In the four years since we looked at version 2 of US mixing desk manufacturer Harrison's MixBus, many other DAWs have come on in leaps and bounds.
In fact, it's fair to say that the digital musician has never had it so good in terms of choice when it comes to the central component of the software-based studio. So, having a unique approach – as MixBus certainly does – should, theoretically, be a good thing.
In a world of its own
The most important thing to know about MixBus is that it's based on the open source Ardour DAW project, with Harrison paying Ardour developers to customise it for MixBus, and thus contributing heavily to the source code. Ultimately, when you buy MixBus 3, you're actually investing in a heavily customised version of Ardour.
The other thing that sets MixBus apart from other DAWs is that it's intended to impart the sound and workflow of an analogue or digital mixing desk, so version 3 still features EQ (plus high-pass filter) and dynamics (three modes: Compressor, Limiter and Leveler, the last a low- ratio/fast release compressor) on every channel, every buss and the master channel; eight dedicated busses for sub-grouping and auxiliaries; and integrated tape saturation (Drive) with adjustable amount for all channels, busses and the master.
"It's fair to say that digital musicians have never had it so good in terms of choice."
Importantly, the DSP algorithms used for the EQ, filter, compression, analogue tape saturation and summing are designed to model Harrison's own analogue and digital consoles. This core functionality is then augmented with support for Audio Units plugins on Mac and VST plugins on PC (VST is in the pipeline for Mac), plus the LV2 plugin format.
Further features carried forward from version 2 include compressor gain reduction metering for all channels and busses, K-System and correlation metering on the master buss, phase invert on channels, and extensive gain staging on each channel via the input trim (+/-20dB), fader (+6 to -inf dB) and compressor make up gain (+10dB).
You also get unlimited stereo and mono audio tracks, channel strip grouping, stacking of audio within tracks for multiple takes, multi-lane parameter automation, typical on-track editing features such as crossfading and nudge, and audio region-specific functions like multipoint volume envelopes and normalising/denormalising.
When editing Regions, their behaviour is influenced by three modes (Slide, Lock and Ripple), and this, along with the software's two main screens – Mixer and Editor – makes MixBus highly reminiscent of Pro Tools. At $79, MixBus is also very affordable, but bear in mind that it comes with no effects beyond those already discussed.
New in v3
The three big additions in MixBus 3 are 64-bit internal operation, support for multicore processors and – most significantly – full MIDI functionality.
This includes the implementation of MIDI tracks for internal instruments and external MIDI output, and two instruments are included: Reasonable Synth and SetBFree Tonewheel Organ, neither of which are particularly impressive.
"The lack of MIDI has obviously alienated many potential users in previous versions."
MIDI is edited by zooming into the piano roll-style MIDI track (alas, there's no dedicated MIDI editor window, though there is a basic List Editor), and various MIDI editing functions are applied by right- clicking the MIDI region.
MixBus 3 also includes new algorithms for the Compressor and Limiter. We particularly like the new Compressor, which now includes adjustable Ratio and a sidechain input. The dynamics and EQ can now be repositioned in the signal flow, too, including post fader.
Great improvements have been made in the graphics department, with MixBus 3 looking far more professional than version 2, and the whole interface automatically rescales to match the currently active screen resolution. We found this surprisingly effective on a laptop, as, although it makes the visuals quite small, it does away with the constant scrolling and cluttered feel often encountered on a smaller display.
On the navigation front, the new Summary View track at the bottom combines a session tracks overview with drag navigation and zooming. And video support has been worked in using the Jadeo video player, incorporating both a floating video window and a Video Timeline in the Ruler.
Other improvements include many more options in the top menu bar, including better track zoom presets, and an optional Stacked view for audio and MIDI tracks with layered clips, which reveals the Layers in multiple lanes. Finally, the audio output stage now features an excellently implemented Monitor control section, incorporating Mono, Dim, Solo levels, and PFL, AFL and SIP Solo modes.
MixBus has always ploughed its own furrow, with the inbuilt processing and bussing delivering excellent audio fidelity, and the MixBus tape saturation adding convincing analogue flavour when required. Nevertheless, the lack of MIDI has obviously alienated many potential users in previous versions.
Thanks to the various improvements made to the Ardour DAW project recently, it now feels much more like a fully rounded DAW, although the lack of included plugins and sample content remains frustrating.
We're also not fans of the struck- through '$219' next to the price on the website, implying that there's some sort of special deal going on, which there isn't.
At the end of the day, MixBus 3 is clearly a major step up from v2, standing as a genuine – although still quite individual – alternative to the better-known DAWs.