by Craig Anderton
I was checking stats for Harmony Central’s YouTube channel and was shocked to see that our 2012 Winter NAMM video on Mixcraft 6 had 53,000 views, making it the second most-watched video in the last year—bested only by a gear interview with Rush’s Alex Lifeson. (And almost a year after its release, ithe Mixcraft 6 video is still in the top 10 every month.) What’s so special about DAW software from a relatively small company for it to garner that level of attention and curiosity?
Mixcraft doesn’t try to be a “Pro Tools killer,” nor is it so “lite” that it just floats away from lack of substance. It has always had the reputation for being inexpensive and easy to use, and pulled off the delicate balancing act of being powerful enough to be satisfying, yet intuitive enough not to be frustrating. Mixcraft 6 manages to keep that balancing act alive, despite adding more depth and power. As a result, Mixcraft has managed to acquire a cult following—a pretty large cult, actually.
When it first appeared, Mixcraft appealed primarily to musicians on a budget who didn’t want to deal with something more sophisticated and potentially confusing. But these days, Mixcraft is also picking up some new fans—people who just don’t need all the bells and whistles of more complex programs, and just want something that’s fast, stable, and easy to use. In fact for some types of projects, Mixcraft is the fastest program I’ve found for getting from start to finish . . . more on that later.
This review doesn’t need to go into excessive detail, because you can download a trial version and check the program out for yourself. However, like all software, you still need to invest some time into learning the in and outs before you can decide whether it’s right for you or not. So, we’ll concentrate on what Mixcraft has to offer, and then you can decide whether it might be the program you’ve been seeking.
Mixcraft comes in four different versions. This review focuses on Mixcraft Pro Studio 6, which is the line’s flagship. What differentiates it from the standard version of Mixcraft ($74.95 download, $84.95 boxed) are additional plug-ins and virtual instruments, so if you just subtract the Pro Studio 6 plugs (covered later), you’ll know what the standard version is all about. (Mixcraft 6 Home Studio, which lists for $49.95, limits the track count, includes only basic plug-ins, has no automation, and includes about 1/3 of the content included with hte other versions). It’s not the droid you’re looking for.) Another version, to be introduced at Winter NAMM 2013, bundles a USB mic . . . details will be retrofitted to this review after the official announcement.
Mixcraft runs under Windows from version XP onward as a 32-bit program, although it also runs fine under 64-bit versions. CPU and memory requirements are relatively modest (1GHz and 2GB respectively), and its “footprint” is more like a slipper than a boot. Mixcraft 6 Pro Studio is available boxed or as a download, and copy protection is a simple activation code—no dongles or going through hoops.
Mixcraft’s “lay of the land” isn’t significantly different from other DAWs (Fig. 1): It has tracks and buses, a mixer, accepts VST or DirectX plug-ins, offers tabbed views of various sections, and wraps all this in a “unified,” single-screen graphic interface where you can nonetheless undock selected elements if desired. However, if you look a little deeper, Mixcraft has some philosophical differences that relate mostly to creating a faster workflow.
Fig. 1: The main Mixcraft graphic user interface.
For example, MIDI, instrument, and video tracks have no structural distinction and are treated similarly. In fact Mixcraft doesn’t even bother with MIDI tracks, on the assumption that you’ll be using them primarily for virtual instruments—insert a virtual instrument track, and it takes MIDI in and produces audio out. However, if you have something like a MIDI-aware plug-in, you can just pick up the MIDI from an existing virtual instrument, or insert a new one and de-select any instrument that’s loaded. Mixcraft also does ReWire, but treats ReWire devices as it would any other instrument plug-in.
Mixcraft’s instrument tracks also do something I haven’t seen in any DAW (Fig. 2): when inserting the instrument, you can define volume, pan, keyboard range, transposition, velocity range, and outputs—so rather than inserting instruments and then defining splits and layers later on the course of the project, you can define any splits and layers from the gitgo (as well as modify them later). This architecture also makes it easy to layer multiple virtual instruments.
Fig. 2: Mixcraft has a way to insert instruments that’s so simple and obvious that apparently, no one thought of it before.
However, MIDI’s transparency doesn’t mean it’s ignored. Mixcraft has tabbed sections for editing, and one of them covers MIDI editing—so when it comes to tweaking, MIDI is roughly on the same footing as audio.
Audio tracks offer automation lanes, as do MIDI—but the latter are based on MIDI controller information. Audio track automation can be added with “rubber band,” line-style automation, but not recorded from a control surface; however, you can record MIDI controller data from a control surface to automate virtual instrument and effect plug-in parameters. It’s also possible to use a control surface to do remote control of functions like track arming, transport control, loop toggle, insert track, etc. Mixcraft has an easy “MIDI learn” function for control surfaces.
Clip automation is also available for audio and MIDI clips, offering volume, pan, low pass filter with resonance, and high pass filter with resonance.
There are other track types, like output tracks (essentially buses that can go to various interface outputs), aux/bus tracks for sends, submix (group) tracks, and a master track which is typically where you stereo mix terminates. Mixcraft doesn’t do surround, but that’s hardly surprising given the price, or how many people actually work in surround.
Mixcraft isn’t an Ableton Live or FL Studio type of looping program, yet it incorporates looping in a painless and clever way. Acoustica has partnered with zplane to use their digital audio stretching algorithms; files are simply stretched to fit (the downside is that you can’t import REX files directly into Mixcraft). In fact, one of the very coolest features—and again, this is a “why don’t all programs do this?” feature—is that when you first bring a loop into Mixcraft, it asks if you want to conform the project tempo to the loop tempo or vice-versa; if it’s a pitched loop, you can also decide whether to conform the key to the project or loop. Subsequent loops are then matched to that initial default. Loops can of course be “rolled out,” edited, and the like; I also like the “+1” button, where clicking creates one additional iteration. Note also that Mixcraft reads tempo & key information from Acidized and GarageBand loops, so you can use these as you would in their respective programs, and they work identically to Mixcraft’s own loops.
As if to drive the point home about looping, Mixcraft comes with a sound library of over 6,300 royalty-free loops and effects. What’s more, these aren’t “bonus filler” loops, but an eminently useable collection that spans a wide variety of genres, from Acid Techno to Zombie Rock. They’re arranged pretty much as construction kits, but files are searchable, tagged, and categorized, making it easy to mix and match among different kits—especially because you can also sort based on tempo, key, instrument, etc.. Fig. 3 shows what happens when you click on the Library tab in the Details area.
Fig. 3: The Library not only contains a wide selection of material, but makes it easy to find and use particular sounds and loops.
All this content comes with the boxed version, so you might think this would make for a hellacious download. But for the downloaded version, Mixcraft essentially loads “placeholders” for the various loops and samples; clicking on a loop’s play button downloads what you’ve selected to disk. Over time, as you audition more samples you eventually end up with everything on your hard drive although you can also download them all in one fell swoop, or one category at a time. You can also import your own loops and integrate them into the library structure.
I can’t emphasize enough how useful this content is, even for pros. Many times I need to come up with a quick music bed at (for example) trade shows when something needs to slide under the video coverage; I have yet to find a program that gets this done faster than Mixcraft.
Here’s another feature where Mixcraft got it right. Each part can go into its own lane, and you can loop or punch within tracks to comp very specific sections. You can even punch within a loop, and choose whether new takes mute old takes or overdub new takes. While in general comping is a fairly sophisticated feature, Mixcraft makes it quite straightforward.
There are four “Details” tabs for editing and other functions, and this entire section can be undocked. Undocking is primarily important for the mixer, as you can place it on a separate monitor in a two-monitor setup, allowing you to see more tracks in the main monitor.
Project is the most basic tab—it offers tempo, key, time signature, auto beat match on or off, the project folder location, and a notepad for entering what’s essentially project metadata. It also provides an alternate location to insert individual effects into the master track, although you can do that at the master track as well (which offers the added benefit of effects chains, covered in the plug-ins section).
The Sound tab is a little more involved (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4: The Sound tab showing an audio clip.
The screen shot (which shows Sound undocked) is pretty self-explanatory, except for the Noise Reduction option: this lets you isolate a “noise fingerprint,” then reduce noise matching that fingerprint by a selectable percentage.
If the clip you’re editing is MIDI, then Sound shows MIDI data (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5: The Sound tab showing a MIDI clip.
This keeps improving with newer versions, and now includes several MIDI editing options, a controller strip you can assign to whatever controller you want to edit, primitive notation view, drum maps, snap, and the like. MIDI editing isn’t on a Cubase/Sonar/Logic level by any means, but gets the job done.
The Mixer tab (Fig. 6) is your basic hardware mixer emulation (complete with virtual wood end panels!).
Fig. 6: Mixcraft’s mixer in action.
While it looks pretty cool, it does have limitations; the EQ is three-band fixed EQ, and you can’t customize channel placement, strip width, etc. It’s definitely something I’d reserve for mixing, while sticking to the main track view when tracking and editing.
Okay, so Mixcraft is a surprising DAW. But it really doesn’t get more surprising than this: Mixcraft has more sophisticated video capabilities than any other DAW I’ve used. If any program has the right to call itself “direct from your garage to YouTube,” this is it. You can load multiple video clips (with their associated audio) into a single video track, mix WMV and AVI formats (but no MP4 or MOV), and even do some editing like trimming, crossfading clips, and changing video and audio stream lengths independently.
Furthermore, you can insert still images in the video track (JPG, BMP, PNG, GIF) to supplement the video, or create “slide show” videos by crossfading between images. Text “clips” can be inserted into a text lane and include fades, different background and text colors, and basic intro and outro text animations (like move and reveal).
Topping it all off: 25 bundled video effects including brightness, posterize, color channel strength and inversion, emboss, and more (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: As if video wasn’t enough, Mixcraft also includes automatable video effects.
These are added to the video track just like adding automation lanes to audio, with automatable video effect parameters. Sure, Mixcraft isn’t exactly Sony Vegas Pro—but if Vegas Pro had a baby, it might look somewhat like this.
The biggest difference between Mixcraft 6 Home Studio, Mixcraft 6, and Mixcraft Pro Studio 6 are the included plug-ins. I’m going to cop out of listing them all here, as Acoustica has a comparison chart on their site that lists the various plug-ins, as well as which version has which plug-ins. Suffice to say there’s a wide range of plug-ins that cover all the usual bases (Fig. 8), with the Pro Studio 6 version expanding the repertoire considerably—for example you get a grand piano, two additional vintage synths, and a lot more effect plug-ins, including some mastering plugs from iZotope. If you're happy with your existing collection of plug-ins then the standard version of Mixcraft will take care of the rest of your DAW needs; but bear in mind that all the additional plug-ins essentially cost you $75, so you get quite a lot in return to add to your collection.
Fig. 8: The Messiah virtual analog synthesizer is just one of many virtual instrument plug-ins.
Of course, Mixcraft can also load third-party plug-ins. The only problem I experienced was loading UA’s version 6.4 powered plug-ins, but similar problems with this version have also been reported with other 32-bit Windows programs; if UA or Acoustica come up with a workaround or patch, I’ll update this review.
In the “pleasant surprise” category, you can create effects chains, as well as save and load them. This even extends to a chain consisting of a virtual instrument with effects. What’s more, Mixcraft can handle instruments with multiple outputs—older versions couldn’t do that. In any event, if you find yourself needing more instrument plug-ins as well as the ability to use REX files, I’d recommend ReWiring Propellerhead Software's Reason Essentials into Mixcraft. It’s a powerful combination, and still a major bargain from a financial standpoint.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Mixcraft is truly a full-featured program. However, it is missing a few significant features that are often found in more expensive DAWs.
Mixcraft isn’t a cut-down version of a flagship program; it is the flagship program. As a result, only Mixcraft 6 Home Studio actually removes features to meet a sub-$50 price point, and the Pro Studio 6 version is more about adding extra features to the core program that, while welcome, may be features that not all users would want (like mastering effects). So whether you’re interested in Mixcraft 6 or Mixcraft 6 Pro Studio, you get a very complete program—and don’t forget about the video features—at what can only be considered a righteous price.
What’s also interesting is how many “little touches” are included that show someone’s really thinking about what musicians need in a program. For example, every track has a built-in tuner you can access with one click. Simple? Yes. Effective? Yes. If you hover the mouse over a track’s FX button, you’ll see a list of inserted effects; right-clicking on it opens the GUIs for all effects, including ones that are part of an effects chain. And when you save a file, Mixcraft automatically generates a backup. I can’t believe all programs don’t do this, but at least Mixcraft got the memo that backups are a Good Thing. You can burn projects to CD, but also, mixdown to MP3, WMA, or OGG formats as well as WAV files—no separate encoder needed.
Is Mixcraft for you? It’s easy enough to find out: Download the demo. I think you’ll be as surprised as I was at what this low-cost, efficient, and user-friendly DAW can do.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.
In the "what's not included" section, what exactly do you mean by no midi plug-ins? I have used third party plug-ins and plug-ins bundled with software, but I have never heard the term midi plug-in.
Thanks for the great review.
MIDI plug-ins work like audio plug-ins, except they process MIDI data. Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, and MOTU Digital Performer are probably the best examples of programs that take advantage of this feature. For example, a MIDI plug-in might restrict velocity values to a certain range, or transpose data.