It was a little under 2 years ago, back in April 2016 that I first reviewed the Focusrite Red 4Pre and to say I was impressed and loved it would be an understatement. Little did I know then that the Red range would grow to include the Red 8Pre, reviewed in May 2017 and now the new Red 16Line the latest in the Focusrite Pro Red range.
The Red 16Line
As the name suggests, the Red 16Line differs from previous Focusrite Red interfaces by primarily being a line level unit. However, the 16 line Ins and 16 line level outputs over 25 Pin D-Sub, are not the only way to get audio in or out of the Red 16Line (R16L). At its core, the R16L is a 64x64 audio interface with connectivity over Thunderbolt or the Avid Mini DigiLink for HD Native and HDX systems.
On the far right of the back panel, we find 2 XLR inputs. These feed 2 of the Red Evolution Mic Pres that allow, mic or instrument level via 1/4 inch jack inputs on the front and yes you guessed it, they are the same preamps as the Red 4Pre and Red 8Pre. These preamps sound fantastic. There is plenty of gain for recording the quietest of sources and the Air feature can make things sound just a little bit shinier. If you want to hear recordings done using the Red Evolution preamps check back to our Red 4Pre review. Technically, It is worth highlighting that the line inputs take an independent signal path to the two mic inputs on channels one and two. In real terms, this means that the Line Inputs from channels 1 and 2 function and sound exactly the same as those from 3-16.
Next to the XLRs are D-Subs for the 16 line level inputs and outputs and then we find a pair of Stereo TRS Jacks which are the Monitor outputs. The monitor level, along with the level of the 2 independently configurable headphone outputs can be controlled from the right-hand side black encoder. The right-hand side screen also displays the status of the encoder and gives you a level indicator bar graph. It took me no time at all to get to grips with the R16L. Many of its operations and controls are identical to that of the Red 4 and Red 8 so no learning curve there. One handy feature added to the R16L is the ability for the front panel encoder to be set to control all 18 analog outputs at the same time. This is set up in the Focusrite Control software.
Next to the monitor outs are the S/PDIF I/O and 16 channels of ADAT Optical over light-pipe for expanding your recording and playback rig into the digital domain. Above the digital I/O is where things start to get interesting and differ from the Red4 and Red8. The R16L still gives us connectivity to the Avid HDX, HD Native and HD Thunderbolt Native platforms via 2 Mini DigiLinke ports but R16L sports two Thunderbolt 3 connectors, not Thunderbolt 2 as the Red 4 and Red 8 units have. This initially rang alarm bells with me as I do not have a Thunderbolt 3 equipped Mac. But with the addition of a £16 adaptor, I was able to connect my 2012 MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt 1 to the new R16L with Thunderbolt 3. Thank you Focusrite for including a Thunderbolt 3 cable with the R16L. The included cable was a little short but having opened the box I did not need to head out to my nearest decent computer store to get a connecting cable, good work! I know how much some of the modern cable formats can cost once they get longer so it is nice to be able to get working right away.
I had no issues what so ever with the conversion. I totally understand if I start running 64 channels of audio at 192KHz sample rate then I might start to run out of bandwidth with Thunderbolt 1 but I see the addition of the Thunderbolt 3 port as one of keeping the R16L current and helping us to keep our studios tidy and cable clutter free in the future for the time when we are all running 8K displays and 200TB raid drives on a single Thunderbolt 3 chain.
Finally, on the back we have BNC connectors for Avid Loop Sync, Word Clock and 2 network ports for Dante connectivity and of course the 3 pin power connector. Everything a growing studio needs.
As with all the Red interfaces, the R16L is based on the design with 3 crisp and clear LCD screens and 2 main control encoders. The unit is over 5Kg and has a good solid feel to it. The switches, buttons and those black and silver detented all feel really positive. The black and silver against the anodized chunky red bezel looks great and give the units a real quality look.
Windows Or Mac
As many of you know, these days my main studio machine is an HP Z840 running Windows 10. Sadly there are no Windows drivers available for the R16L or any of the Red range. Come on Focusrite, it's 2018 and like it or not, the Windows platform is being used by creative professionals for recording, mixing, mastering and all aspects of sound creation. I love my MacBook Pro but I don't want to have to run two computers when I run the R16L or any of the Focusrite Red range with my Avid HDX card. Yes, it is true that once set up you do not need to have the Focusrite Control application open to use the R16L in HDX mode but if you need to make a configuration change this is the only way to do it. I'm not a programmer, but other interface manufacturers have given us Windows drivers. OK, rant over.
Red 16Line and Pro Tools
When using the Red 16Line with Pro Tools HDX (or other Mini DigiLink connected formats) the unit shows up as four HD I/O 16x16 Digital units with 64 ins and 64 outs. You can route "manually", for lack of a better term, from any channel, be that any of the 16 analog line ins, the 18 local digital ins or 32 inputs via a Dante network into Pro Tools but you would have to work out which number from 1 to 64 each of those inputs is and my memory is not that good. The latest version of the Focusrite Control app for Mac OS only (sorry I'll stop there) has the addition of a very handy input routing page so you can very easily customize and store your input maps. Focusrite control is only available via the Thunderbolt 3 connection. It does not work across Mini DigiLink and did I already ask for Windows drivers?
Most of the time I used the R16L in conjunction with my 24 channel Audient ASP8024 analog console. Other than having 8 channels spare on the desk the pairing worked very well. If your need for all those line inputs is not having an analog console, but maybe you have 500 series mic-pre collection to die for and you want to record on 16 of them at a time you might then want to dig into the output section of Focusrite Control. I was able to quickly build monitor and headphone mixes (see below) using the scalable mixer. Each pair of analog or digital outputs can have its own mix so this page could get very complex very fast but it is very fast and very easy to use and there is nothing here that you are not going to need. No extra EQ, dynamics or reverb to get in the way.
Focusrite has also tweaked the firmware end of the R16L. There are some nice additions to the on-screen menus. You can now view inputs 1-8 on the first screen while viewing output Dante 9-16 on the second screen. Or by hitting both input and output buttons at the same time you can view both input and output at the same time on half height meters.
As I have said already the R16L is a 64 in and 64 out device. It just so happens that 64 I/O is the maximum available on 1 Avid HDX card using both ports on the card linked to the 2 Mini DigiLink ports of the R16L (or any of the Red interfaces). But what if you want 32 channels of line level inputs? I have not been able to test this functionally but all you should need to do is remove one of the Mini DIgiLink port from your R16L and plug this one into another R16L or other Red series interface. This will allow each of the interfaces to handle up to 32 channels of I/O. You will need to configure each of the Red interfaces separately (one at a time) using the Focusrite Control but it is possible. You could then at a later date add an extra HDX card and take your I/O count all the way up to 128 channels, which should be enough for even the most demanding tracking or mixing facilities. At present, it is not possible to use more than one Red interface over Thunderbolt (2or 3). But as I will come onto there are plenty of ways to grow your system.
I have reviewed a great many interfaces for Pro Tools Expert and I am often asked to give my opinion on two aspects of the audio path. The first is the mic pre and the second is the A/D and D/A conversion. Well in the case of the Red 16Line the mic pre is not really an issue. Yes, the 2 Red Evolution preamps sound great but for me, these are a fantastic sounding bonus. The real test for the R16L is how the A/D and D/A sounds. Without going down a rabbit hole of numbers I can safely say the R16L sounds excellent. As with all high-end interfaces, there is no audible noise to the output, the instruments sound like they did on the way in, which is exactly what I would expect from a quality product. Am I going to say which I prefer between the Red 16Line and its obvious direct competitor the Universal Audio Apollo 16? No, I'm not. They are both excellent sounding units and offer a very different set of features over and above the 16 line ins and outs over 25 pin D-sub. What I am going to say is, if you want to get on board with an ecosystem of products and connectivity that will keep your recording rig open and expandable then you really should take long hard look at the Focusrite Red interfaces. The sound quality is everything you would expect from a product of this quality.
It hit me just the other day where the 3 Red interfaces sit in Focusrite Pro product family, which comprise of the Red 4pre, Red 8pre and Red 16Line Thunderbolt and Mini DigiLink interfaces, the ISA range of mic pres and the RedNet range of Dante equipped I/O.
The Red range units are the core of your system. The look and feel of the units are, give or take a button or two the same. It's the connectivity you need that makes your decision for you on which unit you go for. The Red units talk to your computer with minimum fuss and minimum need for extras like a monitor controller, or headphone amps. It's all in the one single U rack space. The other two branches of the Focusrite Pro range are there to complement and expand on your rig. If you need more mic preamps in your system you can either add more ISA preamps locally or hook up a remote mic preamps over Dante. Yes I know you can use a Dante PCI card or Dante Virtual Soundcard to talk to your computer but there is a great deal of outlay in RedNet units to get even close to the usability of a Red interface and you have the bonus of Thunderbolt control via the Focusrite Control app.
I think what I am saying is that, right now in 2018, Focusrite has built a range of products that give us, the audio recording or mixing engineer, the best chance of having a future-proofed system there has ever been. One where we are not tied to one particular proprietary technology. We have options and if there is one thing we like, it's options.