The Red Range is Focusrite’s latest series of audio interfaces, currently comprised of the Red 4Pre and Red 8Pre. The former has four built-in Red Evolution preamps, and a total I/O count of 58 in and 64 out, divided across digital and analog channels. The latter has eight preamps, and a total of 64 in, 64 out. Host connectivity is through Thunderbolt or DigiLink Mini. (A Pro Tools DigiLink I/O license is required for use with Pro Tools | HD.) Dante Audio over Ethernet lets you connect the Red Range to other networked devices or to a Dante-equipped host computer. When I first read about the Red Range, I wondered what compromises were made by Focusrite to fit all that functionality into a 1RU-height chassis. Would it be difficult to use? Would the sound quality suffer?
It just so happened that my colleague Neil Mclellan, who was working in London on a production with The Prodigy, was about to embark on a Dante-based studio build in Bali. Over a Skype call, I proposed that he look at the new Red Range, and Neil nonchalantly mentioned that the Focusrite London office was just down the hall from his rented studio. A couple of quick emails later, Neil had a Red 4Pre in his hands, and he dove right into it. With Neil being clearly impressed with the unit, I soon realized that I needed to try one myself. I asked Focusrite to loan me a Red 8Pre. Over the course of a couple months, Neil and I traded notes over email — the narrative of which is now represented in this review. –AH
NM: It’s beyond me how Focusrite managed to cram so much into the Red 4Pre. The design and build quality is just fantastic, and I really appreciate the layout on the front of the unit. The color displays on the front are almost full height, and you can read them from quite a ways away. There are three displays, one each for input settings, metering, and output settings. Depending on what you’re adjusting, they show you a mix of graphics and numbers that are all nice and clear. Obviously, they had real recording engineers using these things to inform them of what worked and what didn’t.
AH: A good example is the default Preamp Overview screen for the leftmost display. Anyone who’s flown a plane or driven a race vehicle knows that rotary indicators are much easier to see at a quick glance, and a quick glance at the Red 8Pre is all it takes to see if your virtual level knobs and phantom-power status are where they should be. The Red 4Pre and 8Pre are remote-controllable, as well as fully recallable, so they don’t have dedicated analog potentiometers for things like input gain. The combination of a well-designed color display and a large pushbutton rotary encoder is the next best thing. The encoder in conjunction with the left screen is used for other settings as well — 80 Hz HPF, polarity reversal, mic/instrument/line–level selection, and stereo linking. The right screen shows you monitoring settings and levels, and it too has its own rotary encoder to access functions like mute, dim, main output volume, and headphone volume. The middle screen is dedicated to showing input meters (post-conversion), eight channels at a time. Thankfully, the meters are big enough to be seen from across the room, and you can page through the channels using the righthand rotary encoder.
NM: I really like the feel of the two encoders. They’re quick to use, but they’re also very precise. The buttons are just lovely too. They’re backlit, and they have an invisible texture to them, as if they’re grippy, without looking grippy — if you know what I mean. And the power button is something the labcoat-wearing folks at Focusrite got right; I’m sure they must have gotten feedback from real users. Unlike the devices in the RedNet line, the Red 4Pre can’t easily be knocked and turned off, even if it’s in a rack at knee height. I’ve heard more than my fair share of horror stories of some poor bugger bringing a recording to a halt with his knee. Once you push in the button to turn on the Red 4Pre, the button remains recessed enough that anything bigger than the end of your thumb can’t push it again to turn it off. Brilliant. With that said, I wish there were meters for the individual output channels too. There’s a lot of routing you can do inside the box, so it’s not always immediately clear if one of the input meters you’re seeing is related at all to a particular output. I’m told that a firmware update that enables output metering is planned.
Speaking of channels and routing, it’s all very easily handled by Focusrite Control — the software application you install on your Mac — and the Dante networking is where this unit really shines. It’s massively flexible. In addition to using the Red 4Pre with Pro Tools | HD, we also tried it connected to the Ethernet port of one of our Macs, with Audinate Dante Virtual Soundcard installed on the Mac. It’s basically a software layer that pretends to be a 64-channel Dante interface, using the bog-standard network jack in lieu of a hardware PCIe card — very keen and very easy to set up. If your Mac doesn’t have Thunderbolt or a Pro Tools | HD card, this is the way to go.
Unfortunately, if you want to make adjustments to the Red 4Pre’s internal routing, you have to use Focusrite Control through a Thunderbolt connection. That wasn’t an issue when I was recording with the Red 4Pre on my MacBook Pro laptop, but some of the Pro Tools rigs we are using do not have Thunderbolt. Fortunately, I could set up routing on my laptop, but still use our Pro Tools rigs for the actual recording. What’s nice is that the Red 4Pre retains its routings even if you turn it off and shuffle it between computers.
AH: I ran into the same issue, but in a different scenario. My studio computer is a rackmount PC running Windows 10 Pro. Focusrite Control is only available for macOS, and the Red 8Pre’s Thunderbolt connectivity is not Windows-compatible anyway. So, when I wanted to use the Red 8Pre with my studio PC, I first had to configure it with a borrowed MacBook. With that said, the Red 8Pre ran fine connected to my PC using Dante Virtual Soundcard, and needless to say, it also worked flawlessly as the Thunderbolt audio interface for the MacBook. I even strapped 16 additional channels of conversion to the Red 8Pre’s ADAT ports. Moreover, Focusrite iOS Control is an iPhone/iPad app that has an abbreviated set of controls for remote controlling the Focusrite Control application running on the Mac (which in turn is controlling the Red 8Pre). It’s a handy way for musicians to wirelessly change their monitoring levels, or for engineers to tweak mic preamp settings.
NM: Focusrite Control is easy to use and well laid out, but I will add that it can get tedious to set up routing for a lot of channels. I wish it had shortcuts like Pro Tools for assigning a series of I/O channels at once (using multiselect and the Option key, for example), instead of having to go through dropdown menus individually. Once I had my channels set up, and I connected the Red 4Pre using standard DigiLink Mini cables to Pro Tools | HD, it was off to the races.
I first used the Red 4Pre as a monitor controller and headphone amp for mixing. It has everything I needed, and the headphone amp has loads of headroom and sounds nice and clean. There are two independent headphone jacks that you can configure with the same feed, or two different feeds if you want one for yourself and one for the artist. I then did some tracking through the Red 4Pre’s mic preamps, which also sound nice and clean. Even at the highest gain settings, there’s really no noise to speak of. The Air setting is something I love; it adds a top-end sheen in a similar manner to the classic Focusrite ISA preamps that I’ve used countless times over the years. Instead of fussing with an outboard EQ, I just turn on Air and tell the artist that we’re recording.
AH: Contrary to what I had assumed, the Air effect is 100% analog. Internally, the Red Evolution preamp circuit includes impedance switching at its input stage and a passive filter at its output stage to implement the Air setting’s gently tilting “lift” of the mids and highs. (The original Air effect in the ISA preamps is transformer-based.) I love using the Air effect with passive ribbon mics, especially on drum overheads. I find it interesting that turning on Air will often have the side effect of tightening up the low end, especially at high-gain settings.
Speaking more broadly, the Red Evolution preamps sound fantastic, and as a whole, the Red 8Pre sounds unbelievable. Its transient response, in particular, is exemplary — better than any other multitrack converter at my disposal. For example, drums tracked through the Red 8Pre have punch and impact that seems visceral. Piano has so much more depth than I’ve grown accustomed to hearing from my other converters. And mixes with subtle percussive elements really come alive.
After hearing the result of my recordings, I put the Red 8Pre on my “test bench” and ran measurements. Unlike all of my other multichannel converters, the Red 8Pre exhibits zero pre-ringing in its impulse response, and it presents no significant aliasing artifacts (or IM distortion) at any of its sampling rates up to 192 kHz — even if it doesn’t have the flattest amplitude response, the highest SNR, or lowest THD. Apparently, Focusrite’s design engineers knew where to focus their resources in implementing a converter that’s optimized for actual music. To be honest, I was expecting the Red 8Pre to sound great, given its price, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the difference in sound to be so apparent between it and my other converters.
I also measured roundtrip latency (analog input to analog output) via Thunderbolt, and here too I was impressed. In Pro Tools on macOS at 44.1 kHz with a 32 word buffer, the delay was 2.90 ms. At 96 kHz with a 64 buffer, 2.38 ms. In Cubase, I was able to drop the delay down to 1.708 ms with a 32 word buffer at 96 kHz (although curiously, the Red 8Pre driver reported 1.697 ms latency in this instance). Sound travels at roughly 1 ft per ms; therefore, a 2 ms delay is roughly equivalent to listening to a source that’s 2 ft away, which would mean an electric guitarist monitoring through headphones would hear a close-mic’d amplifier in the headphones before hearing the sound traveling naturally through the air.
NM: One thing to keep in mind is that some of the Red 4Pre’s analog I/O is on DB25 connectors. Other than four XLR mic jacks and two TRS monitor outputs around back, there are 1/4’’ instrument inputs and 1/4’’ TRS headphone jacks on the front. For the rest of the analog channels, you’ll need DB25 breakout snakes.
AH: I very much prefer DB25s for multichannel I/O over individual connectors. And I love how the eight mic inputs of the Red 8Pre are on a single DB25 instead of individual XLRs, because I was able to connect the Red 8Pre to my mic-level patchbay in a matter of seconds. Same with the rest of the I/O to my line-level patchbay. Moreover, if I were using the Red 8Pre for remote recording, I’d purchase a DB25-XLR rack panel for connecting mics — one that I could move to the front or to the rear of the rack, or even to another rack, as needed. Given how much I/O and routing capability is built into the 1RU-height chassis, I strongly believe that DB25 connectors are the right choice.
With that said, I found it extremely frustrating that the line input channels are divided up in standard banks of 1–8 and 9–16 across DB25s, while the outputs go 1–2 TRS, then 3–10 and 11-18 DB25. This means that if you have a DB25-equipped patchbay and you use standard DB25 snakes, your input and output channels won’t line up vertically — unless you opt for custom-made cables. [Fortunately, Focusrite Control 2.1.7, released after I wrote this, allows reassignment of line-level I/O to address this very issue.] I also found it mildly annoying that the analog input and output levels have different calibrations, presumably to reduce the chance of overloading the inputs during loopbacks. In Cubase, I can set send/return levels individually for analog inserts, but that functionality is missing in Pro Tools, which makes A/B’ing analog inserts difficult. For me, the odd channel-banking and mismatched I/O calibration are the two lone defects in the Red 8Pre’s otherwise ideal I/O.
NM: The DB25 channel assignments didn’t bite my arse. I was using DB25-XLR breakouts where necessary. If I’m not mixing on a full-sized desk, I’m usually in-the-box, and I don’t often use analog inserts on individual channels in-the-box. So, from where I stood, all of the analog I/O was easy to work with, and very flexible. I will mention that I am very much looking forward to Focusrite adding Ethernet-based remote control and I/O mapping of the Red Range interfaces to the RedNet Control application (versus Focusrite Control), for systems that lack Thunderbolt or are too far away.
At the end of the day, the Red 4Pre does exactly what it says on the tin, and it’s amazing with DigiLink, Thunderbolt, and Dante — making it one of the most flexible interfaces I’ve used. It’s really future-proof. And the bottom line is that it sounds great.
AH: We should also mention that the Softube Time & Tone plug-in bundle, and the Focusrite Red 2 and 3 plug-in suites come free with both Red Range devices. Plus, registered owners of Focusrite hardware receive monthly offers for free or heavily discounted plug-ins from the likes of FabFilter, Eventide, Sound Radix, iZotope, Softube, etc. There’s a lot to love here with the Focusrite Red 4Pre and Red 8Pre — great user interface; impressive sound; solid build; flexible I/O and routing; remote control; interfacing through DigiLink, Thunderbolt, and Dante; and access to first-class plug-ins.
I think Neil said it best when he called the Red 4Pre “future-proof.” In my opinion, Focusrite is making the most forward-looking recording interfaces available today. Even Pro Tools | HD users tied to the past (whether they know it or not) can take a step forward in time by investing in a Red Range interface — one that will not only upgrade the sound of their systems today, but will also allow effortless expansion in the future.