Focusrite has unleashed a whole new line of interfaces that take advantage of the full bandwidth of Thunderbolt connectivity. This new Clarett Series ranges from the simple desktop-model Clarett 2Pre to the top-of-the-line Clarett 8PreX. All of the Clarett interfaces feature a sturdy steel chassis with red, brushed-steel front panels. The feel of the knobs, the weight and the overall look of the Clarett devices makes them seem a little higher end than the Saffire or Scarlett interfaces that preceded them, and unsurprisingly a slightly higher price tag is attached. However, the 8PreX offers an impressive “26×28” I/O total, with newly designed mic preamps at a surprisingly reasonable price. So how does it perform?
The back of the Clarett 8PreX is loaded with I/O. The unit can accept a signal from eight analog inputs simultaneously. Each analog input offers separate connectors for different signal types. The mic preamp is connected using an XLR jack, the line-level input uses a ¼-inch TRS connector, and each of the first two channels additionally offers front-panel ¼-inch TS instrument input jacks. I could see the separate input connectors as being useful if the Clarett were to be connected to a patchbay with gear normaled to the different input types. It is always disturbing to see a single automatically switching combo jack for mic and line input on a device like this, as it makes wiring into a patchbay nearly impossible.
The preamps of the Clarett Series have been newly designed to offer ultra-low noise and the cleanest possible sound. They also offer an option called “Air,” which introduces analog modeling to emulate the iconic transformer-based Focusrite ISA mic preamp. While there are no actual transformers coupled to the mic preamps of the Clarett, engaging the “Air” circuitry adjusts the preamp’s impedance and adds a subtle bit of EQ. This function is audible in mic, line, and instrument modes.
In addition to the analog inputs, the Clarett 8PreX has two ADAT optical inputs that provide up to 16 channels of 44.1kHz or 48kHz audio. This halves with each doubling of the sample rate up to 192 kHz using SMUX. The S/PDIF input brings the input total to a possible 26. Likewise, the output side features a pair of ADAT optical outputs and a stereo S/PDIF output. The doubled ADAT input and output connections are one of the most significant differences between the Clarett 8PreX and the Clarett 8Pre, which only has one ADAT optical in and one out. All of the Clarett peripherals also offer MIDI In and Out, a feature that is becoming less common on interfaces, but is always welcome.
Ten analog outputs are available, allowing one pair to be used for monitoring while leaving a full set of eight for feeding headphone amps, outboard effects or an analog stem mixer. Two discrete headphone outputs appear on the front of the unit, each capable of being fed separate mixes and each having its own physical volume control. All of this I/O is routed and controlled through a split of hardware controls and a software control panel.
Each analog input channel is represented on the front panel of the 8PreX by a set of physical controls. Each set has its own gain knob that affects all three input types (mic, line or instrument). It is continuously variable with no detents. I like the idea of a physical gain control for each channel so that multiple channels can be affected simultaneously and changes can be made quickly.
The application of phantom power, engaging the highpass filter and polarity flip are all accomplished using push-buttons on the front panel. Switching a channel between mic, line or instrument modes and toggling the “Air” circuitry in and out are done through the software application. It proves slightly awkward having to go back and forth between the two sets of controls, and it would be nice if everything were in one place or the other.
Getting the Clarett 8PreX up and running was a snap. Keep in mind that it only runs on Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) or higher and requires a Thunderbolt connection as well as Thunderbolt cable provided by the user. For my tests, I was typically running Pro Tools 10.3.9 on OS X 10.9 and experienced consistently stable performance, with only occasional minor aberrations. After installing the driver, I cabled up the unit to get familiar with connections, routing, etc. I connected the S/PDIF output to the digital input of a Dangerous Source, the typical monitor controller in my tracking rig. The clocking locked up without issues and everything sounded great.
I wound up connecting the monitor output of the Clarett to the analog input of the Source just for comparison. I was impressed with how clean and quiet the output of the Clarett was, even when cranked. A/B’ing the converters in the Source versus Clarett, the Source was a little fuller in the bottom, clearer on top, and punchier all around. However, the Clarett was no slouch and brought a wide, detailed stereo image with a respectfully punchy bottom end. I would say that it performed like a real contender and could hold its own against pricier output stages.
The first big test for Clarett came on a session recording guitar and bass. This involved recording live amped guitars, DI bass, and re-amping other guitars that were previously recorded via DI. Recording re-amped guitars came first, and I was impressed by how easily I could route everything to and from the amp and build a monitor mix. The first tone captured was a biting dirty guitar through a boutique 1×12 combo amp. I had a CAD ribbon mic up close and on-axis, and a Blue condenser backed off a bit.
The ribbon mic did a better job of taming some of the harshness of the amped sound and produced a result that was full and balanced. The condenser was a bit clearer on top and did well on some of the more articulate sections of the guitar part, but, in general, was less full in the bottom end than the ribbon mic. In both cases, the preamps were smooth in the top end, not pushed at all, and the bottom was warm and full. I tried turning on the “Air” setting on each of the mics, and in both cases the effect was relatively subtle. We unanimously agreed that the sound was preferable with the Air turned off, as, in this case, it brought a bit of unwelcome edginess.
Meanwhile, with the same setup, recording high arpeggiated notes from a 12-string electric guitar, played on a clean amp setting, the Air setting did a nice job pronouncing the pick attack and defining the notes. The Air setting was also a nice touch when recording a Rickenbacker bass using one of the DI inputs of the Clarett. In general, the DI inputs were very clean and quiet with a nice overall character. The sound had an impressive weight and detail with plenty of headroom. Kicking in the Air feature took well to the bass, enhancing the sparkly retro sound that characterized the instrument.
When I tried the Clarett’s preamps on the kick, snare and overheads, and even with the Air effect engaged, they produced a pleasantly dark, warm, British sound. The top end of cymbals, which leaned toward the brighter end of the spectrum in the room, melted nicely into the recording. There was no harsh or brittle character, but no lack of detail, either. The sound seemed a bit sculpted in the lower midrange, too, so it didn’t come across as muddy at all.
The round-trip latency to and from the Clarett was remarkably low. When overdubbing onto a 96kHz session, the buffer had been set at 512 samples during rough mixing. At that buffer setting, there was just barely a perceptible sluggishness. At 256 samples it fell to the point where it was not outwardly noticeable. Any less and it was non-existent. This was nice because we could put a bass amp plug-in on the record-enabled track for reference, with no ill effects.
A Must Have?
The Clarett 8PreX is in an interesting position as it retails for about $1,000 less than similar devices from Apogee, Universal Audio or Antelope. The Clarett 8PreX’s preamps perform beyond their price range, and the difference in character between the Air feature being active and bypassed creates great versatility. As long as you are willing to step up to Thunderbolt and upgrade to Mavericks or higher, this is a solid choice for a high I/O-count interface.
Brandon Hickey is a recording engineer based in Phoenix.