Writing a fair and complete review of an entire DAW is a daunting task, to say the least.
A DAW is much more than just a recording device. It’s more than an editor and more than a processor. It’s an entire studio environment with complex workflow possibilities and constraints alike.
When you become adept with any one DAW, it becomes a bit like a home office that you are used to and able to work quickly and confidently in. Stepping outside those bounds can be daunting.
It’s a sobering moment when you realize, for instance, that the “switch screen” hotkey in one DAW is the “nudge clip to the left” hotkey in another. (A moment that leaves you to wonder how many timing and phase relationships you’ve ever-so-slightly destroyed.)
But in the modern studio business, can you really afford not to check out how the industry is changing and what other offerings are available? Plus, an extra DAW in your back pocket means that an inspired session will never fail because one piece of software does.
With that in mind, Harrison offers up a whole new type of DAW to add to your studio with their Mixbus software, and with an alternate version, Mixbus 32C. Both aim to bring a more analog and more human workflow to the DAW experience. As a company, Harrison has a long history and impressive pedigree. Their first analog console offering was the Series 32, released in 1975. (For a sense of time and scale here, the first commercially available SSL console was released in 1976.)
Through the 70s and early 80s Harrison continued to make analog consoles, including the first fully automated console. The 90s heralded the introduction of their first digital console, and to this day Harrison continues to produce world-class consoles, both digital and analog. While their name may not be as famous as SSL or Neve, their consoles are in use in top film and music mixing studios around the world.
My primary DAW has always been Pro Tools, so all of my comparisons will be based around that. In the case of both DAWs, searching the forums when I encountered problems revealed a list of problems I never had. I’ve generally had good luck with Pro Tools in the past, but there have been issues, some of which were never solved. And there are definite critiques I have of Pro Tools that others probably think of as a cool feature. The point being: your mileage may vary.
With such a long history of console manufacturing, Harrison’s stance on DAW construction is not surprising. They have made it clear, in both literature and layout, that their goal is to more closely emulate the feel and sound of mixing on an analog console, and not a “container for plugins”. Let’s take a closer look at Mixbus.
The two DAWs, Mixbus and Mixbus 32C, are for the most part similar. 32C has more busses, but the overall feel and functionality is very similar. The real difference lies in the sound, as standard Mixbus is modeled after the overall sound of Harrison consoles while Mixbus 32C is end-to-end modeled after one specific console—the one owned (and still used) by Bruce Swedien to mix Thriller, Bad, and a ton of other records. This review is based on the Mixbus 32C model.
While Mixbus may have analog dreams, it is still very much a full-fledged DAW in terms of its feature set. All aspects of music making can be accomplished inside Mixbus; this includes recording, mixing, sequencing, using MIDI tracks and virtual instruments, etc. It even supports sync for video and can lock up with other systems.
Like most DAWs I’ve used, Mixbus has a few different screens to work from, mainly the editor view representing our multitrack, and the mixer view, representing the console. There are of course other windows that can be opened. One of my favorites is the meterbridge, a fully-sizable group of meters that can be set to a large number of metering standards used around the world, in broadcast, film, and music. Additionally, these meters have buttons for input, record enable, solo, and mute. Using a touchscreen as an additional monitor featuring this window would make recording and overdubbing with multiple musicians much easier to wrangle. Sadly, there is no way to use the transport as a separate window, which would also be nice.
The Editor window is laid out in a mostly comfortable and familiar fashion. Across the top are the transport controls, editing tools, playback modes, counters, selection and song map. Many timeline lanes show common units (min:sec, bars & beats, timecode, tempo, meter, etc.), but there are also some very useful lanes such as Range. This timeline allows you to bounce out any pre-defined range, which is great for mixing live albums, or exporting a portion of a mix as a clip or preview.
Tracks in the Editor window are laid out in the standard fashion. The left side of the window can display the currently selected channel strip, making work on all aspects of one particular track very easy. The right side of the window displays all session lists at a glance, such as tracks, busses, regions, snapshots, groups, etc.
The other main window is the Mixer window. While there is quite a bit of flexibility in setup and routing, there is also a designated signal flow that is used: channels feed into subgroups, which in turn feed the main mix, like on a console.
Harrison gives you an unlimited number of audio, MIDI, and auxiliary tracks, which then feed into a possible 12 subgroups and/or the main stereo bus. The 12 subgroups are designed to act as submixes or time-based effects tracks. Harrison automatically accounts for the latency of all tracks feeding towards the submixes, and ultimately the stereo bus as well. Should you need additional aux tracks for submixing or time-based effects, you must account for any incurred latency on your own. In practice, I only did this when a track needed extra little reverbs and delays. Any latency here was either unnoticeable or didn’t affect the audio in any negative way.
The left side of the mixer window displays lists of channel strips, groups, and user-favorite plugins. The right side of the window displays the 12 subgroups, the main stereo group, and the monitor section (more on that later).
The setup of how the busses are fed by the tracks in Mixbus is interesting. Whereas most analog consoles have group assignments and aux sends, those have more or less been combined here to feed the 12 mix busses. Amount of, and stereo placement of each feed, are fully adjustable.
The layout and look of tracks in Mixbus feels closer to an analog console than any other DAW I have used or seen. Every channel has bus assignments and a 4-band semi-parametric EQ that are always on display. They are relatively easy to use, but take up a lot of real estate and cannot be hidden. Again, the EQ is part of the console feel and sound that Harrison is going after. Each channel also has an input trim (THANK YOU!), mute and solo buttons, a fader and dynamics section. The onboard dynamics processor can be set to Leveler (low ratio with adjustable attack time), Compressor (adjustable ratio, fixed attack and release), or Limiter (with adjustable release time). While basic in scope, the dynamic section does a decent job when nothing special is needed other than basic dynamic range control.