With the aim of delivering excellent sonic performance and AD/DA conversion, in a Thunderbolt-equipped interface, at a fair price, the new Clarett range from Focusrite is the latest in the company's evolutionary line of computer audio interfaces. E&T spent some time with the newest member of the family, the two-channel Clarett 2Pre.
Focusrite’s Clarett range is the latest range of multi-channel audio interfaces from the British music technology specialist, a company which first gained its reputation building microphone preamps with Rupert Neve for Sir George Martin’s Air studios in London. Needless to say, Focusrite can reasonably lay claim to having a certain expertise in this area.
The family bloodline that has resulted in the Clarett range began in the previous decade with the Saffire range, which in more recent times morphed into the Scarlett range. The Clarett units are Focusrite’s first Thunderbolt-equipped audio interfaces. The company is equally convinced of both Thunderbolt’s future as a data bus as much as it is about the undeniable benefits the high-speed data transfer and ultra-low latency bring to the recording process.
Nonetheless, betting on the Thunderbolt horse demands a small leap of faith on the part of Focusrite, especially when the Clarett range is Thunderbolt only – there is no additional USB connectivity option, for example. Thunderbolt is not commonplace on computers today and, for now, the Clarett devices are Mac only, with Windows drivers "coming soon". At least in Apple’s current range, all Macs - apart from the minimalist MacBook - have at least one Thunderbolt port.
Initially, Focusrite released the 1U rackmounted eight-channel Clarett variant, the 8Pre. Now there are four Clarett models are available: the 8Pre, 8Prex, 4Pre and the 2Pre. We spent some time with the newest member of the family, the 2Pre, to enjoy the Clarett flavour in its simplest form.
You, me and 2Pre
There is an ergonomic, operational difference between using a full-rack eight-channel interface and a more portable desktop two or four-channel device. The 8Pre, for example, is likely to be a permanent installation, while the latter units are likely to be mobile. The 8Pre has two front combi XLR mic/line sockets, with the rest at the back. The 2Pre (and the 4Pre) have all XLR mic/line sockets on the front, which makes plugging in and recording easier on a desk or other temporary work surface.
The reduced real estate of the 2Pre also means the metering is limited. The 8Pre has six-segment LED ladder-style readouts for each channel. The 2Pre (and also the 4Pre) has 'gain halos' – these lights glow around the gain knob to indicate healthy signal level and overload. As you might expect, green is good, red is bad. It’s not much, but it works. Of course, you can monitor a much more detailed signal level reading in your software – either the excellent Focusrite Control mixer software or your DAW of choice.
On the knob front, it is always a pleasure to use a device with physical controls, as opposed to controlling everything from software, and when the controls are of good quality, the positive feeling and reassurance in build that this imparts to the user is tangible. As such, the Clarett range exhibits quality components across the board.
The front panel of the 2Pre houses the two combi mic/line inputs, separate gain knobs for each channel, independent 48V phantom power switches, indicators for Inst (line in) and Air functions (more of which later), a large monitor volume knob and a smaller headphone volume knob and input jack.
The headphone output is nice and loud and we had no problems driving a range of headphones, e.g. a pair of decent consumer-grade Urbanears ‘phones and a pair of studio-quality Beyerdynamic Custom One Pros.
On the back of the unit is the power switch and power supply input (none of the Clarett range can be bus-powered, not even the 2Pre), five-pin MIDI In and Out sockets, four line output sockets, a K-lock hole and an ADAT optical digital input socket to which you could, for example, add an eight-channel digital mic pre.
By comparison, the 4Pre additionally adds a second headphone socket on its front panel (with a second dedicated volume knob), four additional analogue line inputs on the back and also SPDIF digital in and out jacks.
One point worth noting is that there is no Thunderbolt cable supplied in the box. This did surprise us, as it requires the owner to buy one before they can start recording, so we consulted Focusrite. Its honest response was: “'It comes down to the fact that we simply can’t manufacture Thunderbolt cables at the right price for our customers, they are expensive cables and it's difficult to supply the right cable length.
“We are looking into this and hope to have a solution as soon as we can, but as an exclusive connectivity (Thunderbolt), we don’t want to burden our Clarett customers with what is a potentially unnecessary cost.”
Fair enough. Just remember to budget an extra £20-30 for one of Apple's Thunderbolt cables, if you don’t already have one.
No holds barred
The on-paper specs for the Clarett range are the same across the board. The new preamps model Focusrite’s classic ISA design, with a dynamic A/D range of 118dB and a noise floor of -128dB. Recordings are thus impressively clean and quiet, with headroom for days. The units support recording and playback at 24-bit sample rates up to 192Khz, with that Thunderbolt round-trip latency of milliseconds – even when monitoring or recording through plug-ins.
This has been the dream of digital recording for the last 20 years. Before Thunderbolt, latency was unavoidable, that mojo-wrecking lag in playing or singing and hearing that can throw an artist’s timing off and deliver an unsatisfactory, hesitant performance. Typically, studios have had to set up two separate mixes – one for general playback at the mixing desk and one for the performer(s) out in the room, either stripped back of plug-ins, such as reverb, or relying on external hardware between microphone and recording interface.
With Thunderbolt, these issues have largely been swept away. Now we’re able to record through plug-ins in real time, as if all that virtual hardware is real rack gear. Guitar amp simulators and classic vocal microphone signal chains - sweetened with inline reverb, EQ, compression and tape saturation – can be deployed with ease, with latency so imperceptible as to make no difference. A physical guitar amp in the room only four feet away is theoretically delivering more latency to your ears than Thunderbolt delivers in its software A/D/A round-trip. Your DAW of choice is now as immediate as any vintage mixing console, albeit without the hands-on control.
Talking of control, the *ahem* Control software does a neat and elegant job of laying out control of all the I/O. This app is another area in which the Clarett range reveals its mature heritage, as Focusrite is clearly building on the development of past interfaces, capitalising on its experience. As of now, this hardware and software combination (with the obvious exception of Focusrite’s phenomenally well-specified new flagship Red 4Pre) represents the coming together of the company’s best audio interface work from recent years, anchored by its decades of legacy R&D work on designing microphone preamps and A/D converters.
Recording and playback through the Clarett 2Pre is a pleasure to work with, whether capturing mic, line or instrument signals. Everything we ran through the unit emerged audibly unscathed, a faithful reproduction of the original source.
Coming up for Air
The Clarett range also has another, seductive trick up its sleeve: the ‘Air’ setting. This mid-high frequency bump was inspired by the sonic characteristic of Focusrite’s well-respected hardware transformer-based ISA preamps. On the original Rupert Neve design, the interaction between the transformer and the microphone impacted the signal, with resonance from the transformer subtly emphasising the higher frequency content of the sound. The ‘Air’ setting on the Clarett units emulates this effect in the analogue domain.
In describing the ‘Air’ effect, Focusite has been quoted as saying, “Air mode is an impedance change in the mic pre from 6.2 to 2.1 k? in combination with a frequency response change through the use of an analogue filter which provides a 4dB boost starting from around 100Hz, reaching +4dB around 10kHz, all of which happens before the A–D conversion.”
What this means in practice is that you have two choices when recording: capture your source flat or add a little sheen from the ‘Air’ setting on the way in. Of course, there’s no way to undo the effect post-recording and there’s no way of controlling the amount of ‘Air’ you apply – it’s all or nothing. However, it does sound good, the enhanced sense of presence very pleasing to the ear.
Sometimes the high-frequency lift could be too much on treble-heavy content (e.g. certain metallic percussion sources, such as tambourines or cymbals), but on the whole there’s a distinct tendency to keep the ‘Air’ setting permanently engaged. The effect is particularly appropriate for vintage microphones or ribbon mics, for which the original input impedance of the ISA preamp transformer was designed.
Green light for Clarett
All in all, we really like the Clarett range. The downsides are few. With specific reference to the 2Pre on test here, the price may seem high to some people for a two-channel device, but this is Thunderbolt, not USB. The quality of the preamps – with the addition of the ‘Air’ function – further justifies the cost and the Time & Tone software plug-in bundle is a true gift. In addition to Focusrite’s own Red2 (EQ) and Red3 (compressor) signal processors, the addition of four excellent plug-ins from widely admired Swedish developers Softube (the TSAR-1R reverb, Tube Delay, the Drawmer S73 master bus processor and Saturation Knob) makes for a very decent package.
There is no stripped-down DAW recording software bundled, as there is with many interfaces, as Focusrite reasonably assumes anyone buying a Thunderbolt audio interface already has their DAW of choice. If you don’t, you’ll have to budget for that on top of any Clarett interface, although the choice is entirely yours – the Clarett will play nicely with everything.
Some users might also expect stepped controls for the gain knobs, especially on a two-channel stereo recording device, so that both sides of the stereo picture can be “bookmatched” in terms of overall gain. This would have added to the unit build cost – significantly, if the finest components were chosen to ensure the stepped controls could definitively be matched and accurately replicated every time. If not, any perceived advantage of stepped controls can slip away.
Finally, none of the Clarett range can be bus-powered, so you’ll always need mains power for location recording, even if your laptop doesn’t.
None of which detracts in any meaningful way from the 2Pre or its bigger siblings. Focusrite has done an excellent job with the Clarett range, delivering the essential elements of a recording interface and improving on its designs in every way. With Clarett, the mic preamps are better, the A/D/A converters are superior, the ‘Air’ option is much more than merely a cute trick, the software Control panel is elegantly effective, the Time & Tone bundle is genuinely useful and the overall build quality of the units is top-notch.
Frankly, our only reservation is whether to plump for the 2Pre or the 4Pre. For not much more money, and to get the two additional mic preamps and four line inputs, as well as a second headphone jack, we’d go for the 4Pre, but if your needs are simpler mono or stereo recording, the Clarett 2Pre is as fine a choice as you could make.