I have to admit to a certain amount of amazement when I first plugged in the ISA 430 MkII and heard what was coming through my speakers. There was that clarity and professional sound that I had been trying so hard to get by tweaking my budget gear. Clear shimmering acoustic guitar, warm clear vocals, and tight low-end DI bass guitar. This is the kind of high-end gear that doesn't cut any corners.

The ISA 430 MkII is the new top-of-the-line analog channel in Focusrite's ISA line. The ISA 430 has been receiving accolades since its release about five years ago, and Focusrite has updated it as the MkII. With 28 knobs and 49 buttons on its face, this 2RU box is the Swiss Army knife of mic preamps. The backside is also chock-full of ins, outs, and inserts that offer options for even the most esoteric uses.

The 430 offers mic and line XLR's and instrument 1/4'' inputs on the rear side and a duplicate 1/4" instrument input on the front. A button selects between Mic, Line, and Instrument. This is nice because, if the unit is mounted in a rack, you don't need to unplug the XLR connections on the back in order to deactivate them while recording from the DI input on the front. Input impedance is variable in four steps between 600 and 6800 Ohms-great for matching impedance with those old ribbon mics. There is also an "air" button that Focusrite says, "introduces an inductor circuit into the secondary of the transformer, which adds clarity and 'spaciousness' to the signal without the need for EQ."

The EQ section is one of the most complete you'll find on a channel strip, including low and high-pass filters, two bands of parametric EQ, and two shelving bands. Any of the EQ bands can act as a sidechain input for the compressor or gate section.

The acclaimed transparent VCA compression that appeared in the original 430 returns in the MkII, but it has been augmented with a vintage optical setting that offers very affected, but musical, compression or limiting. The compression section also offers a mix control for blending your pre-compression signal back in-nice for keeping the "crack" in your snare drum. The gate/expansion section features a "Hysteresis" mode that keeps the gate from closing on slowly decaying sounds like piano. It's like a magic button that takes the hassle out of gating. Both the compressor and gate can be keyed from external sources via 1/4" inputs on the back. Two ISA 430's can be chained together for stereo operation using the "dynamic link" connection.

The de-esser uses an optical phase canceling system that Focusrite claims is less intrusive than traditional compression-based designs. Focusrite has included a soft limiter circuit at the end of the signal chain to protect against those 0 dBfs overs that can be so unfriendly in the digital world.

The compressor, gate, and de-esser all feature "Listen" buttons that allow you to hear the sidechain signal affecting the dynamics. Want to find the "s" frequency of your singer or tune the gate to your hi-hats? Easy.

My review unit came with the optional A/D converter, and I couldn't see using the 430 in a digital recording system without it. The card is very complete, offering up to 24-bit, 192 kHz digital output on both optical and coaxial S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and ADAT lightpipe, as well as offering word clock in and out. Jitter is extremely low and the ISA 430 could easily act as the master word clock for your entire studio. All digital outputs are stereo, offering both the processed and unprocessed signal on separate channels.

I connected the ISA to my MOTU 2408 MkIII audio interface using the ADAT lightpipe output and syncing everything to my Lucid GENx6 master clock. Setup was easy, and I got the processed signal on the lightpipe's odd channels and the unprocessed signal on the even. This is nice for recording a 'safety' track when you're unsure about the dynamics that you're adding to the track.

The old saying "a great mic preamp can make even a cheap microphone sound great," holds true. I plugged several budget microphones into this thing and got great results with all of them. Pete Weiss recommended the MXL V69 Mogami Edition on these pages several months ago. And while I was happy with the sounds I was getting with this mic through my less expensive mic preamps, the ISA really kicked the quality up a notch. Like many of the newer budget condensers, the V69 doesn't have a low-cut switch so the 430's low-end filter came in handy. I recorded acoustic guitar and vocals, and the tracks were crisp and clear without sounding brittle. The low end was tight and strong. The compressor allowed me to quickly add punch without sounding compressed. I don't mind tracking with compression, but I prefer to wait to really squash things until the mix stage. That being said, the MkII's vintage compression settings squash things quite nicely. I got some great vocal sounds using the vintage settings.

I also recorded a guitar amp with both an Oktava ML52 ribbon mic and an SM57. Again the ISA excelled, allowing me to tailor the sound and fit it into my mix before laying it down. I was also able to find a better impedance setting for my ribbon mic, opening up new high-end I didn't realize the mic was capable of. Using the 430, I now might consider recording vocals with this mic.

Across the board, the ISA made my other tracks sound like they were recorded under a blanket. I found myself really tempted to go back and rerecord all the old tracks on my current project through the Focusrite. With a street price of around $2700, this unit is not inexpensive, and anyone doing digital recording is going to want the A/D option that sells for about $550. But if you've got a project studio where you're doing a lot of single-channel recording, the ISA 430 MkII can open up a whole new world of recording quality. No excuses. No cut corners. (MSRP $2995, $595 for A/D option; www.focusrite.com)

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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