Taking The Next Step: 2 Advanced Audio Interfaces Worth Looking At
You finally reached the point where your needs outgrew your audio interface. It served you well for many years, but it might have gotten damaged or simply outlived its usefulness. Now you need an interface with more input sources, a faster connection or simply better audio quality and overall performance.
We take a look at two more advanced audio interfaces that will not disappoint.
The First Choice
Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (2nd Gen)
You are probably already very familiar with the the 18i20's little and very well-known brother, the Focusrite Scarlet 2i2. This compact and budget friendly audio interface with its eye-catching red surface and solid build and quality sound, has literally been flying off the shelves of retailers over the past year. Even many consumers not even remotely involved in the recording industry are familiar with this little rock star.
All this attention and popularity are not without merit. This attractive compact red box really delivers exceptional value for money with its quality build, range of features and high audio quality. But as good as it is, it has its limitations.
The 18i20 is not just bigger version of the Scarlett 2i2 with new features. It really is a worthwhile step up with much more to offer.
If you are familiar with the Scarlett series of audio interfaces, the 18i20 will have a very familiar look and feel to you. It comes in the high quality scarlett red brushed aluminium casing. It has a black front panel that also houses all of the controls. The buttons and knobs are made of a high quality hard rubber with a very sturdy feel to them.
This unit comes with brackets to slide into a 19 inch rack, but it can just as easily be placed on your desk and will not look out of place as a stand alone unit. At almost 7 pounds it is definitely not made to be carried around and should be placed in a fixed position.
Unlike its smaller brother, the 18i20 is not powered by USB and comes with its own power supply, so make sure you have an open power socket available.
The the digital out is via a USB2 port which should provide enough speed to prevent any significant latency. (Focusrite wisely decided to steer clear from using the faster Firewire technology that started appearing in devices in this price bracket a few years ago. This technology did not survive very long is no longer supported by most laptop and desktop computers.)
The Scarlett 18i20 has a total of 18 total inputs and 20 total outputs on the device. On the front of the interface you will find 2 combo inputs (for line, mic and instruments), making it easy to quickly add add and remove devices without having to dig behind the interface, especially when rack-mounted.
Phantom power comes standard as expected, but what makes it so unique in this case, is that you have 2 switches to activate phantom power. One for inputs 1-4, and one for inputs 5-8. This is very handy if you use a combination of devices that do not all require phantom power.
Below the gain controls of the 2 front-facing combo inputs, you will find 2 switches for each input. One for switching to instruments, as well as a pad switch (to reduce the input volume by 10 decibels).
The remaining 6 combo inputs at the back have 6 corresponding gain controls on the front panel. To the right of it you will find LED indicators representing and monitoring the levels of all eight audio inputs.
Next to the LED you will find the master gain control switch. Below it you find a handy a Dim switch and Mute switch to respectively lower or completely cut out the audio if needed.
A standout feature of the Scarlett 18i20 is the inclusion of dual microphone outputs, each with its own gain control. This especially useful if you have more than one recording artist who need to directly monitor the recorded sound live.
Another useful features is LED lights on the front panel indicating input signals. One drawback however is that there are no LED lights indicating output signals.
The power switch can also be found on the front panel.
On the back you will find the majority of input and output ports. This includes the 6 remaining combo inputs. You also have eight 1/4 inch TRS line outs as well as 2 monitor line outs.
You will also find an optical input and output, as well as a S/PDIF input and output. You also have a MIDI input and output port for your virtual instruments, as well as world clock.
Finally the USB2 connection as well as the power adapter is also located on the rear panel.
As you can see, there is not much that the Scarlett 18i20 doesn't have covered in terms of input and output functionality. As a home user you will probably never need to use all the connections available, but it is reassuring that it is there if you need it.
On the software side, the 18i20 really come with a wealth of tools. Pro Tools / First Focusrite Creative Pack and Ableton Live Lite are included with the interface. It also includes Softube Time and Tone Bundle, Focusrite’s Red Plug-in Suite, and 2GB of Loopmasters samples.
With so many software tools at your disposal, you will probably never need to upgrade to the full or next version of the DAW software included with the device. Especially if your needs are limited to home use, the bundled software will most probably keep you occupied and happy for the lifespan of the Scarlett 18i20.
The world-class Scarlett preamps produce a warm and crystal clear sound. You are really going to find it hard to find anything in this price range to come close to matching the quality of these preamps.
(In fact, after some tests were done with preamps turned up to full volume to compensate for a microphone with an extremely low sensitivity, the base noise was so low when no sound was recorded that it was completely inaudible. This is something almost unheard of for an audio interface under 500 dollars.)
One of the most important features of the 18i20 however, is the reduction in latency. Focusrite claims a latency of 2.74 milliseconds which will be welcoming news to any serious end user. (A recording artist or sound engineer knows exactly how important it is to hear the sound your audio interface captures in real-time.)
Instructions for installation of the software comes on the back of the lid of the box. They are really simple and straight-forward to follow, and installation went smoothly and without a hitch on both PC and Mac platforms.
With software like Pro Tools/First Focusrite Creative Pack and Ableton Live Lite included with the audio interface, you are all set to go right from the start. The software add so much value to the Scarlett 18i20, that it really makes it an almost irresistible offer.
As with most proper DAW software, these tools come with a rather steep learning curve, but will prove invaluable once you've mastered the basics. (Chances are pretty good you are already familiar with most of these software if you upgraded from an existing audio interface.)
Needless to say I am extremely impressed with the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20. From the build quality, the amount of features available to the exceptional sound quality, it really is hard to fault this device. Especially coming in at under $500, this audio interface can easily compete with devices more than double its price.
The wealth of software included only adds to what is already a very attractive package.
One small piece of criticism that can be leveled against the Scarlett, is the lack of LED indicators on the front panel for output devices. But it really is a minor complaint and pales in comparison to all its strengths and features.
You can get more information and pricing on the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (2nd Gen) here.
A Worthy Alternative
PreSonus AudioBox1818 VSL
I am not going to delve to deeply into the AudioBox1818 VSL, as it is pretty much on par with the Focurite Scarlett 18i20. I will highlight a few features and differences. In general though, if the Scarlett does not suit your style or fit in with the rest of your audio equipment, the Presonus is really worth taking a serious look at.
With an all-steel design, the PreSonus is solidly build and has a real durable feel to it. Just like the Focusrite, it also has the same look and feel of smaller members of the Presonus family, with the same blue finish and diagonally displaced controls.
Designed to be rack-mountable, the PreSonus can also be placed separately on a desk, but does not have the standalone appeal that the Focusrite has. If looks aren't that important to you, this shouldn't be a problem.
It also feature eight combo ports, but unlike the Focusrite, all of them are placed on the front panel. Each port has its own gain control with a clipping indicator next to each knob.
Phantom power, like the Focusrite can be operated in two banks. You can activate/deactivate phantom power for banks 1-4 and 5-8 respectively.
A master gain control, a headphone output with its own gain control and LED level indicators, as well as a USB sync indicator rounds off the functions and features on the front panel.
Ten 1/4 inch balanced TRS outputs are situated on the back panel, of which 2 are main monitor outputs.
Three more input and output ports include MIDI, S/PDIF and optical interfaces, also located on the back panel. A world clock, USB2 port, power adapter and power switch round off the the functions located on the back panel.
Software to get you started includes PreSonus Virtual Studio Live and Studio One Artist 2.
As with other models in the PreSonus series, sound quality is excellent, thanks to the AudioBox1818's high-quality preamps and coverters.
A standout feature of the interface, is the consistency with which it delivers quality performance.
Software also install and work seamlessly on both Windows and Apple Macintosh platforms.
Without visually standing out and "showing off", the PreSonus AudioBox1818 goes about its business quietly and efficiently. It really is a workhorse that can be used for long periods of time, delivering consistent and quality results.
You can get more information and pricing on the PreSonus AudioBox1818 VSL here.
When the time comes and you need to upgrade your device, the good news is that there are some very good audio devices offering you all the advanced features and performance you require from a more advanced audio interface. More features and better performance in the form of the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (2nd Gen) and PreSonus AudioBox1818 VSL, can be obtained without breaking the bank. At the time writing both audio interfaces were available for less than $500.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!