IK’s latest modular processing suite brings a whole new meaning to the idea of ‘mixing in the box’.
Insert slots in your DAW are usually used to host individual effects, but some manufacturers have also developed plug‑ins that are hosts in their own right. Within these environments, the user can arrange multiple modules to form a complete processing chain. As well as leaving the rest of your plug‑in slots free for other effects, this approach permits an entire processing chain to be saved and shared as a single plug‑in preset, and it allows the vendor to implement routing features that might not be possible within the host DAW.
IK Multimedia were early and enthusiastic adopters of this concept, initially with their T‑Racks mastering suite. This has been continually improved over the years and now provides an exhaustive compilation of classic hardware emulations, advanced digital processors such as the excellent Stealth Limiter, and much more. As the stock of virtual equipment in T‑Racks mounted up, engineers began using it not only as a mastering suite, but to process individual tracks at mixdown. In response to this trend, IK made most of its processing modules available as separate plug‑ins, giving users the choice as to whether they load up an all‑in‑one chain within the T‑Racks host, or a single T‑Racks compressor or EQ as part of a diverse plug‑in chain.
IK’s other long‑established plug‑in environment is Amplitube, which adapts the same modular concept to guitar amp emulation. Once again, a single plug‑in provides both a wealth of processing modules, mimicking everything from Marshall heads to vintage fuzzboxes, and the freedom to connect them in interesting ways.
More than 20 years after the launch of T‑Racks, IK have now introduced a third modular environment. This one, as the name suggests, is very much targeted towards mix engineers — but not just in the studio. MixBox is available in all the usual plug‑in formats, but also as a standalone application offering up to eight simultaneous processing chains for use in a live‑sound environment.
IK’s business model for both T‑Racks and Amplitube includes something they call the Custom Shop, where the basic host plug‑in is free, but you pay to populate it with the modules of your choice. By contrast, there’s no free version of MixBox, and at present there are no expansion options either: you pay a fixed asking price, and in return you get the host plug‑in, standalone application and no fewer than 70 separate processing modules. MixBox is installed and authorised using IK’s new Product Manager utility, a process which I found painless on my Mac.
Conceptually and visually, MixBox mimics API’s popular 500‑series hardware format. Its freely resizeable user interface presents a row of either four or eight vertical slots, complete with skeuomorphic details such as cables and mounting holes. These are flanked by global input and output level controls, and it’s also possible to flip the virtual rack around, whereupon the back of each module presents a fader and a solo button. Two further buttons display per‑slot wet/dry faders and preset load/save fields; naturally, it’s also possible to load and save global presets. IK supply a generous collection of presets for both the plug‑in as a whole and for each of its modules.
Signal flows from left to right, and modules can be reordered simply by clicking and dragging. Each instance of MixBox can also accept an external side‑chain input, which can be activated on a per‑module basis where appropriate from the ‘rear panel’. What you don’t get, however, is any internal routing flexibility. There are no virtual patch cables, nor any utility modules such as M‑S matrices, signal splitters, panners and so on. Inter‑module level metering is minimal and MixBox doesn’t report gain reduction to DAW hosts that can display it, such as Pro Tools.
The 70 processing modules included with MixBox are distributed among 10 categories, labelled Amps, Channel Strip, Delay, Distortion, Dynamics, EQ, Filter, Modulation, Reverb and Saturation. Almost none of them are wholly new; rather, they’re adapted from the modules that are available in T‑Racks, Amplitube and IK’s Sampletank software sample player. In principle, that’s fine with me, as I’m a big fan of IK’s existing plug‑ins, but it should be pointed out that adapting these processors into MixBox form has meant streamlining their feature sets.
In many cases that’s fair enough, and sometimes even a positive. Take, say, the Cabinet module from the Amps category: the complex virtual miking available in Amplitube’s cabinet section has been boiled down into three binary choices, which is plenty for most applications, and is a lot quicker to set up. In a few cases, though, this streamlining actually makes the modules hard to use or less versatile. The most frustrating example is a module just named Compressor, which sounds great, but does not have either a threshold or an output level control. To bring its output down to a sensible level, you have to flip the MixBox rack and use the ‘rear’ fader, which gets old fast.
IK might argue that that’s what the rear fader is for, but in that case I’d ask them, first of all, why bypassing the module doesn’t also bypass the fader, and second, why they haven’t implemented this approach consistently with regard to either make‑up gain or wet/dry balance. All the reverbs have a built‑in Mix control in addition to the module slot’s wet/dry control, and there’s no way of locking this at 100 percent, as you’d want to do for use in an aux send configuration.
With 70 modules to choose from, you might think that MixBox would be able to take care of every conceivable processing requirement. In fact, though, because IK have spread the net widely enough to encompass guitar amps and stompboxes, they’ve left a few gaps in terms of conventional studio kit. For example, although there are several nice compressors and a fairly comprehensive de‑esser, there’s no expander or gate. There are also no multiband‑capable modules, which is fair enough in a product where simplicity is key. A more surprising omission is the lack of any pitch‑shifting or related processors such as doublers, and with only four modules on offer, the EQ category is relatively underpopulated.
At the same time, though, you’ll also find that many modules either do more than you’d think, or can be applied in situations where you wouldn’t expect them to work. A good example is the Tone Control module from the Amps category. The basic idea of this is to recreate the tone stack from a guitar amplifier, but by using it with the wet/dry fader, I got a lot of mileage on sources such as vocals, where it’s perfect for adding a touch of midrange bite and grit. Likewise, the Saturator X module not only offers two flavours of tape emulation, but also transformer saturation and a variety of other overdriven effects.
Many modules either do more than you’d think, or can be applied in situations where you wouldn’t expect them to work.
If I had to produce a list of highlights from among the 70 modules, in fact, it’d be a long list! The aforementioned Compressor module is rather tasty; elsewhere in the same category, IK’s LA‑2A and Fairchild emulations have long been favourites of mine, though it’s a shame the MixBox versions lack the M‑S option. The EQ situation is better than it looks on paper, since the Channel Strip category includes such delights as a neat emulation of the Neve 1081, and although there are only three Delays, they all sound mighty fine. The Reverb category is surprisingly comprehensive, and although the modules found within are much simpler than their ‘full fat’ plug‑in counterparts, they sound excellent and are genuinely useful. I particularly liked the ‘Vocal Booth’ impulse response found in the Convo Room module, which is great for that dead, thumpy drum sound.
The guitar amps and related plug‑ins are as good as you’d expect from a company with IK’s long history in this area. If you’re only an occasional user of amp simulations you might find that MixBox gives you all you ever need, and even if you’re an avid exploiter of virtual guitar technology, it’s bound to bring something new to your setup. Finally, I can’t move on without commending the array of modulation modules. Most are based on classic hardware units such as the Boss CE‑1 or Electro‑Harmonix Small Stone, they cover all the bases, and they sound excellent.
MixBox isn’t the first 500‑series‑inspired modular plug‑in by any means. The most obvious antecedent is Slate Digital’s Virtual Mix Rack, whilst PSP’s InfiniStrip is a newer entrant into the market, and SoundToys offer an Effect Rack for chaining their own plug‑ins. None of these can claim to match the total of 70 modules supplied with MixBox, and none feature guitar amps or related modules; however, Slate’s system includes some high‑quality offerings from third‑party developers such as Liquidsonics and Audified. There are also plug‑ins from the likes of DDMF, Nugen Audio and Blue Cat that can provide modular layouts into which your existing VST plug‑ins can be slotted, enabling you to build comparable racks with plug‑ins you already own. These generally offer the sort of routing and splitting capabilities that are lacking from MixBox, too.
Talking of which, whilst I recognise the advantages of simplicity, I do feel that the basic ability to split and recombine the signal path internally would have provided a stronger raison d’être for this plug‑in. As it is, apart from the per‑slot wet/dry faders and ability to save entire configurations as a preset, there’s not much that you can do with MixBox modules that you couldn’t do with insert slots in your DAW. How much more creative would, say, the Auto‑Pan module be if you could route its left and right channel outputs into different mono effects modules, before recombining them at the output? And how cool would it be to have envelope follower or LFO modules that could be internally patched to multiple module parameters?
Perhaps this sort of functionality is on the cards for a future version of MixBox, but in the meantime, there’s plenty to like about the existing version, not least the value for money on offer. For the price of two or three pro plug‑ins, you’re getting a very large chunk of the functionality available in both Amplitube and T‑Racks, presented in an extremely friendly, immediate and easy‑to‑use format. It’ll be a very long time before you exhaust the possibilities of all 70 modules, and with the general quality being uniformly high, this isn’t the sort of plug‑in where you’ll end up using only three of them. At under £5$4 per module, and less if you take advantage of the ‘early bird’ price currently available, MixBox offers a lot of processing for your cash.
Each slot within the MixBox rack presents 20 automatable parameters to the host DAW. Most individual modules have fewer parameters than this, so you’ll typically see a small number of named controls available for automation, plus a larger number of options labelled ‘Slot 1 Parameter 7’ and the like. This is sensible enough, but attempts to automate MixBox can run up against the limitations of a host application. In Pro Tools, for example, automation that you write is associated with the slot rather than the module. As a test I placed a Filter Phaser module in slot 5 and wrote automation to its Depth control. When I then reordered the modules to place an EQ‑81 in the same slot, the automation lane in Pro Tools was still labelled ‘Filter Phaser Depth’ but the automation was now merrily switching the EQ between Line and Mic modes.
- 70 modules spanning everything from amp simulation to gramophone emulation.
- The quality of the modules is uniformly high.
- Each slot has its own wet/dry mix fader.
- Easy to use.
- Excellent value for money.
- Modules can only be combined in a simple linear chain, with no routing or modulation possibilities.
- Not all host DAWs play nicely with the modular concept when it comes to automation.
- No expander, gate or pitch‑related processors.
IK’s modular mixing plug‑in packs a huge number of processing modules into a friendly and familiar format, though its simplicity and immediacy occasionally impact on its versatility.
£329.99 including VAT.
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