Hands-on review: IK Multimedia MixBox multi-effects plug-in suite
Image credit: IK Multimedia
It's a New Year, with the promise of a fresh start, a new dawn of opportunity, freedom, creativity… Oh wait, we're back in lockdown. OK, back into the virtual studio we go, this time fully equipped to mix with IK Multimedia's MixBox.
MixBox is IK's virtual 500 series-style FX rack. The 500 series 'lunchbox' hardware has proved very popular over the last decade, with the diminutive proportions of each module making a full 500 rack much more portable, but in no way less powerful, than a traditional 19"-wide multi-unit FX rack.
The 'portable power' modus operandi of a 500 series rack has enabled musicians and producers to easily ferry their favourite hardware hither and, when necessary, thither, instead of relying on whatever equipment a fellow collaborator or recording studio might already have installed.
Naturally, if you're working entirely 'in the box', all the hardware you need is your laptop and an audio interface. No matter how many plug-ins you own, your burden doesn't get any heavier. However, you can still find yourself frustrated, bogged down with juggling multiple individual plug-ins and all the attendant inserting, comparing, routing and bussing hassles this approach can throw up.
Now, IK has brought its decades of analysing, modelling and hardware-emulation skills to bear on the 500 rack concept, replicating the experience with this all-in-one effects behemoth, MixBox.
Other plug-in companies have taken similar inspiration from the 500 series concept for their own twist on the matter, such as PSP Audioware's InfiniStrip, Waves' StudioRack or Apogee's FX Rack. Inevitably, what is popular in hardware circles soon filters through to the software domain.
With MixBox, IK has pulled together 70 separate mixing processors and creative effects derived from its existing award-winning T-RackS, AmpliTube and SampleTank products into a single product environment, as well as adding a few new algorithms, notably in the reverb section.
There's everything you could need when recording, mixing or mastering, with multiple iterations for any creative task, be it EQ-ing, compressing, sweetening, distorting, amp-ing, filtering, modulating, reverberating, saturating, or any other kind of sonic mangle you care to pass your audio through.
There are plenty of studio hardware legends emulated here. The colours, fonts and design elements of most of the plug-ins tip the wink to those in the know, so for those occasions where IK can't call, say, a Neve a Neve, the obvious visual clues are there for the well-informed to deduce the intentions of the emulated sound.
All 70 modules are available to you: there is (at present) no MixBox Plus or MixBox Stupendous aspirational path upwards. You pays your money, you gets the lot. From these 70, you are free to pick and choose and rack them however you like, in any order you like, with up to eight modules possible in a single rack. You can also quickly drag and drop them around to change the order ("Hey, what if we flange the reverb, instead of reverbing the flanger?") or swap out modules to see how, for example, one compressor changes the overall tone compared to another.
Naturally, MixBox is very much at home used in a digital audio workstation, but it can also be used as standalone - great for live performance and mixing use. With the ability to save multi-FX chains, you can create favourite channel strips for specific tasks, instruments, vocalists, situations etc for easy recall at any time. No more routing chores, every time you want to play or record. IK has also included 600 presets across all 70 modules, which make great starting points for your own exploration. During our real-world tests, installed on a 2015 Apple MacBook Pro with 8Gb RAM, MixBox didn't notably trouble our host computer's CPUs.
The primary advantage of this 500-series concept is that it becomes the control centre for all of your plug-in work. If you need to tweak a few parameters, everything is in MixBox instead of being scattered across multiple plug-in windows - e.g. EQ in one, compression in another, the reverb on a send to a bus which is stuck at the far end of your virtual mixing desk. Click, scroll, open, close, click, open, scroll, ad infinitum. With MixBox (as with similar rack concept software), everything can be housed in one convenient place.
MixBox also offers a Dry/Wet slider on every single module, so you can adjust the level of signal cascading through your FX chain, helping you easily manage gain staging. There are sidechain inputs, as found on quality hardware, for creative compression effects. Each instance of a MixBox rack can host eight different FX modules, with up to eight racks in total. That's 64 FX units in total. That should be more than enough for most people.
All of the modules sound excellent. Subjectively speaking, there weren't any that horribly disappointed us: there's no filler here, no plug-ins that are merely a pretty skeumorphic face. As an absolute bare minimum, they can all do an impressively serviceable job, in any mix, while plenty of them definitely go the extra mile to surprise and delight.
Does each module sound better than any comparable standalone plug-in? Perhaps not. There are, of course, thousands of plug-ins out there already - several hundred EQs and compressors alone - from myriad manufacturers. It can get somewhat overwhelming.
Musicians and producers do become wedded to firm favourites, just as guitarists cling tenaciously to particularly beloved effects pedals. There is indisputably a tactile advantage to real-world hardware, although it becomes exponentially more expensive as your needs and desires grow. There are also clear sonic results to be had from carefully curating - and purchasing - a bespoke collection of 'artisanal' plug-ins. The cult of certain brands and legendary hardware? Check.
However, in real-world use, for a lot of music makers today the hassle of maintaining a large and complex plug-in folder - with all the attendant updates, drivers, system conflicts, license authorisation issues, incompatibility, beloved legacy products no longer supported - can outweigh, and even kill, the spirit of music making. It's hard to trap lightning in a bottle when you can't even open the bottle.
As an illustration of this, Harrison, the Texas-based designer and manufacturer of high-end mixing consoles (the kind with a starting price in the high five figures), has in recent years created its own digital audio workstation (DAW), Mixbus/Mixbus 32C, that includes full channel strip functionality, with EQ, compression, limiting, saturation and summing built-in - just like a hardware mixing console - precisely so that users didn't have to bother with any other plug-ins at all. The whole 'board' was always right there, fully loaded and ready to go. No futzing around inserting individual plug-ins, unless you wanted to. You could get a mix up and running quickly with very few headaches, no patching required.
The same principle applies to IK's MixBox, instantiated in your DAW of choice (even Harrison's Mixbus!). Sure, you can have all the esoteric, standalone plug-ins you like installed on your system, but time is money, man, and you need to get this track going. You could spend a few hours inserting, auditioning and comparing each compressor to see which sounds best on the kick drum - and many people do, believing it makes a world of difference - or you could just drop MixBox onto a channel (or route the audio to a bus, via a send) and expedite the process.
Somewhat confusingly, IK already offers a similar concept of audio FX chaining with its long-running T-Racks 5 software. The effects units there are generally more esoteric, higher-end units and more in keeping with the traditional real-world rack-unit style GUI, rather than the stripped-down, 'simplified' 500-series look.
Perhaps T-Racks is the sonic step-up from MixBox, or a more familiar alternative and plug-in environment for the 'serious' producer, but there is clearly overlap with many of the modules in both, visually and sonically.
Or perhaps IK is cannily hitting both markets simultaneously. Give the people what they want, right? It's worth nothing that adding even just a couple of extra plug-ins from the IK Custom Shop to T-Racks would set you back more than cost of the entire MixBox suite. Make of that what you will.
The caveat with MixBox is that you can't expand it (at present) or drop other third-party plug-ins into a MixBox rack, although that's not the core premise of this particular product. You can still insert any third-party plug-ins in the same mixer channel that is hosting a MixBox rack, as each eight-module MixBox rack only takes up one insert slot.
Considering the audience for MixBox, there has been a #DAWless trend amongst music creators across social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. It signifies a move, for some, back to using real-world analogue hardware for their musical explorations, getting away from computers. People who might spend all day working on a computer don't necessarily want to spend their free time staring at a screen when they're feeling creative.
To this end, even old four-track cassette PortaStudios are preferred to a laptop, a DAW and a folder stuffed with graphically seductive plug-ins. When you've only got four tracks on cassette and one instrument in front of you - and you can't 'see' your sounds' like you can in waveform on a computer screen - it dramatically focuses your mind on better performance and composition. All you need is ears.
In one sense, the MixBox concept might be a tacit acknowledgement that making music on a computer had become overly complex for some people. There can be such a thing as too much choice and it can put the creative mind into a catatonic state, frozen with fear at the overwhelming options available to them. With MixBox, a computer user that doesn't want to get bogged down in folders and sub-menus can quickly and easily select great-sounding processors, with a minimum of fuss, interference and clicking around, keeping their creative flow moving. That's a proposition that holds a big appeal for many musicians.
In spite of what many plug-in manufacturers tell you - and it's something that a lot of end users choose to believe - the choice of plug-in that you use on the kick drum in your mix is never the reason why your track will or won't become a huge international smash hit. Good mixing skills - like good taste - are very important, for sure, but the subtle differences between choosing one compressor over another won't make or break your music.
With that in mind, the all-in-one, self-contained approach of MixBox allows you to stash all of your plug-in effects in one box and have that sit relatively unobtrusively in your creative flow, quietly taking care of sonic business. If you don't like the sound of something in particular, pull up a rack, tweak a few knobs to taste, maybe try a couple of different modules, find something you like well enough and then move on. MixBox really can help you to work quicker and just as effectively.
If you already have one of those plug-in folders stuffed with etc, MixBox might seem like unnecessary overkill. Remember, though, you don't have to use a full rack every time; you can use just any single module from the 70 included, if that does a specific job for you.
MixBox will also happily act as a complementary rack to any plug-in favourites you already own. You could, for example, farm out all the general audio-processing tasks across your multitracks to a few instances of MixBox, reserving your cherished separate plug-ins for specific tasks, such as the lead vocal, or if an artist you're working with has any special requests.
There's really a lot to like about MixBox, both for experienced users and for those starting out making computer music. MixBox is that classic 'Swiss Army knife' toolbox for audio tasks: a one-stop FX shop that provides almost every type of processor that you might need, live or in the studio, and with the minimum of distraction. It would be a long time before you exhausted all the possibilities provided here and the audio quality of the modules is excellent across the board.
At €199, MixBox represents great value for your in-the-box mixing money.
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