Another Thunderbolt interface hits the market, but does this Focusrite unit occupy rare ‘Air’?
Review: Preshan John
Depending on which way you spin it; I’m either straight-out biased or the perfect person to review Focusrite’s new Clarett interface range.
Let me explain, and you decide: Currently, I’m the user of not one, but two Focusrite interfaces — the small and portable Forte, and the 1U Saffire Pro 40.
The Forte is a great-sounding portable unit I carry around for small sessions — tracking acoustic instruments, vocals, etc. The larger Saffire Pro 40 has been the hub of my home studio for the last five years. It’s been a pleasure to use and several memorable recordings have come out of it. It’s starting to show its age though, so I’m on the lookout for a worthy upgrade option that won’t change my workflow too much, or break the bank. It’d also be nice to progress from the Firewire 400 protocol. I won’t deny that a Thunderbolt-equipped, similarly-sized contender from the same brand seems like a natural fit. On the flipside, I’m also perfectly placed to decide whether it’s a worthy upgrade.
The final piece of this Focusrite puzzle is my ISA428 MkII rack of ISA preamps. Interfaces can be a bit same-ish these days, and the distinguishing feature of the Clarett range is its Air. A circuit that’s supposed to mimic the sound of an ISA pre. So yeah, I know how that’s supposed to sound.
The big questions for me are: Will the Clarett be a substantial upgrade from the Pro 40, and does it fulfil this lofty, high-on-oxygen goal of emulating Focusrite’s ISA heritage?
GAIN SOME CLARETTY
The Clarett line is an entire product range that could suit the needs of a beginner or an established project studio. The family consists of four interfaces: the 2Pre, 4Pre, 8Pre and 8Pre X. All of them record up to 24-bit/192k and are expandable via ADAT, even the compact 2Pre. They’re also Focusrite’s first Thunderbolt-capable interfaces. Just as well, given that brands like Apogee, MOTU, UAD and Zoom have already released Thunderbolt interfaces of their own. As a part of the package, you also get Focusrite Control routing software and the Focusrite Red 2 and Red 3 plug-in suite.
We were sent the 8Pre for review; the second-from-top model with 18 inputs and 20 outputs.
On the surface, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Clarett 8Pre is a red, Thunderbolt’d version of the Saffire Pro 40. A glimpse at the front and back panels and all you’d think Focusrite managed was a change in colour scheme and the addition of one Thunderbolt port (yes… just one). But closer inspection reveals slightly more meter resolution, the addition of a wordclock Out port (no In), a bunch more LEDs, and a few physical buttons relegated to software.
The big deal about the Clarett range, apart from Thunderbolt, is the preamplification. The pres in the Pro 40 aren’t amazing — the high I/O count was the star attribute of the 1U unit when it came out.
But with the new ‘Air’ feature, you’re supposedly getting preamps modelled after the transformer-based ISA pres — something that, if achieved well, will make it an attractive proposition.
TRANSFORMER / CONFORMER
The classic Focusrite ISA microphone preamps are a staple in plenty of recording studios. First appearing in the ’80s, the ISA was birthed when The Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin commissioned Rupert Neve to create a console for AIR Studios, Martin’s recording space in London.
My foray into the world of Focusrite preamplification started out with the ISA One — which I liked so much that I bought the ISA 428 MkII. They’re what some call a ‘vanilla’ preamp; a bit flavourless compared to the ‘chocolate-swirls-with-a-cherry-on-top’ counterparts you might find racked up next to them. But, in part due to its Lundahl transformers, the ISA preamp has a subtle character that just seems to work for most things recorded through it — it’s an excellent utility preamp that stacks very well in busy mixes. So the idea of the Clarett 8Pre having eight ISA-esque pres in a single 1U interface is appealing.
But can you get that transformer mojo out of a transformerless mic amp? The proof, as they say, is in the (vanilla) pudding.
Naturally, I decided to compare the Clarett preamps with ‘Air’ switched on to my ISA ones. Easier said than done. Without wanting to fry either input with phantom power and a Y-cable, or change the load, I resorted to recording several acoustic guitar tracks with a single mic using both pres; layering a stack of Clarett recordings next to a stack of ISA ones. The hope was that multiple layers would magnify the differences between the two without biasing a particular performance. After excessive A/B-ing, the ISA tracks came across slightly more ‘solid’ than the Clarett pres, most noticeably in the low-mids. The ISA’s high end was creamier, and the overall sound was a little more elegant and composed. However the difference was minute, and most importantly, the ISA DNA was certainly evident in the Clarett preamps. Kudos, Focusrite.
NEED SOME AIR?
The ‘Air’ effect is individually switchable from Focusrite’s Control software. It’s unclear what the actual circuit change is, I suspect it has something to do with jacking up the impedance, but there is a satisfying ‘click’ of a relay when toggling it on and off.
The effect isn’t subtle, but it’s not overstated either. It introduces a boost in the high end that works beautifully on most tracks. Acoustic instruments are injected with a little more sparkle and it provides vocals with a pleasing sheen. There may be the odd occasion where you find ‘Air’ doesn’t match a mic or source so well, and the high end gets a bit gnarly; in which case you’ll be glad you can turn it off. I found it to be entirely usable addition to the interface. It’s like having two preamps in one — who wouldn’t want that?
If there’s one thing I appreciate about an interface it is its flexible and intuitive routing software. I generally leave all headphone mix duties in the hands of such software as it means minimum-latency monitoring for the musos, reserving the DAW for tracking alone.
The Clarett interface’s routing software is called Focusrite Control and bears little resemblance to its Saffire, Scarlett or Forte counterparts. It isn’t the simplest GUI to get your head around, but it makes perfect sense once you’ve nutted it out. The idea of adding input channels to each individual mix felt strange initially, as I’m accustomed to seeing all the inputs at once. Though once I had adapted to the look I appreciated the decluttered mix tabs. There are a number of useful presets you can load up, and the snapshots feature lets you save your I/O configuration — invaluable for when the band says they want to redo yesterday’s session.
The bundled 64-bit AAX, AU and VST-compatible Red 2 EQ and Red 3 compressor plug-ins sound great, and worth £229 no less. Their transparent character makes them well suited to sources that require unobtrusive, clean treatment.
IN THE RED
For what it’s worth, the primary red colour of the interface is very appealing. Sporting a brushed steel finish, it looks pretty striking sitting in a rack. The build quality is excellent too. There’s a good weight to the unit and nothing about it looks or feels cheap. Each knob has a smooth, resistant feel to it.
The one things that bugs me is the single Thunderbolt port. Unless your computer has more than one of them, you rely on daisy-chaining to hook up two or more devices at a time. Thankfully the newer Apple iMacs and MacBook Pros ship with two Thunderbolt ports, but for those using older computers, you’ll be limited in some ways. If, like me, your external monitor connects via the Thunderbolt port, then purchasing a Thunderbolt hub becomes your only option — and even the most affordable of these will still deepen the dent in your bank balance already caused by buying the interface.
That niggle aside, Thunderbolt is lightning fast, and it’s no different with the Clarett. Focusrite quotes some pretty compelling roundtrip latency figures you can find on its site. Even going so far as to put an N/A marking on its 32 sample buffer test at 96kHz in Pro Tools 11.
In our own tests, there was some slightly weird software compensation going on, whereby a signal sent via an analogue output would arrive back into Pro Tools via an analogue input six samples before it left. Typically there would be some delay here, caused by the A/D and D/A conversion. The same anomaly occurred on two different computer systems. Focusrite is obviously trying to compensate for any latency where it can.
Latency was super low overall. We measured a regular addition of 58 samples to the buffer per roundtrip, using Pro Tools 12 on a four-year old Macbook Pro — 0.6 of a millisecond at 96k. In other words, totally negligible.
I took the 8Pre on the road to track some demos with a five-piece band consisting of a lead vocalist, two electric guitarists, bassist, drummer and keyboardist. We decided to record live; so 14 inputs all up, with an extra eight preamps coming from my UAD 4-710D/ISA 428 MkII combo into the Clarett via ADAT.
I’ve experienced the occasional glitchy connection using the Optical input with the Pro 40, but after setting the clock source to ADAT in Focusrite Control, the Clarett-centred setup was rock solid for the entire recording session. And the lightning-fast Thunderbolt connection wasn’t phased by the high track count or my ageing laptop.
The tracking process was smooth sailing. Setting levels was a breeze thanks to the LED meters on
the front panel. The mic inputs were immaculately clean and noise-free, even when turned up to nearly maximum for the vocalist’s Shure SM7b. Creating two independent headphone mixes for the vocalist and musicians was easy using Focusrite Control. I wish the GUI wasn’t so monochrome though… Switching between Control and Pro Tools felt like the computer’s saturation setting was broken.
While packing up after the session, I was musing at how well it all went. A lot of things could’ve gone wrong. If it’s not risky enough taking a brand new interface to a recording session, I had also just upgraded to Pro Tools 12 without much chance to test it with the Clarett. But even with the hasty prep time, everything just worked, and it felt good.
HEAR AIR IN ACTION
After tracking some demos for the band, the drummer played a few grooves for me while I switched in the ‘Air’ settings for the kick, snare and overhead mics. Check out the untouched audio samples at tinyurl.com/8pre-air to hear ‘Air’ in action for yourself. The change in sonic character is very noticeable in this four-mic recording, especially in the hats and snare.
So to answer my original question: yes, the Clarett 8Pre makes for an outstanding upgrade option from my Saffire Pro 40; and here’s why.
Firstly, the ‘Air’ feature deserves the hype — it’s very musical, and the option to switch it in and out effectively doubles the character of the interface. I would consider buying it for ‘Air’ alone.
Secondly, it’s solid. Yes, it’s built well, but more importantly the Clarett performed with absolute stability every time I recorded with it. Granted, it was only tested for a few weeks; but the fact that it didn’t miss a beat from the moment I plugged it in to the moment I’m writing this paragraph says something.
And finally, it’s got Thunderbolt. The FW400 connection on my Pro 40 is so yesterday — I even need an adapter to connect it to my laptop. Thunderbolt makes Firewire appeared pedestrian when it comes to latency. But if only it had one more port!
What if you’ve never owned an audio interface before? The price tag may be a deterrent, but acquiring any of the Clarett models will set you up for an enjoyable recording experience; not to mention your tracks will sound great. If you’re considering an upgrade from a smaller desktop interface, the 8Pre or 8Pre X would be fantastic candidates to get some more I/O. And for those looking for less I/O, but worry about losing features, Focusrite hasn’t skimped — you even get ‘Air’ on its tiny 2Pre.