Liquid Mix is a FireWire hardware controller and
processor that utilizes Sintefex's Dynamic Convolution technology to offer emulations of classic and vintage compressors and EQs. 40 compressors and 20 EQs are included, but additional emulations can be downloaded and installed easily. The latest emulations, as well as software updates, are available on Focusrite's website.
At 44.1 and 48 kHz, Liquid Mix is capable of 32 mono channels of compression and EQ. That number drops to eight channels at 88.2 and 96 kHz, and two at 192 kHz. An optional DSP expansion card increases the channel count to sixteen at 88.2k/96k and eight at 192k. To add Liquid Mix processing to a DAW channel, you insert a Liquid Mix mono or stereo plug-in into the desired audio channel. (The stereo plug-in uses two channels of processing.) The plug-in has one slot each for compressor and EQ, and you can choose one emulation per slot (although for EQ, you can create hybrids-more on this later). Unfortunately, leaving some slots empty doesn't affect the total channel count. In other words, every time you instantiate a mono Liquid Mix plug-in, you use up one channel; a stereo plug-in always uses up two.
The hardware controller has buttons and rotary encoders to control all the functions of the software GUI. A backlit LCD panel gives visual feedback and even includes a low-resolution graph for compression and EQ curves. LED meters show gain reduction as well as input, output, and interstage levels. For EQ, there's one set of gain, frequency, and Q encoders as well as a band-enable/disable button; a data knob selects which band of EQ (or selects the compressor) to adjust. The software GUI mirrors everything that's in hardware but separates the EQ bands into discrete controls. Also, the graphs and meters are all much higher resolution in software.
For the most part, Focusrite did a good job of mapping the controls of many different processors into Liquid Mix. The uniform interface is a blessing most of the time. When I switch between emulations trying to find the right one for a particular task, it's handy to turn knobs and hit buttons without worrying about the controls being completely remapped. But if I'm familiar with the actual hardware that Liquid Mix is emulating, my brain comes to a halt as it wrestles with what's on screen, what I'm tweaking with my fingers, and what I think I should be seeing/tweaking/hearing. This is further exasperated by the choice of swapped left/right position or reversed rotation for some of the vintage emulations' controls to mimic their hardware counterparts; for me, that's like a double-negative that really twists my brain around.
Because of my twisted brain, I had a bit of difficulty focusing on the sound when I tried to do A/B tests between Liquid Mix and the few pieces of real hardware I actually own that are available as emulations-Distressor, API 2500, LA-3A. In general, I felt that Liquid Mix sounded "softer" than the actual hardware devices. For example, I was not able to get nearly as much of that wonderful midrange distortion with the Liquid Mix Distressor emulation as I could with the real thing. Same goes for the API 2500. I couldn't get the Liquid Mix emulation to pump in the nasty way that the real one can-the release of each pump sounded too "nice" with the emulation. The LA-3A, because it's hard to really do extreme things with the actual hardware, was a much closer copy. My conclusion? Solely
in regards to the three compressors that I A/B'ed, Liquid Mix does a good job of capturing the sonic character of the hardware when operating within moderate parameters, but it departs from the real thing when you push things.
With that inevitable comparison out of the way, let's focus on the fact that Liquid Mix offers a huge range of very usable sounds. Even after many months, I still haven't had the opportunity to try all the emulations! But all the ones I have used sound great and extremely natural-and again, a very diverse set. Don't think that this is a suite of plug-ins that all sound similar; each emulation is quite distinct. Lately, I've been using the various Pultec emulations for anything that needs a bit of midrange lift or low-end filtering without sounding thin; the Smart C2 and API 2500 for drum and general bus compression (even though the latter isn't quite the same as my real 2500); and the Joe Meek SC2 to take some of the bite out of harsh vocals.
Also, two features allow you to take the emulations further. The first is the Free button that brings up additional compressor controls beyond what the real device has. For example, instead of a single time-constant selector with the Fairchild 670, the Free button "frees up" the separate ratio, attack, and release controls. With the API 2500, the button gives you potentiometer-like behavior instead of rotary switches. The second feature is the ability to create hybrid, seven-band EQs by assigning any of the bands from any of the included EQ emulations to any of the Liquid Mix bands. For example, you can combine the low-frequency boost and attenuation of a Pultec EQP1 with the high-frequency shelf of a Neve 1073. Swell!
There are some limitations with the design. For example, in most cases, less resolution for EQ settings is available when using the hardware rotary encoders versus the on-screen GUI. Even with the GUI, I wish there were more resolution. On my Sony DMX-R100 console, I often tweak EQ levels to a quarter dB. (Obviously, this is not an issue with emulations of devices that have fixed settings.) Also, because the remote and the DSP hardware are one in the same, if your computer is far from your mix station, you may have to forgo using Liquid Mix as a remote or research a solution for getting FireWire reliably to your desk. The official IEEE 1394a specification limits cable runs to 4.5 m (approximately 15 ft), but I'm using a high-quality 30 ft cable between my Mac Pro and the Liquid Mix hardware. Speaking of FireWire, as I explained in my "Gear Geeking" column in Tape Op #64, devices like Liquid Mix can reserve up to 80% of the FireWire bus for isochronous data transfer. LiquidMix Manager (the settings application) allows you to reduce the channel count so that less of the FireWire bus is reserved-this is an essential feature when you're sharing the bus with other devices.
I've had my Liquid Mix since version 1.0, but I pretty much gave up using it until I upgraded to version 2.0 due to minor but still annoying problems running the earlier release in Pro Tools HD (but in all fairness, no deal-breakers as with SSL Duende). I'm now on version 2.2 of Liquid Mix in Nuendo 4, and the system is extremely stable. Version 2 includes three significant changes. The most obvious is variable latency. Version 1 had fixed latency-2056 samples-and putting two instances of the plug-in on the same track would exceed PT HD's maximum delay-compensation capability. With version 2, LiquidMix Manager allows you to choose from one of six minimum
latencies from 264 to 8200 samples. "Minimum" means that the latency is either twice the DAW buffer size plus eight samples or the minimum value set in LM Manager-whichever is higher. Confusing? Well, in the Mac version of LM Manager, there's a Current Status pane that reports the exact latency as well as other settings (sample rate, expansion card installed, number of tracks). Unfortunately, the Windows version doesn't have the status pane. Once the latency is selected, any DAW with built-in delay compensation should handle the latency such that playback of Liquid Mix tracks should line up perfectly with non-LM tracks. Also in version 2 is an option for the hardware controller to follow plug-ins. In other words, if you bring a Liquid Mix plug-in window forward in your DAW, the hardware will reflect the settings of that plug-in window. In version 1, I was constantly tweaking the wrong track. Version 2 moreover adds sidechain EQ to all compressor emulations. You can choose bandpass or high/low-shelf and tweak the EQ while listening to either the main audio path or to the sidechain.
If you already own Liquid Mix and haven't yet upgraded, visit Focusrite's website for free updates to the software and emulations. If you're not already an owner and you're curious what emulations are included, you can download the assets list, which includes the model names and serial numbers of the actual devices that were sampled to develop the emulations. Emulation names, to avoid lawsuits, are cryptic (and sometimes humorous, like "New Age" for Millennia STT-1). Part of me wishes that the emulations could be user-renamed back to the original hardware names; but part of me doesn't care because I'm using Liquid Mix not for what it pretends to be, but for what it is-an amazing array of compressors and EQs. At a street price of $799, considering the vast range of compression and EQ sounds available from the unit-not to mention the well-built and easy-to-use remote-Liquid Mix is an amazing deal. At Musikmesse 2008, Focusrite announced the lower-cost Liquid Mix 16, which loses the LCD panel (and the selection buttons directly below it) and has a reduced channel count; see the website for details. ($1099.99 MSRP; www.focusrite.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.