Test Drive: Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2

WHAT’S ON THE BOX?

The Scarlett 2i2’s rear panel is spartan to say the least. It has exactly three jacks embedded into it -- a USB 2 port, and two 1/4” TRS electronically-balanced output jacks. The latter are for connecting the Scarlett to powered monitors or to a stereo amp and unpowered speaker combo. The former, combined with the lack of an AC or DC jack, should tell you that the 2i2 is a USB bus-powered device. Again, this is perfect for our purposes, where the only other devices that require USB power from the computer are the mouse, keyboard, and occasional USB stick.

The front panel has a bit more going on, although not a lot more. On the left side are two Neutrik combo jacks that provide the option of mic, line or hi-impedance (instrument) formats. The microphone inputs are electronically balanced, as are the 1/4” line inputs, although unbalanced TS 1/4” plugs work fine, as would be the case for instrument level signals when the input switches on each channel are properly set to INST rather than to LINE. Each channel also features an input knob surrounded by an interesting LED circle, which turns green to indicate incoming signal, yellow to indicate approaching clip level, and red to indicate clipping.

While these indicators looked sharp to me at first, I dithered over them like a May-December relationship. First, I liked them. Shortly thereafter I decided that they were distracting. Soon I became accustomed to seeing them light up out of the corner of my eye (while reading a script, of course). Ultimately I’ve decided that they represent one of the better sets of indicators I’ve used. They are clearly visible in a dark room across a wide range of angles (I tend to work in the dark, don’t you?), and for the self-directed, self-engineering voice talent they strike a good balance between being just another glowing studio lights, and actually drawing one’s attention when the input level is overcooked.

Rounding out the Scarlett 2i2’s front panel is phantom power, which is available for the two mic channels and is globally enabled with a backlit red button, a small green LED showing that USB is active, a headphone jack and volume knob, and the large volume control knob. All the knobs, especially the large volume knob, operate smoothly and accurately, although I would prefer some knurling or fluting on the large knob to make it more positive for those of us who tend to be ham-fisted. It’s a small thing.

The last item on the front panel, but not the least by any stretch, is the on-off switch for Direct Monitor. Unlike other interfaces that give you a knob to adjust how much of your input you want to hear versus recorded track, there’s just a switch. Flip it On and you’re hearing the sound of your microphone directly in your cans. Flip it Off and you’re hearing the sound of pre-recorded, or just-recorded, playback. But if you’re recording then you’re hearing the just-recorded playback, which is slightly delayed from the sound of your voice inside your own skull because it’s gone through the A-D converters, the buffers, the D-A converters and whatever else. We call that latency, and you’ve heard it.

Look, I totally get why music engineers want to turn a knob to something between hearing direct input and hearing playback, because they perform this operation known as recording overdubs. They want to hear the guitar solo overdub, or the bass punch-in, and they want to hear some backing tracks and some input while that’s occurring. But that’s not what we do. Why would a voice actor want to hear himself or herself delayed? Doesn’t that throw them off their reading game? It certainly distracts me. All I need to know is that what I’m reading is being recorded, and the meters and advancing waveforms on the screen tell me that very clearly, thank you. Meanwhile I want to hear myself speak the words on the page, so I can be sure I didn’t stumble, or do some weird pitch thing at the end of the sentence. So having just a simple switch to go from input to delayed playback is just fine with me, and that’s exactly what the designers installed on the Scarlett 2i2. Period.

DOES IT WORK?

As mentioned, one of the criteria was that the interface just worked with Pro Tools and with anything else we threw at it. On the Macintosh running 10.7 Lion, the Scarlett performed flawlessly in that regard. It’s definitely Pro Tools ready, and worked well with Reaper and several other programs that use Core Audio. I even threw a large, multi-track, multi-software instrument project in Logic at the thing, and it didn’t so much as burp. According to Focusrite, it does that successfully with both OSX 10.6, 10.7, and 10.8, although I did not test the latter.

The Scarlett 2i2 software drivers and applications run on both Windows 7 and 8. On Windows 7 Reaper wanted a driver, so I installed the 64-bit driver I downloaded from the Focusrite website on my Windows 7 64-bit box. Note that Focusrite includes an install CD in the box, but readers of this column know to just toss that and head for the website to download the latest and greatest, complete with Mix Control software. Among other things, that application allowed me to set latency down into the sub-ten-millisecond range, without any crackles or pops. The ability to get latency that low almost makes recording without Direct Monitoring (in other words, hearing what the drive head is writing) a tolerable situation. Still unnecessary in my opinion, but tolerable.

Given a properly-tuned Win 7 machine, the Scarlett performed without incident. Do take a moment to check out Focusrite’s guide to tuning up Win 7 for audio purposes: www.focusrite.com/answerbase/en/article.php?id=1071. It contains all the usual instructions, including setting performance to High, enabling DMA, disabling visual effects, and so forth. It’s well worth doing to get the most out of Win 7.

VERDICT

I suspect we’ve found an ideal solution for the computer lab in the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 for our students. And as you may have noticed, I think I may have found a good solution for my personal VO business. I haven’t even mentioned the free plug-in set that comes with the interface, including a reasonably good EQ, compressor, gate and reverb. The Scarlett is a great little interface that comes with prizes too, evidently.

But for portable VO work? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Mind you, the entire 2i2 box weighs in at half a kilo which is, what, a little over a pound? And it’s just a bit larger than a fat paperback book. In other words, this is a perfect interface for a traveling voiceover rig (or a non-traveling VO rig for that matter). There is no MIDI, no additional monitoring outputs, and nothing else included that is unneeded. Just a couple of mic/line inputs in front of some nice microphone preamps. And it’s red. Who doesn’t like red?

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 carries a suggested list price of $199 USD, or $149 USD from Focusrite dealers (less from amazon.com). For more information worldwide, visit www.focusrite.com.

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