverb included. No swipe-comping feature. Manual needs updating,

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