Focusrite is an English company that was founded in 1985 by legendary electronics engineer Rupert Neve. The goal of the company was to produce the highest-quality recording consoles possible. Neve sold the brand to another audio industry veteran, Phil Dudderidge, in 1990, and soon Focusrite began to expand into separate outboard modules, like preamps, EQs, and compressors.
Longtime Pro Tools users will likely remember the collaborative effort between Focusrite and Digidesign to create the affordable MBox USB interface in 2001. Focusrite has continued to expand its offering of high-quality but reasonably priced audio interfaces for home studio owners. For drummers, there’s a great option that provides sixteen channels of top-notch mic preamps, with compression available on eight of those channels. This is the Scarlett 18i20 USB interface and OctoPre Dynamic mic-pre expansion unit. The combined total price for both pieces is under $1,000, which is less than you’d pay for a single channel of most high-end mic preamps. Let’s take a look at this great one-stop solution for burgeoning home-studio drummers.
The Scarlett 18i20 is a second-generation audio interface that has improved microphone preamps with lower noise and increased gain, and recordings can be made at sample rates of up to 192 kHz. (For reference, most CD-quality audio is mastered at 44.1 kHz.)
There are two XLR mic cable inputs on the front of the unit, and six more on the back. The front inputs are also configured to work with quarter-inch instrument cables. Each input has its own control knob, and phantom power is available for each channel via easily accessible buttons on the front panel. The input levels are indicated on an LED bar graph. The main audio output of the 18i20 is controlled with the Monitor knob, and there are separate buttons to mute or dim the output level by 18 dB, which is a great feature for testing mixes at a quieter volume. The 18i20 provides two headphone outputs, which can be configured with separate mixes.
In addition to six XRL mic inputs, the rear panel of the 18i20 has eight quarter-inch mono line outputs (one per input) and a stereo pair of outputs for studio monitors. There are optical in/out ports for connecting additional ADAT-compatible equipment, like the OctoPre Dynamic eight-channel mic preamp. Other connections are included for MIDI, SPDIF, Word Clock, and USB 2.0 cables.
Focusrite Control Software
Focusrite’s Control Software is designed to be a simple, intuitive solution for configuring and controlling how the 18i20 interface interacts with your recording program. One of the most important features for drum recording applications is the Low Latency Monitoring option, which routes the signal directly from the mic preamps to the headphones output. This is done to eliminate the delay that’s often created when audio has to travel from the inputs of the interface, through the computer, and then back to the headphones output. The only downside of monitoring drum recordings this way is that you won’t be able to hear any effects that are applied to the channels within the DAW as you’re tracking. I often prefer to monitor my tracks without effects because it causes me to be more aware of my dynamics and drum tones.
Navigating the adjustments for channel levels and output assignments within the Control Software is simple and logical, with easy-to-decipher graphics included to help you figure out what’s what. What I liked best about Focusrite’s software was that the faders and controls for the inputs are grouped separately from the faders and controls for the audio that’s being sent back from the computer, such as backing tracks and previously recorded overdubs. I was able to get all of the inputs, outputs, and playback channels configured correctly within a few minutes, which hasn’t always been the case with other interface control software.
While some drummers can make do with the eight inputs included with the 18i20 interface, many of us will require additional channels to capture the entire kit. Focusrite’s Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic is an ideal choice to double the number of inputs, plus it offers simple one-knob compression on each channel that can be applied before the signal is sent to the computer. The OctoPre Dynamic connects to the 18i20 via ADAT cables, and the inputs and outputs of the OctoPre Dynamic are controlled with Focusrite’s Software Control program.
The front and back panels of the OctoPre Dynamic are similar to those on the 18i20, except that all of the mic inputs are on the backside, and there aren’t any headphone jacks. Each input has its own level knob and an overload LED light. Phantom power is available to all eight channels, as is the compressor.
The compressor has two controls. The Compress knob decreases the threshold and increases the output gain as it’s turned clockwise. Engaging the More button bumps up the compressor’s ratio from 2:1 to 4:1. The attack and release times are fixed at 1.2 milliseconds and 28 milliseconds, respectively.
For general use, I found that keeping the compressor knob at the minimum setting helped rein in the dynamics without over-coloring the tone. A medium compression setting (with the control knob positioned at 12 o’clock) worked well for fattening up the sustain. The maximum compression was a cool option for creating exciting, pumping sounds.
I spent a few weeks testing the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 and OctoPre Dynamic combo in my home studio, and not only was it easy to configure, but it also was incredibly stable and captured a very clean and honest audio picture of my drums. When compared to my regular—and much more expensive—rig, the Scarlett system more than held its own. I felt confident that it was capable of producing high-quality, professional drum tracks without requiring a ton of post-production mixing to get the sounds dialed in. Having a simple, versatile compressor built into the OctoPre hardware was a nice bonus for times when I wanted to tighten up the dynamics when recording parts that extended from very soft to very loud (such as cymbal swells), or when I wanted to interact with the pumping tone of the compressor as I was tracking for aggressive grooves.
Focusrite also includes two of its most popular plug-ins, the Red 2 EQ and Red 3 Compressor, as well as a bundle of reverb, delay, multi-band compression, and saturation effects to help you sculpt a more finished mix in your DAW of choice. Focusrite may have started as a spare-no-expense recording equipment company, but it’s currently killing it in the more-for-less home-studio market.