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Review: Focusrite Clarett OctoPre

Review: Focusrite Clarett OctoPre
Simon Allen

Recording

17 November 2016: By Simon Allen

Simon Allen on how he thinks this new eight-channel mic pre with A-D/D-A conversion compares with the mkI and mkII models.

Simon Allen offers his thoughts on how this new eight-channel mic pre with A-D/D-A conversion compares with the original mkI and mkII models.

If I had a list of all the audio equipment I’ve seen on my travels around various recording studios, the Focusrite OctoPre is likely to feature in the top five most common. There have been two versions before this new release and wherever I go, I seem to come across an OctoPre in one form or another. Inevitably, like many, I’ve used them all on many occasions.

In the last few years, Focusrite has turned its attention to building high-end preamps and converters, with the RedNet series being its flagship preamp and converter units, and even more recently, the Clarett line of Thunderbolt interfaces was born. In a slightly surprising move by Focusrite, the OctoPre has now been given the Clarett label too. I was keen to find out if this new OctoPre can be considered a worthy addition to this new range that I rate so highly.

Third Time Around

Anyone that’s used the original mkI OctoPre is likely to say what a good unit it is/was. Even today it still delivers a respectable result depending on the source. I say ‘is/was’ because although it isn’t manufactured anymore, there are still plenty in service, which is testament to how well they were built, as well as their performance. The mkI was quite a sizeable unit – just 1U but very deep and it had some significant weight.

However, the mkI wasn’t without its flaws. They got hot; extremely hot. It was thanks to the rubbery-plastic controls that you could still operate one without receiving a third-degree burn. If used in a slightly warmer than ideal environment, or if you hadn’t left sufficient rack gaps, then they were prone to over-heating. This would result in digital spikes occurring in the audio, or worse still I had one that simply froze until it had been left to cool off. I vividly remember running the rest of the session with the unit out of the flight case and on a desk with a fan blowing air over the top. They were fan cooled, which meant that although they weren’t noisy, they weren’t silent either. Silent equipment in home studios, for example, has become really important for those that can’t physically build a separate machine room.

The mkII thankfully addressed these issues and came in a much smaller and lighter enclosure. The dark grey colour scheme and plastic front panel, however, wasn’t the cause of any inspiration. I appreciate that what gear looks like is irrelevant, but considering the mkI had a smart aluminium finish, this did feel like Focusrite had cut corners. The mkII has since proven to be a reliable and well-known unit, offering a convenient way to add extra preamps to your interface.

Both the mkI and mkII had ‘dynamic’ versions available, where each channel was equipped with a compressor. For the most part these were really useful for providing some protection over your recording level, but I never felt that they were compressors worth using in anger. Perhaps this is something that could have been improved in this latest release, but instead they’ve just dropped the dynamic idea entirely. This new unit is clearly aiming at being a more professional solution, instead providing insert points on each channel for your own external hardware.

With the third version, it’s really interesting to see Focusrite take the OctoPre in this more professional direction. The OctoPre has always represented a good level of performance at a reasonable price point, which has earned it the success it’s enjoyed. With much of the market becoming cheaper to meet the demands of increasing numbers of professionals working from their own facilities, this is a bold move. Somehow Focusrite has managed to keep the price of this new Clarett OctoPre down, but if this was ten or even five years ago, I’m sure we would have been looking at a four-digit figure.

Overview

This unit is built well and is full of high-quality components; it’s also extremely solid and has a good weight, although perhaps not quite as sizeable and heavy as the mkI. In comparison to its predecessors, this latest Clarett version is in a new league. It is beautifully made and has a finer quality finish than many pro-audio products. Focusrite hasn’t cut any corners here and the result is a product you’d be proud to own.

If you are a lucky owner of a Clarett, or the latest Red 4Pre or Red 8Pre interfaces, then this preamp extension looks great alongside those units. With the release of the Clarett and Red 4Pre/8Pre interfaces there’s been a need for some higher quality preamps with ADAT connectivity. Using a mkII OctoPre with any of these new generation interfaces from Focusrite doesn’t seem fitting when you appreciate the difference in the quality of audio that you’re getting.

Like the old OctoPre, there are eight channels of mic preamp. Every channel features a combo XLR-jack connector with auto switching mic/line inputs. The first two inputs, located on the front panel, also support direct instrument inputs. This is a proven layout, which also works from an efficient space saving point of view. Personally, I would have preferred all eight XLR/line inputs on the rear with just the two instrument inputs located on the front. When using an XLR loom for example, it can be untidy and a hassle to extend the first two channels so they reach around the front of the unit.

New to the Clarett OctoPre are TRS insert connections for each input channel, which are relay switchable in and out. This allows for the unit to be left connected in a rack with other outboard hardware such as compressors and EQs, or even a patchbay. I really appreciate this feature as consoles are becoming less common in small to medium-sized studios, which unfortunately results in great gear sometimes being overlooked when under time constraints. Obviously this feature permits the use of the Clarett mic pre with your chosen outboard, but importantly still taking advantage of the A-D converter in the Clarett OctoPre, which is excellent.

FocusriteClarettOctoPreRear

In Use

To test the Clarett OctoPre I ran a session with a Clarett 8Pre Thunderbolt interface in a studio that I’ve used many times before. We were recording some percussion tracks in a very classical manner. This meant that there was several distant and room mics used, which is always a good test for the sensitivity of preamps, line noise and the quality of the converters. We were working with a huge variety of percussion instruments, some with high SPL transients through to some with soft and harmonically rich tones.

Given some more time I would have loved to try using the preamps for some typical vocal and guitar recording, but in hindsight this probably proved to be a much tougher test overall. I am also used to the Clarett interfaces so feel I can already vouch for the quality of these preamps and converters. I couldn’t tell a difference on this test between the Clarett’s preamps and the OctoPre’s. These are truly excellent preamps and converters that cope with anything I’ve thrown at them so far. They also have one of the lowest signal-to-noise ratios you are likely to come across in today’s market.

Just as the mic preamps on the Clarett Thunderbolt interfaces feature Focusrite’s new ‘Air’ mode, the OctoPre also offers this on a channel-by-channel basis. ‘Air’ isn’t a DSP effect but is in fact an additional circuit inside the preamp. In the same way I try to employ this feature whenever possible with a Clarett interface, I also enjoyed using it on the OctoPre as it performs well with most sources. It’s a reasonably subtle effect that does exactly what you expect. Adding some extra clarity before the audio is converted into the digital domain, I believe is nearly always a good idea.

Conclusion

While they might not be quite as phenomenal as Focusrite’s RedNet preamps, I believe the quality of the Clarett preamps and converters are very close. I would even go as far as saying the Clarett preamps and converters are some of the best in any interface currently available.

Their tone and performance suit modern production music just as well as they do for more ambient and detailed material. They are probably more colored than other interfaces, especially with the Air feature enabled, but I like that. As modern recording interfaces have developed, I’ve felt the focus has been on neutral sounding preamps. While that’s highly commendable, Focusrite is offering a more musical option.

I would highly recommend the Clarett OctoPre to anyone looking to extend the number of inputs to their audio interface, or for adding another flavour of preamp to any interface with ADAT connectivity. When you consider how expensive branded preamps can be, even without A-D converters, the price point of this Clarett OctoPre is incredible value for money. Add in all the little features such as the insert points and the Air circuitry and this leaves a remarkable unit. I believe these units are a good investment opportunity, which will serve even high-end facilities for years to come.

Key Features

  • Eight Clarett mic pres with switchable analogue ‘Air’ effect
  • 24-bit A-D/D-A conversion all the way up to 192kHz
  • Eight high-quality analogue outputs
  • Dedicated switched insert points on every channel
  • Six-segment LED input metering on every channel


RRP:
£649.99

Simon Allen is a freelance internationally recognised engineer/producer and pro audio professional with over a decade of experience. Working mostly in music, his reputation as a mix engineer continues to reach new heights.