Masterlink 101

ã 2001~ 2003  by Eddie Ciletti

A funny thing happened on the way to a hard drive update...

Click here to skip directly to the upgrade options.

Wish List

ENQUIRING MINDS

Since its publication in December 2001, the response to a hard drive upgrade for the Masterlink has been overwhelming.  Pre-Numark Alesis was distracted by chapter-11 issues so there was no time to expand Masterlink's capability. The fact that I'd succesfully installed a 40gig drive then is not so much a matter of boasting  as it was a payoff for a tinkering investment.  As of May 2004, the most recent software is Version 2.18 so capacity is no longer an issue but is limited to 30GB - that is, no matter what size the drive (above 30GB) Masterlink can only address the first 30GB.

Masterlink's primary limitation is its 16 playlist maximum.  A Playlist is like a folder for audio files from which a CD can be burned.  This was not an issue with the early units that shipped with 3gig and 4gig drives when recording at 44.1/48kHz. But with larger drive capacity, recording only at standard sample rates and bit depths consumes less than 50% of a 30G drive. A CD's worth of hi-res recordings in each playlist will consume 85% of a 30G drive.  That said, one reason Masterlink is popular is for its ability to capture long format projects such as live event recording.

Replacing the internally mounted hard drive — either because of failure or simply with something larger — is not difficult and still covered here.  Initially it was thought that only a narrow window of drives would work in Masterlink.  But experience has shown that almost any drive that has a "capacity limit" jumper (also known as Cylinder Limit) is a likely contender.  This jumper makes hard drives over 30G look like a 32G drive.  See the Disclaimer below...


  • Here's the lay of the land:
  • Here's what you need to know:
    • Masterlink has been successfully tested with both 5400-rpm and 7200-rpm drives.
    • Since hard drive models are updated each year, the drives described in the Hard Drive Report are just examples. 
    • Masterlink may report increased recording capacity (time) on drives larger thna 30GB, but it has not yet been proven that Masterlink can take full advantage of the additional space. 
    DISCLAIMER and WARNING: Opening your ML-9600 HD will void the warranty if it still has one.  There are hazardous voltages inside so remove the power cable.  The unit is static sensitive so if you're getting sparks, use a grounded wrist strap.  Masterlink was very particular about drives when I first tried to upgrade.  It's error messages are a bit cryptic as well.  I have had the most success with Seagate drives and have also used Maxtor drives.

    The DSP Feature Set  is next…

    Or, Skip directly to the Hard Drive overview and Report...


     
     
    DSP ON BOARD

    Once DAT recorders evolved to their technical limits, the Alesis Masterlink stepped in to carry on. It’s more than a 24-bit / 96-kHz recorder and CD burner. The on-board Analog Devices Sharcä DSP chip has incredible power, although the knob-less interface limits its potential.  While the focus of  this article is on increasing the hard disk space, George Petersen at MIX Magazine asked me to investigate the DSP features for a Power Tools article, which I have done in a cursory way here and plan to elaborate upon in the future.

    Once Alesis gets back into full swing after recovering from Bankruptcy and subsequent purchase by Numark's Jack O'Donnell, they will hopefully start thinking about MASTERLINK II, see my WISH LIST at the end of the article.  Feel free to make suggestions that I will post.

    Of the handful of users I interviewed, only one takes advantage of the onboard DSP — Compressor (DSP-1), Multi-band EQ (DSP-2) and Peak Limiter (DSP-3) — the others treat Masterlink as a storage device. Recording, basic editing, CD burning and archiving are a breeze.  I have found the DSP to be quite useful if you have the patience to scroll through the various menus and paramters...

    Of all the DSP functions, Normalization (DSP-4) was the least understood. In a traditional workstation, a track is scanned for its peaks, the distance between them and "digital zero" is determined and if desired, the level of the entire track can be raised by that amount and, typically, a new file is rendered.

    MasterLink can also scan the track for peaks, entering the amount into a "window" so users can tweak or toggle on-and-off in real time. Because Normalization is a DSP process there is no need to render a new file. However, since DSP-4 is at the end of the chain it becomes a moving target, subject to the amount of the "other" processing being done. For example, calculating the headroom above the peaks — with all processes off — might yield 4dB of headroom. Add some Compression, EQ and Limiting and the amount of Normalization will change. Since Normalization is virtual and therefore "real time," it can be switched in and out. You’ll know right away if re-calculation is necessary.

    DSP-1

    Masterlink’s Compressor Threshold starts at 0-dBFS (as in Full Scale), the only place to go is down. The Gain Reduction is quite literal — the reverse of what I expected, because some compressors add gain to meet the Threshold — but the Alesis approach allows for some headroom for the processing that follows. There is a very helpful metering option within the DSP-1 menu structure in Version 2.11. Greg Prestopino is the one interviewee who makes use of the compressor. His starting point includes the following: a Ratio of 4:1, soft knee, fast attack and slow release.

    DSP-2

    The lack of an interface makes EQ the most challenging. You have to paint with broad strokes because microsurgery is just too tedious. With three bands plus "Q" for each band (all the way to shelf) there are plenty of options. Patient people will either be rewarded or carried off to the loony bin. Here’s one complaint aimed at all DSP designers. When will Q be represented in something tangible, like OCTAVES? As users, we should at least have the option to chose.

    DSP-3

    Like the Compressor, Limiter Threshold starts at 0-dBFS. From there it behaves in a completely opposite manner, Gain is increased as Threshold decreases. Attack is fixed fast while Release has an extremely wide range — from 25-microseconds to 9.9 seconds. Last in the chain is the Normalizing tool. Consider it a "level scanner" reporting the Headroom Margin. The resulting report can be engaged or not or anything in between. Part of the Mastering Process is to make all the pieces fit — this does not always mean maximizing the level. Rather than continue the habit of "slamming zeroes," 24-bit technology allows our ears a little relief. You can commit and dither later…


     
     
    FAT DRIVE

    NOTE: Neither the manual nor the Alesis website seems to breach the topic of drive installation or maintenance, whether for upgrade or replacement of a defective drive.  Before you do anything else, download the latest Operating System (OS) and the respective instructions for loading same from the Alesis site. There is a version of the OS on the PAID section of this site although it might not be as current.  You must have the ability to burn a CD of the OS.

    Updating the hard drive was my personal mission, back when there were several obstacles that Operating System updates have since over come.  Then, users wanted removable and / or multiple drive options.  I successfully accomplised both, the using modified external SCSI drive boxes and a Drive Selector Box.  SCSI boxes have become a bit rare - look for them on the used market - but any powered drive box ( USB / Firewire) can be modified to interface with Masterlink so long as you can accept the "tether" between the ML-9600 and the drive. 

    For more information about hard drive options click here.


    MASTERLINK HARD DRIVE REPORT

    ã 2001 ~ 2004 by Eddie Ciletti

    Once the hard drive and OS are succcesfully installed, Masterlink will report the available recording time. The chart below is the result of research done when theis article was first written back in 2001.  It is intended only as an example.   Feel free to share your results.
     
    Fs
    DYN
    4.3 GB

    (3.18GB)

    30 GB

    **(27GB)**

    40GB

    (30GB)

       
    Original

    Fujitsu

    Western 

    Digital

    Maxtor

    (4092 cyl limit)

       
    1.367%
    1.1%
    1.33%
             
    44.1
    16bit
    5.3
    45 hours
    51 hours
    44.1
    20bit
     
    36 hours
     
    44.1
    24bit
     
    30 hours
     
             
    48
    16bit
     
    42 hours
     
    48
    20bit
     
    33 hours
     
    48
    24bit
     
    28 hours
     
             
    88.2
    16bit
     
    22 hours
     
    88.2
    20bit
     
    18 hours
     
    88.2
    24bit
    1.7
    15 hours
    17 hours
             
    96
    16bit
     
    21hours
     
    96
    20bit
     
    16 hours
     
    96
    24bit
     
    14 hours
     
             

    ** Courtesy Bennet Spielvogel, FLASHPOINT RECORDING, Austin, TX.  My thanks to Bennet, A.T. Michael MacDonald and Greg Prestopino for their contributions. 

    Number in parenthesis is the calculated amount of drive space based on Masterlink’s reported recording time.

    Calculations based on 10MB / stereo minute recording at 44.1-kHz sample rate, examples below. A 40GB drive reports 51 hours.

    51 hours X 60 min = 3,060 minutes X 10MB per min = 30,060MB = 30GB

    Conversely, based on the inverse of the formula, a 40GB drive should deliver 66 hours IF the entire drive were used for audio. It’s not, but the operating system does not take up much room.

    40,000MB / 10MB per stereo min = 4000 minutes / 60 mins = 66 hours

    For a 30 GB drive:

    45 hours X 60 min = 2,700 minutes X 10MB per min = 27,000MB

    For a 4.3GB drive:

    5.3 hours x 60 min = 318 minutes X 10MB/min = 3.180GB

    TigerDirect.com sells removable drive caddies, drives and drive switchers at affordable prices.  They are reputable and have a decent return policy.

    tigerhome02
     

     
    WISH LIST

    If any Alesis personnel are reading this and planning for Masterlink-II, please consider any or all of the following… The front panel should also be the remote control that, when removed, allows access to the hard drive (a la Fostex) via easily removable drive caddy. Add MIDI and Networking ports for remote control of the DSP functions as well as software updates. (Masterlink-II should be an Internet appliance.) A rear-panel external drive connector that supports multiple drives would be data nirvana.
     
     

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