Our need for quality audio, and the exacting control of it, hasn’t changed much in the digital age.
What is rapidly changing however is the palette of tools at our disposal, especially the ìvirtualî ones. Case in point: the new Focusrite Liquid Mix – a product that combines the features of a set of premium plug-ins, a hardware accelerator and a control surface, all in one modern box. Using the same dynamic convolution as its award winning predecessor the Liquid Channel, the Liquid Mix brings this powerful emulation technology to a new price point.
Studio, post production
Mac; VST, RTAS, AU; 40 classic and modern compressors, 20 similar EQs; control surface and hardware accelerator
Focusrite/American Music and Sound % 866-362-8774 Ú www.focusrite.com
• Nice variety of quality processors
• Very flexible
• Great metering
• Logical layout
• Control surface can be awkward
• May load CPU on marginal computers
Very useful palette of processing even if the interface is a bit lacking.
The Liquid Mix ($1,099) is FireWire-based, connecting to your Mac (yes, Mac-only for now, PC in November) via its sole connection, a 1394 FireWire port. Once installed, the Liquid Mix shows up under your list of available plug-ins in your DAW’s mixer. The signal processing offered here falls under two categories only, compression and EQ. Both are available simultaneously with any “instance” you open on a given track. Here’s where things get interesting; imagine having 40 top notch compressors (including Tube Tech, SSL, Empirical Labs, UREI, Fairchild, Avalon, Drawmer etc. … yes, classic and vintage processors that are truly staples), imagine 20 high-end EQs (Neve, API, Pultec, Chandler etc.), imagine having the horsepower to run 32 instances of such signal processing and all of this without loading your CPU. Fine and dandy, but does this offer pro sound quality, or just convenience?
Upon opening the box my initial reservations began to dissipate as I felt the solid build quality and substantial feel of the Liquid Mix. The control surface has a logical layout, offering knobs and buttons for parameter control, nicely designed metering (input, output, gain reduction, even level between the compressor and EQ sections) and even a small LCD screen. Installation took only three minutes, hardware and software, and was effortless. Upon selecting a plug-in for a bass guitar DI track, the Liquid Mix appeared in the pulldown list of available plugs. I’m using Digital Performer 5.0, so the Liquid Mix showed up as an AU, Audio Units, plug-in, although you may utilize the Liquid Mix as a VST or RTAS as well, on all major software platforms.
On my LCD monitor the Liquid Mix GUI was loaded with all the controls for both an EQ and a compressor, and that control is redundantly offered on the actual Liquid Mix control surface as well. I was anxious to dump my mouse and start twisting and turning away (just like the good old analog days, ahhhh…), but found myself not liking the sensitivity of the control knobs too much. Some controls were too sensitive for me and didn’t have the resolution I desired (compression ratio, for example), while others weren’t quick and responsive enough for me (EQ band gain control).
[Focusrite responds: The sensitivity of many of the control parameters varies between emulations. Great effort has been put into maintaining authenticity, not just of sound quality but of original control features, ergonomics and measurement units. Those used to a modern digital EQ for mixing will quickly find that the Liquid Mix emulations impose control limitations based upon the original hardware.]
When EQing, I like to select the band in question; rapidly boosting and attenuating to ridiculous degree, all the while sweeping up and down finding the offensive group of frequencies. This was not possible on the Liquid Mix, as I found myself resorting to the GUI and my mouse (I found the small LCD screen on the control surface to be marginally useful, even though it did indicate some key parameter values). Here I was able to select parameters with more precision, although my “radical sweeping” was still out of the question. I was able to directly enter values in any given parameter window, such as a compressor threshold set to exactly -6.5 dB, and fine tune my settings.
I then found the feature that may just make this the box your yearning for, the free switch. Many vintage processors were gorgeous in design, but severely lacking in parameter controls we take for granted today (attack time, release time, ratio, HP or LP filters etc.), so the Liquid Mix faithfully offers only the authentic controls for any given emulation. The free switch however, gives you use of all the available parameters, whether authentic or not, allowing some very creative uses and flexibility (especially for those of you who like to operate processors beyond their intended limits).
Hybrid is another delightful virtual feature that opens a Pandora’s Box of options. Hybrid allows the custom building of an EQ, using up to seven different emulations on up to seven frequency bands. I didn’t get into any hybrid EQing on a multitrack session, although I could really use this feature for mastering (a Neve 1073 for the top end, an API for the bottom end, a Pultec for the mids etc.).
All of this is just hubris without quality signal processing and the Liquid Mix offers plenty of it. The list of available compressors is almost overwhelming, I felt like a kid in a very, very expensive candy store. Not only were all the ìdreamî units there, Focusrite even provided the serial numbers of the actual units emulated! In use, I found all of them to be useful and of professional quality. Whether or not these dynamic convolutions were ìlifelikeî enough is a very finite judgment, and one that requires true journeyman experience and a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of top shelf compressors and EQs. To my ear, the emulations were adequate and readily discernible although some seemed to have more character than others (one might say rightly so). If you mix in the box, the amount of coloration and grit offered here will surely help you reach a warmer and furrier place; hit that free switch and start slammin’ the old school in a new school way.
Additional emulations are already well under way and they, as well as some presets for quicker success with the classics, and will be offered at Focusrite’s website. An expansion card is also soon to be available, allowing more channels at higher sample rates.
The only real problem for me was the limit on instances I could employ at one time without processor hits. The Liquid Mix uses its own DSP to power its plug-ins, so this performance was not expected, nor explainable. Focusrite recommends a G4 with 800 MHz processor minimum and OS X 10.3.3 or later. However, I was only able to get eight instances open before the CPU hiccups began, not nearly the 32 instances I was expecting at 48 kHz (The Liquid Mix offers 32 instances at 44.1 kHz/48 kHz, eight instances at 88.2 kHz/96 kHz or two instances at 176.4 kHz/192 kHz). My Mac is only a G4 with dual 867 MHz processors, although adequate with 2 GB RAM, so there is a real possibility that my CPU wasn’t up to the task. Such a shame, as I was starting to get used to having 60 flavors at my disposal and all the color/texture they bring to the mix.
Simple to use, extremely versatile and full of character, the Liquid Mix will be a helpful addition to any DAW needing more plug-in variety. The control surface is only adequate, but at least it offers some powerful metering and we all love quality meters don’t we? My limit of eight instances was rather disappointing, but I suspect others may have much better results than I did, especially with a nice, new Intel-powered Mac. At $1,099 the Liquid Mix isn’t cheap, but much more affordable than the Liquid Channel and competitively priced with similar accelerator/plug-in bundles. For power users who like to paint with their compressors (bus compression, multiple compressors on a track), utilize vintage sounds without backbreaking cartage or fancy themselves pushing classics to unrealistic extremes, this little box may just end up in your briefcase, accompanying you on gigs wherever you go.
Apple G4 PowerPC Mac, dual 867 MHz processors, 2 GB RAM, OSX 10.4; MOTU 2408 mkII and 2408 mkIII interfaces, PCI-424 card; Lucid GenX6-96 clock.