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Review: Harrison Mixbus 32C DAW

Shortly after the release of Mixbus 3, Harrison next unveiled Mixbus32C ($299 direct), a Mixbus DAW variation incorporating the Mixbus 3 feature set and workflow that is explicitly based on the Harrison 32C analog console.

Undoubtedly, “Harrison Consoles” is synonymous with high-quality sound. The company spent its last 40 years as a staple in commercial music by designing and building mixers used on dozens and dozens of hit albums. Their most notable console, the 32C, was the sonic backbone for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Paul Simon’s Graceland, as well as albums by Genesis, ABBA, ELO, Janet Jackson, Queen, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, Blondie and more.

In the fall of 2009, Harrison stealthily entered the DAW game with the introduction of Mixbus, a notably console-like workstation built upon the Ardour platform universally compatible with Mac OS X, Windows and Linux OS CPUs. Since then, the workstation has endured strong and steady user base growth.

Earlier this year, Harrison released the third iteration of the DAW, Mixbus 3—available direct for an amazing $79!—which incorporates unlimited stereo and mono input channels, unlimited MIDI tracks and virtual instruments, an updated graphical user interface, support for external control surfaces (including PreSonus Faderport, Mackie MCU and Behringer XTouch controllers) and the addition of Favorite Plug-in Lists to organize go-to plug-ins and plug-in presets.

Shortly after the release of Mixbus 3, Harrison next unveiled Mixbus32C ($299 direct), a Mixbus DAW variation incorporating the Mixbus 3 feature set and workflow that is explicitly based on the Harrison 32C analog console. Both versions incorporate input trim, switchable polarity and compression on every channel, but where Mixbus 3 has, for example, a three-band sweepable EQ with high-pass filter and 8 mix bus sends, Mixbus32C has a parametric four-band sweepable EQ with independently switchable second order high-pass and low-pass filters and 12 mix bus sends—just like the console. Harrison modeled every resistor, capacitor and transistor in the original 32C console, resulting in a software channel strip that performs identical to the original.

The Mixbus32C channel strip is powered by an enhanced fourth-generation DSP engine that is internally dithered, ramped and gain-staged so that sound quality is as “analog” as possible. It utilizes multi-core processing and is available in both 32- and 64-bit builds. Mixbus32C supports VST plug-ins on Windows machines, AudioUnit (AU) plug-ins on OSX machines, and LV2 and LADSPA (Linux Audio Developer’s Simple Plug-in Architecture) plug-ins on all platforms.

The 32C master bus and its dozen stereo mix buses include Tone controls, Compression, Side-chaining and Analog Tape Saturation emulation. Also included on the stereo bus is a K-meter and Stereo Correlation Meter. The Analog Tape Saturation emulation does a fantastic job of creating the sound of analog tape and the DAW’s operation is reminiscent of analog functionality.

Harrison has released a collection of rather amazing plug-ins, too—in the LV2 format—perfectly complimenting Mixbus. These can be purchased individually or as a complete set. My favorites are the XT-DC Drum Character plug-in and the XTMC Multi-Band Compressor. The XT-DC allows the user to apply a different EQ to the attack than to the tail of the drum hit–amazing! The four-band XT-MC incorporates phase-accurate crossovers, providing a smooth, natural sound even when applying extreme compression.

What’s the problem with Harrison plug-ins? They are exclusive to the LV2 format; if you are going to be using Mixbus exclusively, they are well worth the cost, but if you are going to be using Mixbus in addition to one or two other DAWs, it may be better to purchase AU or VST plug-ins that can be used regardless of DAW. I should mention, too, that its onboard EQ, compression, tape emulation and limiting sound extremely good and are more than adequate for most mixing applications, though undoubtedly most users will want to add reverb and delay options. The entire Mixbus32C Bundle—including Mixbus32C plus all dozen Harrison Mixbus 32C Plugins—is $599 direct.

LTC (SMPTE) generation and sync are built in to Mixbus32C, which also includes Persistent undo (undo is still operational after closing and reopening a session). There is support for video timeline, video window and audio/video exports. Loudness analysis tools include LUFS loudness measurement, LU (Loudness Unit) histogram, LU Range, Waveform display, with peak indicators, Peak Sample value + True Peak value and Spectrogram view. The DAW incorporates extensive export features, including multitrack stem export, simultaneous multi-format exports, multiple export ranges, CD track markers, silence trimming, normalization and command-line arguments to trigger third-party encoders or file-management scripts.

Most of my time in the studio is spent interfacing with computers, and I have to admit, it sure is refreshing to jump into the analog console-style workflow that Mixbus provides. With the exception of utilizing effect plugins, everything you need to make a great sounding mix is in-line, ready to go without adding any plug-ins. I’ve done several mixes in Mixbus32C over the past couple of months and I find it to be a very musical experience. The things I love about it are the things I remember loving about mixing on an analog desk decades ago. Having input gain control, a polarity inversion button and input monitoring on every channel is just fantastic. Metering is exceptional. There are channel meters, gain reduction meters, tape saturation meters and buss meters.

Mixbus has an intuitive and ergonomic layout that follows the logic of analog signal flow, making it likely the easiest workstation to learn for anyone with a background in analog recording. Editing is another Mixbus strength. The newly added Smart mode provides Pro Tools-esque functionality and impressive speed. Editing functions include region slicing, region fade ins/outs and crossfades. Audio playlists are also supported simplifying comping and band edits. While the built-in EQ and dynamics are quite impressive, I’ve loved using Harrison’s Dyno-Mite envelope designer plug-in and XT-DC Drum Character plug-in on the drums.

There is no doubt that Harrison’s primary focus with Mixbus is the recording and mixing of audio. That said, the Mixbus MIDI implementation is quite good. Heavy MIDI users won’t be making Mixbus their primary DAW (at least not yet), but the MIDI implementation is still solid and often inspiring. There are over 50 “MIDI filter” plug-ins such as transposing, keyboard splits, quantization, velocity scaling, chord creation, etcetera to provide extensive control over the manipulation of MIDI data. The sole virtual synth included with Mixbus is the Set-Bfree Tonewheel organ that provides a convincing B3 sound. Regular virtual instrument users will obviously need to acquire additional instruments.

Mixbus 32C is a full-blown workstation that sounds stunningly good and Mixbus 3, though not quite as feature-packed, also performs amazingly well for a fraction of the cost. Whether you decide to make one of these your primary DAW or just utilize it as a secondary option will vary from user to user, but I have no doubt that every studio will want to make one of them a part of their studio’s software arsenal.

Harrison Consoles