In the past few years, Focusrite has been a champ at recasting its pro-studio technology for home-studio musicians. Having the company’s awesome preamps available in light, portable, easy-to-use, and affordable configurations offers guitarists (and other instrumentalists) a path to recording great-sounding tracks without breaking the bank or losing valuable creative time to reading manuals and fussy setup gymnastics. When an idea hits, you want to get it documented ASAP, and any impediments are frustrating. And the last things you want to be dealing with while crafting and recording brilliant guitar licks are angst and mental distraction.
The Clarett line—which includes the 2Pre ($499 street) reviewed here, as well as the 4Pre, 8Pre, and 8PreX—not only delivers the pristine sound we’ve come to expect from even the “musician range” of Focusrite preamps, it also provides super low-latency via Thunderbolt technology. This is kind of a big deal, as even slight latency issues can be a drag if you’re stuck with low buffer settings on your DAW for whatever reason, use a lot of groovy guitar plug-ins, and are committed to real-time recording (and what guitarist isn’t?). I set up a hi-hat sample at 125 bpm, and chunked along with it Cars-style (inspired by the Elliot Easton interview in this issue), and experienced no flamming or processor-related glitching. Even as I increased the tempo towards 160 bpm, I didn’t perceive any latency, and my guitar tracks matched the hi-hat as closely as this groove-challenged guitarist could muster. During several overdub sessions on my Mac-Book Pro, I also opened assorted guitar-amp, reverb, studio reverb, and stompbox plug-ins and tracked away with zero adverse effects.
Controls are dead simple. You get two front-panel combo jacks (XLR and 1/4"), two Level knobs, two 48V phantom power switches, a Monitor control, and a 1/4" headphone jack with dedicated Level knob. The back panel offers the Thunderbolt jack, MIDI In/Out, four 1/4" line outputs, and an optical jack for adding eight more input channels via a digital preamp (such as Focusrite’s own OctoPre MkII). In addition, the Clarett 2Pre ships with Focusrite Control software that lets you easily configure the unit for monitoring and other routing, as well as activate the Air feature (more on this later).
For overdub projects at home, one of the small preamps I love is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, but as great as it is, I do have to crank the input level for certain ribbon mics and low-level weirdo instruments (such as the fab Danelectro Baby Sitar). The preamps on the Clarett 2Pre have a lot of kick, however, and I didn’t have to dime the Level knob for anything. Audio quality was always transparent and pure, and “clean” is where you want to be when recording tracks at home that will later be incorporated into bigger projects at a commercial studio. But as I was “spoiled” by classic British mic pres in my early years, I sometimes want a bit more attitude and coloration to the sounds. This is where the Clarett 2Pre’s Air feature comes in—which emulates Focusrite’s transformer-based ISA preamp. Activating Air transforms the unit’s transparent audio into sounds with a bit more high-end sheen, midrange punch, and overall dimension. It reminded me of using the preamps on my late, lamented Trident Series 24 analog mixer. The effect is so cool that I wish I could switch it on and off with a front panel button, but it’s really no hassle to make it happen with the Focusrite Control software.
I’m grateful that Focusrite embraces the home-studio market and continues to upgrade its affordable and portable preamps. The Clarett 2Pre is a wonderful step forward in routing options (up to 10), plug-in management (no discernable latency when you go somewhat nuts on the effects and amp models), and headroom (tons of clean gain).
Pros Fantastic audio quality. Super-low latency when using plug-ins. Lots of input level and headroom.