When I was a budding young muso back in 1995, I longed for a multitrack recoder to track my early songwriting efforts. In those days, our best bet would be a 4-track cassette recorder from the likes of Tascam or Fostex. Just the multitrack recorder alone would set you back a few hundred bucks, not to mention microphones, drum machine, and all sorts of other stuff. All this was pretty much well out of reach for 15 year old me, and so I shelved my dreams of home recording and continued to squander my pocket money on guitar magazines and cassette tapes.
These days, you can download far more capable DAWs for absolutely nothing (Audacity comes to mind), as are VST drums, keyboards and a whole plethora of virtual instruments and effects. All a budding home recordist really needs is a decent computer, a good audio interface, a mic (if an SM57 mic is good enough for David Bowie, its good enough for you), and a decent pair of reference headphones, all of which can be had for a fraction of what a Portastudio would cost in the 90s. So when I finally decided to ditch my trusty old (emphasis on the old) audio interface in favour of something better, but not too expensive, my mind was well and truly boggled by the plethora of hardware options available to me.
Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to decide on a solution, once I narrowed the field (and my budget). Focusrite have recently released a great one-box solution for home / mobile recordists who want an all-in-one package that sounds – and looks – good, without breaking the bank.
Enter the Focusrite Scarlett Studio (List S$395 at Sinamex Singapore). Based on the Scarlett 2i2 interface, the Scarlett Studio pack includes a studio-grade condenser microphone (with matching red XLR cable), a circumaural studio-grade headphone, all decked out in a fetching scarlet-red chassis and trim. Software wise, the Scarlett Studio comes with Cubase LE6 DAW, which includes some software instruments like the Novation Bass Station and HALion SE. I’ll not belabour the technical specs, which you can find online at the Focusrite website (together with a lovely demo video). Let’s dive into the box, shall we?
What’s In The Box
The Scarlett Studio came all neatly packed in a box, with everything as it should be. Besides the interface, mic and headphones, the Scarlett Studio pack also includes a mic stand mount for the condenser, the aforementioned red XLR cable (did I mention that its red?), USB cable, software install CDs and instructions. The headphones come standard with a 3.5mm TRS plug, but have a screw-on 1/4” adaptor for use with the 2i2’s headphone jack.
As expected, the build quality is generally quite good. The 2i2’s anodized aluminium chassis is rugged and attractive, but the fine grooves on the surface tends to trap dust, which annoys me to no end. The CM25 condenser is equally just as well-built. It feels hefty and substantial in hand, although you certainly don’t want to drop it on a hard surface, or chuck it at your bass player (you shouldn’t be chucking stuff at your bandmates anyway). The cable appears to be well soldered and put together, no complaints there. The HP60 headphones might feel a bit cheapy, owing to its light weight, (relatively) minimal skeletal frame-and-headband construction, and plasticky driver housing. The pleather cups are comfy, cable joints well soldered and reinforced with strain relief. Cheapy-ness aside, the headphones have held up very well so far, and I’ve no complaints about build quality otherwise.
The entire setup is very portable, and I tested this by lugging the entire kit and caboodle in a single bag to the office for an hour of overdubs at lunchtime. Never imagined I’d be lugging my recording studio to work, let alone do it in one bag! That said, we do have a broadcast mic stand in the office, as well as a vocal isolation booth, so I cheated a little there. I do wish that Focusrite would have provided a protective case for the mic, if not for each of the various components. A future accessory idea for Focusrite, perhaps?
Ease of Install and Setup
Setting up the 2i2 to work with my early 2010 Apple Macbook Pro was relatively straightforward – install the necessary drivers, plug the fella in, and with any luck the software will do its software-y magic and you’ll be able to run audio in and out of the 2i2. Setting up Cubase LE on the other hand… that’s where all you macho men really really really have to RTFM. I’ll not go into specifics here, since its been some time since I did the Cubase install and my memory is kinda hazy on that point. Suffice it to say that you’ll want to go slow, and again, read the feckin’ manual. Once Cubase LE is up and running, it’s pretty much a straightforward affair to sync the 2i2 with Cubase. But again, RTFM-ing is not a bad idea at all, especially if its your first time setting this sort of stuff up. Or even if its your second, or third.
I’ll not go in-depth into the ease of use for Cubase LE, since I’m not doing a review on DAW software. Briefly though: if you’re a DAW newbie, it’ll take a bit of fiddling about to figure out how to get audio in and out of the software. Prior experience with Garageband is no guarantee of instant success with Cubase LE – again, you’ll want to read, read, read that manual.
Now we get to the good part. I’m no home recording expert, and I pretty much fumbled my way through to the installation and setup for a few hours before being able to get things going. I’ve not had a lot of time to record stuff, but I did manage to bang out an acoustic demo for a song that I’ve been working on with my band. You’ll hear that in just a bit.
Compared to what I’ve been using in the past (assorted low-end pre-Avid M-Audio and LIne 6 stuff), the Focusrite 2i2 does sound better – there’s a lot more clarity in microphone recordings, and DI’d guitar sounds accurate (not great, but that’s really more a function of the guitar pickup I reckon). I’ve not had a chance to run electric instruments through the inputs – but I’ll update the review once I get the time to do that. Bouncing out tracks to my digital audio player (iTunes / iPod in this case), tracks do sound clearer and vocals are punchier and more present, compared to my earlier demos.
Again, I’m no recording guru, and words definitely fail me when it comes to trying to express what I’m hearing – not so much because I lack the vocabulary, but more because I don’t have enough exposure to make definitive statements about the quality of sound I’m hearing. I must say though, listening to the recorded tracks though the 2i2 on my nearfield monitors (nEar 04s, if you’re keeping score) and the HP60 headphones, I’m hearing a wider frequency reproduction compared to what I was used to with my previous interfaces – probably as much a product of the Focusrite preamps, as it is the headphone / monitor outs on the 2i2.
Enough rambling, I’ll let my recorded stuff do the talking for now. Here’s that acoustic demo I was talking about – a song called “Her Eyes”. I did one take with an Audio Technica AT4033 mic which I had in the office, and another with the Scarlett CM25 condenser.
The AT4033 definitely sounds clearer and sweeter. It has a lot more output compared to the CM25 – I’ve deliberately mixed the CM25-recorded lead vocal at the same level I used for the other track with the AT4033, so you can hear the difference in levels. Also because I was too bloody lazy to re-mix the track.
That said, I think you’ll hear that the CM25 holds its own against the AT4033. Proximity effect is more pronounced, and adds weight to my vocal track on the CM25-recorded take. I reckon I’ll be very happy to continue using the CM25 for vocals. I’ve yet to have an opinion on the CM25 for acoustic guitar, since I only used it to mic up my Hummingbird (off-axis at the 12th fret), which – given the softer finger-picking attack I used for this song – didn’t quite cut through as well as I’d wanted. I would have re-recorded the guitar with a different placement but I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked. I did track simultaneously with the Hummingbird’s LR Baggs piezo pickup, and that’s what you’re hearing most of the time.
I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions about sound quality, but my personal take is that its definitely a big step up from what I was using previously (again, lower-end pre-Avid M-Audio and Line 6 stuff).
HP60 Headphones: A surprising accessory
I can’t wrap up this review without giving the HP60 headphones a special mention. As someone who’s a bit more particular about the things I stick over (or into) my ears (see the rest of this blog), I reckoned that the HP60s would be a throwaway accessory. I drew that premature conclusion based on the precious little information about them on the website – no mention of driver type, size, impedance, frequency response etc. My initial listen tended toward that conclusion. Audio was anemic and slightly tinny. However, there was something about the expansive soundstage that made me want to let them run in a little longer. Plus the fact that they fit a whole lot better than my Beyer DT1350s – they exert just enough clamping force to stay on your head, yet stay comfortable for long listening / tracking sessions. That was particularly helpful for spectacles-wearers like me, since tighter headphones like the DT1350 tend to press very uncomfortably on spectacles frames.
After running them in for a few hours, I definitely got the hang of the HP60’s signature. Focusrite are bang-on when they call these studio-quality headphones. I’ve seen that label slapped on consumer-grade cans, and tend to be a bit leery of such descriptors. Not so for the HP60 – they offer nice, flat response across a wide frequency spectrum. I used to mix almost exclusively using my nearfields, but that’s become quite difficult of late, so I’ve had to rely almost exclusively on headphones for mixing. In that regard, the HP60s offer a very good option for quiet monitoring and mixing. Whilst there’s no impedance values published online or in the manual, the HP60s appear to need a bit more source output to drive comfortably. So definitely not something you’d want to use to listen to music on your iPod, unless you’re running it through a portable headphone amp.
Soundstage is wide and expansive, allowing me to make fine adjustments for stereo placements. Signature is generally flat, almost slightly V-shaped response to my ears. But considering that my preference is usually for mid and bass-heavy cans, my opinion is almost certainly biased. Low end extension is good, but not as present as the DT1350. I did end up over-compensating for the low end when trying to edit and master some live rehearsal recordings I made with my Zoom H2, so I’ll have to double-check mixes with my bassier cans in future. Overall though, these studio cans are mighty useful indeed, and I reckon they’d hold their own against the likes of other established studio standards.
I do have a few niggling bugbears – I wish Focusrite would have provided a few more accessories like a pop filter, simple desktop mic stand, and a soft carrying / storage case for the mic, at the very least. And I do wish they’d published tech specs for the HP60 headphone – impedance values would be quite helpful for knowing how much juice these guys need. But these aren’t deal breakers, and one can certainly live quite comfortably with what comes out of the box.
The Bottom Line
The Scarlett Studio is definitely a fantastic value for money package for anyone looking to kickstart their home studio, or upgrade from low-end home recording setups. Again, its listing for S$395 at Sinamex Singapore – for other parts of the world, visit Focusrite’s Store Locator.