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Review: Alesis MasterControl ($1,099 MSRP)

10/1/2009

mastercontrol_option1The MasterControl combines a FireWire audio interface (ASIO. WDM, and Core Audio), control surface, and room monitor control section in one compact, but not cramped, unit. Intended to be a “this is all you need for your DAW” device, I feel that Alesis has realized that goal, at least for smaller project studios.

Audio interfacing. There are two XLR mic/line combo jack ins (with +48V phantom power that affects both ins simultaneously) and six 1/4" line ins. These also have TRS input jacks. However, MasterControl is expandable via coax SPDIF and two TOSLINK optical ins (these provide two ADAT ins or one ADAT/one optical S/PDIF in). So, you can take a device like the PreSonus Digi- Max D8 or MOTU 8pre, with eight mic ins and ADAT out, to increase the number of channels you can record simultaneously. There are six 1/4" line-level outs, a footswitch input, and (yes!) physical MIDI in and out DIN connectors.

I’d classify the preamp sound quality as not in the boutique preamp category, but as a definite overachiever at this price point. Including only two mic pres allows putting more resources into them; those who need more mic pres can go the “external box feeding ADAT input” route. Also note that each channel has an activity/clip LED.

Control surface. The controls are HUI/Mackie Control compatible, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find a DAW MasterControl can’t control. There are eight bank-switchable long-throw (100mm) moving faders for handling up to 24 channels, and a master moving fader. You can also shift faders by a track at a time instead of by bank. You’ll also find per-channel buttons for mute, solo, record, and select, as well as eight assignable rotary controls set up as three banks. These default to pan, send on/off, and send level, but can be usermodified. One nice touch is a space for a “scribble strip” that shows the current assignments.

Eight assignable buttons (again, with a scribble strip) take care of functions like punch, save, marker placement, calling up particular windows, etc., and the transport controls include a jog/shuttle wheel. One very cool feature: A preview button which when held, shows what a control does in the display, but doesn’t actually send any data to the computer until you release the switch.

Control room functions. You can enable/disable the six outs as three pairs, if you want to (for example) switch among different sets of powered speakers—or use all the outs for surround. There are two headphone outs (each with a level control) separate from these outs, as well as monitor level controls.

In use. Presets are included for Cubase/Nuendo, Ableton Live (lite versions of both programs are included), Sonar, Logic Pro, Samplitude, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Reason, SoundTrack Pro, two plug-ins of your choice, and the Alesis HD24 recorder. This doesn’t mean users of, say, Acid are out of luck; you’ll just have to tell Acid it’s seeing a Mackie Control, and do a little configuring.

Getting the MasterControl up and running was simple, due in large part to excellent documentation. For example, there are sections on how to use the MasterControl with all the programs for which there are templates—there’s no “refer to your DAW’s manual for details.” I also really appreciated the section detailing operational differences when using different DAWs. This is consistent with other Alesis products I’ve reviewed lately, all of which have wellwritten documentation.

If I had to pick one word to describe MasterControl operation, I’d choose “straightforward.” Everything works as expected, and aside from doing configurations, there’s a one-function-per-control design that recalls analog gear. The feel is solid—the faders don’t wobble in their tracks, the buttons have a positive “click” when hit, and the rotary encoders have just the right amount of resistance.

One caution: The drivers for 64-bit XP/Vista are beta drivers, so if you use a 64-bit OS you may need to surf the bleeding edge for a while until the drivers reach the same maturity as the 32-bit versions.

My wish list is small, but I’d love a software applet that allows configuring the unit from your computer instead of having to do everything through the small, but adequate, LCD.

Conclusions. The MasterControl isn’t the only device of its type out there, but it sure hits all the sweet spots for a very reasonable price. In fact it kind of makes for a boring review, because all I can really say is “it does what it claims to do, with no nasty surprises.” However, do remember that not all computers implement FireWire with consistency. My PC Audio Labs desktop works perfectly with the MasterControl, but if you’re using a laptop or super-budget machine, try before you buy; should you encounter problems, using a FireWire card or (with laptops) card slot FireWire interface instead of the interface built into the computer will often solve any problems.

Probably the highest compliment to give a control surface is that you don’t have to think about it much . . . and once the MasterControl is set up, you might be surprised at how quickly it becomes second-nature when controlling your DAW of choice.

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