Focusrite say the Red 4Pre is the pinnacle of their audio interface range. We put it to the test.
Focusrite products have been themed by colour for more than two decades. Their high-end Blue range, for example, was targeted primarily at mastering studios, while those with more modest budgets have embraced their Green and Platinum units. The artistic sensibility was extended to spelling as well as hue with the company’s computer-based products, which include the Saffire range of Firewire interfaces, the Scarlett USB devices and the new Clarett range of Thunderbolt interfaces.
One band on this rainbow, however, has always been reserved for premium analogue studio hardware. Focusrite’s Red range has encompassed high-end mic preamps, channel strips, compressors and equalisers — but never yet a digital product. So it’s significant that their latest audio interface, despite sharing many features with the Claretts, is the first to be branded Red. As Focusrite themselves say, “The Red brand is reserved for the pinnacle of our design; an uncompromised approach where we aim to deliver our very best.”
This “uncompromised” ethos is manifest in several aspects of the 1U rackmounting Red 4Pre’s design. The Clarett 8Pre and 8PreX are notable both for their excellent low-latency performance and for audio specs which are pretty much as good as it gets at the price. The Red 4Pre inherits the former and actually improves on the latter. I suspect few of us get to work on projects where extending the dynamic range of the line outputs from 119 to 121 dB will make an audible difference, but it’s an impressive design feat, achieved by using dual converters in a ‘parallel path’ configuration (see box).
Exclusive to the Red 4Pre are its four ‘Red Evolution’ mic preamps. These offer similar features to those found in the Clarett interfaces, including the interesting Air option, but there’s a significant operational difference: here, all preamp parameters including gain have been brought under digital control. This can be enacted from the same Focusrite Control utility as is supplied with the Claretts, but also from a front panel which features two large rotary encoders and three high-resolution colour displays.
In terms of analogue I/O, the Red 4Pre is, if anything, less well endowed than the Claretts. At any rate, full-sized audio connectors are not abundant; the four XLRs for the mic inputs are joined on the rear panel by a single pair of quarter-inch monitor outputs, while the front panel makes available two quarter-inch instrument inputs (which share input channels with the first two mic preamps) and two headphone sockets. The rest of the analogue I/O is fed through two D-sub connectors on the back panel. These respectively provide eight analogue ins and outs at line level, but the first four line ins are shared with the mic input and instrument channels. So, with the right D-Sub looms, the Red 4Pre will match the total eight-in/10-out analogue I/O count of the Clarett 8Pre and 8PreX, but offers only four mic preamps to their eight. Personally, I’d much rather Focusrite had made the thing 2U high and used quarter-inch connectors for the line-level I/O, but perhaps that’s a matter of individual taste.
Where the new flagship does leave its stablemates behind — and where it most justifies its ‘high end’ branding — is in the provision of digital expansion. As with the Clarett 8PreX, you get two sets of optical connectors, providing up to 16 channels of digital I/O at base sample rates using the ADAT protocol, plus word-clock and coaxial S/PDIF inputs and outputs. But on top of this, the Red 4Pre also has additional plumbing that allows it to play with the big boys: specifically, a pair of mini-Digilink sockets for connection to a Pro Tools HDX rig (see box), and a pair of RJ45 sockets that permit the addition of up to 32 inputs and outputs using Audinate’s Dante protocol. Focusrite’s own RedNet range includes a number of expansion options that can take advantage of this, and there are third-party offerings too. The Claretts’ MIDI I/O has, alas, gone by the wayside, but a nice touch is the inclusion of a second Thunderbolt port, so that displays or hard drives can be daisy-chained. Finally, if you were in any doubt about the Red 4Pre’s positioning as a high-end product, this would surely be dispelled by the fact that it actually comes with a Thunderbolt cable — a luxury denied to Clarett users and likewise to buyers of many rival products.
At this price you’d expect a smart-looking product, and Red 4Pre buyers can have no complaints on that score. Its styling is very similar to that of the Claretts, but it somehow cuts a slightly more sophisticated look, with more attention paid to visual and constructional details. One difference is that the Red 4Pre has holes in the side for cooling fans, though if these switched themselves on during the review period, I didn’t hear them! The rotary encoders have a satisfyingly expensive feel to them (which makes it the more unfortunate that the first unit we received had a broken one) and the displays are a big step up from the simple LED latter meters you get with the Claretts. They’re not huge, but they are clear, bright, and legible at a distance and at an angle.
Each of the three screens has its own clearly defined role. The centremost one always comprises eight bar-graph meters, showing signal levels for whichever bank of inputs you’ve selected. There’s no option for multi-channel display of output levels, which is perhaps a shame, but the right-hand screen includes a stereo output bar-graph as well as volume level, mute and dim status for the Monitor outs or the headphone outs, depending on which is selected.
The left-hand screen and its associated controls are dedicated to the four on-board preamps. By default, gain and phantom power status for all four preamps are visible, but touching one of the four buttons switches the entire display to show detailed settings for an individual preamp. Hold a button in for a second, and you get a second screen where the rotary encoder can be turned to scroll through these settings and pushed to toggle them. I’m not quite sure why it was necessary to implement two separate single-preamp focus views in this way, but in practice, it’s all very easy to use and intuitive.
All the settings that can be adjusted from the front panel are mirrored in the Focusrite Control software utility. Or, to put it the other way around, there are almost no Red 4Pre settings that have to be made in software. This is significant, because Focusrite’s stated goal is for Red 4Pre users not to need a separate control-panel utility. Years of working with sluggish Firewire and USB interfaces mean that most of us are conditioned to a split approach, where a DAW program is used for recording and playback, but cue mixes are set up in a separate low-latency console program. It works, but it doesn’t take much reflection to see that it’s hardly the ideal way to run a recording session. No-one really wants to be constantly tabbing between two applications during a critical take, with the attendant possibilities for accidental double monitoring and so on; if you’ve forked out for expensive native plug-ins, you want to be able to use them during recording; and if you’ve put a lot of work into setting up a cue mix, you want to be able to use that as the starting point for a real mix within your DAW.
What we’re seeing in the latest generation of Thunderbolt interfaces from companies like Focusrite and Apogee, therefore, is a welcome focus on bringing round-trip latency down to the point where cue mixing can be done within the DAW. Where possible, this is definitely the best solution, removing an unwelcome layer of complication and allowing you to track and monitor through any plug-ins you have in your system. The Claretts’ impressive latency performance definitely made this a realistic option, but in practice, it was sometimes still necessary to keep the Focusrite Control application open during a session, because functions such as mic/line source selection could only be made from software. With its more comprehensive front-panel control, the Red 4Pre can largely be used without reference to Focusrite Control at all; I suspect that this was also a desideratum for use as a Pro Tools HDX interface.
If there’s a particular technology that has always been associated with the Focusrite name, it’s mic preamps. Their original ISA 110 and 130 channel strips were designed by none other than Rupert Neve, who founded the first incarnation of Focusrite in 1985. The same preamp circuitry survives in the current ISA range, and also formed the basis of the Red 1 and Red 8 rackmounting preamps which for many years took pride of place in the company’s catalogue. So, by using the name ‘Red Evolution’ to describe the preamps in the Red 4Pre, Focusrite are deliberately forging an association with perhaps their best-known high-end products.
In practice, I have to say, they don’t seem to have as much in common with the ISA or Red designs as the name would suggest. Whereas both the Red and ISA designs use very high-quality transformers on the inputs, for example, Red Evolution is a transformerless design, and its switchable ‘Air’ circuit merely “recalls the transformer-based mic preamps of the original Red and ISA range”. The ISA preamps also feature a whopping 80dB gain range with stepped gain controls and analogue insert points, not to mention a range of input impedance choices. Red Evolution preamps offer a rather humbler 63dB gain range, no insert points and no impedance choices beyond the Air option.
All in all, in fact, they seem rather more similar to the preamps included in the Clarett interfaces, except for one thing. I am a big fan of the digital gain control found in interfaces such as PreSonus’s Studio 192, Roland’s Studio Capture, UA’s Apollo, Antelope’s Zen Studio and Apogee’s Ensemble Thunderbolt, so I’m glad to see Focusrite joining this particular party. The ability to set gain precisely in 1dB increments makes setting up and recalling sessions so much easier, especially when you need to match gain across channels or link them for stereo recording.
Although the ‘Red Evolution’ name might represent a bit of an over-reach on the marketing front, then, these are perfectly decent preamps. The gain range is sufficient for most purposes, the sound is irreproachably clean and neutral, and the specifications are hard to fault. And if you do want to introduce some character, there’s always that Air function. This lowers the input impedance to 2.1kΩ and introduces what Focusrite call a “subtle mid-high boost”, supposedly to emulate the ‘Air’ mode on their ISA 430 channel strip. As I mentioned in my review of the Clarett 8Pre and 8PreX, the effect can be pleasing, but I definitely wouldn’t agree that it’s subtle! It’s a shame that the treble lift aspect of it can’t be made adjustable, as there are times when it’s simply too much.
However, whereas the eight preamps in the Clarett 8Pre and 8PreX are likely to be centrally involved in any recordings made with those devices, the Red 4Pre’s will perhaps tend more to a supporting role. After all, you don’t typically buy an interface that offers up to 56 input channels if you only intend ever to use four of them. In many studios, these will likely end up relegated to the occasional control-room overdub and to secondary functions such as talkback: roles where obvious character is perhaps undesirable in any case.