Even if you haven’t heard of Harrison Consoles — the Nashville-based mixer manufacturer — you’ve definitely heard Harrison consoles on some of the biggest-selling albums of all time: Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, Sade’s Promise, to name a few. You’ve heard Harrisons in many blockbuster films, too: Transformers 1 and 2, Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3, Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbor, and the Harry Potter series, not to mention top TV shows such as The Simpsons, 24 and CSI. With over 1,500 large-format Harrison consoles installed worldwide, the company is synonymous with high-end audio mixing.
In the last few years, Harrison has entered the workstation market with its Mixbus Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), one of the most buzzed-about new platforms amongst audio pros. Mixbus is built on the Ardour open-source DAW platform, and it utilizes Harrison’s precision DSP algorithms for EQ, Filter, Compression, Analog Tape Saturation and Summing. Originally available for Macintosh OSX and Linux machines only, the latest version — Mixbus v2.0.5 — will shortly be released with support for Windows machines and, for $219, it’s within the reach of anyone.
Mixbus is a full-featured DAW that combines Harrison’s remarkable sound quality and feature set into an in-the-box (ITB) mixing solution. Mixbus’ up-front “knob per function” mixer layout is based on Harrison’s legendary 32-series and MR-series consoles. The DAW provides an infinite number of stereo and/or mono input channels (limited only by available CPU power) and each one features a High-pass Filter, EQ, Compressor and eight Mix Bus sends. Each of the eight stereo mix busses includes tone controls, compression, sidechain control and analog tape saturation emulation and can be used either as a group or auxiliary return.
The master stereo bus also features tone controls, and analog tape saturation emulation as well as K-meter, Stereo Correlation Meter (which displays the mono compatibility of the stereo mix) and Limiting to ensure your mix is the best possible quality. The K-meter (no, I hadn’t heard of this before Mixbus, either) is a loudness meter that was designed by well-known mastering engineer Bob Katz. It is calibrated to -14 dBFS, and it indicates the average level of the stereo audio signal. [Visit digido.com/level-practices-part-2-includes-thek-system.html for more info — Ed.] The workstation includes built-in delay compensation as well as a Polarity (phase) button and Input Trim and Makeup Gain controls on every channel.
Mixbus Version 2.0.5’s Track window
Mixbus supports both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems and it requires a three-button mouse or trackball with a scroll wheel for efficient operation. Included in the $219 Mixbus purchase price are licenses for Mac, Windows and Linux machines. The Mac OSX version supports Audio Unit plug-ins and any Core Audio interface; the Windows version supports VST plug-ins and any ASIO/MME interface; and the Linux version supports LADSPA plug-ins and any JACK-capable interface. Mixbus is the only DAW that I’m aware of that continues to support the older PPC Macs so, with Mixbus, you G5 diehards can continue to hold out.
I’ve been using Mixbus on a regular basis for nearly two years, and I’ve seen a lot of improvement over that time. Getting up and running with Mixbus requires installing JACK, which provides a concise way to move audio between audio interfaces and applications as well as from one application to another. Theoretically, this is a good idea but it can be a complete pain on some computers. I’m not sure why it’s easy on some computers and hard on others, but since I’ve started using Mixbus, I’ve installed it on two MacBook Pros, two Intel Mac Pros, a PPC Mac G5 and a Windows 8 PC and it’s been a breeze twice (the PC version, thankfully, doesn’t require you to install JACK separately) and overwhelmingly frustrating twice. Thankfully, in every instance, once I’ve had it up and running, it’s been smooth sailing from then on. Just be prepared to spend some time getting your system configuration just right. In JACK’s defense, it does add some nice functionality, such as the ability to route the output of iTunes or QuickTime directly into Mixbus. Newcomers to Mixbus should check out the educational videos on the mixcoach.com website. Kevin Ward has done a fine job creating videos that are extremely helpful and available free of charge.
Mixbus Version 2.0.5 with all Mix windows visible
I haven’t used Mixbus for a full tracking session with musicians, but I’ve done quite a bit of experimenting (on both the Mac and PC versions) with simultaneously recording a couple of inputs across 64 tracks, randomly punching in and out, and quickly jumping from one point in the song to another: in my use, the workstation has been rock solid. I’ve also spent time overdubbing a single track at a time and, in every instance, Mixbus never hiccupped or faltered. Based on these experiences, I anticipate the DAW would be completely dependable during a tracking session.
While editing with Mixbus is fairly intuitive, it’s not as quick as with some other DAWs. I do think my workflow with Mixbus will improve as I use it more but I doubt if I’ll ever be able to edit on Mixbus as fast as I can in Pro Tools. Mixbus has some great editing features as well (e.g., regions are transparent while they are being dragged, but they switch to opaque when dropped into place, making it easy to line up transients when sliding a sloppy performance into place). I must note that I love the momentary timecode readout that appears while moving regions within the edit window.
External MIDI control is limited with Mixbus, and Rewire and the Mackie HUI protocol aren’t supported at all, although it does include Logic Control integration, which is a plus. The Mixbus keystroke for “learn MIDI control” is Command + Middle click, which is one of the reasons a three-button mouse is such a necessity. I use a Kensington Expert Mouse trackball, and using Trackball Works was able to program the trackball to send Middle click when I simultaneously press the Left and Right buttons.
When it comes to mixing with Mixbus, the first thing you notice is the sound quality. It sounds very real, very “analog.” I’m not saying you can’t get this sound with other DAWs; I’m just saying you don’t have to work to get it with Mixbus — it just happens. That said, old-school mixers accustomed to mixing on analog desks will love Mixbus.
Mixbus 2.0.5’s Mix window
The second thing you notice when working with Mixbus is how great the onboard EQ and compression sounds. Having EQ and compression on every channel strip provides a big head start to the mixing process. And it’s not just some jive EQ and compressor that will barely get you by; it’s an extremely musical EQ with wonderful-sounding filters and a smooth, natural-sounding compressor that works well for virtually any instrument or vocal.
The EQ and compressor both outperform the majority of the plug-ins on the market today. Harrison has obviously thought this whole mixing process through, as other features — like having a polarity switch on every channel — are a godsend for experienced mixers. I’d kill (OK, not really) for Avid to add this to Pro Tools.
Another feature that makes mixing with Mixbus a pleasure is its Plug-in Effect Control Sliders that allow the plug-in controls to be mapped directly to the controls on the mixer strip. This means you can view your plug-in settings and make plug-in parameter adjustments directly on the channel. The Mix Busses make it easy to add parallel compression to the drums or more simulated analog tape saturation to the guitars and keyboards. The automation is easy to learn and quite powerful, too. The built-in compressors and Tape Saturation create the perfect cohesion to make a mix really shine. I moved several mixes back and forth between the PC and Mac platforms, and it worked perfectly in every instance. Harrison claims (rightfully so, I’m sure) that it is just as smooth when moving to or from the Linux platform.
When it’s all said and done, it’s pretty amazing how quickly you can dial in a mix in from beginning to end with Mixbus compared to other DAWs, partially because of the EQ and compression on every channel strip, and partially because each channel and bus’ metering includes peak, peak hold and gain-reduction available all of the time. And Mixbus sounds so good compared with other DAWs, there’s just less to do.
Mixbus isn’t a perfect DAW. For users who require virtual synths, extensive MIDI support, etc., it likely won’t even be a consideration. Yet for the engineer who simply mixes music and is increasingly doing it ITB, Mixbus may be an answered prayer: the software supports an unlimited number of tracks and the automation is intuitive. Most importantly, it sounds amazing.
Contact: Harrison | harrisonconsoles.com
Russ Long is a Nashville-based producer, engineer and mixer as well as a senior contributor to PAR.