Merlin is Fairlight’s new disk-based multitrack that is prepared to meet the competition (Otari RADAR II and the Euphonix R1) head-on in the music, broadcast and post production industries. With the advanced performance of nonlinear digital audio technology integrated with the familiarity of a tape-based multitrack machine, the Merlin is a capable tool that offers the flexibility to handle many different recording and editing sessions.
Product PointsApplications: Studio
Key Features: Up to 48 tracks of 16-, 20- or 24-bit HD recording; backup and archiving
Contact: Fairlight at 800-432-4754; www.fairlightesp.com.au
+ Slick interface
+ Easy and extensive editing
+ Compatible with other Fairlight DAWs, Pro Tools and more
The Score: Merlin is well-done in both design and implementation and deserves a serious look from anyone shopping for a pro hard disk recorder.
Fairlight has designed and manufactured digital audio products since 1976 when it was at the forefront of digital sampling and music sequencing. The CMI (who remembers the light pen?) was one of a few products responsible for the sampling trend that began in the 1980s. When sales slowed, the company was acquired by Amber Technology and has since specialized in products for the audio post production and broadcast industries.
With the Merlin, Fairlight hopes to regain its place in the music production arena.
Based on the MFX3-plus hard disk editor/controller with 40-bit floating-point DSP architecture, the Merlin can sustain 24 tracks of simultaneous playback and record from a single hard drive. The basic package records 24 tracks of phase-locked audio with up to 24-bit resolution at sample rates to 48 kHz but has hardware in place that supports a 48-track/96-kHz upgrade.
The Merlin is fully compatible with Fairlight’s other products, including the FAME2 and MFX3plus DAWs. This allows tracks recorded on the Merlin to be transferred as files to and from the sister systems.
Merlin employs standard SCSI drives and addresses up to seven devices simultaneously with a max of 200 GB per device. The unit, with sufficient storage, is capable of recording continuously for 12 hours across all 24 tracks – very useful in live recording situations. Backing up and restoring can be accomplished automatically as background activity in the pauses between playback or recording passes. All forms of removable storage, including magneto-optical and Exabyte tape backups are supported.
Merlin comes with 24 tracks of AES/EBU digital I/Os with analog conversion available as needed. The sync module lets the Merlin chase timecode in any format while at the same time generating timecode output and synching its master clock to various clock sources: AES clock, word clock, longitudinal timecode (LTC), video (PAL or NTSC), any digital input or an internal crystal. Sample rate converters are on every digital input and output, allowing wild sources to be synchronized without switching the master sync source.
Merlin can control any standard 9-pin device such as a video deck, allowing for recording with picture. The 9-pin operation can also be handled in reverse where Merlin acts as a slave machine to a console or other device and has its tracks armed, follow locate, play and record commands. Two Merlins can also be linked in similar fashion.
The heart of the system, or at least the device providing access to it, is the Merlin controller. The controller has been designed to mimic traditional multitrack tape recorder operations while simultaneously providing ample keys for direct access to many of the other powerful functions this machine can provide. The streamlined surface, with its 15″ Panaflat monitor mounted on the optional roll-around support stand, brings such terms as clean, sleek or even sexy to mind.
The controller surface is dominated by an LCD display in the center that provides menus of commands accessed with the accompanying set of softkeys. Directly above the LCD are four rows of 24 keys grouped in two banks (1-24 and 25-48) that provide track arming with a corresponding key below designated as track-select keys for such operations as editing, monitor mode selection, patching and solo/mute.
Both arming and selection keys have a feature for quickly selecting multiple tracks: holding one key and double-clicking another selects both these tracks, plus all the ones in between. Selecting all 24 tracks is achieved by holding down track 1 and double-clicking track 24. The track-arming key also functions as direct punching on the fly when the transport is in record. The second bank of keys provides the same functions on a unit that has been upgraded to 48 tracks.
The transport keys are at the bottom/center of the controller and have a look and feel that will make operators of traditional tape remotes feel right at home. Directly above is a bank of transport smart keys that provide a dedicated key for many common session functions: Record Again repeats exactly what was last done during the recording pass including pre-roll. Play Again plays from the same point as the last time the transport began. Record Here is used when the engineer has located or scrubbed to find the exact punch-in point and now may press one button to pre-roll and punch-in at that precise spot.
Memory locations can be established on the fly and a total of 999 locations are available for instant access. Besides the standard cycle feature, the Merlin has several other transport functions that move you through your project instantly with a minimum of keystrokes.
The work surface completes its complement of controls with a jog wheel, numeric keypad and bank of editing keys that perform various functions and are logically positioned.
The Merlin video monitor, with its high resolution graphics engine, gives a clear, full-color presentation providing most of the information necessary for basic operation on a single screen. This includes 24 tracks of scrolling waveforms, record status, track name and metering along with timecode and project information. The response of the display is fast and accurate and operates with zero refresh time. The screen switches automatically when the user selects functions that can’t be seen on the main page such as files, memory locations, layers and the patching screen.
The Merlin allows any input to be patched to any track and, since inputs are not restricted to a single destination, it’s easy to patch an input to multiple tracks. This is quite handy for doubling and tripling vocals and other instruments.
Recording on the Merlin gives all the options we’ve grown accustomed to with hard disk recording along with a few new twists. The most impressive being to not only record at 16-, 20- or 24-bit resolution, but have the ability to combine the three within one project. The standard nondestructive recording mode is, of course, provided. New material is placed on top of existing information in multiple layers (these can later be compiled into a master take). Alternatively, the disk space efficiency of a destructive tape style can be employed for those who like to live on the wild side.
Editing on the Merlin was quick and intuitive. Before I could say “Tom Scott” I had taken one of the artist’s songs and cut out a chorus so seamlessly I wondered if I was actually playing the edit. This was accomplished using the jog/scrub/parameter-entry wheel with adjacent to and from keys that create a range for edits, cycling or autorecord.
Numeric keys are also provided for typing in timecode or entering parameters. Sixteen levels of zoom instantly take you in or out on specific track waveforms from six frames to an eight-hour timeline allowing overview of the entire project or projects. All edits (cuts, copy, paste, nudge, etc.) can be applied to any individual track, as well as groups of tracks up to all 24 with 64 levels of undo in case the probable happens.
The Fairlight people have made the Merlin fully compatible with its Media Link server network, which enables file sharing with other Merlin recorders, MFX3plus and Fame workstations and even PC- and Mac-based (including Pro Tools) workstations. The system uses Ethernet hardware and can play OMF, WAV, Akai and Timeline file formats.
Through several sound tests the faithful reproduction of material supports Merlin’s claim of no expenses spared in its effort to keep distortion and jitter at a minimum – exactly what I expected from a company that has been in the digital game from the beginning. After punching in and out a number of times, the record function also proved itself to be seamless.
On the downside, at around $23,000 U.S. for the 24-track package (9 GB disk, monitor, console, digital I/Os and sync module), the Merlin is priced competitively but still out of reach for many of the project/budget studios that could most benefit from a unit of this caliber. I also found it odd not to have all 48 tracks of the track-arming keys grouped together. Instead, they chose to separate them to keep the track-select function adjacent to the corresponding track-arming button.
Future versions are planned that will be able to express time in film format (feet/frames), musical terms (bars/beats with tempo mapping), in addition to the current video format (hours: minutes: seconds: frames and optional subframes). A high-quality varispeed is also planned.
Fairlight seems to be right on the mark with the Merlin. It would be well-suited for the individual or facility in need of the features and performance of nonlinear digital audio technology without the complications and learning curves associated with computer-based systems. This is truly a plug-in-and-play unit that I would certainly recommend for an audition.