In January 2018, Focusrite introduced USB2.0 class compliant versions of three audio interfaces in the Clarett range that were previously available as Thunderbolt-only devices, opening up the range to greater compatibility across macOS and Windows. Clarett occupies the space between the best-selling Scarlett [Tape Op #115] and the high-end Red [#120] lines, and of the three, I believe Clarett offers the highest ratio of sonic performance over price. All of the Clarett interfaces share the same high-quality preamps and converters, but Focusrite, never content with the past, made incremental improvements in the circuitry of the USB editions to eke out some slightly better audio results compared to the original Thunderbolt variants. Also in a forward-looking move, Focusrite chose to standardize on a USB-C connector for the USB2.0 connection to the host; both USB-C and USB-C to TypeA cables are included in the box. Also included is a software and plug-in package of Ableton Live Lite, XLN Audio Addictive Keys, Focusrite Red Plug-In Suite, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, and 2GB each of Focusrite Drum Tracks and Loopmasters sample libraries. Additionally, customers who have registered their Scarlett, Clarett, or Red purchase are given a Focusrite Plug-In Collective membership, with access to bimonthly deals, discounts, and freebies from the likes of Accusonus, Eventide, Sound Radix, iZotope, NUGEN Audio, Exponential Audio, and many other respected software developers.
I asked two of our contributing writers, Brandon Miller and Josh Boughey, to try the Clarett 2PreUSB and 8PreUSB interfaces, respectively, in their home studios. Their opinions follow.
We're well into an age of recording gear where not only is it easier than ever for anyone to achieve their musical vision on a computer, but it's possible to make great music and sounds, with far less financial investment than before. Plug-ins are no longer taboo, and story after story gets told of the song you've been obsessing over for years being produced in someone's bedroom on a laptop. In that vein, the demands on consumer and prosumer gear goes up, while newer technologies offer improvements in performance, and subsequently, sound quality goes up too. This sums up how we arrive at the Focusrite Clarett series of audio interfaces. Sitting above the Scarlett 2i4 [Tape Op #115] at roughly double the price, the Clarett 2PreUSB 10X4 audio interface is aimed at recording artists that want a step up in quality while keeping the portability of a compact desktop box with universal USB connectivity. The 2PreUSB is essentially the most mobile of the Clarett line. Because it's bus-powered from a 15W USB-C port, it takes no time to pull it out of your backpack, connect it to your laptop, plug in a mic and/or instrument, and get to work. (A wall wart, and a cable with TypeA termination are also included in the event your host device doesn't offer USB-C.) In short, the 2PreUSB definitely succeeds, and I've really come to love this interface. The first time I plugged it in, the interface was immediately recognized by my Mac (a wicked-old Mac Pro tower, at that), and my initial reaction was that the sound was very clean and detailed compared to my also admittedly old FireWire Apogee Ensemble [Tape Op #62], which cost much more than the Clarett.
Build quality of the 2PreUSB is truly impressive. While the Scarlett range utilizes plastic, the Clarett's chassis is brushed metal and the red-anodized front is beautiful to look at. Everything about the unit is rock solid; you can't feel the seams of the case, and the controls are smooth, offering the perfect resistance.
I also prefer the functionality of the Clarett to that of my Ensemble. The Ensemble is sparse despite being physically large, and I have to "click" a rotary dial to switch between controlling the volume of the mains, the first headphone output, and the second headphone output- cycling through all three to get back to the first. This click-wheel paradigm has grown dated and stale, so I appreciate that the Clarett has dedicated controls, including a large metal knob for the mains, and smaller ones for the gain of each input and the headphone output. The feel of these knobs is superior, reminding me of the Allen & Heath XONEV6 mixer [Tape Op #62] that I reviewed many years ago.
I'll admit that I'm not one to travel much with an audio interface, but over the course of a few weeks with the 2PreUSB, I did take it to several different locations and found myself really appreciating exactly how convenient this box is to pack up in seconds and throw in a backpack. For such a tiny package, the sound quality is impressive. During playback on the 2PreUSB, I immediately noticed that transients are audibly clearer than what I hear from my Apogee Ensemble, bringing out nuances that surprised me, even within the character of each instrument in a mix. For example, I could hear a sort of a reverberation of the guitar string pluck of Eddie Vedder's "Toulumne" that I wasn't hearing before. This gave the song a much more distinct character. Likewise, with Dog Blood's "Next Order," a massive dance track, I heard nuances that were new to me. The song has an enormous kick drum with swirling lower-register synth lines, intense percussive elements, and bright sawtooth synths; and it's mixed superbly. Listening through the 2PreUSB, the presence of each instrument was more pronounced and the clarity of the kick drum was better. Again, the nuance of what each instrument was doing was much clearer. Not only did this "feel" more accurate, but it was more pleasant to listen to.
I asked Andy Hong if I was crazy for what I was hearing. His response was three pages long, and I didn't even follow half of it, but he basically said I wasn't crazy and that, "Everyone talks about sampling rate and frequency response; and these days, pretty much all interfaces can do 192kHz, with frequency response that's ruler flat, and harmonic distortion way down in the 1/1000ths of a percent. On the other hand, Focusrite focused on the actual sound of their Red and Clarett interfaces in a way that's not simply conveyed by specs and numbers- and they nailed it."
I was genuinely blown away by the 2Pre USB's sound, and after a few weeks, I got around to carefully A/B'ing the Ensemble and the Clarett. What I heard was really surprising. I was hearing things from the Ensemble like "smearing" in the low frequencies, and instruments "clouding" each other- in comparison to the Clarett. I heard more detail overall from the Clarett, and got a generally better "picture" of what each instrument was doing in the mix. I checked with different songs from different genres and heard similar things across the board.
On the Clarett's inputs, the mic preamps include the Air feature "that switches in an analogue model of the classic transformer-based Focusrite ISA mic pre." Focusrite also says the Clarett has instrument inputs with extra headroom. I did some recording with and without Air enabled, and I have to say, it's a neat tool to have. It does add what others have called very succinctly, a "sheen" to vocals. It's a pleasant rise around 4kHz that I'm hearing, and it does give an "airy" feel. The preamps in general, even without Air, sound great- super clean. The Focusrite website has a well thought out section going into more of the detail of why the Clarett interfaces sound the way they do; it's worth reading.
On macOS, installation is driverless and super-stable. The included Focusrite Control software allows signal routing/mixing, control configuration, and near-zero-latency monitoring. I chose to monitor through my DAW, and even running boatloads of plug-ins, latency was never an issue. (On Windows, installing Focusrite Control also installs an ASIO driver.)
I should also point out that the rear of the 2Pre USB includes an ADAT port for adding input channels. For example, a racked Clarett OctoPre, with its eight Air-enabled mic preamps, would be a perfect studio companion to plug into, when you pull the 2PreUSB out of your backpack. There are also four balanced line outputs and MIDI I/O in the rear. A very minor gripe here, but I'd love to have a second headphone out. Plugging in a headphone splitter gets you halfway there, but if you're working with another person at the studio, in your home, on the beach, or wherever you just happened to go because this box freed you so incredibly, the chances that the two of you will want different monitor mixes (or even just different volumes) could be pretty high. One solution is to connect a headphone amp to outputs 3 and 4, while still reserving 1 and 2 for your speakers, but that requires another box to purchase/carry. The 4Pre USB, which is the next model up in the Clarett range, gives you two headphone outs, as well as four preamps and eight outputs, for another $200, but it's also a bigger unit physically.
Is the Clarett range worth the price jump over Scarlett? As with many things in life, there are options and considerations, and no obvious "Yes, that's the best solution for me." Having to choose, I prefer the Clarett 2PreUSB over any interface I've owned and even over most of the interfaces I've heard costing much more.
The 8PreUSB is a 24-bit, 192kHz-capable 18X20 interface with eight onboard mic preamps. It shares the same single rack space height form and functionality as the original Clarett 8Pre Thunderbolt, but obviously, this newer edition utilizes USB for connectivity to the host computer. Although the Clarett USB models have higher roundtrip latency than their Thunderbolt counterparts, the low-latency performance is still impressive. I verified the published latency figures with my own measurements, and I was able to monitor overdubs through the DAW with no perceptible delay, even on an older (2010) iMac.
The 8Pre USB's front panel includes eight knobs to control preamp gain, a dedicated knob for monitor volume, and two more knobs to control individual headphone outputs. Six-segment LED meters show levels for the preamps as well as the main L/R monitor output. The preamps and converters are essentially the same as found in the entire Clarett line. All eight preamp inputs (two on the front of the unit, six in back) use Combo jacks and can handle mic or line-level signals, and the front pair can also operate as instrument-level direct inputs. The preamp design includes Focusrite's Air feature, meant to emulate the sound of the transformer-based Focusrite ISA circuit. You also get 10 balanced line outputs in the rear, one pair of which you can use as your main monitor out. ADAT, coaxial S/PDIF, and MIDI I/O are also in back. Two buttons in the front enable phantom power in banks of four, and another two buttons dim and mute the monitor out. Status LEDs indicate power, Air, USB connectivity, and MIDI lock.
A big selling point for this interface is its low latency. I've never owned a super-low-latency setup, so I typically avoid latency issues by monitoring through an analog mixer, and I use outboard gear if I want to monitor with effects. I decided to do loopback latency testing to verify the published figures using a 2010 iMac 3.2GHz Core i3 with 8GB RAM, running macOS 10.11.3, as well as a brand new Lenovo X1 Carbon 2.9GHz Core i7 with 16GB RAM, running Windows 10. At 48 and 96kHz, with buffers set at 32, 64, and 128, the actual round-trip latencies I measured (as well as the numbers reported in Reaper) were comparable to the figures published on the Focusrite website. I also completed subjective testing, by recording a vocal with a reverb plug-in, while monitoring through my DAW. This worked well, as long as I set the buffer size fairly low. As expected, when I gradually increased the buffer size, the latency became more noticeable. I found the most usable sizes to be 128 at 48 and 96kHz, and 64 at 44.1kHz.
The two front-panel headphone jacks allow two different mixes. Monitoring configuration is handled in the included Focusrite Control software. In addition, Focusrite Control allows for mixing any set of inputs to the various outputs, or direct routing between inputs and outputs, as well as switching device settings (toggling the Air feature per channel, setting sample rate, etc.). The monitoring utility is simple to use; I was able to dial up two headphone mixes quickly. However, the headphone mixes sounded overly bright to me (compared to my speakers and to the headphone mixes from my MOTU interface), and there was no way to EQ the headphone outputs.
The preamps sounded quite nice and crisp, and provided adequate gain for my go-to condenser mic (AKG C414XLS) as well as a vintage dynamic mic (Electro-Voice Model 630). However, I noticed the gain really only kicks in during the last 20% of the pot's rotation, which doesn't provide much fine control. This hard-to-manage taper was similar for all the controls, including headphone volume. The Air setting boosted the highs noticeably, but it also seemed to increase the overall gain, raising the background noise of my room for example, so I had to turn the preamp level down when enabling this feature.
On the downside, I found myself wishing the device provided more versatility. While inputs can be monitored directly for near-zero latency using Focusrite Control, there are no built-in effects to add to the monitor outputs if you decide to work this way. The preamps sound nice, but there are no polarity, impedance, or filter controls. Phantom power is ganged in sets of four, which seems like an obvious way to reduce cost, but it doesn't take into account the workflow of small project studios, where you often add and remove mics and other sources as the session progresses. I found myself making patching choices based on whether phantom power was on or off on a free channel. I wouldn't mind if all the preamp features were switchable in software, if it meant additional per-channel functionality. The more expensive Clarett 8PreX [Tape Op #111] includes many of these missing features as buttons on its taller front panel, and it utilizes dedicated mic, line, and instrument inputs instead of Combo jacks, so you can keep more of your various sources patched in (or have all its inputs connected to an external patchbay); but it's available only in a Thunderbolt variant.
The Clarett 8PreUSB offers quality preamps, flexible I/O with ADAT and S/PDIF expandability, and impressive latency figures. It's compatible with USB2.0 and up- convenient whether you're running a newer computer or still getting by on an older machine. The 8PreUSB may fall short of standalone "ministudio" status, but the combination of nice-sounding preamps, low latency, and useful software make it a solid purchase.