Arturia's new audio interface is well designed, simple to use and enticingly priced.
Arturia first made their name as designers of software synthesizers, including some impressive recreations of classic instruments such as the CS80 and Jupiter 8. They then diversified into hardware, producing everything from affordable controller keyboards to the mighty MatrixBrute analogue mega-synth, before turning their attention to the world of USB audio interfaces.
Released in 2017, their debut in this department was a boldly unconventional and incredibly well-featured desktop interface. The AudioFuse offered not only mic and line inputs but also digital I/O, monitor control, turntable connections and probably an attachment for getting stones out of horses' hooves. It sounded very good and offered some unique features, including a rather quirky approach to direct monitoring and cue mixing.
After poking their toe in the audio interface waters, Arturia held back on immersing the rest of their foot, and it was not until this year's NAMM show that two further AudioFuses were announced. The AudioFuse Studio, yet to touch down on the SOS helipad, is an expanded and restyled AudioFuse with additional features and I/O. The subject of this review is the AudioFuse 8Pre, which takes one of the key strengths of the original and heads off in a rather different direction.
The 8Pre is primarily a showcase for the DiscretePro mic preamp technology Arturia developed for the original AudioFuse. It's a 1U-high unit that can be rackmounted or used as a tabletop device by applying the supplied feet/ears attachments as you so desire. It provides eight analogue inputs, each with a mic preamp, and 10 analogue outs, plus a headphone socket duplicated on quarter– and eighth-inch mini-jacks. And it can be connected either directly to your computer over USB, or to another interface such as the original AudioFuse as an ADAT expander. It has dual ADAT in and out ports, but the second pair is there only to retain the full channel count at 96kHz — you can't get more than eight channels. There's also word clock I/O, but no S/PDIF or MIDI. Computer interfacing is handled through a single USB-C port, and the package includes two USB cables, one C-C and one with the Type A connector for older machines.
Like its antecedent, the AudioFuse 8Pre offers features that are not commonly found in this sort of price bracket. Phantom power is switchable on a per-channel basis, and the first two inputs feature not only the usual high-impedance mode for connecting electric guitars, but balanced insert send and return sockets on quarter-inch jacks. Thoughtfully, the main combi sockets for these two inputs are duplicated on front and rear panels, and plugging something into the front socket automatically overrides a rear-panel connection. You can therefore leave the 8Pre wired up in a studio rack while retaining the ability to plug a mic or guitar into the front panel when you need to do a control-room overdub.
At the same time, however, the 8Pre also simplifies or omits some other features of the original AudioFuse. There's only a single headphone output, though at a pinch you can connect two sets of phones thanks to the duplicated socketry. Front-panel monitor control is limited, with an (analogue) volume dial augmented by two buttons. One collapses the main and headphone outputs to mono, the other provides a choice of two possible sources for the main output pair, which I'll describe shortly. There's no provision for alternate speaker switching or surround level control, nor any built-in talkback. Also missing is the AudioFuse's rather idiosyncratic top-panel control for setting the balance between computer-generated and directly monitored sources. The way things work here is more conventional and, in my opinion, all the better for that.
Physically speaking, the AudioFuse 8Pre is an impressively solid-looking and surprisingly heavy unit. Arturia seem to have rethought some of the design choices they made with the original AudioFuse, and I like the new thinking a lot. The new black colour scheme is smart, with controls sensibly spaced and clearly marked, and whereas the original AudioFuse got alarmingly warm in use, the 8Pre's case rarely gets above room temperature. I have only one reservation concerning the physical design of the unit, which relates to the 'wall-wart' external power supply. This does at least attach securely using a locking connector, but the cable is too short, and is formed of thin wire with no armouring and limited strain relief.
A design refresh is also apparent in the accompanying AudioFuse Control Center software. With the original AudioFuse, this shows a rather literal on-screen representation of the unit's top panel, but with the 8Pre, it displays a very clear and simple layout that fits all the important controls neatly into a single window. This has three panes, each of which can be shown or hidden as you wish. The top pane shows settings relating to the inputs; gain is adjusted using an analogue potentiometer, but pad/boost, phantom power, high-impedance mode and polarity reversal are switched digitally and available both here and on the front panel. The automatic detection of an XLR or jack connection is reflected in the graphics, the channel naming and in the options available, and a particularly nice touch is that once unplugged, a channel contributes no noise even if the gain is turned right up.
In the centre is a section variously titled Monitoring Mix or Cue Mix, which generates a stereo low-latency balance from any combination of analogue and digital inputs and — when the 8Pre is connected over USB — DAW returns. It's easy to show/hide any input you like, and they can be given descriptive names so you can leap instantly to the cowbell channel when it needs to be turned up. You can also create up to four track groups, which bind your chosen faders together as if controlled by a VCA fader. This system works nicely, with offsets between faders in a group being remembered even if you have pulled them all the way down to minus infinity and back up. If there's a patch of icing missing from this cake, it's that it doesn't seem possible to hold down a modifier key in order to temporarily suspend the grouping, but that's hardly a major omission. The faders offer up to 12dB gain above unity, which is useful in many cue-mixing situations where you need to balance input sources against previously recorded material.
Finally, there's the Output pane, which allows you to select the source that will feed each pair of physical outputs on the 8Pre. In most cases, four choices are available in USB mode: the stereo Cue Mix, the correspondingly numbered analogue input pair, the corresponding digital input pair, or the relevant pair of DAW returns. For example, the pop-up for analogue outputs 7–8 can be set to Cue Mix, Analog In 7-8, ADAT In 7-8 or USB 7-8. Digital outputs are the same, except that ADAT In is not offered, while the main analogue Speakers and Headphones outputs are special cases. The former can be set only to Cue Mix or USB 1–2 (ie. the first pair of DAW returns), with a front-panel button available on the unit itself to toggle between these. The phones output can be set either to Cue Mix, USB 1–2 or the self-explanatory Follow Speakers.
If this all sounds refreshingly straightforward compared with the control-panel utilities on offer from some manufacturers, that's because it is. Anyone who understands the basics of audio mixing will be up and running within minutes, and I would have happily dived into using the 8Pre on a session straight away, which is not something I can say for the majority of audio interfaces. Arturia have also thoughtfully made it possible to connect a USB cable and edit 8Pre parameters even when the unit in question is being used as an ADAT expander; in this case, analogue inputs 1-8 are hard-wired to digital outputs 1-8 and vice versa, but the cue mixing is still available at the speaker and headphone outputs if you so desire.
All this simplicity does have a flip side, though, which is that the 8Pre's internal mixing and routing capability is fundamentally quite basic. It only ever allows you to set up a single low-latency cue mix, and there is no EQ, compression, reverb or other processing available to enhance this. Nor can you use an iOS device as a remote control, as can be done with many rival products. It's not even possible to have the cue mix emerge at different levels from different line outputs, apart from the main speaker outs.
For all that, my own view is that Arturia have got the balance pretty much right, and that anything these arrangements lack in versatility is more than made up for by their immediacy. This is, after all, a product aimed at project-studio owners, and caters to a maximum of 16 inputs and outputs. In the real world, how many of its users are really going to need to offer individual iPad-controlled custom cue mixes to multiple musicians, or set up 5.1 monitor control with fold-down to a stereo pair of B speakers? Yes, talkback and basic speaker switching would be nice, but these are hardly standard on competing products either, and Arturia have surely catered for 90 percent of real-world use cases without introducing any sort of a learning curve.
Aimed squarely at home- and project-studio owners who want to make good-quality multitrack, multi-miked recordings without breaking the bank.
It's not only the 8Pre's ease of use that sets it apart from some rivals. I mentioned that Arturia are proud of their DiscretePro preamp circuit; in the original AudioFuse, the distinctive qualities of this design were perhaps overshadowed by the sheer quantity of features, but the streamlined design of the 8Pre places them front and centre.
Like the original AudioFuse, each 8Pre comes with its own Achievement Certificate listing actual measurement results for every channel, and they make impressive reading. On the review unit, the reported gain range varied from 73 to 77 dB, and equivalent input noise was between -128.3 and -129.5 dBu, unweighted. I can't think of any other unit in the same price range with comparable figures. For example, the preamps on Focusrite's Clarett interfaces offer a 57dB gain range and an A‑weighted EIN of -128dBU, which would be more like -126dBu if measured unweighted, while Audient quote a gain range of 70dB and an EIN figure of -127.5dB for their ASP880 (whether the latter is weighted or not is not mentioned). To match the 8Pre for EIN you'd need to spend several hundred more on PreSonus's Quantum or similar, and to compete on both EIN and gain range, you'd be looking at the likes of Apogee's Element 88; this costs about twice as much as the 8Pre, and both the Quantum and the Element require a Thunderbolt connection.
The complete gain range is accessed using a combination of each input's potentiometer and its pad switch. Press and release the latter and 20dB of attenuation is applied, but if you press and hold, you get 10dB boost instead. And what's particularly striking when you compare the AudioFuse with a typical project-studio interface or preamp is how much gain is available. By my reckoning, the maximum gain that can be applied is at least 23dB more than is available in the Clarett or the ASP880, and 12dB more than Quantum owners can draw on. To put it another way, an input signal that just reaches 0dBFS with the 8Pre at full gain will peak around -12dBFS on the Quantum and -23dBFS on the Clarett. In comparison, it's almost like having a Cloudlifter or similar gadget built in, which is a real boon if you record a lot of quiet sources, or make use of mics that have low sensitivity. For instance, many people who use the Shure SM7B for spoken-word recordings struggle to get a usable level from softly spoken presenters. That absolutely will not be an issue with the AudioFuse, and the resulting signal will be less noisy than one recorded through an in-line booster device.
As a consequence of this, though, the maximum input level that can be accommodated at the 8Pre's mic inputs is +11dBu, whereas the Claretts' inputs can cope with +18dBu and those of the ASP880 a massive +32dBu. This means that if you try hard enough you can run into clipping even with the pad engaged and the gain set to its minimum level. For example, when I close-miked a snare drum with an active mic specified at 7mV/Pa, occasional loud hits were peaking. It wouldn't be an issue with typical passive dynamic mics, but it's arguable that the ideal alignment for such an enormous gain range might have been a few dB lower.
The quality of Arturia's preamps would be moot if they were feeding poorly designed A-D converters, but here too the 8Pre offers impressive specifications. Arturia quote a dynamic range of 118dB on all inputs, 115dB on the line outputs and 119dB on the main monitor outs, and THD+noise specs are also better than most competing products. And, most importantly, it doesn't just measure well: it also sounds really good.
Although Arturia's original AudioFuse was dripping with features, it wasn't always obvious who their target user might be. An interface that offered something for everyone perhaps seemed like overkill to people who needed only some of its features. In the 8Pre, Arturia have produced a much more focused product. It's aimed squarely at home and project-studio owners who want to make good-quality multitrack, multi-miked recordings without breaking the bank. It performs very well indeed, and has a compelling USP courtesy of the massive gain range available on the preamps. From podcasters to folk and classical recordists to vintage mic enthusiasts, I suspect there are quite a few people out there who are fed up of trying to record quiet sources on project-studio interfaces. To those people, the 8Pre will seem like manna from heaven; and the fact that Arturia have brought it to market at such a competitive price will make it hard to resist.
Arturia chose to offer generic drivers for the original AudioFuse rather than coding their own. This is hardly unusual, but their insistence that it was a positive decision which brought benefits for the user was a bit hard to swallow, and at the time, low-latency performance on Windows was pretty mediocre. The 8Pre likewise employs Apple's fairly decent Core Audio driver on Mac OS, thus placing it on a par with many other USB interfaces and achieving a workable, if unspectacular, round-trip latency of just under 7ms at 44.1kHz with a 32-sample buffer size.
Arturia have also retained the unloved Thesycon driver on Windows, but they say that the latest version delivers better performance, as well as offering buffer sizes down to a wafer-thin eight samples. I no longer have a Windows studio computer to test this claim, but Arturia's own measurements show that a 32-sample buffer size should produce a round-trip latency of 4ms at 48kHz, with marginal gains achieved by lowering the buffer size further. Bear in mind that the actual latency is only part of the story, though; on paper, the 8Pre matches what the likes of RME achieve, but whether it matches their low CPU load is another matter.
- Unusually good preamps that offer much more clean gain than is available on rival products.
- Excellent audio specifications and subjective sound quality.
- Very simple to use.
- Great value for money.
- Can operate both as a USB interface and as an ADAT expander.
- Only one headphone output.
- Monitor control and internal mixing features may be too basic for some.
- If you record very loud sources you might prefer a less hot alignment than is available here.
- PSU cable is too short and could be more robust.
Arturia have drawn on their DiscretePro preamp technology to develop an eight-channel USB interface and ADAT expander that offers class-leading audio performance. If your current interface never quite seems to have enough input gain on offer, the 8Pre is the product for you!