Focusrite is certainly a big name in the preamp and audio interface scene. From simple, two-channel desktop audio interfaces to studio standard ISA range preamps, Focusrite has something to offer audio pros at every level. And while there’s plenty of press talking around about the Clarett range of Thunderbolt and USB audio interfaces, the Clarett OctoPre is a gem of a product that seems to fly just under the radar, yet it may be just what you need to expand your studio’s channel count.
A number of years ago, we reviewed the Focusrite OctoPre MkII, which you can read about here. Since then, the eight-channel preamp expander has become a crowded field, and Focusrite has updated the OctoPre in numerous ways that make it a strong player in the field. Better noise specs, higher bit rates, an “Air” setting to mimic the sound of Focusrite’s ISA preamps (the Focusrite ISA430 MkII preamp, to be specific), and an electronically switched insert on each channel all make a solid offering even better.
In many ways, the Clarett OctoPre is a slimmed down version of the Clarett 8Pre interface, merely lacking the computer host interface. Indeed, the Air functionality and sound, to our ears, is indistinguishable from other products in the Clarett range such as the Clarett 8PreX Thunderbolt Audio Interface we reviewed last year.
|Documentation & Support
|OVERALL RATING = 3.6 Stars, which earns it a
3.6 stars or better: Outstanding, WIHO Award
3 stars or better: Worth considering
2 stars or better: Suited to specific needs
1 star or less: Not recommended
The OctoPre, as you can guess by the name, features eight preamps: two on the front and six on the back. The two that are on the front are useful as instrument inputs (combination XLR/TRS) with extra headroom, while the six in the back sport similar connections that auto-switch between mic/line connections. A big improvement over the OctoPre MkII is that each input has its own switched TRS insert point for single-cable connection of outboard processors—with a hard-wired relay bypass so you can leave outboard gear or a patchbay connected at all times. A two-color LED indicator under each of the gain knobs glows green when the insert loop is active on the channel and yellow when Air is engaged.
Another improvement is the conversion rate. This is, of course dependent on how many ADAT connections you use: four channels of 24-bit audio at 192kHz over two ADAT ports, eight channels at 96kHz over two ADAT ports, or eight channels at 48kHz over one ADAT port. A BNC connection is provided for external Word Clock syncronization.
Another welcome addition is a DB-25 connector for line output of all eight channels, useful if you’d like to send eight channels of audio to an analog summing mixer, or to a live sound mixer independent of the recording output being sent over ADAT.
The Clarett OctoPre has up to 118dB (A-D) /119dB (D-A) dynamic range, though this drops slightly to 115dB over line inputs with the inserts engaged, and 114dB via instrument inputs with inserts engaged.
Turning our attention to the front panel, each channel has a Gain knob (57dB gain range), an Air button to emulate classic ISA transformer tone, and LED indicator lights to show sample rate, clock source, and level/clipping indicators. The two front-panel inputs accept line level or instrument level signals, connected either with balanced XLR cables, balanced TRS cables, or unbalanced TS instrument cables. Each switch has a red LED to confirm selection.
The is also an interesting button to the right side: ADAT→Line. The Clarett OctoPre is a bidirectional device, and is equipped with ADAT digital inputs and balanced analog outputs. Using the ADAT→Line mode, it is possible to route tracks from your DAW to the DB-25 analog outputs for routing to outboard gear.
One item, however, that regrettably did not improve over previous OctoPre models is the phantom power setup. Though each channel is capable of phantom power, you have to select it in banks four rather than on the individual channels as found on the Clarett 8PreX.
The Clarett OctoPre fits in just 1U rack space and uses a standard IEC power connector rather than the annoying wall warts found with many budget-friendly interfaces.
Like the other Focusrite products we have reviewed (and in some cases, own!), the Clarett Octopre is sturdy and for the most part, well designed. It is easy to connect, and the buttons are really self-explanatory other than the previously mentioned ADAT→Line switch. We were up and running quickly, connected via ADAT to an Antelope Orion Studio and syncing word clock via BNC (though we could have left the device to sync via ADAT).
The issue we foresee (though not for this reviewer personally) for some users is the lack of eight consecutive inputs across the back of the unit. They are split into two on the front of the unit and six in back. While this design has become ubiquitous in mid-range audio interfaces, for those studios relying on audio snakes for cabling, they might have difficulty getting everything connected elegantly. Given that this isn’t intended to be a primary interface—it’s an expander, after all—we really think this should have followed the Clarett 8PreX design and put all eight interfaces on the rear.
This reviewer actually like having two all-purpose inputs ready to go, as it eliminated the need to crawl under a desk or behind a rack to change cables, but then our primary audio interface has a few front panel inputs, so this wasn’t truly necessary. The shared phantom power was cause for concern, though. You’ll have to be careful so as not to accidentally blow out a sensitive ribbon mic if you’ve got one of those in the mix of your recording gear.
We are certainly familiar with the Focusrite sound, which generally speaking features clean, quiet inputs that don’t impart a particular sound—until you want them to! Certainly, the ISA range’s claim to fame is the Neve-inspired sound it imparts, and the Air mode on the Clarett range of preamps does a fine job emulating the sound of its pricier brand-mates. We thought that without Air engaged, the Clarett was quiet, clean and transparent—a perfectly suitable eight channel expansion for our studio. With Air enabled, however, the Clarett morphs from merely suitable to specifically desirable. You’ll hear some additional high end clarity, warmth, and fullness without sounding tinny. It is a pleasing sound, and as we found in other Focusrite reviews, most people will leave the Air circuit engaged all of the time, as it just makes for a livelier sound.
We actually have a Focusrite ISA 828 in our studio, so just for kicks, we compared the the two devices on the same input source—male vocals through an AT 4047/SV mic. The results were (mostly) not surprising. The Clarett’s sound was a pleasingly clear, neutral sound, and the addition of the Air circuit made it sound even better thanks to a welcome brightness in the upper mids and highs as previously described.
Not surprisingly, the ISA 828 sounded even better, with additional openness to the sound. What was surprising was that the Air setting on the Clarett OctoPre really does capture some of the ISA magic. The biggest difference, of course, is that the Air function is fixed on the Clarett range. A button turns it on and off, whereas the ISA 828 has adjustable settings for input impedance. Nevertheless, the combination of low noise floor, wide dynamic range, and transparent preamps with some optional ISA coloring, make for a great-sounding studio expander.
Documentation and Product Support
The Clarett OctoPre comes with a printed Quick Start manual, and of course there is the ever-present downloadable PDF manual online. The manual is well written, concise and clear, with a number of helpful diagrams and explanations.
The Clarett OctoPre ( MRSP $849.95 USD), has a street price of $699.99. While this does not make it the cheapest preamp, it is far from the most expensive. In our opinion, we think you are getting great value for the money. Given you get some of that ISA goodness for less than half the price, plus some great flexibility with inserts and bidirectional capability, we think the Clarett OctoPre does indeed stand out in a crowded field.
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