There is nothing quite like the excitement that comes when you know the "postman" is going to be delivering some new toys for me to try-out in the studio. This week, the moments of delight came in the form of the new Focusrite Scarlett OctoPre and OctoPre Dynamic. These are the latest units in a long line of Focusrite OctoPres that practically created this category of 8 mic pres in a box that connects via ADAT to your interface to give you 8 extra mic pres. I have friends who still use, own and love their older Silver face OctoPre's which are still going strong.
Why Two New OctoPres?
The main difference you are going to find between these two units is the addition of 8 dynamics processors positioned as inserts the mics pres of the Scarlett Octo Pre Dynamic. The dynamics/ compression circuit is very simple to control there is a pot to roll between off and max positions and a "more" button which as you would expect gives your more compression. The circuit its self is based on that found in the legendary Focusrite Red 3 compressor so this is not some afterthought addition. This is serious, quality compression.
Other than the slight variation in layout of the two units, the other main difference is that the Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic is also a D/A converter, not just A/D meaning that if you want to break out the ADAT optical signal across a console you can do by connecting up the balanced TRS jacks to your desk.
As the Octo bit of the name gives away both these units have 8 high-quality, generation 2 Scarlett microphone pre-amps. The short answer is that these sound great. My starting point with any new mic pre is always how do my drums sound, and with the Scarletts I was far from disappointed. The top end of the hats and overheads were bright and not at all cutting. The kick and snare had a nice weight to them.
The rear panel of the Scarlett OctoPre houses 6 of the 8 XLR Combi jacks (the other 2 are on the front panel on this unit.) Channels 1 and 2 on the front are also high impedance instrument inputs so if you want, you can plug your guitar or bass straight in, no need for a DI box. The back panel also features 8 TRS outputs meaning by default the low impedance mic input is converted to a line output. There are also a pair of BNCs for Wordclock and a pair of ADAT outputs allowing conversion up to a sample rate of 192KHz.
The rear panel of the Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic houses all 8 XLR Combi inputs. Again we have 8 TRS output jacks along with BNC for Wordclock and ADAT outputs but with the addition of a pair of ADAT inputs as this unit can act as a stand-alone D/A converter.
For a fair test, I used the two OctoPres separately choosing not to route 2 different sets of inputs to Pro Tools even though the Focusrite Red 8 Pre which was acting as my main I/O connected to the HDX card in my PC would have more than happily coped.
Setting up the OctoPre is very easy. The pots and switches feel very nice and have a quality weight and feel to them. This does not feel like a unit built to a budget. We chose to use the Red 8 Pre as our main Pro Tools interface and as our clock mater, so hooked a BNC from the WC out of the 8 Pre to the WC in of the OctoPre (I feel this could get confusing some time soon) then hit the sync button the Octo to tell it to sync to WC not int internal clock. Yes, I know I could use the OctoPre as the master and have the 8 Pre slave to it via ADAT sync but I think WC is better. This also takes care of getting sample rates wrong as the WC signal tells the slave devices what sample rate to clock too. There are 2 buttons for 48v phantom power for channels 1-4 and 5-8. We kicked both these in as we were using a combination of dynamic and condenser mics. It was then just a case of winding up the gain until we had a good level going to Pro Tools and hitting record.
It's much the same when setting up the OctoPre Dynamic. We made sure we were using Word Clock and routed out of the ADAT outs to Pro Tools. We started with the dynamics pots set to off and rolled in some gain getting a good level on the built in 5 segment LED meters (Both versions have the same meter panel) and to Pro Tools.
We recorded 4 passes of a drum track. Each of the 4 times I played roughly the same sort of groove, fills and breaks with roughly the same feel and dynamic.
Each track or pass starts with each drum or cymbal being hit a number of times so you hear how the individual drums sound. You then you hear them as an entire kit.
The first track is the Scarlett Octo Pre. The gains are set per instrument/microphone so a good level goes "to tape"
The second track is the same gain settings but this time on the Scarlett Octo Pre Dynamic with the dynamics rolled all the way off.
The third track is the OctoPre Dynamic once again but this time the compressor is rolled in so the LED compression indicator lights when the drum is hit.
The forth and final track is with the same compression setting but with the More button pressed.
These are both really very good sounding 8 channel microphone preamps. To my ears, there is a little difference between the Dynamic and Non Dynamic models even with the dynamics in the off position. I'm guessing this is due to the addition of the extra pot and circuit but it's not a bad thing but it is just slightly different.
The real question here is, do I like or need the built in compressor in the OctoPre Dynamic? I see a compressor as two different things. It is either a safety net to avoid overs or clipping when recording, or it can be a tone shaping device to add character to a sound. The compressor in the OctoPre Dynamic is not overly colourful and I feel it falls into the safety net category which is never a bad thing. How many times have we done a sound check and got a nice level only for red light fever to kick in with the band or performers and the first take turns into a series of frantic gain adjustments? The Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic will definitely help avoid this and should seriously reduce the number of lost takes in a session or live.
Like all of the current Focusrite product line, the Scarlett Octo Pre and OctoPre Dynamic are built very well, and when you consider the price (£400 street price for the Octo and £600 for the Dynamic) they really should be on your list to check out if you need to up your microphone preamp count. Do I think the addition of the compressor in the Dynamic is worth the additional £200? Well, anything that gets the job done and the track in the can is worth it, every time.