There’s been a fair bit of chat amongst my peers recently about an affordable new audio interface from Focusrite that seems to be ticking a lot of boxes for USB connectivity and superior quality features. Today my DV Mag, Focusrite review run continues then with the gorgeous looking and quite wonderfully spec’d, Scarlett 8i6 USB MIDI audio interface.
As its name might suggest, this unit is an 8 input , 6 output box and features full MIDI i/o, two of those class, award winning Focusrite pre amps, two Hi-Z instrument inputs (negating the need for separate DI’s) and SPDIF digital stereo in/outs too. To top this off, there’s a useful headphone out at the front of the unit as well. If you’re doing the math so far and wondering where the 7th and 8th input comes from, that’s actually a ‘virtual’ (though very useful) input source which is called ‘Loop Back’ (for recording web streams and the like via computer) and accessed from the 8i6’s software control panel.
The latter mentioned software is an adapted version of same mixing and routing control panel many of you will be aware of already – the Saffire MixControl. In this new case, named the Scarlett MixControl, the software is essentially the same but optimised for the Scarlett range. This is available as a free download via the Focusrite website and is bolstered via an again free (and in the box) DVD with Ableton Live Lite, the retro-cool Novation Bass-Station synth plus over 1GB of royalty-free samples from ‘Loopmasters’. As if this weren’t enough on the freebie tip, add to this Focusrite’s Xcite+ bundle and the promising ‘Scarlett Plug-In Suite‘ (Compressor, Gate ,EQ, and Reverb in popular formats, VST/AU and RTAS), and you’re pretty much good to go for most studio projects.
The Scarlett 816 is a very well built unit with a majority chassis made of metal and solid connectors and peripherals. It’s weighty enough to feel reassuring but light enough to ensure easy portability in your kit bag. Sat in my project studio, it looks as professional a piece of kit you’d wish for, literally oozing quality and attention to fine detail that we’ve come to expect from Focusrite. The front fascia dials have a smooth run motion, though are firm enough to ensure accurate adjustment in smaller increments. Plugging connectors into the 1/4″ sockets, RCA’s of the SPDIF and front combo XLR’s felt like this is a unit that will give years of good service if used on the road.
The rear panel of the Scarlett 8i6 also house the USB connector and the 12V DC power supply (supplied in the box). Both are necessary for the device to perform and it’s probably best to point out too that it doesn’t run in stand-alone mode (unlike the Saffire, firewire units), depending on an active computer connection to pass audio. Flipping to the front of the unit, controls are available for selecting a the phantom power option, two independent input level controls, a monitor output dial and the aforementioned headphone adjustment dial too.
At the heart of the hardware’s audio pulsations is the Scarlett MixControl application. This helps the user control various audio tasks with an 18 X 16 DSP mixer, which includes the ability to formulate up to 6, varied production scenarios (eg: assembling an alternative mix set for A&R review, preparing stems or perhaps a few multi-routed/balanced mixes when recording vocalists and musicians etc?).The app breaks into 6 main functional sections: The Mixer channel, the Master channel, a Routing and Monitor section plus Control and Input areas too.
As I’ve mentioned before when reviewing Focusrite’s Saffire software, the complexity and power of what is in front of you can be a tad overwhelming at first, but once used a few times in practice mode, most users should be reasonably au fait and in a comfort zone after an hour or so (and props go to Focusrite for providing a ‘how to use mix control’ guide in the Answerbase section of their website – definitely worth a look).
The other major software weaponry within this unit is of course the Scarlett Plug-In suite. As mentioned earlier, this set of four software tools will sit within a users DAW of choice (being VST, AU and RTAS compatible). At the time of writing this review I haven’t been able to get the plug ins authorised as the unit I have for review is a trade model for such purposes. I will however be doing a secondary review on the bigger Scarlett unit, the 18i6, very soon here at DV Magazine and, as both models are quite similar, will devote some of that review to further exploring just what the Scarlett plug-in suite has feature-wise – do check back soon for that.
I tend to run such interfaces through a few similar, real-world test scenario’s in the studio. These involve, in-the-box recording, bringing mic and instrument sources into the unit, checking the MIDI in/outs and launching a full audio multitrack production. The Scarlett 8i6 very much carries on the same pro results I’ve come to expect from reviewing previous Focusrite models. These include near undetectable latency, a real ‘what goes in, comes out’ with regards to accuracy of audio reproduction, and a massively strong hi-gain output with literally no noise level worth mentioning.
Another point worth mentioning is that this unit sits there quite innocuously with regards to static (at rest) background noise. By this, I refer to experience of some (especially firewire) audio interfaces that can emit a drone of ambient noise, noticeable even at low monitoring levels. This can be amplified on rarer occasions by activity on your computer, by just clicking a mouse on a folder for example. This annoyance has been a deal breaker for me in the past and I’ve got rid of certain products for this reason. The Scarlett 8i6 however, has no such negative attributes.
Immediate point to state then is that this is a helluva lot of pro specified product for the sub £200 price point. The renowned Focusrite pre’s alone are just one (or should that be two) reason(s) to have your initial head turned. The hardware is solid as a rock, it has flexible in/out connection and routing possibilities and the included free Scarlett MixControl software (once mastered) is a powerful interface aimed squarely at the busy contemporary musician, producer, artist or DJ. As with other Focusrite units like this, I have literally no complaints or major recommendations for improvement to put forward. The bundled production tools (DAW, plug-ins, loops etc) are a welcome bonus as well and will see those taking their first steps into professional music production able to immediately begin working towards a high quality, finished audio product using the Focusrite Scarlett 8i6.