Test Drive: Harrison Mixbus Multitrack Editor and Mixer

GETTING AROUND

Once you’ve created a session in Mixbus, you’re faced with a window that should look pretty familiar to users of other editors: tracks going down the left side, transport on top, and lots of iconic buttons and switches to call up different functions. But looks here are definitely deceiving -- Mixbus combines multiple functions into some controls, and specific functions are not always where one is used to finding them. Fortunately, handy tooltips aid in acquainting yourself with the program. So does the well-written and well-organized PDF manual. In short, there’s a learning curve here, particularly in the recording and editing areas. Don’t assume, and you’ll be alright. And don’t schedule that important session until you’ve had some time to find your footing.

Above all, it is the case the right-clicking is your friend in Mixbus. Vast numbers of important functions are easily uncovered by right-clicking in various areas of the interface. Mixbus really demands a three-button mouse, or trackball with a scroll wheel, for efficient operation.

With a design heritage that speaks to those of us who learned our craft on large consoles and tape machines, it’s not surprising to see that Mixbus provides several tape-style features that conventional users may find odd. The destructive audio recording option, for instance, is likely to go unused by most production pros. However, the choice to use Snapshots rather than the conventional “Save As” command to store successive versions of a project has benefits that have to an extent been lost in antiquity. I found it quite useful for quickly going back and forth between different groups of edits. It would be nice to see this function on other editors, since it is more efficient than “Save As” and more intuitive than Undo menus.

Mixbus has some great editing features as well -- for example, 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. Another nice surprise that recalls earlier days was seeing a momentary timecode readout that appears while moving regions around the arrangement. The shuttle wheel is impressive, allowing you to speed up and down and scrub back and forth in either tape-style (pitch-changing) operation, or in a modern style with no pitch change. There’s also an intuitive and flexible looping and auto-punch feature that should appeal to radio producers who often record themselves. It enables you to select a region to loop and a separate region to punch in and out. While not revolutionary, it does indicate the level of thought that Harrison has invested in the Mixbus recording and editing interface.

The aforementioned MIDI control within Mixbus is comprehensive. MIDI Machine Control is fully supported, and MIDI Continuous Controller information can be mapped to any control within Mixbus. Fader control is via the standard Mackie HUI protocol, although the Windows version of Mixbus has not yet caught up with the Mac and Linux versions in this department.

THAT MIXER

While Mixbus is a complete multitrack editor, it is first and foremost a quite good (and good-sounding) approximation of a Harrison analog mixing console. Whether that strikes you as a Useful Thing or not given your specific situation is left for you to decide, but the mixer’s sonic qualities and analog interface cannot be denied. When it comes to mixing with Mixbus, the first thing I noticed was the sound quality. It sounds very real, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, it sounds “analog” straightaway. It’s not a unique quality, and I will admit it may have more to do with the gorgeous mixer interface, but that analog quality just seems to happen.

Given that every channel has built-in compression and EQ, you would expect that they would best sound good, and they certainly do. The compression is natural and without a particular color, while the EQ is smooth and musical.

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. Yes, those empty blocks where one would expect to instantiate and insert effects are actually slots that will hold the parameters for an installed effect. This means you can view your plug-in settings and make plug-in parameter adjustments directly on the channel, without having to actually open the plug window. The Mix Busses make it easy to add parallel compression to the VO track or more simulated analog tape saturation to the music track. The automation is easy to learn and powerful, without adding complicated parameters only useful to mastering engineers.

IS IT SWITCH-WORTHY?

I am loving working with the Mixbus software, particularly with the mixer. In the interest of full disclosure: back in the day, the first couple albums “our band” cut when signed with RCA were mixed on Harrison boards, and that process helped lock me into the careers I’ve had since, so my perceptions are probably biased with that nostalgia. It’s great, it sounds good, and frankly I understood its signal paths and gain stages immediately.

Working with the recorder/editor section... not so much. It has all the features I could possibly need and then some. The problem is finding them, and after a couple of weeks I’m still discovering where some functions are and how to access them. I had to go to the manual early and often, which is something I haven’t had to do for a while (it reminds me of the SAW software). And Mixbus has done absolutely everything I needed it to do in the process of producing a collection of short commercial spots and tags for an Internet site (yes, real paying work, and I’m using a completely new-to-me editor. Tsk, tsk).

Mixbus continues to evolve; it’s at version 2.3.1 at this writing, and more functions and features and clarifications are being issued, so it definitely holds some promise.

On the other hand, if you’re as smitten with the look and feel and sound of analog as I am, it may be worth your time and effort to give Mixbus a go. It is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to analog on a computer screen, and the sound matches the interface. Hey, I bought my copy, and they do have a subscription program that will let you get into it and use it on a monthly basis. Check it out.

Harrison’s Mixbus software carries a retail price of $219, although at present it is on sale for $149 direct from the website. More information on Mixbus software is available at www.harrisonconsoles.com/mixbus/website.

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