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Harrison Mixbus An Interview by Pan 60 with Ben Loftis and Tim Hall Harrison Consoles June 20, 2014 Introduction:  pan60: To begin - I've been asked by companies, over the years, to check out their DAWs. But, for the most part, I've had to decline. First, everyone that knows me is quite aware that I am not the most computer savvy individual and second, due to my poor computer skills, the learning curve, most often, just appears too steep for me. So, after to reading a few posts on different forums regarding the Mixbus, I decided to contact Ben (as we have had previous chats) to discuss Mixbus. Because Mixbus looks like a Daw, I thought I would have no issues with it. It really made me think “console.” I decided to see if we could get an interview and possible article. I proposed to set up a couple of my friends with Mixbus. I asked if they would review and offer feedback on the Daw while Ben, Tim and I would discuss background information and results. Interview So, Ben... Tim... While the guys are tearing into Mixbus, let's get started with some basic information. Please introduce yourselves and give us some basic background information. Are either of you musicians, mix engineers or writers? What are your positions with the Harrison Company? Ben:  I've been a computer programmer since my family's first TRS-80 computer. I went to school as a mechanical engineer, and developed an interest in early MIDI sequencers and started tinkering with digital audio. Meanwhile I graduated and held several engineering positions with different companies, while looking for an opening in the audio industry. Eventually, I landed as a programmer at IED, where I worked on custom audio software for casinos, military installations, and even NASA. I heard that Harrison was looking for a developer to work on their large-format consoles. I was interested, took the job, and I've been there for about 14 years. Harrison is a small company, so I wear a lot of hats. I'm on the board of directors and I also operate as the product manager for Mixbus.  I play bass for a few different groups at church and around town, but, I’m more of a techie than a musician. pan60: So, a NASA employee and a bass player? How cool. Ben: I wasn't a NASA employee. I just wrote some software that got used there. :)    We wrote some software that helps to scare birds away from the Space Shuttle fuel tank. pan60: LOL Tim: I became interested in recording at a very young age.  Being a musician, I started recording song ideas on a small tape machine, and then moved to my first DAW. Eventually I started my own project studio to record bands in my area (this was before everyone was recording themselves!). After that experience, I went to college to focus on audio production and digital media. While in school, I worked for George Ingram at Nashville Record Productions, mastering music for vinyl mass production. A few months after graduating, I contacted Harrison to find if they had any open positions. It just so happened that they were looking for someone with an engineering background to produce media content. Right place, right time. Like Ben, I wear multiple hats. I am a product specialist, but, I also wrangle with the company’s social media and marketing efforts. pan60: Tim, do you play any instruments or do vocal work? Tim: I got started in the industry by touring in a Christian rock band. I played guitar and bass. Then I developed an interest in the recording process. pan60: Do either of you own or run your own studios or project studios? Ben: Tim ran a professional project studio for a few years. I've had a project studio, of one sort or another, since I started college. pan60: Let's chat a bit about Harrison as a company. Go to the roots, if you don't mind : ) Ben: Harrison has had a long history as an innovator in the pro audio industry. Dave Harrison was a recording engineer. He recorded the famous artist, James Brown, among other acts, and then - like many engineers at that time - transitioned into making gear. The tools were still very crude. Dave developed some really great technical innovations such as the "inline" console design, which allows each strip to serve double duty as the record-to-tape and playback-from- tape path. More importantly though, Dave designed consoles for mass-manufacturing. Though they still remained very custom, they were built with modern techniques, and were much more manufacturable than other consoles available at that time. The 32-series consoles were a huge hit, and many are still in operation after almost 40 years! Since then, the company has made a wide range of consoles for live, broadcast, post, music recording, and any other production task. Dave was always interested in automating the process and using the latest technology. He talked about a "glass console" many years before that technology was possible. He also understood what complete recall and automation meant. Tim: For example, the Series10 was an analog console, but was completely digitally controlled. When you recalled a mix, ALL of the settings - fader level, bussing, EQs, compressors - were recalled. This stuff is all taken for granted today, but it was the cutting edge in 1990. Around the same time, SSL launched "total recall," which required the user to turn every knob to match the setting on a screen. Customers loved "total recall," but they didn't understand that the Series10 actually recalled all of their settings at the touch of a button. It was just too far ahead of its time, and far too expensive for the music market. Though the Series 10 was never a commercial success, the developed technology morphed into the MPC (Motion Picture Console). Those features were more necessary to the film guys, and they were willing to pay for it. Ben: If there's one aspect of our company that is dramatically different than any other, it is this: We had dozens of MPC film consoles installed at ultra-high end facilities around the world. When it came time to launch a digital console, we just replaced the analog processing engine with a new digital processing engine. The users of the console were sitting in the same room, with the same control surface in front of them, so the digital engine had to sound "exactly" like the analog predecessor. No other audio company made that smooth transition! So, it's not surprising when people say our digital gear sounds more analog. pan60: Not everyone may know this, but Harrison is no stranger to the digital world and I'm not just talking consoles. You worked with high DAW systems in the past correct? Tim: Harrison was a very early adopter of automation - first, tape-based, then computer controlled. In 2007, we launched a “destructive” recorder for the film community called the Xdubber. Mixbus is the first full-featured DAW that we've developed, though. pan60: Now, to Mixbus. Why would you want to come to this market with a new DAW? Ben: Personally, I was very frustrated with existing DAWs when it came time to mix. They just didn't feel fun and intuitive. It always took a lot of work to make a mix gel. I knew there had to be a better way. Tim: When I first came to Harrison, I questioned whether a new DAW made sense. I've since come to understand that Mixbus is really fundamentally different. No other company with 30 years of analog roots has made a DAW, and nobody is investing in open-source development like Harrison. Ben: Yeah, the audio industry has become stagnant in the last decade or so. There was a tremendous amount of innovation in the early days. You could open the lid on a piece of gear and see how it worked. This gave you access to see if you might be able to improve on it. Companies were leapfrogging each other with innovation and modifications, building on each other's shoulders. But, when the industry shifted to a software focus, it was never possible to know what really went on inside the box. Frankly, I think a lot of stuff just wasn't implemented correctly -- you couldn't really know what was going on or how to fix it. As a company, we saw an opportunity to "reboot" the industry by using open- source technology and sharing the development with a wide group of professionals and users. It has become clear that every studio is going to have a DAW at the heart of it. Since that's the case, we want that DAW to be completely open to integration with our and other technologies. That central DAW needs to be like the old studio patchbay, where you can connect all your other stuff together. Mixbus is based on an open-source workstation called Ardour. Ardour can be modified by anyone, not just us. pan60: Do you see Mixbus being applied more for tracking mixing or both, and why? Ben: The Ardour workstation was already very good for tracking. In fact, we use it for our ultra-high-end Xdubber recorder which records film stems: 64 channels at 96kHz in 32bit floating-point. At Harrison we've mainly focused on the mixing part for the Mixbus product, though. So, I'd say it is best known for mixing, yes. pan60: Does the computer, or system, folk use matter, and how new a operating system will one need to run Mixbus? Tim:  Well, of course, the faster the better.  We support a huge range of operating systems, from G4 Macs running OSX 10.4, and Windows XP systems, all the way up to the latest version of OSX (10.8) and Windows 8. We've recently purchased an i7 laptop for our demos, and it is blindingly fast. Even with Mixbus’s heavy DSP  load, I can mix 128 channel sessions without a hiccup. It actually alleviates the need for multi-core support.  But - of course - there will be users that push every system to its limits, so we still have to focus on performance improvements. pan60 What was and is the goal with Mixbus? Ben: The goal of Mixbus is to reboot the DAW industry, by redefining the role of a DAW:  It should sound as good as analog, and it should be completely open so it can be integrated into your studio any way you like. Those are the two points that make Mixbus different than any other DAW. pan60: Could you talk a bit about the open-source? Ben: Mixbus uses an open-source platform called "Ardour" for the basic editing and import/export functionality. We added our DSP engine and the mixer window, but we also improved the editor to meet our customers’ needs. Every change we made to Ardour makes it better for the next person who wants to use it. We contribute to the project almost daily with new code, and provide financial support to the main developer. Harrison is funding the Windows port for Ardour, and many of the features in Ardour3 were adopted from Mixbus. We aren't just "saying" that we are sharing the development - we really are putting our money where our mouth is. If you invest in Harrison and Mixbus, much of the development is being published under an open-source license, and it will be available to future generations of audio engineers for peer review and continuous improvement. It's completely different than anything else out there. pan60: Please describe the knob-per-function concept. This is a feature I like. Tim:  We have developed dozens of mixer designs over the last 40 years. With more recent consoles, we have been able to look at operator's files and see what they are using most. Needless to say, we have a pretty good idea how much EQ, etc, gets used in a typical mix. Mixbus was designed to put the most commonly used functions right on top of the mix window, so you can see everything you need at once. We spent a lot of time thinking about ergonomics, just like we do on our big consoles. For example, you'll notice that in the fader area, you have the input trim, fader, compressor threshold, and compressor makeup gain within a very small space. These are all of the features you need to get your levels right for that track within about 2 square inches of screen space. Ben: That's not how other DAW companies think. They never made a real mixer, so their goals are different. They are constantly trying to give the user more flexibility, like a spreadsheet that can be used for "anything.” The assumption is that the console layout is flawed, because the electricity has to flow that way, or something.  But consoles evolved over 50 years for the purpose of making records. If you don't understand how they ended up looking like they do, then you are doomed to repeat the learning process.... poorly. pan60: Will most controls surfaces work with Mixbus? Ben: Control surface support hasn’t had our full attention, yet. It will get a lot better with version 3 because the open-source guys at Ardour have been adding support for the Mackie protocols, etc. But, we are working on a knob-per-function controller for Mixbus, with some real console workflow features. It’s going to be a game- changer. pan60: Can Mixbus be synced with other systems? Tim: Sure, you can sync Mixbus using MTC or other methods. This way, you can run a sequencer DAW alongside Mixbus if you like.  Some stand-alone synths and drum machines also work in this manner (note: as of v2.3, this feature is not available for Windows users). pan60: Over the phone we chatted about a few things, but if you don't mind let’s get into the topic of busing, and the number of buss's. Tim: A console is all about bussing!  We knew from the beginning that our bussing scheme would define the product - that's why we called it Mixbus. We made a few rules up front: - The busses had to be latency-compensated so parallel processing can be performed, and they all had to be immediately accessible and visible on the screen. Ben: If you look inside our large-format consoles, you'll see that there is equally as much processing hardware reserved for bussing as there is for the channel strip DSP. Dedicated busses eat up your CPU tremendously, which is why typical DAWs don't have any bussing structure - you have to patch stuff around, one send at a time. That leaves all kinds of weird compromises, such as the fact that send 1 on channel 1 doesn't necessarily send to the same reverb as send1 on a different channel. In the long run it costs you more cpu because there's so much buffer- passing overhead when the mix gets complicated. Tim: The question becomes...how much is enough?  Our big consoles have 96 main buses and 32 auxes - mainly because you are managing 500+ channel mixes. Mixbus was intended to work with typical pop-music sessions, like those you might find in an analog studio of the ‘80s and ‘90s - about 32-48 tracks. We felt that 8 buses would accommodate a mix of that size, and it matched the bus capabilities of some of our successful analog consoles. Ben: Of course, it would be nice to have more buses, but then you'd have to switch between them, ruining the "analog console" feel that we felt was important. We can fit 8 good-size knobs on the screen ... even on a smaller laptop screen. Furthermore, the DSP load scales with "channels times buses.” So, for the same 32-channel mix, a 16-bus console requires twice the DSP of an 8-bus console, whether you use them or not.  Eight felt like the right number. pan60: Do you see more bussing in the future? Ben: Probably not in the Mixbus product. We have larger consoles and perhaps we will have a larger DAW in the future that provides more bussing. Mixbus is intended to reproduce a traditional tape machine + console sound. Having a limited, but immediate, access to a specific number of mix buses was part of that sound. pan60: We need to cover the plugins you have for Mixbus. Will other plugins work with Mixbus? If so, what type? Tim: Currently, we have two different "series" of plugins for Mixbus. The "Essentials" series currently has one bundle, with a reverb and delay. We plan to grow this series over time - providing inexpensive plugins that complement the processing in Mixbus. The main goal of the Essentials plugins is to make sure that everyone has the basic tools for a mix within their reach. In fact, if someone sends you a session using the Essentials plugins, you will be able to hear the effect as the author intended. The GUI won't be available, but you won't have to buy the plugins to hear the effect.  The "XT" series is a more serious line of plugins for professionals that have very high requirements.  They are more directly derived from our large-format digital film consoles, representing the absolute cutting edge of audio technology. Mixbus loads industry-standard plugins - AU on OSX, and VST on Windows.  If you have existing reverbs, delays, etc, you can use them in Mixbus. But if you plan to share Mixbus sessions with other users, or use it on multiple computers, you will probably find it best to use our plugins. They work the same on Windows, OSX, and Linux. pan60: What about Midi? Will it be covered in upcoming versions? To what extend can users expect to see? Ben: As we discussed, Mixbus uses the Ardour platform. We are currently using the "stable" version, which is Ardour2.  Ardour3 has many amazing new features, including MIDI and virtual instrument tracks. Among the features already implemented in Ardour3 are: - Multi-core DSP usage, - Video playback - A "monitor" console strip - A session overview navigator - and much better track grouping features. We don't know if all of those features will be implemented in Mixbus3, at first, because some of them are still in heavy development. But, there's a lot of great stuff coming soon. And, of course, there are plenty of opportunities to add more mixing features from our large-format consoles. pan60: When can we expect to see Mixbus3? Do you have a ballpark? Ben: I wish I knew! The best answer I can give is "when it's ready". It is possible to track the development of Ardour3 and Mixbus very closely, if you are familiar with open-source development tools. This makes us very different than any other commercial DAW out there.
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