The MasterControl combines a 24-input FireWire audio interface with an 8-channel control surface. It comes with Cubase LE and setups for all major DAWs.
Digital audio workstations are the linchpins of most modern studios, but their menu- and mouse-driven navigation is cumbersome at best and downright arcane at worst. Nothing puts a damper on the creative vibe of tracking and mixing faster than looking up shortcut keys in a manual or riding faders pixel by pixel. Recording music should be a hands-on process, and Alesis aims to get your mitts back on some good old-fashioned knobs and faders with the MasterControl ($899) studio interface.
The MasterControl is designed to be the centerpiece of a DAW-based studio. It combines a tweakable, hands-on control surface and a FireWire audio interface in a single unit that minimizes the hassle of setting up a project rig using a Mac or PC. The unit cuts a striking profile, with a gently sloped surface that makes controls easy to reach and labels easy to read. The mostly metallic chassis has a durable fit and finish that should hold up well under daily use.
A glance around back reveals an impressive array of inputs that provide plenty of channels for small project studios. Eight balanced ¼-inch inputs handle analog connectivity, with the first two channels offering phantom power, combo XLR connectors for microphones and independent gain knobs for boosting weak signals. Three pairs of ¼-inch outputs can be routed to studio monitors for playback or to outboard gear for processing. You can toggle each pair of outputs on and off from front panel buttons, making the MasterControl a good controller for multiple monitor pairs or a 5.1-surround mixing rig.
The digital inputs are a single coaxial S/PDIF jack and two Toslink ports that each handle 8-channel ADAT Lightpipe; alternately, one Toslink input can handle optical S/PDIF. The number of digital outputs available depends on your project's sampling rate: At 88.2 and 96 kHz, only four ADAT and two opticalS/PDIF channels are available; beyond 96 kHz, the digital inputs and MIDI jacks are disabled completely. At 44.1 and 48 kHz, however, the MasterControl can handle 24 simultaneous inputs (eight analog and 16 ADAT). I was disappointed to find no digital outputs or word clock facilities, which means you can't run an all-digital, outboard-processing loop.
READY TO ROLL
The MasterControl's ASIO driver for Windows meshed seamlessly with all of my everyday studio applications, performing solidly at latencies low enough to be negligible and never crashing a session. Preset configurations support major DAWs such as Cubase, Logic, Live, Pro Tools and SONAR, and the control surface protocol is switchable between HUI (for Pro Tools) and Mackie Control (for all other DAWs). I easily configured Cubase, Live and Sequoia to work with the MasterControl, each in less than five minutes. Each preset configuration has corresponding plastic overlays that snap at the top of the faders and above the control buttons to indicate how the knobs and buttons are mapped.
The nine motorized, touch-sensitive 100mm faders were a pleasure to use. Each fader offers silky-smooth travel, high resolution and plenty of space for making detailed adjustments to a mix. Above each channel fader are buttons for selecting, arming, muting and soloing tracks, along with a soft knob for tweaking preset or user-assigned DAW parameters.
You can switch each knob's function using three buttons on the unit's left side, but I really missed having any kind of display above the faders; I occasionally found it difficult to distinguish which of the three sets of parameters was active. The small, two-line LCD at the MasterControl's top-right displays the value of the last-used control, but offers no information about a knob or button in advance unless you press a Preview button and move the controller in question.
A MASTER STROKE
The Alesis MasterControl is a capable control surface, rolling everything needed to run a small project studio into a single, tidy package. A generous number of audio inputs and outputs does away with the need for a separate audio interface. The control surface integrates seamlessly with major DAW applications, performing admirably throughout my testing. The lack of an LCD scribble strip over each channel was a bit disappointing and might turn off power users who need more flexibility and visual feedback. For studios seeking a basic all-in-one package with solid performance, though, the MasterControl delivers the goods at a price that's palatable.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 3