What can’t you sufficiently capture with two microphones at any one given time? Considering our most common modern-day production techniques, not much. Thus, other than intricately miked acoustic sound sources or, most commonly, acoustic drum kits peppered with an assortment of dynamic, condenser and ribbon microphones, a dual XLR-equipped audio interface is all you often need to get into your DAW to pro-grade standards.
Yet the two great-sounding Focusrite preamps built into the new Scarlett 18i6 and 8i6 audio interfaces are just one compelling feature of these attractively priced options in USB-based DAW I/O. In this increasingly crowded market segment — for lack of a better phrase, “affordable pro I/O boxes” — what makes Scarlett interfaces worth a close look?
The features. Yes, it’s really all about the many valuable features packed into these two 1U, half-rack units. Both Scarlett units feature the aforementioned dual Focusrite mic/line/instrument preamps with phantom power via Neutrik XLR/TRS combo jacks; USB 2.0 connectivity to your DAW with up to 24-bit/96 kHz A/D conversion; MIDI I/O; S/PDIF I/O; a frontpanel monitor knob; frontpanel quarter-inch headphone jack with rotary volume knob; and the “ultra-low latency” (<1.4ms) Scarlett MixControl 18X6 DSP Mixer/ Router. Also included with either Scarlett purchase is the Scarlett plug-in suite (VST/AU and RTAS) featuring EQ, compression, reverb and gates, plus others perks (royalty-free loops and samples, a soft synth and Ableton Live Lite 8), but more on the plug-ins later.
The differences between 18i6 and 8i6 are more meaningful than simply “more” or “less,” as they are well conceived for two different types of needs. The 8i6 additionally features two balanced quarter-inch TRS inputs and four balanced quarter-inch TRS outputs; the 18i6 additionally features six balanced quarter-inch TRS inputs, two balanced quarter-inch TRS outputs, analog input LED metering on the front panel, and ADAT Optical/TOSLINK input. The ADAT Optical In is especially handy and can be used with any Optical output-equipped multichannel preamplifier, such as Focusrite’s own OctoPre MkII Dynamic, which I reviewed several months ago in PAR; together, the Scarlett 18i6 and OctoPre MkII Dynamic can provide 10 identical Focusrite preamplifiers (not to mention the MkII Dynamic’s eight built-in compressors) as a complete DAW front end and I/O configuration right at $1,000 street. Very cool.
I gladly purchased a new OctoPre MkII Dynamic following my review — I now keep it quite busy — so for this evaluation, I configured the exact Focusrite recording rig as described above for a series of location tracking sessions: basic full band tracks featuring drums, bass, guitar and scratch vocals, on location in an empty house, with no other gear other than the necessary microphones, headphones and IEMs powered by a Aphex HeadPod 454 amplifier, and my MacBook Pro running Apple Logic.
Using no audio processing within Logic, only the Scarlett plug-in bundle provided with the 18i6, I quickly found it so easy to use the tasteful Scarlett effects that I didn’t use anything else. For this completely in-the-box (ITB) project, why not? They worked simply, sound great, and are both user- and processor-friendly. Having this Focusrite processing at my fingertips, along with the Focusrite MixControl DSP mixer, my creative life suddenly felt less “digital” as the GUIs for both the Scarlett plug-in suite and DSP mixer look and act “more analog” than most — or, with due respect for Focusrite’s British heritage, “more analogue.” The sometimes less-than-logical DAW environment of Apple Logic was well complemented by the quite logical worlds of MixControl and Scarlett.
The musicians I worked with on this particular project included a guitarist who is reasonably accomplished in dialing in his own sounds in the studio, yet isn’t what you would call a “DAW person.” His normal studio environment remains based on racks of outboard processing, a dedicated hard-disk multitrack recorder, and a tactile, “analog-ish” digital mixer. Yet that didn’t impede our shared (and quickly discovered) infatuation with this Focusrite Scarlett/MixControl as workflow. In no time, he was comfortable applying compression, EQ and reverb to his own tracks to taste, just as he would in his normal digs. Observing this helped me better understand how these Scarlett interfaces may be accepted in the worlds of technologically averse self-recordists: quicker than you’d think.
Just like the OctoPre MkII Dynamic I previously reviewed, the Scarlett 18i6 and 8i6 proved to be well built, clean and greatsounding if not completely transparent, and valuable beyond their price points. These already attractive boxes are even more appealing because of the bundled DSP mixer and plug-ins; it’s not “me too” stuff, it’s Focusrite software that is equally as high-quality and user-friendly as the hardware with which it is conceived to work.
Between the two, because I am a self-recordist that regularly records a live drum kit, my preference would be the 18i6 due to its increased input capabilities, not to mention its better input metering on the front panel. Either way, two Focusrite preamplifers, all the available I/O, and the truly killer Scarlett bundled plug-ins make either choice a great little I/O box you can stick under your arm so as to never miss a potential keeper, or that affordable preamp that even your favorite hired mixer won’t complain about. So whether depending on the “two mics at a time” standard or 10, the latest from Focusrite should not disappoint anyone involved in your own productions.
Prices: $299 and $399 list (8i6 and 18i6, respectively)
Contact: Focusrite | focusrite.com
Strother Bullins is the reviews and features editor for Pro Audio Review.