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Q. Do I need an external CD recorder for mastering?

Published April 2005
By David Greeves

The Alesis ML9600 Mastering CD Recorder is primarily designed as a mixdown, mastering and CD-burning solution for multitrackers, DATs and hard disk recorders.The Alesis ML9600 Mastering CD Recorder is primarily designed as a mixdown, mastering and CD-burning solution for multitrackers, DATs and hard disk recorders.

I am just upgrading my computer recording system to the 24-bit Emu Proteus X soundcard and upgrading my v2.0 copy of Cakewalk Sonar to v4. My other gear includes Mackie and Behringer mixers, a TC Electronic TC2290 delay, a Roland SRV330 reverb and Genelec 1031 monitors. The quality of my last CD was great using my old 16-bit Yamaha soundcard; however I wish to go to the next level with my recordings.

I'm currently considering buying an Alesis ML9600 Mastering CD Recorder — their price has come down a lot recently. As always, I don't want to spend money on a whim. Everything I use is high-spec and I want to keep it that way, and I was wondering if you would recommend this unit or if would you go for the HHB Burn It CD recorder or an alternative product? Or should I keep it all based on the 'quiet' PC using my humble 32x speed CD recorder?

Mark Dennis

News Editor David Greeves replies: The Alesis ML9600 Mastering CD Recorder is an unusual beast and is rather more than just a stand-alone CD burner, as hinted at by the 'Mastering' tag. It allows users to record their finished stereo mixes to a built-in hard disk via analogue and digital inputs at up to 24-bit/96kHz, rearrange the order of the tracks, apply EQ and mastering effects and burn a standard Red Book format CD.

That's all well and good, but these are all features and functions which you already have at your disposal. Sonar 4 provides all the mastering tools you'll need, all of them non-destructive and reversible and accessed via keyboard, mouse and monitor (as opposed to the ML9600's buttons and plasma display), and you can set track order and burn a CD within Windows or using CD creation software like Roxio Toast or, indeed, Cakewalk's own Pyro. The ML9600 is designed as a mixdown and mastering system for DAT, ADAT and multitrack hard disk recorders and not for computer-based DAWs; the runaway success of the latter at the expense of the others is the main reason why high-quality machines like the ML9600, which cost £1499 when it was reviewed in SOS April 2000 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr00/articles/alesismlink.htm), can be picked up for so little these days.

Be sure to burn CDs at the appropriate speed for the type of blank media you are using.Be sure to burn CDs at the appropriate speed for the type of blank media you are using.If you want to be sure that your computer CD drive isn't letting your finished tracks down, it's best to use high-quality CD-R blanks designed for audio. But most of all, make sure that you match the burn speed to the blank media you are using. Most consumer CD-Rs, primarily intended for data, are designed for burn speeds of 24x to 52x, just as professional audio CD-Rs are designed for speeds of 1x to 8x. Hugh Robjohns explained how and why different types of CD-R and different burn speeds affect the quality of the signal burned onto the CD-R in Q&A in SOS November 2004 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov04/articles/qa1104-3.htm).

If you want to actually improve the sound of your recordings, the last step in the recording process is the last place you should be looking! Go back to the very beginning, have a good look at every link in the chain and think very hard about whether buying a new piece of equipment will significantly improve the end result, whether it be a new keyboard, module or other sound source, a new mic, new monitors, acoustic treatment for your live recording space, a new preamp or processor, or new plug-ins. It's a cliché, but the chain is only ever as strong as it's weakest link. However, like most clichés, it's true. There's no point buying an expensive voice channel if you don't have a decent mic, just as there's no point stepping up to a 24-bit/96kHz soundcard if your monitors aren't good enough to reveal the difference.

With the Mackie mixer, Emu soundcard, Sonar 4 and the Genelec 1031s, you have a very capable system to work with. Perhaps what you need to do to take your recordings to 'the next level' is not to buy more equipment but to improve your skills in composing, arranging, recording, mixing and mastering?

Published April 2005