A convolution revolution is taking place. A huge market is developing to take classic effects-processing chains, sample their effect on audio, and come up with affordable models with all the perks of the digital realm.
Focusrite's new Liquid Mix takes dynamic convolution and combines it with hardware DSP. The result is a system that gives you 32 channels of compression and EQ, a processing engine that's independent of your computer's CPU, and complete control from the unit's front panel.
Knobs and All
The hardware component of Liquid Mix packs a heavy helping of functionality into a compact and well-designed interface (see Fig. 1). It's about half the size of a typical laptop and has a slight slant for easy manipulation of the knobs and viewing of the display. The LCD, although monochrome and relatively small, imparts quite a bit of information, ranging from which parameter you are controlling to representations of the active compression and EQ curves. Four 12-segment LED meters on the unit's face indicate input level, gain reduction, Mid level (the level between the compressor and EQ stages), and output level. Red LEDs alert you to limiting and clipping. Green LEDs indicate which controls are available in the selected emulation.
FIG. 1: Liquid Mix gives you up to 32 channels of EQ and 32 channels of dynamics control using processing that''s ?independent of your CPU.
In addition to the input level knob, you get dedicated rotary encoder knobs in the compressor section for threshold, ratio, attack, release, and gain makeup. In the EQ section, you'll find Gain, Frequency, Q, and EQ Output knobs. You use a data encoder to scroll through menus on the LCD screen, and you select menu items by pressing down on the knob. The data encoder doubles as a band select for the EQ. Buttons are equally plentiful, including Snapshot Save and Load, Emulation Select, Track Select, and Go Back/Compare to compare the current and previous models. The Free button gives you control over parameters not normally included in the model, such as Attack and Release on the LA-2A emulation.
You also get buttons for setting the compressor to post-EQ (the default is pre-EQ), linking the left and right sidechains of a stereo signal, and monitoring the sidechain of the compressor. (The software doesn't currently allow external sidechaining, so this is just a duplicate of the precompression signal.) Activation buttons for the compressor, individual EQ bands, the entire EQ section, and a global bypass round out the bottom row. A button labeled Shape lets you change certain qualities of the selected EQ band.
The only two jacks on the unit are a FireWire 400 port to connect to the computer (there's no second port for daisy chaining, so you can hook up only one Liquid Mix to a computer at a time), and an input for the included 12V wall-wart power supply. If your computer supplies bus power over FireWire (most do), you won't need to use the power supply.
Focusrite recommends a dedicated FireWire bus for Liquid Mix. On many models of Macs and PCs, you have only one FireWire bus unless you get a third-party expansion card. If you try to run Liquid Mix and your other FireWire peripherals on the same bus, you may experience some performance issues. That said, I had no problems running Liquid Mix from the extra FireWire port on my Digidesign Digi 002 interface.
On the software side of things, the graphical user interface looks a lot like the hardware unit (see Fig. 2). At the top are fields for the plug-in name (which you can change by clicking in the box), active compressor model, active EQ model, active EQ parameter, snapshot name, and a disk icon that opens a menu allowing you to save, load, and rename your snapshots. The Windows installer comes with a number of factory-supplied snapshots, and snapshots for the Mac are available on Focusrite's Web site.
The GUI has a much more detailed view of the compression and EQ curves than the hardware unit does, and it offers more accurate metering. You see the parameter settings for all seven of the available EQ bands, whereas on the hardware you can see only the one you are controlling. The EQ band over which the hardware unit has control is highlighted in red on the GUI, making it easy to see which parameter will get tweaked when you start turning knobs. A box below each EQ band informs you of the band type.
FIG. 2: Liquid Mix''s graphical user interface offers a more detailed look at the workings of the plug-in.
Any function available from the hardware unit is controllable from the software, and with a few exceptions, the reverse is also true. You can't rename the plug-in instantiation (for example, Kick Drum or Lead Vocal), rename a snapshot, or clear the clip indicator from the hardware unit. I understand the omission of the first two, but why you can't clear the clip indicator is a mystery.
The physical buttons and knobs of the interface are easy to use. One quirk, however, is that for many of the parameters, it takes more than one step to increment the numerical value. For instance, sometimes it takes two clicks of the detented encoders to change from a value of 2 to a value of 3, yet there are no half values. According to Focusrite, this mimics the original hardware, but it can lead to confusion when trying to duplicate settings or run comparison tests.
I installed the Liquid Mix plug-ins, the Liquid Mix Manager software, and the emulation (modeling) data on three computers: a 3.4 GHz HP Intel Xeon PC with 3 GB of RAM running Windows XP Pro Service Pack 2, a dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.4.8, and a 1 GHz PowerBook G4 with 1 GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.3.9. I wasn't able to test the software on an Intel Mac, although Universal Binary drivers are part of the installation package.
The installer lets you choose which emulations you want to install, and the 192 kHz versions take nearly 400 MB of space, so if you won't be working at that sampling rate you can save yourself some disk space. AU versions are available for the Mac, and RTAS-wrapped versions of the VSTs are available for Digidesign Pro Tools users. I installed all available types for each of the computers, almost without a hitch. It did take me a little while to figure out how to load the emulations onto the PC, because I wasn't installing from an installer disc. If you are installing from the Web, be prepared for a little more work trying to figure out where things go.
On the PC, I tested Liquid Mix in Pro Tools HD 7.3.1. Between the two Macs, I tested it in Pro Tools LE 7.1, MOTU Digital Performer 4.61, BIAS Peak 4.02, and i3 DSP-Quattro 2.1.2. Liquid Mix worked fine in all the applications except DSP-Quattro, in which it appeared to load fine, but nothing displayed on the meters, and the Liquid Mix controls had no effect on the audio. I also had to reinstall the RTAS plugs on the Power Mac G5 because the stereo versions mysteriously disappeared after a few days of use.
An important thing to know about using Liquid Mix is that it introduces 2,056 samples of latency to the channel it's on. (Fortunately, it's the same latency for a compressor, an EQ, or both.) If your audio sequencer compensates automatically for plug-in latency, that's not a problem. If you're using Pro Tools LE, you have to compensate for the latency by either having an instantiation of Liquid Mix on every channel or using a delay plug-in like Digidesign Time Adjuster on all non-Liquidated tracks. Alternatively, you can slide the Liquidated tracks earlier in the timeline, but I'm not really a fan of that method because it can cause even more confusion. (You get 32 mono or 16 stereo channels at 44.1 and 48 kHz, 8 mono or 4 stereo channels at 88.2 and 96 kHz, and only 2 mono or 1 stereo channel at 192 kHz. A yet-to-be-released optional expansion card will provide increased counts at the higher sampling rates.)
I enjoyed using Liquid Mix's 20 EQ models. Not only do they sound good, but you can mix and match emulations — a very cool feature. You can have the low-shelf boost from a Pultec model mixed with the HMF band from an SSL E-series mixed with a high-shelf filter from a 1073. I don't have any of the modeled hardware EQs for comparison, but the Focusrite did hold up well compared with other hardware and software models of classic EQs that I own.
The 40 compressor models also performed quite well, and I could definitely hear characteristic differences between the models. In comparison tests, the Manley Vari-Mu setting on Liquid Mix actually did a pretty good job of sounding like its $3,600 hardware counterpart. In addition, the Teletronix LA-2A, UREI 1176LN, and Fairchild 670 models sounded remarkably similar to my hardware Universal Audio LA-2A and 1176LN reissues, as well as to other software versions of these revered units.
I do have a quibble with Liquid Mix's compressors in general. When you bypass the compressor, whether manually or through automation, it can take considerable time for the compression to stop affecting the signal. That's a function of the release time and the aforementioned latency.
But my biggest gripe with Liquid Mix's operation is that the software interface and the hardware unit don't update each other when you switch instantiations. If you switch tracks using the hardware unit, the active window in the software still shows the previous track; a mouse-click is necessary to bring up the proper window. This not only requires extra clicking, but also makes it very easy to inadvertently tweak parameters on the wrong track, and there is no undo when that happens. According to Focusrite, this and a few other minor inconveniences I found will be fixed in future software updates.
If you are used to working with the hardware units that Liquid Mix emulates, you may be pleasantly surprised by the sound of this device (see Web Clips 1 through 8). If you are in the market for a relatively inexpensive (in terms of cost per channel) way to expand your system, prefer actual knobs and buttons to using a mouse, and are willing to deal with some minor inconveniences, it just might be the box you're looking for.
Liquid Mix's portability, flexibility, and expandability make it a contender for the most unusual product I have seen in a long time. The control surface really sets it apart from other hardware DSP boxes and makes it just plain fun to use. For those who may not be able to get their hands on a real Fairchild 670 or Manley Massive Passive, this unit fits the bill nicely.
Eli Crews convolves whenever possible at New, Improved Recording, his studio in Oakland, California. Look him up atwww.newimprovedrecording.com.
multichannel FireWire effects processor
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3QUALITY OF SOUNDS4VALUE4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Lots of features for the price. Hardware control surface looks and feels great. Bus power makes it very mobile. Can add a lot of processing power to a modest system. EQ functionality and sound above average.
CONS: GUI doesn't update when you switch channels from the hardware and vice versa. Some of the compressor emulations aren't totally convincing. Clip reset not possible from hardware.