I’ve been fiercely loyal to my older computer audio interfaces, ignoring the glut of new options over the years. Yes, I’ve had to buy a host of over-priced Apple connectors to keep my legacy devices hooked up, but that seemed a small price to pay to defy the culture of planned obsolescence! As publisher John Baccigaluppi put it in an End Rant a few years back (Give Me a Hammer [Tape Op #102]), I want something that works well and that I don’t have to think about, let alone constantly upgrade. That said, smart people have been hard at work on improving interfaces, and – now that I’m pulling my head out of the sand – I am excited to discover how these make digital recording easier and more efficient.
Enter the Focusrite Clarett+ 8Pre, an 18-in/20-out USB 2.0 audio interface with eight mic preamps (featuring the famous Focusrite Air effect), and an included software bundle (the Hitmaker Expansion) with lots of useful plug-ins. In addition, Focusrite has upgraded the converters and clocking on the Clarett+ line while retaining the basic layout and functionality of the earlier Clarett 8Pre USB [Tape Op #126].
First off, the Clarett+ 8Pre integrated seamlessly with both my 2019 MacBook Pro and my studio computer (a 2013 iMac), thanks to its inclusion of two different USB cables – your choice of USB-C or Type-A. The 8Pre is controlled via Focusrite’s elegant software mixer, which also installed without any issues (though be sure to download the version specific to the current interface as the older versions are incompatible). Some features of the software mixer can be controlled remotely with an iPad or iPhone, which can save time running back to the control room while trying to set up headphone mixes. I wish the preamp volumes could also be adjusted remotely, because that would allow setting levels in the live room or while sitting at an instrument.
The front of the single rack space Clarett+ 8Pre features ten, six-segment LED meters for the monitors and eight preamps, plus two XLR (mic/line/instrument) combo jacks – handy for plugging in a guitar or keyboard quickly (which I often do, especially when writing a song). Front panel controls include gain controls for the preamps, a monitor volume knob with Dim and Mute buttons, and two independent standard-sized headphone jacks with separate volume knobs. The back hosts ten balanced line outputs, the six additional XLR combo input jacks, ADAT, S/PDIF, and MIDI I/O, plus word clock out. One of many features that I appreciate about the 8Pre is that it will grow with me as an engineer. I can get great sounds with the eight included preamps, and patch in an ever-increasing number of outboard preamps as my studio grows. Though I tend to prefer the colorful sound of my CAPI VP26 preamps [Tape Op #77], I found the Focusrite’s pres perfectly serviceable, suggesting the 8Pre’s potential for remote recording.
In fact, these are the best interface preamps I’ve ever heard! With the Air feature engaged, I immediately got a fantastic vocal sound with my sE Electronics V7 mic [#122] – and drums and guitars also sounded stellar. The Focusrite preamp may be cleaner than a classic transformer pre, but I was surprised by the smooth high frequencies and strong, not overbearing, lows. If you’re looking for an interface with eight new preamps in one package, the Clarett+ 8Pre is incontestably the way to go.
I do have one complaint. Lately, I’ve been acquiring ribbon mics, and I don’t love that phantom power is toggled in banks of four channels. Of course, this requires judicious decisions about which mics you plug in where (or possibly risk frying touchy ribbons), but I can also appreciate that grouping the phantom power cuts down on costs. On the plus side, the front of the interface features dedicated gain controls for all eight preamps and the two independent headphone jacks, eliminating what could have been a lot of mousing around.
Intrigued by the upgraded converters, I integrated the Clarett+ 8Pre into my patchbay and got to work. When tracking some demos for the next Fine Motor LP, the first thing I noticed was that drummer Casey Bell’s sticks when she was counting off sounded three-dimensional. The 8Pre immediately called to mind the wonder of hitting drum sticks together and feeling their vibration instead of my usual experience of dismissing them as mere two-dimensional tempo indicators. I won’t pretend to understand how Focusrite did this, except to note that the Clarett+ 8Pre uses separate A/D and D/A converters, both of which were carefully sourced after their old supplier suffered an industrial fire. The upshot is an expanded dynamic range with a higher signal-to-noise ratio than previous models, which translated through my monitors to a richer, clearer, more three-dimensional sound stage. The increased space around each element in the mix was immediate, unmistakable, and joy-inducing.
The Clarett+ 8Pre proved handy on recent projects. To give an example of when I’m simultaneously engineer and musician, I recently added bass to some demos and simply plugged directly into the JFET instrument input on the front, selected a few plug-ins in my DAW, monitored through my studio speakers, and captured my ideas quickly and efficiently. Next, I put it to work on some mixes. I like to record at 96 kHz, as the cymbals sound more realistic to my ears. This interface offers ten analog outputs, with up to 20 analog outs at 48 kHz. I plugged in one of my other interfaces via ADAT (S/MUX) and S/PDIF to get a total of 16 analog outs at 96 kHz, the perfect number to take full advantage of my Tonelux OTB 16-channel Summer [Tape Op #86]. I pulled up some drum tracks that I was mixing for Adrien Kanter (of the criminally under-appreciated Parisian post-punk band Looking for John G.). Currently, Kanter is based at the foot of the Alps in southeastern France, with the environment imprinting a more contemplative air to his compositions. For a guitar and synth-laden track, I compressed the room mic almost out of recognition and tucked clearer snare, kick, and tom tracks underneath for foundation. The 8Pre sounded fantastic. The sense of space around the instruments it conveyed allowed me to quickly balance these various mix elements.
When I consider everything the Clarett+ 8Pre offers, including eight musical preamps and its three-dimensional soundstage, it’s clear that Focusrite offers a great deal to home recordists and project studios. I decided to purchase the review unit. Yes, as stubborn as I am, working with the Clarett+ 8Pre in my studio convinced me that it’s time for an upgrade.