In early 2011, Focusrite and Audient announced that the former would commence the production and sale of some of the latter’s products. The Focusrite Control is part of the fruits of this agreement, and is now wholly a Focusrite product. It features dual-layer technology, allowing the desk to be used both as a recording console and DAW controller.
At its heart, the Control is an analog mixer that can also be used as a summing mixer and DAW controller. There are no digital audio interfaces here; the Ethernet connection is only used to transfer control data to and from the console to the computer.
Physically, the Control is narrow but deep. However, it can be rack-mounted or installed much like a conventional console. The slope of the front panel is quite marked; it has to be to incorporate the plethora of balanced inputs and outputs on its rear panel. There are eight mic/line input channels with XLR sockets for microphone input and quarter-inch TRS sockets for line inputs and channel insert send and return. Three female D-sub 25s connect eight summing/input channels, eight DAW inputs and eight direct recording outputs. A plethora of additional XLR and TRS inputs and outputs support the rest of the I/0, with a dedicated “iJack” front panel eighth-inch input.
The front panel of the Control is finished in a non-reflective black and silver, and the different sections are nicely spaced out with plenty of room between controls, which feel sturdy and smooth to the touch. The channel strips feature eight motorized faders; right top is the monitoring section and bus compressor while the DAW controls are tucked down on the right. It’s a nice package, with most functions, parameters and settings displayed using OLEDS or via illuminated buttons, though it is hard to tell at a glance the status of some of the smaller buttons.
The faders have the light feel of those that are typically used in DAW control surfaces, but still precise and robust in use. My only gripe is that there’s no armrest as the desk is big enough to lean on. The lack of scribble strips may or may not be an issue depending on how you work. Each of the channel strips features a multi-purpose peak-reading LED bargraph meter, phantom power, pad and phase controls.
A mic/line button selects the input source, alongside a knob that’ll adjust the mic input levels. The Direct Output Routing section is the first thing that hints that this desk is more than a simple eight-channel mixer. You can set the direct outputs to pre- and post-VCA fader and Mute or, alternatively, send a signal pre fader for control room monitoring duties. The CH mode bypasses the channel trim gain stage to enable you to send the signal direct from, say, an external microphone preamplifier to your DAW via the Control for monitoring.
There’s a second gain control on the Mic/Line or DAW input select section and a button that determines whether the channel insert is active or not alongside a separate Pan knob for the cue mixes, which can be set to post or pre fader. The Cue level control in conjunction with the Alt I/P button allow you to use the summing inputs to effectively add eight separate inputs to the desk, each with their own pan and level controls; so the Control can work in a kind of “pseudo” inline fashion.
Two Auxiliary sends are available, with their pre and post settings located in the master section. The Sel button’s function is determined by the Select mode in the master section. With a DAW, you can set the button to Group DAW tracks, Record enable, select channels and set automation modes; while in the analog domain, you can set Solo in place safe, Automation safe (which stops incoming automation data from the DAW affecting controlling the fader) while the Unity setting sets the channel fader — handy if you’re using the console just for summing duties.
Focusrite Control 2802 Master Section
The Solo button can be set to after or pre fade or “Solo In Place” that works in conjunction with the “Sel” setting from the Master section. A neat Solo level knob enables you to make sure there are no gross level differences between solo and full mix settings, while the “Solo In Front” setting leaves a muted version of the main mix blended in to the soloed audio; I found this really useful.
The summing inputs are configured as four stereo inputs feeding the mix bus. Apart from input balance Level and Pan knobs, these returns can be assigned to either mix or cue busses or summed to mono. Of course, any of these inputs can be used as summing inputs, effects returns, or line-level instrument inputs. It’s a really flexible system.
The Control’s monitoring section is particularly well specified. There’s a button that flips the Polarity of the left channel of the mix, which, in conjunction with the Mono sum and Cut L and Cut R buttons, are extremely useful for checking for phase and mono compatibility issues. There’s a “Dim” button with an associated level control, a main monitor mute button and an Alt monitor level that sends an independent mix output to the rear panel output sockets for connection to an extra speaker system. The headphone level control has two associated buttons to select either the mix or cue settings, and I can confirm that the phones output is of a high quality, driving a range of headphones to ear-destroying levels. I found the built-in electret microphone fine for talkback duties.
Two large-segment LED meters display either the overall mix or cue levels and, usefully, they have physical trim controls for calibration. The main mix bus features an insert point, the Sum setting being used to combine the “untreated” main mix with the inserted audio for parallel processing. Because of the console’s flexible routing system, these inserts, along with the DAW mix inputs, can be used as extra four inputs on mixdown. This ups the analog input count, adding to the eight channel inputs, eight summing inputs, eight DAW inputs, four FX return (two stereo returns), two DAW mix return (stereo input) and two mix insert sum (stereo insert).
To make the most of all these routing possibilities, you really need a patchbay; I spent way too much time around the back of the unit. A non-motorized, passive master fader completes the master section.
The onboard compressor is an analog, VCA-based type which, though perfect for main mix processing duties, can be patched anywhere via the in and out jacks on the rear panel. It’s a soft-knee design, with a blend control that makes it easy to set up parallel compression. It sits after the Mix insert, if you want to add an EQ on your mix bus and would prefer the compressor before that in the chain, you’ll have to patch it manually.
Focusrite Control 2802 rear input panel
Sonically, it’s a high-quality unit that’s pretty transparent in use, though I did manage to get it pumping nicely with judicious use of the dynamics attack and release controls. I usually mix through an API, and I’d be happy to do the same using this one.
To enable the Control, communicate with a computer, a Cat cable is used to transmit asynchronous data over a local ad hoc network. I had the console and my MacBook Pro communicating in no time at all.
You have to run a small supplied program before you can communicate with the DAW of your choice. The console uses the HUI protocol and, as I write, it supports Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase and Nuendo. Some of the DAW controller mode functionality, such as transport, jog wheel, cycle, marker and navigation, is available in the “analog” mode as well.
There are four useful function keys that output fixed key commands. I hope Focusrite will make these programmable in future software updates. I normally use a Mackie Control with Pro Tools and Logic Pro, and I found the Control speeded up my workflow in the same fashion once I got my head around it.
DAW automation of the Control analog faders is achieved by setting up the unit to send and receive automation data, and then creating eight “dummy” MIDI tracks to record and play back the automation. The Control appears effectively as two controllers — one for automation one for DAW control.
The analog side of the Control is everything you’ve come to expect from such pedigreed sources. Preamplifiers provide bags of gain, are transparent and “weighty” (in the same way that API and SSL preamps are), and the controls are clear and positive in action. The whole package feels solid and wouldn’t be out of place in any professional environment — the whole signal path is just lovely. The monitoring and cue sections are comprehensive and should provide most of the features needed for tracking in a small/project studio situation.
As a summing mixer, or host for your favorite outboard preamps, it should provide anyone nervous of working “in the box” with the sonic qualities they are used to from large-format consoles. The DAW controller side isn’t quite as intuitive in use as some dedicated controllers, but it still provides a comprehensive tactile experience that makes it a worthwhile part of the console’s feature set, especially when mixing. To help that along, Focusrite supplies its DAW-based Midnight and Forte plug-in suites for free as a bonus.
Price: $5,999 list
Contact: Focusrite | focusrite.com
Stephen Bennett runs Chaos Studios and works for the School of Music at the University of East Anglia.