When the ISA One first arrived, I was worried that its
features seem to be targeted at the solo, at-home recordist and that I wasn't going to get the best out of it purely because that's not usually how I work. That feeling didn't last long though, when I realized that it's actually a few separate tools all in one "carry friendly" box. Like a Swiss Army knife of recording, you get a mic preamp offering a massive 80 dB of clean, quiet gain (perfect for low output dynamics or ribbons) with switchable impedance and high-pass filter as well as the usual polarity and phantom power controls. There is also an instrument-level DI which can be routed straight into the preamp or used independently with its own XLR output. The mic preamp, DI, and VU meter are worth the price of admission alone, but Focusrite threw in a couple more useful features! There's a headphone amp with volume control that takes an external input; I used it to gain an extra, volume-adjustable, headphone output on our Hearback system. It can also offer zero-latency monitoring of the main input signal mixed with an external mono input, meaning that the artist can record into a high-latency recorder without any delay in the headphones on what's being performed. Unfortunately, the balance between the main and external inputs is fixed so you must vary the mix by altering the level of the external input at the source-not insurmountable but a little clumsy. An optional 192 kHz-capable digital output board will give you two channels of S/PDIF, ADAT, and AES outputs with word clock in/out. There is an insert point before the A-D converter so you're all set if you want to go and do some vocals somewhere with your Mbox, the ISA One, and a compressor. The two digital channels can be either both input channels or the main input plus the external mono input. (You cannot however record pre and post-insert signals simultaneously as you can with competing products from SSL.)
I don't know how well the ISA One compares to a vintage ISA110, but I will say that it's a great sounding workhorse preamp and a solid DI. The wide range of impedance selection on the mic input gives you a lot of subtle tonal variation; I like to use it more like an EQ than to accurately match to the microphone. For anyone not content on using their ears, there is the most detailed description of impedance selection applications in the very comprehensive and clear manual, which also contains illustrated step-by-step recipes for exploiting the unit's various features. I compared the ISA One to the Neve 1081, Neve 1064, Universal Audio 610, and SSL G-Series mic preamps we have at the studio, and it held its own in all applications. It's actually very similar to the SSL preamps-clean and punchy but not quite as boxy and great on guitars and vocals. It's faster and harder than a UA 610 (which is no surprise given the valve/solid state difference), and it hasn't got the crunch of a 1064 or quite the bottom end of a 1081 for bass. I wouldn't reach for the ISA One if I were looking for something colorful, but it's perfect if you're getting that elsewhere in the chain (from a ribbon mic, LA-2A, etc.).
I used the ISA One with a Distressor and a Neumann U 87 to record UK girl group Sugababes for their verse on the remix of Taio Cruz's "She's Like A Star", also featuring Busta Rhymes. Each of the girls sounded just as they have on their previous five albums, so the Focusrite was doing a great job of not getting in the way and letting the other parts of the chain do their thing.
The ISA One is as relevant to the home recordist as the professional engineer. If it's your only preamp, its strong and clear tone will take any source in stride, and multiple parts should stack up well. The DI will handle bass guitar and synths equally well, and the additional monitoring options will be welcomed by anyone with only one headphone output on their interface.
For the pros, the mic preamp offers a cleaner choice if you're in someplace like a Neve room and will be preferential compared to those in most other consoles. The VU meter allows you to put it in the live room nearer the mic and run line-level to the control room-good for long cable runs. The solid DI sounded very close to our Little Labs Redeye and blew out of the water the BSS boxes that haunt most UK studios. When two band members are complaining about sharing a volume control on their headphone mixer, hook up the ISA One and let them concentrate on their performance. The optional digital output board does up the price substantially, but if you can do without it, the ISA One is a steal at $800 street! ($999.99 MSRP, $699.99 for ADC card; www.focusrite.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.