The worlds of project studio and commercial studio have collided in a big way over the last few years, and now we are seeing the same convergence with gear that was developed for the mastering lab finding its way into the personal studio. It only makes sense; due to magazines like Tape Op, online forums, and lots of hands-on experience, we have become more sophisticated in our understanding of techniques for production, engineering, and delivering masters of our creations. Before I get into this review, let me say that I don't consider myself a professional mastering engineer, though I do master many projects that I work on. The level of artistry and quality of gear that a mastering facility provides cannot simply be replaced by owning more gear. That said, The Maselec MLA-3 multiband compressor was developed for mastering, but it can easily find daily use in any music production setting. For an all-analog processor, its control set is somewhat intense, but if you are comfortable with any of the many good software multiband compressors, the controls will immediately seem familiar.
Maselec may not be the most familiar name to many out there, but their mic preamps, equalizers, and compressors are world- class; and you can found them in the racks of top studios and mastering suites all over the world. I find the aesthetics of Maselec gear to be top-notch in terms of precision, clarity of function, and usability. Sonically, of course, there are few pieces that rival the clarity, accuracy, transparency, and functionality of Maselec's entire line of processors, so when I had the opportunity to integrate the new MLA-3 into a recent album mixing project, I jumped at the chance. Like all Maselec processors, the MLA-3 sports an easy-to-read, dark-grey front panel with white labeling. The comfortable size and layout of the light-grey knobs on the 3RU-height front panel make manipulating any of the two dozen or so knobs and switches easy, intuitive, and accurate. All the rotary controls are stepped, with gain adjustments in 0.5 dB steps via resistor switching for extreme accuracy. Even the blue LED meters show gain reduction down to 0.5 dB of resolution. Initial connection of the unit is simple, with electronically- balanced, transformerless XLR I/O that can handle balanced or unbalanced signals. As for audio specs, this box may be considered a benchmark for analog audio. Audio bandwidth reaches out to 500 kHz and the input amps can accommodate a level of +29 dBu. The output level can reach +28 dBu, and with all compression bands engaged, but no compression taking place, the input and output signals are truly identical - or as identical as you can get when audio passes through any wire.
At first glance, this piece of gear seems formidable, which it is, so I'll cover its usage and not the specific function of every control. Anyone familiar with a typical compressor will find the controls on the MLA-3 familiar and understandable if you divide it into parts. Fundamentally, the MLA-3 contains three separate stereo compressors, each with its own attack, release, threshold, and gain settings. The user can select the frequency range that each compressor section affects, allowing extremely intricate or broad stroke compression techniques as well as three bands of tonal control. The input section provides controls for the crossover points between the low, mid, and high bands, along with master left and right input gains, as well as threshold controls to adjust the input signal and overall sensitivity of the entire unit. For maximum flexibility, the MLA-3 provides a comprehensive range of linking for the low-mid-high sidechains, ranging from traditional stereo (non-multiband), which affects all bands together, to fully- separate band control. Additionally, the sidechain control allows you to assign the low band to trigger either the mid or high band. No matter which sidechain mode is active, the level control of each band can still be used to "EQ" the overall program.
Importantly, the attack and release times for each band are slightly different to provide the most musical control of those specific frequency ranges. For example, the low-frequency attack time starts at 1 ms, while the high-band attack starts at 0.3 ms. These setting choices provide very useful limits, which are also sufficiently broad, for effective processing. To monitor compression levels, the elegant blue LED ladders display up to 8 dB of compression, starting with 0.5 dB increments and ending in 1 dB steps. Even the 0 dB LED thoughtfully lights up to indicate that the input level has reached the threshold of the compressor. The output section provides +/-5 dB of gain, again in 0.5 dB steps, via a large knob. In the output section, the user can also bypass the compressor or solo any individual band to allow fine-tuning of the crossover points and to monitor the processing of an individual compressor section. I can't think of any analog processor with this much control or flexibility. As expected, the user manual provides a complete and easy-to-digest overview of the setup and function of the unit.
My favorite use of this box was as a mix-bus processor, which I inserted as the last processor on my master bus, but before the final limiter. I don't really consider this mastering, but when I mix, I often use a multiband compressor, inserted only when the mix is almost finished, on the stereo mix bus to fine tune the apparent level of each frequency band and add that low-frequency tightness and high-frequency sheen that only a bus processor can provide. Similarly, the MLA-3 would be used the same way when mastering a finished mix. I never once felt that the MLA-3 was degrading the sound in any way, due in part to its transformerless design. I felt that I could get more size and power out of my mixes, while it imparted a more finished feel. For my mixes on a pop/R&B album project, the gain-reduction meters on the MLA-3 rarely hit even 2 dB, usually reaching 1 dB or less, but the addition of the processor benefitted the mixes in a way that no plugin or other processor that I own could do.
Most projects that come across my mixing desk are destined for some sort of release to the public, but fewer and fewer have the budget to get into the hands of my favorite mastering engineers like Gavin Lurssen, Chris Athens, Eddy Schreyer, or Gene Grimaldi. The MLA-3 brought some of the tools of a great mastering studio to my productions, and I believe track producers, mixers, and of course, mastering engineers will find this box one of the most powerful, useful, and musical processors in their rack. The MLA-3 can be found for just under $5,000 street price, making it an expensive but ultimately affordable piece of gear. Maselec is distributed in the US by Prism Sound. ($4970 street; www.maselec.com; www.prismsound.com)
-Adam Kagan <www.about.me/adamkagan>