Focusrite has hit the audio interface market pretty hard over the past few years, with USB, iOS, Firewire/Thunderbolt and Ethernet offerings currently available. Even within the USB category there are three different ranges, so let’s see if we can start out by making some sense of them.
The iTrack Solo (reviewed in GI issue 20) offers iOS connectivity and a compact single mic pre-amp. It’s simple, works with iOS, Mac OS and Windows and has a single clean-sounding pre-amp and a single instrument input: an ideal answer for the singer songwriter who wants to record song ideas and straight-forward demos.
The Forte (reviewed in GI issue 21) is a 2 in/2 out interface offering a stylish and portable unit aiming (in Focusrite’s own words) to provide “the maximum possible audio quality for mic, line and instrument sources.” And jolly nice it is too.
The Scarlett range fills the most traditional role with the widest range of options, between two pres in highly portable package, and eight pres/18 inputs/20 outputs in a rack mount format. So far as I can make-out, it is pitched as the USB equivalent of Focusrite’s flagship “Saffire” range of Firewire/Thunderbolt interfaces, albeit with different specific model configurations.
This time I’m going to take a look (and listen) at the Scarlett 2i2 interface, which is the simplest unit in the range, with two channels of microphone preamp/line-in/instrument-in and 24 bit/96K converters.
The basics then: the 2i2 is small and light and red. And simple! It’s audio only with no MIDI and no digital connectivity. On the front panel you start with two channels’ inputs on a pair of Neutrik combo-sockets, each offering an XLR for mic input (with globally switched phantom power) and a balanced TRS jack for switchable line/instrument inputs. Each channel has a simple gain-knob surrounded by a “halo” which turns green to indicate signal above -24dBFS and red to indicate overload. That “overload” light comes on when the signal hits 0dBFS so it’s more of an “it’s gone wrong” than “it might be about to go wrong” warning. Some interfaces do have more informative indicators but this really isn’t a problem; bang a loud signal through the 2i2 and if you see red then turn it down, and for more comprehensive metering use the meters in your DAW (the clean and quiet pre-amps and 24 bit converters mean that you really don’t need to be trying to record hot levels anyway).
Beyond the input section, the big knob adjusts your main output (the 2 x balanced monitor outputs on the back panel), the little knob adjusts your headphones, and the direct monitor switch allows you to hear what’s being recorded before it hits the DAW for latency free cue monitoring. Other than that you just have a USB socket on the back panel and a Kensington security lock socket.
If I’ve made it sound easy, that’s because it is. I loaded the driver onto my Windows PC, plugged in, adjusted a level and recorded. The box is small and light enough to jam into a laptop bag and the metal case should offer decent protection so long as you’re not going to play football with it; I just wrapped it in a microfibre cloth which was also handy for cleaning off the fingerprints that the anodised finish seemed to like to collect.
Sound? “Very nice” thank you. The pres are quiet and clean (there are lots of specs available on Focusrite's website if you're into that sort of thing) which I realise I say quite frequently, but it’s what they should be and it’s what they are. The spec sheet shows up to 46dB of gain which isn’t earth-shattering (you may want to check if it’s enough if you need to record distant sources with ribbon mics for example) but was far more than I needed for some low-down-and-dirty Rock and Roll and for some solo female vocal that I recorded. Focusrite knows how to build a pre-amp, and whilst it’s always horribly subjective, to me they have a sort of depth to the sound that I personally like a lot. I think I’ll stick my neck-out and say that they’re probably (OK, I’m sticking my neck out a little bit) one of my preferred interface pres.
If you don’t have a DAW, or if you fancy a change, you can fire up the copy of Ableton Live Lite that comes in the box, and the included Scarlett Suite of plug-ins (Eq, Compressor, Gate and Reverb) is well worth installing and using.
Personally I don’t have a lot of use for a 2-channel interface, but if I did I’d be very happy with a 2i2. Bear in mind that there is a whole range of Scarlett boxes, so if the IO isn’t what you need there are other options too.
Simple, compact, high quality, and sounds really nice! If it meets your budget and requirements you really won’t go wrong.