There comes a time in every musician’s life when they need to record themselves. Maybe you’re a singer-songwriter looking to track your heavily-Sam-Smith-inspired-post-break-up song. Maybe you’re an instrumentalist who wants to be able to mess around with other musicians or send remote tracks to people. Or maybe you’re trying to build a home studio to track larger projects out of your house.
Either way, you’re going to need an audio interface to get your sound into the computer. Now, there’s plenty of interfaces out there, but today, I’ll be talking about one of my favorites: the Focusrite Scarlett line of interfaces. There’s a few different models, but no matter what you’re looking for, they make a Scarlett just for you.
First up, let’s talk about the Scarlett 2i2. Focusrite has this clever way of naming their products so the first number means inputs, and the second means outputs. So the 2i2 has 2 inputs and 2 outputs. It connects to your computer via USB. The 2i2 is one of their most popular interfaces, and for a good reason. It’s dead simple, sounds great, and gets you 2 inputs for $150.
The 2 inputs on the front of the interface are combo inputs, meaning it’ll take 1/4in or XLR. There’s individual gain controls as well as a line/instrument switch. You’ve also got the ability to send phantom power to mics that need it. This will send phantom to both lines. These inputs have Focusrite’s award winning preamps built in.
The big knob controls your main monitor output, then we’ve got a 1/4 inch headphone jack. Yes, 1/4 in. Your iPhone headphones won’t work, but they would sound crappy anyway. Time to pony up and buy a good pair of proper headphones, or at least a 1/4 inch converter.
Around the back it couldn’t be simpler. USB and our two line outputs. These are stereo outputs for running to external monitors like these. This thing uses the power from your USB port and doesn’t need to plug into an outlet.
Now, there’s one other switch on the front you should know about. It’s the “direct monitor” switch. When you’re recording via USB, your signal goes into the mic, through the cable, into the interface, into the USB cable, into the computer, and then back through the USB cable, into the interface and out through your headphones. All this travelling takes time, and there can be a slight delay between your performance and what you hear. So to combat that, Focusrite has included a direct monitor option. With this on, your signal goes into the interface and directly back to your headphones, along with the click or whatever you’re recording to. This minimizes the delay and works really well. In order to do that properly, you’ll need to download the free Scarlett Mix Control App.
Beyond all the inputs and buttons and things, it’s case is a gorgeous brushed red metal. It feels nice, looks nice, and will class up any home studio.
If you’re looking to do some home recording, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is probably the interface that you should buy. For $150, it gets you 2 inputs, phantom power, and a headphone and monitor out. All in this sleek package. Oh, and every Scarlett interface comes with a suite of plugins including compression, EQ, gate, and reverb.
18i8 seems like a huge jump from the 2i2, but it makes more sense than you think. On the front, it looks a lot like the 2i2, but with more options. We’ve got 4 combo inputs with 2 separate phantom power switches, 2 headphone jacks with individual volume control, and my favorite – a mute switch for the monitor outputs. There’s a few things missing here, like the direct monitor switch, and the line/inst switches, so downloading the scarlett mix control app is especially important for the 18i8 (see above).
On the back, it’s a little more involved. We’ve got 4 additional 1/4 in inputs, 2 monitor outputs (left and right), USB, MIDI in and out (I’m sure someone has a use for this). Since this thing is bigger, it requires separate power and has an on/off switch. Lastly it has spdif in and out. I should have paid better attention in college cuz I don’t really know what this is for, like in a practical setting, but I’m gonna pretend like I know how important that is.
Now, if you’re good at math, you may have noticed, “Wait a minute, there’s only 10 inputs – 4 on the front, and 4 on the back, MIDI in, and spdif in (cuz that’s a thing). But you’d actually be wrong. See the 18i8 also has an optical input, which means you can connect a mic preamp and add up to 8 more channels.
The Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 goes for $350 and is a great interface. It takes everything that’s awesome about the 2i2 and adds even more. More inputs, more outputs, more headphone jacks, all still in this nice smooth metallic case.
Okay, but what if you want even MORE XLR inputs?
Then you’re going to want to get the 18i20. Unlike it’s siblings, the 18i20 is rackmountable. It’s basically like an 18i8, but with more XLR/ 1/4in combo inputs, and more outputs. You’ve also got optical in AND out for chaining in even more inputs from a mic preamp.
The 18i20 is the highest tier Scarlett interface. It’s rackmountable. It’s got a levels display on the front. It has a “word clock”. I’m not going to pretend like I know what that is, cuz I literally have no idea.
At $500, if you’re looking for a slightly higher end interface with LOTS of inputs and outputs, the 18i20 is the way to go. If you consider yourself an “audio professional” (like, if you know what a word clock is) then yeah this is probably the one for you. If you don’t need this many mic inputs though, I would recommend the 18i8.
Speaking of the 18i8, remember that optical in and out? The 18i8 has an optical in so you can chain in up to 8 more channels via a mic preamp. Well the 18i20 has 8 XLRs inputs with mic preamps, and it has an optical OUTput. So you can chain the 18i8 and 18i20 together. To see that in action, check out the video at the top of the page.
The Scarlett line of usb interfaces is a diverse line that has something for just about everyone. If you’re a singer-songwriter looking to record your stuff, or an instrumentalist who wants to be able to record tracks for people, get the 2i2.
If you’re getting into the recording thing a little more, spring for the 18i8. This will give you even more inputs for not that much more money.
But if you know what things like “85db at 1k with a hard-knee wordclock” mean, go for the gold and get the 18i20.
Whichever one is right for you, I know you’ll love working with it. I know I sure have.