Review: Alesis MasterControl ($1,099 MSRP)
The 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
Max D8 or
MOTU 8pre, with
eight mic ins and
ADAT out, to
number of channels
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
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
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.