Hands-On Review:Alesis Masterlink ML-9600 High Resolution Master Disk Recorder
by Tom Beaujour
In recent years, the music marketplace has sprouted a bumper crop of affordable mastering devices and CD burners that allow the most shallow-pocketed musician to produce low-cost polished recordings. Now Alesis-a company that has already earned the distinction of having single-handedly revolutionized the world of home recording with the ADAT eight-track digital recorder-enters the fray with the Masterlink ML-9600 High Resolution Master Disk Recorder, a device that, for the price of a top-notch signal processor, cannily combines both mastering and CD-burning functions into a single, cost-effective unit.
Of course, the Masterlink is no Howie Weinberg or Bob Ludwig (rock' s two pre-eminent mastering engineers) in a box, and it simply cannot work same aural magic that mountains of priceless tube compressors and parametric equalizers can. That said, the Masterlink can sequence your mixes, add automated fades and, most importantly, help produce masters that are good enough to compete with the other outrageously loud and compressed products that A&R departments, radio programmers and music journalists have grown accustomed to evaluating. In that regard, the ML-9600 could be the most important ally you have (after talent) to keep you from the dreaded reject bin.
The Masterlink performs two distinct functions-mastering and CD recording. To that end, the unit houses two essentially discrete, if symbiotic, systems within its two-rack space casing. When using the Masterlink, the user toggles between two clearly defined modes: HD mode, which provides access to all operations that make use of the unit's spacious hard drive (sequencing, signal processing, compression etc.); and CD mode, which controls the unit's Red Book and CD 24 compatible burner.
Mixes can be recorded to the Masterlink's hard drive at sampling rates of up to 96 kHz, and the unit's ultra-transparent and astoundingly faithful 24-bit digital-to-analog converters preserve the integrity and nuances of even the most assiduously labored-over mixes. Once a song (or, as Alesis refers to it, "audio file") is saved to the hard drive, it can be pasted as a "track" into one of the Masterlink's 16 playlists, it can be accessed and processed. Each playlist can contain up to 99 tracks, so even if you're working with extremely short snippets of sound (30 second commercial jingles, for example), it would be difficult to run out of room in any given song sequence. While this playlist format may seem like an unnecessary drag at first glance, it is actually quite ingenious: an audio track can be pasted into any number of playlists without using up extra room on the hard drive, and there is no need to re-record the audio for each different song sequence.
Once a track is in a playlist, intros and outros can be scrubbed free of stray noises, fades can be applied and the audio can be compressed, normalized or equalized. Because the Masterlink ML-9600 applies these operations in real time as a CD is burned, the signal processing never affects or alters the original audio file.
For anyone who's ever spent long hours trying to manually perform a smooth fade in a mix, the Track Fade function will come as a veritable godsend. The Masterlink provides three basic fade "shapes" (all of which can be used to fade in or out of segments): Linear, which attenuates or increases track volume at a steady rate; Logarithmic 1, which applies faster fading at the beginning and end of the designated fade time (the Masterlink will fade for up to 99.99 seconds), and Logarithmic2, which begins gradually and then steps up as the fade proceeds.
As mentioned above, the Masterlink's software also allows for four basic DSP-based functions: compression, eq, limiting and normalizing. A single-band compressor alters all frequencies of an audio file equally, up to a massively squashed 20:1 ratio, and controls that allows users to adjust the effect's attack, release and knee. A three-band parametric equalizer allows you to boost or attenuate frequencies with pinpoint accuracy, an essential feature if a ringy snare drum or overly boomy bass guitar has been allowed to slip into an otherwise perfect mix. A "look ahead" limiter can tame the nastiest transient peaks in an audio file, thus allowing the overall level of the track to be much higher when a CD is burned. Lastly, the normalizer allows the Masterlink to determine the highest peak in the track and adjust all of the levels in the audio file accordingly, thus allowing maximum output without creating unwanted digital clipping
The Bottom Line
In keeping with a time-honored Alesis tradition, the Masterlink ML-9600 has an extremely friendly and logical interface that gratifies the user with a very quick learning curve. The unit's LED display is by no means flashy, and does not show waveforms. This may throw individuals accustomed to the highly visual interface provided by many computer-based recording systems, but for users who use their ears and not their eyes, the Masterlink will surely become an integral part of their music-making family.