Focusrite Clarett8 PreX Thunderbolt Audio Interface
By Anderton |
“Need for Speed” isn’t just a videogame title
by Craig Anderton
We weren’t the first to receive one of these units for testing, so there are already plenty of reviews out there—and focusrite.com can fill you in on the details. Therefore, rather than re-invent the wheel I’ll summarize the other reviews: This is a refined, capable, and flexible audio interface at a very good price. Done! Feel free to click along to the next article...
...or keep reading for the backstory.
Thunderbolt was a collaboration between Apple (whose aging FireWire protocol was being abandoned even by them), and Intel—a company whose well-being depends on being able to stay ahead of the processor+I/O+memory bottleneck as systems acquire ever-more voracious appetites for video and audio data. As a result, Apple had an exclusive on Thunderbolt for a year. To say this impacted the acceptance by the Windows platform, which was already entrenched with USB 3.0, would be an understatement—particularly because it took a while for USB 3.0 to settle down, while Thunderbolt was already past most of its birthing issues when it went mainstream.
But the flip side is that it made Apple’s platform more attractive for data-dense audio/video applications during its window of exclusivity. Speed is off the hook because Thunderbolt essentially puts your computer’s PCIe bus on a cable, thus avoiding the layers that FireWire and USB add to the OS. At 48 kHz with 64 sample buffers, Focusrite quotes round-trip (not one-way) latency as typically around 4 ms; you can cut that to a little over half at 96 kHz. I was able to run it at 32 sample buffers for even more impressive results.
I also appreciate that by and large, Thunderbolt doesn’t turn everything you own into doorstops; adapters allow for (at least theoretical) compatibility with other protocols like Firewire/USB and even PCIe cards. Your plug-ins join the near-real-time world (!), and if you’re into video, you can run video and audio data down that Thunderbolt pipeline without breaking a sweat. Yes, it costs more to take advantage of this. Then again, a Ferrari costs more than a Lexus.
MAC VS. WINDOWS
If you want to play in Thunderbolt world, for now you need a Mac. I tested the Clarett8 PreX with my 2012-era MacBook Pro; the Focusrite web site has up-to-the minute info on system compatibility, which they say is OS X 10.9 and 10.10. However, that’s not quite accurate...the minimum is OS X 10.9.5. As my system was at 10.9.4, I spent a while watching the Mac play with itself until it caught up with 10.9.5.
For Windows, check the Clarett Windows Compatibility page. Focusrite is commendably transparent about this. Among other useful information, Focusrite says “Unlike USB or Firewire protocols, Thunderbolt hardware and drivers require approval from Intel and Apple. Our assertion is that once we have a fully tested driver it will work with all other approved Thunderbolt systems. Although we would like to, it is impossible for us to test every Thunderbolt-ready PC in the field, which is why we need to rely on this assertion to a certain extent.” Reading between the lines, I could be wrong but I think this means “We are at the mercy of huge companies, one of which may not have Windows’ best interests at heart, and manufacturers who throw who-knows-what into a case and call it a Windows computer...wish us luck. We’ll let you know what’s up as soon as possible.”
BIG VS. LITTLE
The interface market is overwhelmingly one of smaller interfaces, especially the 2-in/2-out variety—what more do you need if you’re a solo artist or singer/songwriter? (Well if you’ve seen my “Songwriting on the Fast Track” seminar, you know more inputs means you can leave stuff patched in all the time for faster workflow...but I digress.)
However, the world does sometimes need interfaces with lots of I/O. And with more people transitioning to recording at 96 kHz or even 192 kHz, if you have lots of inputs you need high-speed transfers to stream all that extra data from point A to point B. Given that Thunderbolt was designed with the intention of handling video, dealing with gobs of high-sample rate audio is pretty trivial.
MAKING THE CONNECTION
So, let’s suppose you have a modern Mac, you’re allergic to latency, need lots of I/O, and don’t want to go overboard on the bucks. That puts the Clarett8 PreX on your short list. Not only are there eight channels of mic pres, but four optical I/O connectors for 16 channels of ADAT light pipe (thank you #1) at 44.1/48 kHz sample rates, coaxial S/PDIF although it can also use the optical connectors, 5-pin MIDI DIN I/O (thank you #2), two direct/high-Z inputs (thank you #3), 8 line outs, 2 monitor outs, and Word Clock I/O.
The Clarett8 PreX monitoring doesn’t include features like switching between speakers or hitting a front panel switch to test for mono compatibility, but otherwise it does the job—the Focusrite Control app can assign outs for up to 10 channels, and there’s dim, mute, and a volume control. There are also two headphone outs with their own controls and plenty of level.
So in a lot of ways, this is mostly just a full-featured, fairly standard “big” audio interface, taken to another level via Thunderbolt. Right? Well...
THE MIC PRES
Focusrite mic pres have a very good reputation, and deservedly so. But now, I have to say something that will get me into trouble...I think a lot of that reputation is based on the days when Focusrite was ahead of the pack and others were struggling to catch up. These days, many companies have figured out how to make quality mic pres because once you’re limited by semiconductor thermal noise, about all that’s left is optimizing the circuit board layout, paying real close attention to power supply line bypassing, and using quality components (especially converters; note that the Clarett does use 192 kHz converters instead of the usual 96 kHz ones).
Regardless, the quoted specs for dynamic range, equivalent input noise, and noise+THD are Focusrite’s best yet and well beyond the kind of specs you’d associate with this price point. Although I couldn’t confirm the specs (my test gear is Windows-only), the character—or more precisely, the lack thereof, which is what I prefer—is undeniably top-of-the-line. What’s more, there are individual phantom power, highpass, and polarity flip hardware switches for each channel. (Note that the maximum gain is 57 dB, which is more than many interfaces but you may need extra gain for ribbon mics.)
However, I suspect Focusrite also wanted some mic preamp “feature insurance,” because they include an “air” option for each preamp, as enabled in the accompanying applet. This is done in the analog domain, prior to conversion, and sounds like it provides a gently rising high frequency increase—not unlike what happens with dynamic mics when you increase the input impedance. Although some might see this as a gimmick, and I doubt “air” would be the sole reason someone would want a Clarett8 PreX, within a DAW high-frequency boosts don’t always sound as clean as you might like. Just remember that some mics already “hype” the highs, which doesn’t lend itself well to adding “air.” (On the other hand with humbuckers going into the instrument input, “air” gets you closer to more of a single-coil sound.) In any event give “air” a try, I think you’ll like what it does to a variety of signal sources.
The one issue I’ve had in the past with Focusrite interfaces was the mixer application. There wasn’t anything wrong with it conceptually, but it seemed fairly fickle in getting along with operating systems. I’ve often seen the following exchange in forums: “I have a Focusrite interface and it sucks!!” “Mine works fine, did you download the latest mixer app and driver?” [several posts later] “Uh...never mind. It works great now.”
The Focusrite Control mixer/settings app for the Clarett is highly streamlined. There’s a simple, obvious look and feel which goes in the same direction at Ozone 6 did—straightforward, clean, and non-cluttered.
If I had to describe the vibe in one word, it would be “comfortable.” It’s also customizable in the sense of letting you hide what you don’t need to see. As to drivers, although admittedly I tried the Clarett8 PreX only on one Mac OS, operation was rock solid.
IS IT WORTH THE BUCKS?
Hardware like this doesn’t come cheap, nor does writing solid software, but Focusrite has kept the cost very reasonable. Now, [speculation alert] maybe this is because they want to get a foothold in the Thunderbolt market, so they’re willing to shave the margins a bit. If so, that’s their problem, not yours, so take advantage of it...the Clarett8 PreX delivers value for money. And of course, it’s not like Focusrite is new at the interface game, and experience likely leads to efficiencies that help contain costs.
Also, this thing is built. It’s designed for a permanent install, which means a 2U rack-mount chassis that seems designed to withstand not just normal studio abuse, but possibly small-arms fire. (Be aware that aside from the two instrument jacks in the front, all the connections are on the back, so take into account how that affects the ergonomics of patching in your studio.)
Finally, there’s some nifty bundled software. Normally my first thought is “No...not another compressor and EQ!” and while they’re good, you also get three Softube plug-ins, including their stellar TSAR-1R reverb. This is one of my favorite algorithmic (i.e., non-convolution) reverbs; it wraps a smooth, diaphanous pillow around vocals unlike any other reverb in my collection. It’s a very sweet extra.
SO WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
It doesn’t come with a Thunderbolt cable, has only one Thunderbolt jack so no daisy-chaining, the monitoring capabilities are relatively basic, and it can’t be bus-powered...that’s it for limitations. (Geek info alert: Focusrite provided some interesting info about bus powering. Firewire can potentially provide more power [up to 45 watts] than Thunderbolt [10 watts maximum]. However, because FireWire’s bus voltage is not standardized and usually unregulated, some FireWire connections may provide less power output than the Thunderbolt standard.)
The Clarett8 PreX is not a breakthrough product in the sense that Focusrite has invented anti-gravity, but that’s not the point. After all these years of compensating for latency, the lack of same is striking. You’ll check more than once just to make sure zero-latency monitoring isn’t enabled by accident...trust me, it isn’t.
With percussive instruments like drums, bass, or guitar, Thunderbolt’s low latency becomes a huge deal. Amp sim plug-ins become amp plug-ins. Virtual instruments have a responsiveness that’s a joy. And check this out: If you have near-field monitors the usual 3-4 feet from your head, then wearing headphones can give less latency than if the Clarett8 PreX had absolutely no latency, and you were listening over speakers. Let that sink in for a bit.
The rest of the Clarett8 PreX holds up its end of the bargain with sound quality, plenty of I/O, solid drivers, and physically speaking, it also has (for lack of a better term) a professional vibe—and delivers all of this at a reasonable price. Focusrite has become a success story in the world of interfaces, and with the Clarett line, it seems like they hope to repeat the same success in the Thunderbolt arena that they’ve had with FireWire and USB.
Price: Around $1,300
Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.