From top, the iTrack for iPad, and Forte, a “flagship” interface for Mac and Windows. All images courtesy Focusrite.

There’s no shortage of audio interfaces out there, but quality can be variable. Focusrite claims two new interfaces are focused squarely on “premium” quality. On paper, at least, they have some specs to back it up. And while fidelity is an emphasis, each interface is designed for simple recording scenarios – meaning, for those people who want something compact that sounds good but doesn’t necessarily overload them with inputs and outputs they don’t need. The Forte is a “flagship” audio interface whose compact design should position it directly opposite offerings from Apogee – albeit, unlike the Apogee entries, with support for both Windows and Mac and not just Apple machines. The iTrack is even more unique: it’s an iPad audio interface that has the form factor, I/O, and quality claims you’d generally associate with a desktop interface.

We have some specifications and images from Focusrite; we’ll be able to judge quality when these devices ship next month.

Forte

  • USB 2.0
  • 2x remote-control mic preamps (from Focusrite’s RedNet pro range), 75dB gain range (0-75dB).
  • 24-bit, 192 kHz ADC (117dB A-weighted) and DAC (118dB A-weighted) converters
  • Color OLED screen with intput and output levels, mic preamp gain, and other motion graphic feedback
  • Control knob with touch-sensitive icon buttons
  • Breakout cable with locking connector: XLR, TRS (line/instrument) inputs, each on separate connections
  • Balanced line and independent headphones outs
  • Aluminum case, non-slip strips
  • External power (included) or USB power

Price US$749.99 list, US$599.99 street.

I have to say, I do notice some unique details here. Some interfaces from pro brands, marked pro, nonetheless substitute components on the less-expensive models or those with less I/O; it appears Focusrite isn’t doing that here. Having those balanced outputs on the unit itself means you only need the breakout when recording, also useful – it’s easy to imagine this being an ideal live performance interface. And the OLED display is something we’ve only seen on things like the Teenage Engineering OP-1; it’s nice to see that in an audio interface.

By the way, before someone complains about the absence of USB 3.0:
1. USB 2.0 suits a device with this number of I/O just fine.
2. USB 3.0 seems not ready for prime-time, if compatibility issues we’ve seen on Mac and Windows are any indication.

In other words, there’s no reason for a maker to invest in a newer, less-tested chipset to get functionality they don’t need. Those same vendors who do need that extra bandwidth appear to be turning to Thunderbolt, not USB3. End of mini-rant.

Speaking of which, here’s Focusrite on Mountain Lion compatibility:
focusrite.com/news/osx-mountain-lion-compatibility

Simon Halstead from Focusrite shares some additional insights into the design of the hardware with CDM:

Forte is designed to give people the best performing USB interface available – pretty much as simple as that. The hardware design was fraught with difficulty; here are just a few examples:

The display – as well as an OLED, Forte uses IMB (in-mold labeling), so the function icons appear beneath the screen – this is difficult and took a lot of tweaking. The icons are touch-sense activated; this isn’t much of a challenge on a flat surface, but Forte is curved, so again this took considerable dev & test time to bring up to a satisfactory level. Physically fitting the components in such a small case was a massive challenge – we didn’t want to compromise on component spec (and thus audio performance) – but we didn’t have a lot of space to play with so the board had to be very carefully designed. For example, we didn’t want to employ a codec (despite their more compact dimensions) instead we opted for separate AD / DA converters, then had to work out how we’d fit them in…

Video:

focusrite.com/usb-audio-interfaces/forte

iTrack Solo

The pitch here is simple: combine a Focusrite mic pre with an iPad interface. The downside: full-size I/O means a form factor more like a desktop interface, so I don’t think this will satisfy people wanting an ultra-compact iPad in and out with no-compromise sound. But if you’re willing to pair your svelte iPad with something that looks more like a PC accessory, it could still be fantastic – and we’re talking substantially less weight than a laptop and its big power brick, so still optimal for mobile recording, without question. (Benjamin Weiss from DE:BUG Magazine recorded 24 hours of live music at a session on which I played at about:blank here in Berlin. This would have been an ideal substitute for the audio interface.)

  • 24-bit, 96 kHz audio interface you can use with any iPad app.
  • Works with Windows and Mac, too.
  • “Low-distortion, low-noise” mic pre straight out of Focusrite’s high-end Liquid Saffire 56 interface.
  • Phantom power, so you can use your condenser mic.
  • Instrument input ideal for guitar and bass.
  • Monitor knob for output level.
  • “Halo” indicators around input knobs show if your signal is too hot (by changing from green to red).
  • Layout, functionality, guts adapted from the Scarlett 2i2 USB interface.
  • USB power via included cable.
  • Rear-panel phono connectors for line-level output.
  • Aluminum unibody case.

MSRP $199.99 / $159.99 street.

Video:

Again, here’s Focusrite/Novation on their approach to this hardware:

iTrack is really about opening up iPad musicians to good quality recordings – we put the same mic pre as in our Firewire interfaces (A-weighted with 109dB dynamic range). Main user-case is producers who want to simplify their secondary rig – allowing them to track easily without compromising conversion & dynamic range. Obvious scenario is tracking guitar+vox. The engineering trade-off was using components that required more power than iPad dock can deliver so conversion, gain & dynamic range weren’t compromised. In short we wanted to make a pro interface for iPad – not a toy!

That to me is appealing, and having waited for an appropriate audio interface on iPad, this could be it. Stay tuned for more.

focusrite.com/ipad-audio-interfaces/itrack-solo

  • kent williams

    I wonder about how popular a $600 2 in/4 out interface will really be. I think Focusrite does quality work, but in the real world they’ve put themselves in an awkward position. Their market seems to be people who could afford and want the Apogee interface, but don’t use a Mac for their mobile work. Otherwise Apogee has the reputation and passionate user base where Focusrite is starting from zero. And the Apogee Duet 2 is at exactly the same price point, with nearly the same feature set.

    How many people care enough about microphone preamps to want to pay a premium for Focusrite pres built in? I would suspect most mobile recordists would either think that the Apogee Duet 2′s mic pres are good enough, or they’ll be using outboard Pres that cost much more than either the Duet or the Forte. And people who do sound for film and video production are going to stick with self-contained recorders designed specifically for that application.

    I’d be really interested in a head to head comparison of the Forte and Duet for playback quality. The Duet are really a gold standard for live playback — you don’t have to have golden ears to hear the difference on a Club PA. And anyone who uses the headphone output on their computer to play shows is shooting themselves in the foot — they sound weak and foggy, even compared with midrange gear like the NI audio interfaces.

  • tender

    hm maybe the itrack has good mic preamps… but what about good headphone preamps too?

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    presumably we can assume that the USB2.0 is not class-compliant, thus locking out linux users from the party? or have focusrite seen the light and virtues of class-compliance for USB audio devices?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      USB 2.0 class sure would make sense, as I believe it’s also supported now by iOS, right?

    • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.playman.9 Daniel Playman

      I use the Focusrite Scarlette 2i2 with linux with no problems, and I’ve heard the same for the Sapphire as well; I presume this piece is also class compliant.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Right, definitely for iTrack – I’m checking on Forte.

  • Adrian

    Sigh: ”
    “Halo” indicators around input knobs show if your signal is too hot (by changing from green to red).”

    Dear interface designers of the world – a significant part of the population has trouble with green and red i.e. can’t tell the difference between them. Please think of a different way to indicate a change in state.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Good point, and what would solve this case is simply setting the indicator to off, red when it’s peaking. (Firmware setting for red/green color blindness, even?)

    • Adrian

      I’m not sure a firmware setting for a specific type of colour blindness is a good idea, as there are a few different combinations. A better option is to just use white light but use shapes or styles.

    • foljs

      As a colorblind myself I wouldn’t call it significant.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      The numbers I’ve seen have hovered around 7-10% of the male population. Think about it this way – making a music product, you probably want numbers shipped with a minimum of around 10,000. Assume 7% is high – that is, that is some kind of difficulty perceiving colors, but perhaps not enough to notice this feature. Conservatively, you still might have several hundred customers impacted by this design decision. That’s a fairly high tolerance.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      (this is back-of-the-napkin guesswork, but I agree it’s probably enough to consider. Plus… what if that person with color deficiency is the person reviewing you product for a magazine? ;) You have to think about these things.)

    • ru

      I’m colourblind too; greens/reds mainly. I bought a new interface a few months ago. At the time, my choice was get the saffire now or wait a couple of months and get the MOTU microbook2. Now, the halo indicators on the saffire weren’t a deal breaker as such, but it was an issue/concern and contributed enough for me to hold out for the motu to hit the market in the UK.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      At least it’s not a deal breaker. That is, it’s still functional – but they lose a selling point, and then I wonder if there was a way to get the selling point for everyone and not just people who can see red/green.

      I’m not second-guessing their decision – maybe, in fact, all those red/green-seeing people buy enough to compensate! (very possible) But I absolutely agree with readers who note it’s something we should watch, and actually, something I should watch as a reviewer. I’m responsible for observing things beyond those that just impact me. ;)

  • Kaff

    USBPre2 is 2 in / 2 out, extremely high quality, and made in the USA. It works on the iPad as well, and is only $650. This is made in China, and about the same price…

    My only complaint is that there are still some issues unresolved with the ASIO driver for windows… (Certain important modes not showing up in the windows sound settings, as well as rare sample rate sync issues) If you use OSX, you’ll have no problems.

    • Kaff

      Actually the $150 unit is made China, I’m not sure where the Forte is made, but it better be England for that price… It seems to be a contender to the RME babyface w/ a bit less I/O.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robin-Parmar/100000245432932 Robin Parmar

    Buy an RME for rock-solid drivers, highest fidelity, and more I/O. Buy an NI Komplete for direct mix control at a bargain price. By comparison, this seems over-priced.

  • http://twitter.com/regend REGEND

    i love my Apogee Duet
    24-bit, 96 kHz audio interface. i bought it used for about 350 including shipping. i don’t use it to it’s full potential but the A/D converters are in are superb compared to anything. i think it’s the standard to which ALL interfaces should measure. just my opinion of course.

  • scottr

    just my .02 on Focusrite – Stay away from the Scarlett on a Mac (and especially hackintosh) unless somebody you trust tells you the USB driver issue has been fixed. most unstable yet beautiful sounding interface i’ve owned. i understand about USB devices being bus powered having issues with the computer doing something else on the USB but this was externally powered and would on average drop off 8-20 times a day. eventually after way too much fruitless back and forth and waiting for a proper driver, i gave up and sold it. caveat emptor folks…