Focusrite comes out swinging into the growing Thunderbolt interface market with this unbelievably affordable entry, the flagship in their new Clarett range of interfaces. I say "unbelievably affordable", but really, I'm being pretty restrained in my desire for even greater levels of hyperbole — I don't understand how such an impressive low-latency Thunderbolt interface can be offered at such a low price. And this is a family-friendly mag, of course, so I'll keep it clean. But HOLY MORGAN FREEMAN FLIPPING A BIKE! $1299 street price? What? That's a straight-up steal.
Let me elaborate. This is a handsome, crimson-red, 2RU-height interface with up to 24-bit, 192 kHz conversion; 16 channels of optical and two channels of S/PDIF I/O; word clock in and out; MIDI; eight analog inputs and ten analog outs; and eight "Air"-enabled mic preamps (more on that later). Specification claims of super-low noise and a crazy-low 1.38 ms round-trip latency (running Pro Tools at 96 kHz with a 64-word buffer) make this an attractive offering, especially when contrasted with the price of similarly-spec'd interfaces; most of the competition in the Thunderbolt interface market is at least $1000 more expensive than the Clarett 8PreX. Bonus: The Clarett ships with Focusrite's Red 2 & 3 EQ and dynamics plug-in bundle. Okay, then — clearly this looks like a bargain. On to the real-world abuse, er, testing!
First thing out of the box to note: You will need to buy a Thunderbolt cable, as one is not included. Luckily, I had an extra available. I'll assume that the exclusion of the cable is a cost-savings measure, and it's forgiven at this price point, but it's a little frustrating nonetheless. Also, unlike Apogee Ensemble [Tape Op #105] or the Universal Audio Apollo interfaces [this issue], the Clarett offers only one Thunderbolt port on the Clarett, so you cannot daisy-chain other Thunderbolt devices. By the way, connecting more than one Clarett interface to your host computer via Thunderbolt is not supported, but additional Clarett units (or other interfaces and converters) can be connected to the first unit via ADAT or S/PDIF I/O.
The front face of the Clarett features an industrial design which is considerate and ergonomic, with independent controls for each of the eight mic preamps; there's enough space available to lay out phantom power, HPF, and polarity switches for each channel, in addition to the eight gain pots. Channels 1 and 2 also have 1/4'' TS instrument input jacks present, and there is a large monitor control pot as well, just below the LED bargraph-style input meter. Dedicated dim and mute switches and two discrete headphone outputs round out the physical controls. I point all of this out because it's actually quite nice to have real, tactile control for these commonly used features without having to access the software or toggle through assignable functions. The generous space allowed with a 2RU-height panel seems like the sweet spot in this regard — so why are so many manufacturers devoted to the single-rackspace form factor? I dunno. Oh, another hardware bonus with the Clarett is the inclusion of MIDI I/O via two DIN ports on the back. I feel that quite a few current interface designs exclude Ol' Grandpa MIDI, and I for one still rely on that ancient protocol in my studio quite a bit.
The software counterpart for the Clarett is called Focusrite Control, an application which serves as a virtual mixer for the interface, allowing you to sum any combination of inputs to any of the internal mix buses, which can then in turn be routed to any of the Clarett outputs (analog or digital). A wonderfully minimalistic utility, Focusrite Control has only two pages — Device Settings and Mixing & Routing — and manages to offer a level of impressive flexibility while maintaining a clean, non-skeuomorphic look. The virtual mixer has a stereo Loopback feature, which lets you record other audio sources from within your computer back into your DAW (think iTunes or sound from a web browser, etc.). All of your mix settings can be saved for future recall as presets, and while Focusrite Control felt relatively intuitive and clear, I found the software manual (downloaded from the Focusrite website) to be very helpful, if not essential reading. Note that there is no provision for hosting or inserting plug-ins within the Control application, although with the Clarett's exceptional throughput via Thunderbolt, I was able to track with a few plug-ins inserted in my DAW input channels with little to no discernable latency. As for the latency, it's radically lower with the Clarett than with USB or FireWire-based interfaces I've tested. As Andy put it in an email conversation, "1.38 ms analog-to-analog roundtrip latency means that you would hear your mic'd guitar amp going through your DAW and back out to your headphones before you would hear the natural sound of the amp traveling through the air to your ears." (1.38 ms delay is equivalent to the time it takes for sound to travel about 19 inches.) While I didn't bust out the hard science to validate that spec to the millisecond, I can testify to the sheer pleasure of tracking vocal overdubs with the Clarett; being able to use the DAW mix (with plug-ins) as a headphone source, and monitor without any discernible drag or bottlenecking, makes for stress-free sessions.
The Clarett does not disappoint in terms of sound quality, and the preamps are quite good. A switchable mode called "Air" induces a more "open" sounding top end, much like the same feature in the Focusrite ISA 430 MkII [Tape Op #45]. Although an analog circuit, Air is engaged for each of the eight inputs via Focusrite Control. I would have liked per- channel control of this feature via the front panel; it's a bummer to have to open the software application to audition the effect with various mics or sources, because it's a great effect that I wanted to use quite often! Engaging the Air setting on the Clarett mic preamps switches the impedance to that of the classic Focusrite ISA and enables what Focusrite explains as "the 'transformer resonance effect,' giving your microphone the air and clarity of an ISA transformer-based mic pre recording." In my experience, enabling Air added a notable high-end boost that varied in character across different mic selections. This effect seemed particularly pronounced with my larger condenser mics — it's not subtle, and it's clearly more dramatic than just a simple impedance switch.
All in all, the Clarett 8PreX is an irrefutable bargain in the relatively young market of Thunderbolt interfaces. If you have a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac and are shopping for an interface, you'll want to kick the tires on this one.