Harrison is a company known for building studio consoles and has been making hardware for professional studios since the 70s. Countless classic records were made on Harrison consoles, as well as a number of Hollywood films.
Mixbus is a DAW produced by Harrison, operating at the same time as a fully featured DAW and a faithful emulation of the hardware components of a Harrison mixing console. Harrison proposes to blend the warmth of analogue mixing and the benefits of a large console workflow with the accessibility and practicality of the digital domain.
The installation procedure for Mixbus is straightforward enough. Mixbus incorporates a range of plugins, which are not the subject of this review but do come packaged with the software. To use them, you will need to purchase the relevant license. Saving a license file at a specified location on your computer is all that is required to unlock them.
When I first opened Mixbus, I encountered a warning that my display settings were not optimal, and Mixbus was resized to fit. I use a 13″ MacBook Pro, which is a fairly popular item for home and mobile producers. This did result in the dials on the channel strips becoming very small and fiddly and the values becoming unreadable, but other than that had no adverse effect on the interface. I attempted to zoom in, although the zoom function did not work on my system. I got around this by resizing the display in the preference settings. This is something to consider if you use a smaller screen. For me, I don’t mind a bit of scrolling and shuffling between which channels are visible, but it would certainly be a better user experience on a larger display.
Mixbus has two main screens, the mixer and the editor, which can be switched between via two buttons at the top right of the interface. Although it’s not much hassle to click between the two, one can also use a keyboard shortcut to speed things up (Ctrl+M on Mac and Alt+M on Windows will toggle between the editor and mixer panels). It is also possible to detach the screens from each other into separate windows, if necessary, which would be particularly useful in a dual screen setup.
The general appearance of the DAW is very attractive, sporting a vintage plugin emulation vibe, only on a larger scale. It’s quite a dark look, making Mixbus distinctive from other DAWs. The designers definitely wanted to provide an authentic vintage console experience. The whole thing feels like it’s lifted out of an old studio documentary and placed inside a computer screen. Just take your favourite 70’s multi-platinum selling artist, rewind their haircut to something more period-specific, and put them in front of a huge studio console, talking about how they recorded the riff to their biggest selling record. Throw in a few humorous studio anecdotes, and you’re in the right frame of mind to start enjoying Mixbus. Joking aside, Mixbus is as much about the feel of the DAW as it is about the features. The developers wanted to inspire the users by a more glamorous era of recording. Yes, the whole program would probably be more efficient without the vintage graphics, but it adds to the charm of the whole experience, which is what I think the developer team at Harrison is going for here.
The general appearance of the DAW is very attractive, sporting a vintage plugin emulation vibe, only on a larger scale.
At the top of both screens is the transport section. Here you find the standard transport controls you would expect, play, stop, rewind, etc. You can modify which elements are present on the transport toolbar with the preferences menu, which allows you to free up some screen space if, for instance, you are not using a feature like punch in/out. There is also a mini-timeline, which allows you to quickly navigate your track even when you are on the mixing screen. Again, this resembles the workflow of most standard DAWs and works especially well if you keep your track organised with some location markers on the editor screen.
A status bar at the bottom of the screen displays relevant information about the session’s performance, such as buffer size, sample rate, and DSP. A useful feature is the “X” value, which shows if an “X run” has occurred. This occurs when Mixbus cannot keep up with the audio and usually manifests itself in pops and clicks in the audio. If something goes wrong, a quick glance here might give you an early diagnosis, and you can adjust the buffer size and sample rate accordingly. Right-clicking a small button at the end of this pane allows you to add or subtract elements from it.
The editor view has obvious parallels with other DAWs. Selecting segments, cutting, moving, rearranging and deleting them is as simple as any other DAW I have used. Inserting a new tempo or time signature is as straightforward as right clicking at the appropriate point in the playhead. The mixer interface looks and feels like an analogue console. Each audio channel is a channel strip, which runs from top to bottom, just like an analogue mixing desk. Trim, EQ and compression are all built in and accessible on the channel strip. Again, these are not just basic controls that you’ll probably discard in favour of a better plugin, but emulations of the original hardware on the console. At the top of the strip is an area for you to insert plugins, and if required, alter and arrange the signal flow. Again, everything becomes much easier by right-clicking on elements to access the context menus, which allow you to do all of the necessary functions, such as insert or delete plugins, run them in parallel, or reorder them. You can even rearrange the built-in elements, for instance putting the compressor before the EQ.
The equalizer is a 3-band EQ with the addition of a high-pass filter. It consists of a high and low shelf, and a mid-band bell, each with separate gain and frequency dials. It’s that simple. In a world where multiple shaped bands can be precisely programmed in a parametric EQ, there is something refreshing about using your ears and a couple of dials to shape the sound of a track. The curves for the EQ bands are based on the great sounds of Harrison consoles, rather than being able to cater for every conceivable need. If you trust that the EQ parameters are there for a reason, and that reason is tried and tested great sound, then Mixbus will make a lot of sense to you. I have to admit, it’s really easy to balance tracks against each other using these EQs, especially if the audio has previously been cleaned up.
Compression can be switched to three different modes: levelling, compression or limiting. The compressor dials are positioned next to the track fader. You pull a fader down to set the threshold, and gain reduction is shown in red next to the audio level. The ratio can also be set, although attack and release times are modelled into the different modes. Again, it’s quite surprising how instantly gratifying the compression sounds in the Mixbus mixer. If you want to crush the audio, simply adjust the trim control to increase the volume of the audio before it’s slammed into the limiter. Try this on a weak bass guitar DI for fun.
It’s quite surprising how instantly gratifying the compression sounds in the Mixbus mixer.
Additional controls are positioned right below the fader. They alter automation, which can be adjusted in several ways, metering, which can be set at different points in the signal chain, and also track grouping. The grouping controls are very impressive, as you can specify what elements will be shared across all tracks in the group.
Quite a big part of the workflow is the use of busses, as the DAW’s name might imply. Sending a channel to a bus is the work of a moment, and it’s very easy to see where and how much of your audio is being bussed. While in a digital DAW, this is more of an admin and group-processing function, the way the individual channels are glued together, or summed, has also been modelled. The bus channels are set up with their own analogue EQ and tape saturation, which means that the signal coming into each bus will end up coloured slightly just by passing through it. The busses run in parallel to your individual channels and are routed to the master bus. Don’t underestimate how much difference this summing can make. It’s subtle, but it seems to be a great way of adding the final touch of polish to a group of tracks.
As earlier stated, plugins can be added to a channel, and Harrison provides bundles and add-ons including their own plugins. This review does not cover the plugins although I did test them, finding them to be very high quality in their own right. However, the focus of Mixbus is clearly on the analogue console emulation, and I wouldn’t expect to be running endless plugin chains on Mixbus, simply because so much of what I would normally use is already included on the channel strip.
This leads me to the CPU load of Mixbus. It does appear, at first glance, to be comparatively heavy on the CPU. However, this needs to be taken in context. In effect, to achieve a similar kind of result from a normal DAW, I would need to be running at the very least, an analogue emulation of an EQ and a compressor on every channel, plus the same, an analogue summer and a tape saturation on each bus. Therefore the CPU meter isn’t particularly worrying, as it’s not necessary to add too much additional processing once you have your project loaded.
Although the word analogue is used throughout this review like it has magical properties, we are talking about a digital product, and it would be silly to avoid the benefits of digital while going crazy over the console emulation. Although, as I’ve described above, it’s perfectly possible to track and edit on Mixbus, you can get the best of both worlds, especially if you are very comfortable in your normal DAW. I tried a project where I wrote, tracked and edited a song in Ableton, using all of my usual methods to clean up the audio. I bounced the tracks and imported them to Mixbus, where I was able to mix and enhance them with much greater ease. I would add, that when I compared the finished versions of both side by side, I preferred the feel and sound of the Mixbus version, which was completed much more quickly.
I did run into some difficulties when using Mixbus. The undo feature doesn’t appear to fully work, at least not in the sense that I understand it. There also appeared to be an issue when I was soloing the bus channels, where I would get spikes of other audio. However, the developers provide a user forum which appears to be well attended by their staff, and I can’t imagine these are anything other than minor glitches that will be reported and ironed out in future updates.
Harrison Mixbus is, in truth, subject to two reviews, based on who the user is. As the main DAW for a beginner producer, it sacrifices in some areas in order to excel in others. You can, with some workarounds, get the kind of precision editing that is the standard of modern DAWs, although this is not as easy and intuitive. In some ways, you are funnelled into a more classic approach to mixing a track. In return, you get an almost automatic great sound. It’s almost like you have to go out of your way to obtain a bad sound out of the stock elements of Mixbus. The compressors, EQ and tape saturators that you have on hand at all times are musical and in my view live up to the hype. Harrison makes them the way they do simply because these tools are tried and tested, they work, and they sound good with minimal effort.
Looked at from the perspective of a different end-user, an established home-based producer or a professional, perhaps someone who is comfortable and happy with their existing DAW, Mixbus still has a lot to offer. If used as a direct replacement for your go-to DAW, your workflow will slow down simply because it’s different in Mixbus. But as an enhancement to one’s existing workflow, this to me is where Mixbus shines.
Where I got the best results from Mixbus was the stem-mixing stage between the initial mixing stage and the mastering stage. I had a complicated metal track with lots and lots of guitar layers, lots of surgical EQ, automation, and generally speaking plenty of elements I’ve learnt to do in Ableton through trial and error. It’s perfectly possible to do these things in Mixbus, but re-learning how to do so, and acquiring plugins to reverse engineer these methods would probably not be an efficient use of time. Instead, I bounced the groups of instruments to audio and imported them to Mixbus. Here I did a second mix, using Mixbus’ excellent channel strips and busses, only this time I was able to get the onboard EQ and compression to sing. Not only that, but the process was really fast and intuitive.
In summary, there are a couple of features in Mixbus that I’d like to see improved slightly. If you’re looking for your first DAW, Mixbus is equally as valid a choice as any other, so long as you understand where it excels and where it doesn’t. If your music in any way relies on a vintage sound (blues musicians I’m looking at you), then you will probably get a lot out of Mixbus, not only regarding sound but also in terms of feel. If you’re looking for something to supplement your existing workflow, Mixbus performs like an additional step in your mix process, sweetening and enhancing the audio you’ve already cleaned up, after the digital wizardry of the modern age.
The only time I’d advise to avoid Mixbus is if you’re the type of producer who wants to be able to do absolutely everything in a single application, without limits. The features of Mixbus are based upon tried and tested, traditional solutions, not on catering for every possible eventuality of mixing in the digital domain. Sometimes too much choice can be a bad thing. Mixbus forces you to get on with it and provides the best dials and faders to do so.
More info: Harrison Mixbus ($79)
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