The audio interface might be the most important piece of kit in your entire studio. But with so many on the market, how do you know which one is right for you? This web article explains some of the key aspects of Focusrite interface design, giving you the information you need to make an informed choice.
Birth of the Project Studio
The appearance of the home or project studio dates to around 1972 – when TEAC modified their quadraphonic 4-track home tape recorders to offer individual track recording and monitoring. The 2340 and the 3340 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorders were affordable and offered four tracks on ¼-inch tape. The 3340 and its relatives, used in conjunction with a small recording/mixing console, were capable of what were considered at the time excellent results.
Fostex came in with the A-8, with eight tracks on ¼-inch tape, and a small mixing console to go with it. 1979 saw the launch, under TEAC’s Tascam label, of the first cassette-based integrated 4-track recorder/mixer: the Portastudio 144, first of a long line of home studio systems using standard cassette tapes, often running at double speed.
Later developments included the advent of digital multitrack systems, including recorders like the Alesis ADAT (1992) that used S-VHS tapes, and the Tascam DA-88 using 8mm video format tapes. Later recorders used hard drives as these became cheaper, providing instant access to anywhere in a recording.
The Sonic Workstation
Electronic instruments had been able to communicate with each other via MIDI since it was standardized in 1983, and the advent of affordable home computers led to the personal computer-based sequencing software for recording, playback and editing of MIDI patterns on computers like the Atari ST and Apple Macintosh.
Some programs added stereo audio recording, editing and playback, creating the first general purpose “Digital Audio Workstations” (DAWs). Ultimately, many DAWs came to feature extensive multitrack recording, mixing and editing features: today they’re the most popular way to record – whether in back rooms or multi-room studios.
Computer Audio – the Upside
Computers initially lacked high quality built-in audio, but add-in sampler boards for personal computers, and computer-based musical instruments, had been around since the early 1980s. The arrival of keyboard samplers led the way to computer-based sample editors. One, Sound Designer, ultimately developed, via a stereo recording and editing program called Sound Tools, into the most popular multitrack DAW of all, Pro Tools, launched in 1991.
Simultaneously, computers offered improved on-board audio capability, and manufacturers such as Creative Technology introduced add-in cards for the Windows PC with the ability to capture and output audio. Thus the Sound Blaster was born. It was one of the first of many cards of this type.
Computer Audio – the Downside
It’s tempting to use the on-board computer audio or soundcard for music recording. However, there are several reasons why this is not a good idea.
The interior of a computer is full of radio frequency signals. There are digital clocks, data streams and other control signals radiated into the enclosure, which are easily picked up by audio card circuitry and wiring. Digital noise can also come from the power rails, limiting the dynamic range of a recording and compromising its quality. Computer digital clocks may be insufficiently accurate or stable for quality work, contributing to jitter, impacting stereo imaging and audio transparency.
Meanwhile, the miniature connectors used to get sound into and out of a computer are unreliable and can cause hum and inadvertent disconnection. And consumer systems often cannot cope with the higher audio levels found in professional studio gear.
What you need instead is an audio interface.
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is an external unit that connects to your computer via one of several computer interfaces – such as USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt. It includes everything you need to get high-quality audio to and from your computer and DAW software.
The audio interface converts analog audio to digital at high quality and back again. Most audio sources, from vocals to guitars and many keyboards, are analog, and require an analog-to-digital converter (A-D). A digital-to-analog converter (D-A) gets the sound back into analog for monitoring, or for line level feeds to go into an analog mixing console. The quality of the digital conversion is one of three primary defining features of an audio interface.
Sample rates and bit depth
Most audio interfaces handle standard digital audio sample rates, including 44.1/48kHz (the standard for CD/DVD), 88.2/96kHz (found on DVD-Audio, Blu-Ray Disc and ‘High Resolution Audio’ streams and files), and up to 192kHz. It’s generally felt that higher sample rates provide higher sound quality, as the filters that are required in digital recording can affect the sound, and the further above the audio band they are, the better. However higher sample rates require more storage. 88.2/96kHz is probably a good balance.
Most converters operate at a ‘bit depth’ (or ‘word length’) of 24 bits. The word length defines the noise floor or dynamic range – the difference in loudness between the loudest and quietest sounds a system can handle. The 16-bit word length of Compact Disc is probably insufficient. 24 bits can capture sounds way below the limit of human hearing and is plenty.
Analog is the key: Circuitry
Analog circuit design is in many ways trickier than digital. In an environment that mixes the two, like in an interface, factors like board layout, component choice and position, and the enclosure itself become significant. And it’s the design of the microphone preamplifier that is most difficult of all to get right, and the most subjective when evaluating the sound of an interface.
The analog circuitry also allows you to use professional Recording Equipment in your studio. Audio interfaces feature connectors like XLRs and ¼-inch jacks. They handle professional levels and have plenty of headroom (the ability to take large signal levels without distortion).
Recording out of time: Latency
The third important factor in an interface is latency. “Round-trip” latency is the time it takes for a signal to go into the interface, pass into the computer, get processed in the DAW and come back out again. Latency matters: if you are recording with processing or effects and want to listen to them as you record, the latency must be as low as possible. More than three milliseconds or so and the delay between playing a note and hearing it is sufficiently long that it becomes painfully audible and impossible to play or sing against.
If the latency is too long to let you use plug-ins in real time, you have to monitor the input instead – either without the effects or with special separate signal processing.
Latency depends on the computer connection (USB, Thunderbolt etc), and the interface’s circuit and driver design.
Focusrite in a nutshell
Focusrite was founded in 1985 by leading British audio designer Rupert Neve to build a series of modules based around a mic preamp for the console in Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios. This ISA (Input Signal Amplifier) 110 was sold successfully as a stand-alone unit. The company also built a few extremely high quality Forte consoles.
Audio veteran Phil Dudderidge bought Focusrite in 1989, reissuing the original modules alongside some new designs, and built a new console, the Focusrite Studio Console. This led to a range of outboard devices, the Red Range – still highly regarded today. Focusrite built several ranges of professional audio modules over the following years, culminating in today’s ISA Range. Collaboration between Focusrite and Digidesign (now Avid, the makers of Pro Tools) resulted in the Mbox (2001) the first true integrated audio interface product from the company.
The company’s first interface series was the Saffire range, launched in 2005. Since then the company has added several more series, including the Scarlett USB interfaces, now in their second generation; the Clarett series of USB or Thunderbolt interfaces; and several industrial audio systems we won’t cover here.
Which connection? Firewire, USB and Thunderbolt
USB Type-A is the standard USB design, using a flat rectangular connector from a corresponding computer port. USB Type-B differs from USB Type-A in shape, and connects to a corresponding interface port. Scarlett interfaces can deliver Focusrite sound straight into your DAW via USB.
Scarlett USB audio interfaces utilize the USB 2.0 protocol. This is because the USB 3.0 protocol will deliver no round-trip latency benefits over USB 2.0. Although USB 3.0 offers greater bandwidth than USB 2.0, our Scarlett 18i20 provides more than enough bandwidth for delivering 18 channels of audio inputs and 20 channels of audio outputs simultaneously. There’s also a question of backwards compatibility. USB 2.0 devices work without any issue on USB 3.0 ports, however, the same can’t be said for USB 3.0 devices on USB 2.0 ports.
The ultra-low noise and distortion and wide dynamic range of Clarett can now be experienced with any Mac or PC supporting USB 2.0 and above. The Clarett USB series includes standard USB and USB Type-C cables to connect Mac or PC.
Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 ports have a DisplayPort connector, but can be differentiated from regular DisplayPorts by the Thunderbolt logo being printed above the port.
The Clarett Thunderbolt interfaces use Thunderbolt 1, which has a bandwidth of 10 Gbps – more than enough for audio recording and other applications. Clarett Thunderbolt interfaces can be connected to either Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 ports.
Focusrite interface options:
Sam Ash offers several Focusrite interface series, including the USB-based Scarlett series, and the USB or Thunderbolt-connected Clarett series.
Moving up from one range to another generally offers additional features and higher performance. Several interfaces can be expanded via ADAT light-pipe connections to provide additional inputs and sometimes outputs, in conjunction with products like Focusrite’s OctoPre 8-channel mic pre expanders.
Most interfaces include a useful selection of quality plug-ins including collaborations with leading suppliers via Focusrite’s Plug-In Collective initiative.
The Focusrite Scarlett Series
The Second Generation range of Scarlett interfaces represent excellent value compared to other USB interfaces, including super-low latency (as low as 2.74 ms round-trip), metal volume controls and sleek red metal chassis, 24-bit conversion with sample rates up to 192kHz, an improved mic preamp with a smoother gain structure, and re-designed instrument inputs that can handle even seriously hot guitar pickups.
Scarlett interfaces feature “gain halos” around the input controls showing green for signal, red for overload – an instant level indication. The Solo and 2i2 are available in Studio Packs, including a high-quality condenser microphone and monitor headphones so you can start recording immediately. Scarlett models offer a range of inputs and outputs, including between one and eight mic preamps.
Scarlett at a glance
Scarlett Solo – Our most compact USB interface featuring one mic pre: ideal for guitarists and singer-songwriters. An easy way to make studio quality recordings at home. Available in a Studio Pack.
Scarlett 2i2 – A compact, versatile 2×2 USB audio interface featuring two mic inputs. Singer-songwriters can record studio quality audio anywhere, using two mic preamps. Available in a Studio Pack.
Scarlett 2i4 – A 2-in, 4-out interface ideal for live work, making it easy to perform and record studio quality audio against a cue mix.
Scarlett 6i6 – A 6-in, 6-out USB audio interface with two headphone outputs. Perfect for multi-instrumentalists, producers, recording artists, and small bands.
Scarlett 18i8 – Our most comprehensive desktop USB interface. 18×8 with separate stereo headphone outputs. Leave instruments permanently set up and ready to record.
Scarlett 18i20 – 18×20 interface providing loads of I/O, pristine sound quality, separate stereo headphone mixes and extensive expansion options – all in a 1U rack space.
The Clarett sound is available over USB or Thunderbolt. Both ranges offer three units varying in their I/O: Clarett 2Pre (10-in, 4-out), Clarett 4Pre (18-in, 8-out) and Clarett 8Pre (18-in, 20-out). Clarett 8PreX (26-in, 28-out) is only available as a Thunderbolt device.
Better, faster and easier, Clarett interfaces feature specially-designed high-performance, low noise mic pres with a clean, open and transparent sound. They also include the unique analogue “Air” effect, emulating the sound of Focusrite’s classic transformer-based mic preamps, adding a lift to vocals and acoustic instruments. Clarett includes precision digital conversion with 119dB dynamic range.
Included is Focusrite Control – a software mixer designed for easy configuration of monitoring and routing setups. The interface can also be controlled remotely from an iPhone or iPad via Focusrite iOS Control.
Clarett At A Glance
Clarett 2Pre (USB or Thunderbolt) – With dual mic preamps, it’s ideal for guitarists, singer-songwriters or in-the-box electronic musicians looking for minimal latency and maximum sound quality.
Clarett 4Pre (USB or Thunderbolt) – For studio-quality sound, performance and functionality, leave your gear plugged into this versatile and compact 4-mic pre interface.
Clarett 8Pre (USB or Thunderbolt) – Ultra-low latency, eight mic pres, 18×20 I/O, pristine sound quality and rock solid reliability in a 1U package for your studio setup or mobile recording rig.
Clarett 8PreX (Thunderbolt–only) – With the audible superiority of its performance confirmed recently in a blind shootout, this is the 26×28 flagship of our Clarett range. Clarett 8PreX provides separate jack (line) and XLR (mic) connectors so you can leave inputs permanently connected for instant access. There’s extensive digital I/O including dual ADAT I/O for expansion via products such as the Clarett OctoPre, and Word Clock I/O.
Focusrite was a contributor to this article.
Company Bio: Focusrite started as a collaboration between Rupert Neve and George Martin to augment the recording desks at Air Studios. Over the next 25 years Focusrite has become a leader in home studio recording making some of the world’s most reliable audio interfaces, mic preamps and more.
Company Email: [email protected]