Innovations: A Workstation With A Console Heart— HARRISON MIXBUS VERSION3

Harrison is a world-renowned manufacturer of ultra-high-end mixing consoles.
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The Track Editor window from Harrison’s Mixbus version3 DAW atop the main mixer screen. Harrison is a world-renowned manufacturer of ultra-high-end mixing consoles. In the 70s and 80s, Harrison mixers were used on iconic pop albums by Michael Jackson, Queen, AC/DC, Abba, Sade and many more. By the 90s, however, our highly-automated consoles had found their place in elite film studios. Remember, there weren’t any powerful DAWs back then; an automated console was the only way to switch your settings quickly between scenes. Since then, Harrison has maintained a high-profile position in film mixing, and perhaps become less well-known in the music world. But when Universal Audio modeled Bruce Swedien’s Harrison 32c for a plug-in a few years ago, we were reminded that there are still users who are seeking that “Harrison” vibe.

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Mixbus marks Harrison’s re-entry into music production. Developed by Harrison as a “reboot” of the computer DAW, Mixbus provides a knob-per-feature workflow and DSP that is derived from our large-format consoles.

We’ve had lots of questions about the remarkable sound quality of Mixbus. We attribute these differences to the techniques we developed while creating high-end digital consoles, which is a completely different direction than typical DAW development. For example, in the mid 80s, we developed fully automated, digitally controlled analog mixer technology which was adopted by premiere film mixing facilities around the world. When the digital revolution came, we were asked to convert the analog “processor” into a digital processor. This required us to develop a digital audio engine that operated exactly like the analog mixer they were using for previous projects; it had to sound exactly the same because only the backend was changed—mix engineers continued to use the same control surface. This transition was not undertaken by any other company, and it has provided us with techniques that we have incorporated into all of our high end mixers and, of course, Mixbus.

Mixbus version3 (released July 6) is the latest version of Harrison’s full-featured digital audio workstation with “True Analog Mixing.” The development of Mixbus has followed a truly unique path.

In 2007, Harrison was asked by our customers to create a film “dubber”—a machine used for recording the final music, dialogue and effects stems of a movie. It needed to have destructive recording, timecode sync, basic editing, and other DAW-like features. Because our consoles used Linux, we preferred to use Linux for this product as well; there was only one popular Linux workstation at the time—Ardour—developed by Paul Davis. Paul was the first employee of Amazon.com, and was largely responsible for its 1-click online payment system. Rather than develop our own workstation from scratch, we chose to do it “the Linux way” and collaborate with Paul. We commissioned Paul to add “destructive recording” features that we needed, and launched the Xdubber at the 2007 NAB.

That collaboration sparked a series of projects for Paul, and the open-source platform that would eventually become Mixbus. One of these collaborators was SSL—someone you might consider a direct competitor with Harrison. In 2008, I found myself in the strange situation of speaking at SSL’s press conference at AES, where it announced its official support for the open-source Ardour platform in collaboration with Harrison Consoles. SSL further developed the Mac version, and added support for AudioUnit plug-ins, among other features. While SSL ended its interest only a year later, its contributions remain a part of the Mixbus DNA.

Similar collaborations have continued until today; for example, Waves used the Ardour platform for its product Waves Tracks Live. It has contributed some really nice features, such as a new audio backend that interfaces directly with ASIO and CoreAudio. And, of course, Waves contributed heavily to the testing, optimization and stability that are necessary with a “live” product. By sharing improvements in the open-source realm, everyone gets a better product: Waves, Ardour and Harrison. Even Google has a part of this story: It funded the initial Windows port of Ardour, as part of its “Summer of Code” program. Based on these collaborations, Mixbus has grown to work on nearly every flavor of desktop: Mac, Windows and Linux, 32-bit and 64-bit. We also share the same session format as these other products. In a realm where standards bodies have not been able to make any headway with “session interchange” formats, here are three products that have nearly seamless interoperability.

Returning to the story of Mixbus: In 2008, I bumped into Paul at the Tonmeistertagung audio show in Leipzig, Germany. He wanted Harrison to make a channelstrip “plugin” for Ardour. So as a side project, I developed a little EQ/Compressor plug-in that could be added to Ardour. But during the process, I developed a strong feeling that “this doesn’t feel like a console at all!” When you make a plug-in, you don’t have access to the fader, aux sends or any of the fundamental elements in the mixer. You have no control over the gain stages or dither or bussing at all; therefore you have very little opportunity to optimize the signal paths. If you look at a Harrison digital console, literally half of the hardware is dedicated to the summing buses. When making a plug-in, we were leaving half of our knowledge on the table—and that was the genesis of the Mixbus concept. We wanted to reinvent the DAW as something a mixer company would make. Not just a plug-in host, but an actual mixing system with our own sound and a sensible workflow.

Mixbus is developing very quickly now. We’ve added 64-bit, multicore processing, MIDI tracks and virtual instruments in the latest version; and that sets us up with a platform where we continue development very quickly and are bringing some of our large-format console expertise to bear. We already provide a suite of add-on plug-ins which come pre-installed with each new update of Mixbus, and can be individually enabled with a license. We also plan to develop some associated hardware products, such as a dedicated control surface. Eventually we’d like to completely bridge the gap between Mixbus and our large-format consoles, providing a suite of products that can take someone from a bedroom recording studio though to the largest and most revered facilities where you’ll currently find our consoles.

Ben Loftis serves as Harrison Consoles’
Mixbus Product Manager.

Harrison Consoles
harrisonconsoles.com/site/mixbus.html