Focusrite Scarlett 18i6 Review

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In the USB 2.0 vs. FireWire wars, USB has a new ally: Focusrite, with their Scarlett interfaces. The 18i6 has more I/O than the smaller 8i6, and is clearly intended for those expecting to track multiple instruments in a studio context. As a result, the 18i6 features 18 ins—two mic pres with balanced combo jacks (that can also handle instrument and line ins; switchable +48V phantom power affects both simultaneously), six balanced line ins, coaxial S/PDIF I/O, ADAT optical input, and 5-pin DIN MIDI I/O.

In addition to the S/PDIF out, one 1/4" headphone jack and two 1/4" monitor outs provide analog outputs. USB doesn''t supply enough power to bus-power the 18i6, so the unit has a global (Euro/U.K./U.S.) AC adapter with appropriate detachable plugs.

The 18i6 requires Mac OS X 10.6.5 or higher (including Lion), and 32-bit Windows Vista/XP3 or 32-/64-bit Windows 7. Installation on a Mac is plug-and-play, and on Windows, only slightly more time-consuming. The Scarlett MixControl application is virtually identical to the Saffire-style MixControl, and serves as your system''s traffic director. (Note that unlike some other Focusrite interfaces, there''s no internal DSP-based signal processing.)

With its “DAW companion”-centric design, there are useful monitoring options. While recording, you can choose a DAW Tracking template to monitor input channels via your DAW, or Zero Latency Tracking, which routes a monitor mix (that should consist of only input signals) to the main monitor outs and also, headphone outs. While this won''t let you monitor through plug-in effects, with slower computers (or musicians who are very timing-sensitive), you eliminate latency caused by going through the computer.

We ran the Scarlett through its paces by looping the output back to the input mic pres to come up with some real-world specs regarding audio performance. With a 44.1kHz sample rate, frequency response was –0.5dB at 20kHz and 15Hz, and –3dB at 5Hz. The noise level (A-weighted) was below –120 down to 5Hz, and typically around –125dB. THD is extremely good, with distortion products below –115dB at 2kHz and –108dB at 3kHz—any other distortion products were basically indistinguishable from the noise floor. Intermodulation distortion products at 120 and 180Hz were well under –110dB; high-frequency ones were not noticeably different from the noise floor—excellent. Stereo crosstalk was below –84dB up to about 1kHz, where it started rising until it hit around –55dB at 20kHz.

One hint: With USB interfaces in general, use good cables and short cable runs, and avoid having “dirty” peripherals on the same USB controller. The cable included with the 18i6 includes ferrite filtering, and using it eliminated artifacts that I observed with a cheap cable.

Of course, specs are only part of the story, as many swear by Focusrite preamps for their clarity. (If you want “character,” look elsewhere—or at least add a matching transformer to get some “iron” in the signal path.) I also appreciate the 5-pin MIDI connectors, the software bundle, the cool-looking and functional mixer applet, and generally professional vibe.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Focusrite Scarlett 18i6 product page.