The Forte is Focusrite's attempt to build the best compact USB audio interface possible. Have they hit this ambitious target?
British audio manufacturers Focusrite have kept their R&D team busy over the last year or two, developing the ever-expanding range of Saffire and new Scarlett audio interfaces. However, the company's latest offering is a radical new stand-alone interface, apparently aimed at professionals requiring a very high-quality, compact device with the emphasis very much on excellent technical and sonic performance.
The all-new Forte is a two-in/four‑out (analogue-only) device that loosely resembles — in both facilities and general styling — a slightly enlarged Apogee Duet 2. However, unlike that device, Focusrite's Forte can be used with either Mac (OS 10.7 or 10.8) or PC (Windows 7 or 8, 32- or 64-bit) platforms, which puts a smile on my face straight away! The Forte measures 116 x 170 x 36mm (WxHxD) and weighs 487g, making it roughly about 10mm wider, taller and thicker than the Duet 2. A Kensington lock slot on the right-hand side near the back of the unit enables it to be secured, where necessary.
In terms of general functionality, the Forte also competes directly with products like RME's Babyface, Propellerhead's Balance, and one or two other compact interfaces, but the Focusrite design team tell me that their aim was to produce the best-quality compact USB interface possible, and they seem very confident that they have achieved exactly that!
The Forte name is another subliminal hint at the flagship status of this interface. It comes from the bespoke Rupert Neve-designed Forté (with a posh accent!) mixing console that the company was originally set up to produce in the 1980s for Air Studios (and from which the current ISA range of hardware is derived). It's a bit of misdirection, though, since the Forte interface doesn't actually share any circuitry directly with the imposing Forté console, although there is no doubt that the new interface's design ethos is centred on genuinely high-end signal-path electronics.
Supplied in a very attractive Apple-esque presentation box, the Forte ships with a dedicated input loom, a one-metre USB cable, a wall-wart power supply, a software download card, and a small 'Getting Started' guide. The desktop hardware looks and feels reassuringly professional, thanks to its weighty, polished aluminium enclosure. This has a nicely curved top surface featuring a black plastic panel which stretches the full width above an aluminium control knob — the only obvious physical control. The 'Getting Started' guide does little more than identify the connections and buttons, while the download card explains how to access and download the control panel software and drivers using the product's serial number via a dedicated page on the Focusrite web site. The drivers required for Windows computers are compatible with both ASIO and WDM (although only with 16-bit audio in the case of the latter). Also available from the same download site are a full manual and Focusrite's Midnight Suite of plug-ins (see 'Suite Extras' box).
Installing the software and drivers on a Windows 7, 64-bit PC proved very straightforward, and the Forte was easily found and integrated into the system. I mostly used it with Cockos' Reaper DAW (v4.261), and I was up and running inside a couple of minutes without any issues at all.
The black strip across the Forte's front panel has four icons printed across the lower edge, and these indicate input, line output, headphone output and DAW control functions, respectively (see below). Each icon sits above a hidden touch-sensitive button which selects the corresponding function, and the icon then illuminates red to show it is the active mode. Hidden in the centre of this black panel is a 30x24mm colour OLED display which provides very elegant signal meters, level-setting controls, operating-mode status displays, and so on, all in a simple but very effective way. Almost everything can be configured directly from the Forte hardware, although the associated Forte Control computer software provides faster access and a useful overview, if preferred.
Connections to the Forte are made at either end-plate. A stereo quarter‑inch headphone socket is recessed into the base end of the control unit nearest the user, and this provides two of the interface's four outputs. The other two are line-level balanced outputs provided by two more recessed TRS sockets at the top end of the unit, which means that for playback-only applications the input loom isn't required at all, enabling a very neat and tidy desktop! All of the rest of the interfacing is at the top end of the unit, too, including a type-B USB 2 socket for connection with the computer, a coaxial DC power input socket, and a chunky multiway connector for the inputs.
Usefully, the Forte can be operated in a 'USB low-power mode' if necessary, using only standard USB bus powering, although there are some limitations when working in this way. However, while I was able to run the Forte on bus power from a laptop quite happily, it wouldn't work properly from a powered USB hub. It became stuck in a comedic cycle of trying to boot, followed immediately by closing down and then trying to boot again, accompanied by USB on-off bings and bongs from Windows! Clearly, the Forte demands every Watt available when it comes to USB0 bus power.
Regarding those bus-power limitations, there are really only two. Phantom power isn't available when the Forte is bus-powered, and the maximum output signal level is reduced, as there is insufficient power available for the high-current output stages. While this means that the total dynamic range of the output stage is curtailed, the difference in performance may well not be particularly significant, depending on the sensitivity of the connected powered speakers or headphones, and the compromise is a reasonable one, given the usefulness of being able to work without a mains power supply when necessary. Importantly, the input circuitry is completely unaffected when it's working on USB bus power, and the full input dynamic range is maintained under all circumstances. Of course, when the supplied 5V (3 Amp) wall-wart power supply is connected, standard 48V phantom power becomes available and the output headroom and dynamic range are restored to the full specification.
The supplied multi-way input loom is only required when recording, and uses a standard VESA Display Port connector (wired with a non-standard pin allocation, since there are no video signals involved). This connector was chosen because it is very robust and has a good latching mechanism with obvious orientation, and it includes enough terminals to handle all the required audio inputs. It certainly feels rather more stable and is easier to use than some of the alternative micro-sockets employed on some competitors' products. The input loom is about 350mm in length and terminates in a pair of Amphenol XLRs for the microphone inputs, and a pair of in-line TRS sockets to accept either balanced line or unbalanced instrument inputs (the appropriate mode being selected on the Forte or its control software).
Any combination of the two inputs can be active simultaneously — two mics, a mic and an instrument, an instrument and a line, or two line inputs — and the available channel gain-range changes depending on the selected input type. The microphone gain range spans 0 to +75dB, while the instrument input ranges between +14 and +68dB. The balanced line-input mode offers -12 to +42dB — all very generous and useful settings. A high-pass filter (12dB/octave below 75Hz) is available for all input sources, along with a polarity-reverse option, while a 10dB input pad and phantom power can be applied to microphone inputs. Input configurations can be set up from either the Forte Control software, or directly from the hardware unit, and the status is indicated on both the software and the hardware (when you are viewing the Forte's input display screen). The sample rate can only be set from the Control software (or the ASIO window in your DAW).
The elegant colour OLED display states 'Sound is Everything' while the unit boots up, after which it shows three stereo bar-graph meters by default, for the inputs, line outputs and headphone outputs, respectively. Pressing the Input soft button causes the two stereo output meters to 'squash' over to the right-hand side, to make room for an input status display to squeeze in between the input and output bar-graphs. In this way, the output levels always remain visible (albeit on very thin meters) while the centre of the display shows the two input channel gains and the status of their conditioning facilities. The input bar-graphs remain on the left-hand side at their original width.
Pressing the Input soft key a second time toggles the input selection between the two channels, directing the encoder to alter the selected channel's input gain. If the soft key is pressed for a couple of seconds, a second status page replaces the original input gain display, and this lists the current settings for the selected channel's input conditioning facilities (phantom power, pad, filtering, and so on). Any desired setting can then be selected by scrolling through with the encoder, and its status toggled by pressing the knob.
Similarly, pressing the Speakers soft key briefly brings up the line-output control status displays (including 12dB dim, mute and mono options), along with the line-output level control. As before, holding the soft key down brings up a text display where the output settings can be altered. A nice touch here is that the mute function ramps up and down, rather than cutting abruptly. Exactly the same output conditioning facilities are provided for the headphones if you press the Headphone icon button. The way in which the OLED display reveals the I/O configuration information while always presenting the input and output level meters is very clever, and the system works well.
The last soft button accesses the DAW control facilities, and this causes all the bar-graph meters to squeeze over to the left-hand side. If the Forte detects a recognised audio program active on the host computer, its logo is displayed, along with a visual reminder of the functions allocated to the encoder wheel and its built-in press-switch. Holding the soft key down accesses another text display, which lists any alternative function allocations, and these can be selected in the usual way, by scrolling and clicking. In the case of Reaper, for example, the encoder can be used to zoom vertically or horizontally, act as a mouse, or fast‑wind forwards and backwards through the timeline, while the push-switch can activate playback or record.
By default, the standard command allocations place the horizontal zoom function on the rotary control, and play/stop on the press switch, and the Focusrite boffins have pre-allocated most commonly required functions as available alternatives for audio programs including Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Reaper, Reason, Live, and even iTunes! However, in theory, any DAW function that has a keyboard shortcut can be controlled from the Forte, given a bit of ingenuity.
Configuring the inputs and setting output levels is very easy from both the Forte itself and via the control software. I found myself happily using both, depending on what I was doing at the time. The display is very crisp and clear, and the whole thing exudes a decent sense of quality and professionalism. We're not talking Grace Design quality, perhaps, but then we're not at that price either!
I used the Forte with its mains power supply most of the time, but actually found that I rarely increased the level control for the line outputs to the loudspeakers beyond about -20. The significance of that is that there would be no difference in performance if I was running on bus power, since that limits the output control at -18 — two stops higher. And while I often found that I was setting the headphone control higher than -18 for brief periods of critical listening, in general even the headphone output provided an acceptable volume on bus power, when used with most headphones.
I was impressed with the amount of low-noise gain available on the microphone inputs — as well as the massive headroom margin — and had no trouble at all using a wide variety of microphones. The bar-graph metering starts to change from green to yellow at about -10dBFS, and I found that adjusting the gain to place occasional peaks just into the yellow section worked very well for me, leaving a sensible headroom margin without compromising the signal-to-noise ratio. The instrument inputs sounded just fine with both electric guitar and bass, while there was masses of gain in hand if needed, and a huge headroom margin.
The ability to control basic DAW functions proved handy on occasions, especially for stopping the DAW after a recording pass, but in practice I found I still preferred to use the mouse and keyboard — not least because, with only a one-metre USB cable, the Forte hardware was inevitably sat next to the computer anyway!
I've not measured the performance of the Duet 2, so I can't compare it directly to the Forte on that level, but I have used it on a couple of occasions, and my impression is that the Forte is at least as good, and possibly marginally better. I also prefer the slightly softer and more elegant styling of the Forte, but that is a purely personal aesthetic preference, of course.
What isn't in any doubt is that the Forte is a very serious and extremely capable player in the very competitive compact, high-quality interface market. I was impressed by its technical performance and its operational simplicity and elegance, and would recommend its addition to the shortlist of anyone looking for a small but versatile interface that punches well above its cost in terms of performance.
The most obvious competition for the Focusrite Forte is the Apogee Duet 2, but RME's Babyface, and Propellerhead's Balance interfaces are also comparable in terms of I/O and facilities. For PC users, who can't use the Duet, the Forte matches or exceeds — depending on your personal point of view — its aesthetic quality and, arguably, its audio quality too.
The Forte's mic preamps are derived from the remote-controlled design employed in the RedNet Ethernet audio interfaces (Focusrite's latest high-end preamp design), while its conversion technology is claimed to deliver class-leading dynamic range and noise performance, to enable very high track counts without accumulated noise problems. The physically separate A-D and D-A converters (no single-chip implementation here!) support sample rates up to 192kHz, with 24-bit quantisation, and the converters' analogue stages have been very carefully designed for maximum performance.
When powered via the mains wall-wart supply, maximum output level from a 0dBFS source via the balanced line outputs — with the output-level control wound fully up — is +16dBu. Most 19-inch rackmount professional interfaces manage +24dBu, but the reduced output level from the Forte is still perfectly adequate for most purposes. However, if the Forte is bus-powered, the line-output level control can't be set any higher than -18 (the default switch-on level), which means that the maximum output signal level falls to just -2dBu. In practice, most active monitor speakers will be able to cope with this reduced output level quite happily, so the Forte remains a very usable interface even when bus powered.
With the line-input level control at its minimum setting of -12, the Forte can accommodate line inputs up to +20dBu before clipping, and at the maximum gain of +42 an input level of -34dBu produces 0dBFS into the DAW. The equivalent input window range when switched to the instrument input mode is from +10 to -44dBu, and for the microphone inputs it is an astonishing +22dBu with the pad switched in (+12dBu without), down to -63dBu for 0dBFS. Put another way, if you are happy to work with peaks to -10dBFS or so, the Forte will easily cope with mic outputs around -70dBu, so working with low-output ribbons shouldn't be a problem at all. The microphone input impedance is around 2kΩ while the line input is 44kΩ. I couldn't get a precise figure for the instrument input, as it was too high for my measurement system — but I would estimate it to be around 1MΩ.
My bench tests using an Audio Precision system largely confirmed Focusrite's own published specifications, which are generally extremely good for a product of this type. The THD+N distortion figure for a round trip between the line in and line out via the DAW came out at a very respectable 0.002 percent (and just 0.0008 percent via the direct monitoring path, which illustrates the quality of the analogue electronics rather nicely!). The frequency response is ruler flat, as you would expect, tailing off at the bottom to a -3dB point at about 7Hz. Crosstalk between channels with a 10kHz signal is around -110dB, which is another extremely good result. Focusrite use the AES17 method to evaluate converter dynamic range, but choose to use A-weighting rather than the recommended CCIR-2k weighting. As a result, my CCIR-based measurements came out slightly lower than the published specifications of 117dB (A-wtd) for the A-D and 118dB (A-wtd) for the D-A — but these are quite plausible A-weighted figures and indicate exceptionally good real-world converter performance.
The only measurement that caused a raised eyebrow was when I checked the high-pass filter turnover frequency. The specifications quote a filter frequency of 65Hz, but my test indicated the -3dB 'turnover' was actually tuned to 100Hz with the expected second-order (12dB/oct) slope. However, on checking the published specifications more closely, I discovered that Focusrite's 65Hz figure was for the -6dB point — and my measurements would agree with that! There is no problem with a high-pass filter having a 100Hz turnover, and it is very effective at removing unwanted LF mud when recording sources with little bass energy, such as most vocals, acoustic guitars, and so on.
Supplied as part of the Forte system, and downloaded from the Forte web page as part of the registration process, Midnight Suite (v1.3) is software that provides both 32- and 64-bit VST and RTAS modelled two-channel plug-ins of Focusrite's classic ISA110 equaliser and ISA130 compressor — both core elements of the original Forté console channel strip.
The GUI styling of the two Midnight plug-ins reminds me of a '70s hi-fi, but both plug-ins are well equipped with all the usual controls. The Midnight Compressor includes a wet/dry blend control for parallel compression effects, and has both Gain Reduction and Input/Output meters, the latter with a very useful moving threshold mark on the scale. The Midnight EQ is a six-band design with high and low shelf sections, two parametric mid-range bands, and separate low- and high-pass filters, plus an overall gain control and output meter. I didn't spend a great deal of time using these plug-ins, but they both worked well and sounded good, and I will enjoy exploring their characteristics further. As a free bonus inclusion with the Forte, they certainly provide significant added value.