The Focusrite Scarlett series of audio interfaces have become a standard in many home and professional recording studios. I have the 18i8 model and love it. They’re affordable, well-made, durable, and sound brilliant. Maybe you have one already, or maybe you’re thinking about buying one, but regardless, you’re wondering ‘is the Focusrite Scarlett a preamp?’.
In this article I’m going to answer your question, clarify what a preamp is, how it works, and give my opinion on how Focusrite’s preamps compare to other audio interfaces.
Is the Focusrite Scarlett a Preamp?
The Focusrite Scarlett series are audio interfaces that have preamps built within them. Preamps amplify weak signals to the appropriate level for recording. Without them, the signal from your microphone or guitar would be too quiet. Different preamps have different sound qualities and characteristics. In general, recording studios will use large mixing desks, which have very powerful valve preamps that colour sound in a pleasing way. Most audio interfaces on the other hand are solid state, which sound very transparent.
What is a Preamp?
Preamp stands for preamplifier, but what is a preamp used for? Its job is to amplify weak signals and make them louder. Why are the signals weak in the first place? Well, let’s use a microphone as an example. Microphones are constructed with a diaphragm inside that vibrates when exposed to sound pressure.
These vibrations are tiny and when the microphone’s transducer converts them into an electrical signal, this signal is also tiny. However, recording equipment requires higher voltage signals to work with. So, preamps amplify signals to the appropriate level, without inducing distortion or noise.
There are three types of level. Mic level (the weakest) for microphones, instrument level (in the middle) for you guessed it, instruments; and finally, line level (the hottest) which is used for other gear such as compressors, equalizers, effects units, analog-to-digital converts etc.
Both mic level and instrument level need to be amplified to line level, otherwise they cannot be recorded. This is why audio interfaces like the Focusrite Scarlett series have built-in preamps. Make sense? Awesome.
How Does a Preamp Work?
A preamp boosts a signal whilst minimising the raise of the noise floor. They have to have a good signal-to-noise ratio, so that they can increase the signal level without raising noise or unwanted interference too much. They do this in a variety of ways depending on the type.
What Are the Types of Preamplifiers?
Solid-state and valve (or tubes as their known in the US). Solid-state preamps tend to sound cleaner and more transparent, they don’t change or add any sonic characteristics. Or rather we say, they don’t colour the sound. However, valve preamps can sound warm and vibrant.
Just like valve guitar amps, they tend to colour the sound in a pleasing way, which is why they’re often more desirable. But of course, this is a personal preference and it depends on what your aims are.
If you’re looking for a cleaner sound without any extra colour or flavour, then solid-state preamps are well suited. But if you want a warm, vintage and colourful sound, then valve preamps will be a better choice. Valves add saturation, which in turn can add more tone to harmonics.
But hold your horses, valve preamps are usually found on expensive mixing desks in professional recording studios. So, unless you have a huge space and a lot of money, you’re probably going to be buying an audio interface. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that though. Audio interfaces are used in home and professional studios all around the world.
They may not have valve preamps but solid-state audio interfaces can sound incredible! Well-made ones can record extremely high-quality audio with precision and accuracy. Not only that, but if you do want that ‘vintage valve sound’, there are plenty of plugins and audio interfaces that replicate old analog gear and they do a ridiculously good job of it these days.
So much so, you’ll likely find it hard to tell the difference. Take a look at the video below where Universal Audio compare their plugins, to the equipment they emulate. Where do the Focusrite’s audio interface preamps fit into this then?
Are Focusrite Preamps Good?
The short answer is yes, they do sound good, better than good actually. What’s great about the 3rd generation of the Focusrite Scarlett series, is that they actually have two preamp sounds. The first is the standard
Scarlett preamp which sounds accurate, punchy, and detailed. The second however, has a totally different sound that is activated when you press the ‘air’ button. In doing so, the audio interface mimics the sound of Focusrrte’s classic transformer-based mic preamps from their ISA One Preamplifier.
This provides a whole new dimension to your music by adding more presence and clarity to the sound source. It really helps to breathe life into your music. Both Scarlett preamps can record up to 24-bit/192kHz and have an excellent signal-to-noise ration. Meaning you can record high quality audio without having to worry about noise.
What About Other Brands of Audio Interface?
There are a tonne of great audio gear companies these days. Competitors for a similar price range would include PreSonus, Tascam, and Berringer, to name a few. I can only go on personal experience. I’ve had my Focusrite 18i8 for two years now and had zero issues. It’s built well and delivers consistent sound every time. I’ve also found Focusrite’s online support to be incredibly helpful and efficient.
Whenever, I have had questions or wanted some advice, they have been available through their online chat. The Scarlett series also with a tonne of extras, including software, plugins and tutorials, which is a big selling point for me. At the end of the day, you just want an audio interface that looks good, sounds good, and is reliable.
The Scarlett series tick all of those boxes for me personally. If you want to read my full review you can find it here ‘The Focusrite Scarlett Series – Are They Really Worth It?‘.
Audio interfaces have come a long way since their early development. Not only has their build quality and reliability increased, their preamps are reaching all-time highs in terms of sound quality. We’re lucky these days to have companies like Focusrite who provide budget friendly audio interfaces that deliver professional sounding preamps. I hope you found this article helpful and it answered you questions. If you have anything else you’d like to ask, please feel free to write in the comments below.
Chris (Chris’s Sound Lab)