Your Guide To Home Studio Recording

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Review

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is one of the most popular budget audio interfaces available today. On nearly any recording forum, it’s almost guaranteed to be mentioned when users ask for low cost interface suggestions without the need for a large number of channels, and it seems to have gained even more interest since it was featured in some of Misha Mansoor’s videos about recording guitars. I recently decided to buy a Scarlett 2i2 so I could see if it’s truly such a solid choice.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface

Features and Specifications

  • Total audio inputs: 2
    • 2 Focusrite preamps with 48V Phantom Power (combination balanced input jacks: XLR (microphone) and 1/4″ TRS (line, Hi-Z instrument))
  • Total audio outputs: 2
    • 2 balanced 1/4″ TRS mono outputs
      • 1 1/4″ stereo headphone jack (with headphone amp and independent volume control) (not routable; grouped with main outputs)
    • Hardware direct monitoring available (mono only, linked to main volume control)
  • Bit depth: 24-bit
  • Maximum sampling rate: 96 kHz
  • Connectivity: USB 2.0
  • Compatibility: Windows XP*, Windows 7 and up, Mac OS X 10.6.5 and up
  • Power source: USB-powered only

*Focusrite’s website states that Windows XP is untested, but the drivers “should work”

Compatibility

The Scarlett 2i2 connects via USB 2.0 and the drivers are compatible with the most common Windows and Mac operating system iterations. Focusrite’s website claims the drivers should be compatible with Windows XP but have not been tested for it, and they recommend using one of the operating systems which is officially listed as compatible. I’ve done some digging around forums and confirmed that there are users out there who have been successful using the interface with Windows XP.

Inputs

As is standard for most interfaces in this price range, the Scarlett 2i2 has two combo-jack inputs with preamps, and 48V Phantom Power that can be switched on and off globally by pressing a button on the front of the interface. The combo jacks can accept XLR cables for microphones and 1/4″ TRS cables for line-level and instrument sources. Each channel has a switch to select between a lower impedance for line signals and a high impedance (Hi-Z) for instrument signals, which is a necessity for preserving the high end in the signal from something like a guitar pickup.

In line mode, the preamps provide up to 29 dB of gain. When in the instrument or microphone modes (microphone is automatically selected when the input is an XLR cable), the preamps can put out up to 46 dB of gain, which probably isn’t enough for recording a ribbon microphone, but more than adequate for other applications. However, the instrument mode has a maximum input level of +4 dBu, which is a serious problem for those who want to use the Scarlett 2i2 for recording direct guitars, since many guitar pickups can put out quite a bit more than that (especially during palm mutes on low strings), even ones with moderate output pickups. Because of this, the interface was unsuitable to properly record my Fender Contemporary Telecaster, which has a passive humbucker pickup in the bridge with an output level that pales in comparison to many other passive pickups. Most palm mutes and even some chord strumming would easily cause the signal to clip.

Each input has a circular “halo” LED arrangement around the gain knob that serves as an indicator of signal level. The LED turns green when a signal over -24 dBFS is detected, orange when a signal is close to 0 dBFS, and red when a signal clips. Interestingly, I noticed that even though the signal would clearly clip when recording my guitar (referencing the waveform itself and Cubase’s input metering), the LED would turn orange most of the time, but would rarely turn red. I’ve noticed that Focusrite’s website says “peak held for approximately one second” when describing the red illumination, which I interpret as meaning the LED will only turn red if a signal remains at 0 dBFS for nearly an entire second. That seems to match my experience, but I do not understand the rationale behind it at all — the transient is the loudest part of a sound and clipping is still hugely undesirable even if it doesn’t last anywhere near a full second (which is a really long time when it comes down to the attack and release of a sound). This means that not only does the input clip easily, but it provides inadequate signal metering which may cause newer users to not even realize they’re not recording properly.

Switching the input to line level provides a more usable gain range, but connecting a high impedance output to a low impedance output results huge loss in the signal’s high end. Line mode is fine for those with active pickups because they put out lower impedance, near line-level signals anyway, but it is totally unacceptable for accurately recording the direct signal from a passive pickup. The difference in frequency response is demonstrated in the audio clips below, as well as the prevalence of signal clipping in the instrument mode.

Scarlett 2i2 DI Guitar Clipping

Dry guitar DI tracks recorded using a Fender Contemporary Telecaster and the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 — the signal clips frequently using the instrument input mode even with the interface’s gain knob turned all the way down (top), while the line input mode (bottom) provides a suitable input level with the interface’s gain knob approximately halfway up (but the impedance mismatch results in a huge loss of high end, which can be heard in the comparison clips below)

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Recording of Direct Guitar Clipping with Instrument Input Mode:

This is a completely dry recording of a Fender Contemporay Telecaster’s humbucker bridge pickup with one of the Scarlett 2i2’s inputs in the Hi-Z instrument mode with the gain turned all the way down. The volume has been normalized to match the apparent volume of the line mode clip below (for a better comparison of the tonal change), but the clipping is clearly audible.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Recording of Direct Guitar Tone Loss with Line Input Mode:

This recording uses exactly the same chain as before, except the input is set to line mode and the gain is approximately halfway up. The signal level is suitable, but the the guitar pickup’s high impedance output connecting to the line mode’s low impedance input results in a drastic reduction of high end in the signal, which is very unfavorable. However, this mode would be suitable for active pickups due to their low impedance outputs.

With a little bit of searching, I found that a very large number of users have reported being unable to record their guitars directly without clipping (even some with low output pickups). Focusrite’s suggested solutions to the problem include buying a DI box to go between the instrument and the interface (which transforms the guitar’s high impedance signal into a low impedance, mic-level signal), turning down the guitar’s volume knob (seemingly failing to realize that the potentiometers used with passive pickups cut large amounts of treble when the volume is turned down), or buying their more expensive Scarlett 2i4 interface, which has an instrument mode capable of receiving a signal up to +13 dBu due to its attenuator pads. Considering the 2i2 is very often marketed with explicit emphasis on its ability to record direct guitars, I think suggesting that customers spend more money to properly do so is a pathetic response to the issue, especially since a DI box can actually degrade the signal quality when cheap components are used (and a good one can easily cost more than the price of the Scarlett 2i2 itself).

Quite frankly, I’m pretty disappointed with Focusrite’s treatment of this issue. I found a Sound On Sound Magazine forum post in which a Focusrite Tech Support representative responded to this concern, and he stated that the 2i2’s instrument input “was designed to work with a wide range of guitars in mind”, but “the input will occasionally clip with certain guitars with higher outputs” (even though this is a widely reported issue and occurs with many pickups that have moderate or even low output levels). He also stated that Focusrite is “looking into improving this with future Scarlett products”. To recap, Focusrite is aware they designed a device not capable of functioning as advertised, but instead of modifying the design of the units to be manufactured later and offering to fix or replace units which customers have already bought, they expect you to still trust them enough to give them more money for their other products. That’s not a good move in my book. I had the same issue with the original PreSonus AudioBox years ago and was told by a PreSonus representative not to expect suitable preamps for direct recording in such a low price range, and to purchase one of their more expensive interfaces instead. Their claim is laughably absurd and came across to me as an indication of purposely tweaking designs for the worse in order to fabricate different price points for their gear. I don’t think Focusrite necessarily has the same philosophy, but I do think such a design oversight reflects badly on them for a device that, once again, is marketed as being an ideal choice for recording direct guitars on a budget. It’s quite a blunder, considering there are many low-priced interfaces out there which do not present the same problem. Just to name a few, the Mackie Onyx Blackjack‘s instrument input has a +8 dBu maximum input level, the Lexicon Alpha can take up to +8.5 dBu, and the Steinberg CI1 can handle up to +10 dBu.

Outputs

The Scarlett 2i2 has a basic, acceptable assortment of outputs for an interface in this price range. There are two balanced outputs served by mono 1/4″ TRS jacks on the rear on the interface. Their volume level is controlled by a large knob labeled “Monitor” on the front of the unit. The interface also has a hardware direct monitoring mode that can be enabled by using a small switch to the left of the monitor volume knob. This is useful for recording and monitoring sources without taxing the computer’s processor, which could come in handy when recording to a session that already has many tracks and active plugins. However, there is no way to control the level of the direct monitoring independently of the main output level, so it may be necessary to temporarily change the balances of everything else in the mix in order to achieve the desired monitoring level for the sources being recorded, which could be a pain. Another small complaint is that the direct monitoring is always in mono. That’s more useful than always being in stereo (since it would be very distracting recording two separate sources and listening to each one panned away from each other), but it would be a plus to have the ability to directly monitor a stereo source in stereo. A switch to toggle direct monitoring between stereo and mono would have been nice, which is an option on some other interfaces in this price range.

Next to the monitor volume knob is a stereo 1/4″ headphone jack with its own smaller volume knob above. This output is linked with the main outputs, but the independent volume control is convenient. The headphone amp’s output impedance is published as less than 10 ohms, which is an impressive specification since many interfaces have headphone outputs around 20 to 30 ohms. The electrical damping factor is ideal when the output impedance is less than 1/8th of the impedance of the headphones, which means that the Scarlett 2i2 can drive headphones with an impedance as low as 80 ohms without significant noise, distortion, or alteration of frequency response. Interfaces with an output impedance of 20 to 30 ohms would need to drive headphones with an impedance of at least 160 to 240 ohms for an ideal damping factor, so in theory, the Scarlett 2i2 lends itself to more headphone choices. However, I found the headphone amp quite lacking in power, so although there are options gained on the lower side of the headphone impedance spectrum, there are headphones on the higher side of the impedance spectrum that the interface probably wouldn’t be suitable for. With my 250 ohm pair of Beyerdynamic DT 880 PRO headphones, I found that I needed the headphone volume close to halfway up to listen to modern mastered music with heavy limiting. When working on mixes in my quiet apartment, I needed the headphone volume about 2/3 of the way up to obtain an adequate listening level for making critical mixing decisions. I feel it’s safe to assume that the Scarlett 2i2’s headphone amp has nowhere near enough power for recording or mixing in a loud environment (like a project studio with live instruments in the same room) with medium to high impedance headphones. This problem may seem predictable because the unit is only USB-powered, but I’ve found that there are other USB-powered interfaces that have much more powerful headphone amps (like the Mackie Onyx Blackjack).

The Scarlett 2i2’s inputs and outputs are adequate for basic home recording, but it’s becoming more and more common for interfaces in this price range to feature MIDI and S/PDIF functionality, so that would have been a nice plus. I would ordinarily feel that the interface’s features and specifications are average, but the design oversight regarding the instrument input mode’s minimum gain level has a severely negative effect on my rating (especially since it’s such a basic aspect of design and makes the interface unusable for one of the specific things it is marketed for) and it was a dealbreaker for me.

Features and Specifications Rating: 1.5 stars

 

Sound Quality

The Scarlett 2i2’s preamps have the same basic design as those in Focusrite’s well-regarded Liquid Saffire 56 and Saffire PRO 40 audio interfaces (although the preamps in those have an additional 4 dB of headroom, plus another 10 dB of headroom with their built-in pads engaged, which actually makes them suitable for recording direct guitars). For recording microphones and line-level sources, they do a good job and are a solid choice for good quality home recordings.

In microphone, line, and instrument modes, the preamps have Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N) specifications of -100 dB, -91 dB, and and -87 dB, respectively. The analog outputs (including the headphone output) have a THD+N level of -100 dB. Those are impressively low amounts, but there are other budget interfaces that can beat some of those specifications by a little bit. As is standard for most audio interfaces designed for music work, the preamps and outputs have a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The analog-to-digital converter has a dynamic range of 105 dB (A-weighted) and the digital-to-analog converter measures at 104 dB (A-weighted), which once again, is very good but slightly behind some other budget interfaces. These aren’t so much critiques about this interface as they are testaments to the current state of technology — almost all budget interfaces now have specifications so good that noise and accuracy generally aren’t huge concerns for most engineers.

The ability to record and mix at up to 96 kHz is quickly becoming standard, and is a nice feature for the use of digital synthesizers which may exhibit aliasing at lower sampling rates. I played a wide variety of audio I’m familiar with (using monitors I’m familiar with) with the interface and felt that the quality was good, but I occasionally felt that the midrange was ‘bloated’ to a very small degree, as if some frequency ranges were slightly boosted.

Sound Quality Rating: 3.5 stars

 

Drivers and Stability

The drivers for the Scarlett 2i2 are very easy to install and I had no problems configuring the interface in multiple Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) with Windows 7. The control panel software is very simple and makes it easy to change the buffer size to a setting that strikes the balance between latency and processing ability for your system. I was able to record at 256 samples with no issues, which is a small enough amount of latency for me to not perceive. I did not try setting the buffer size even lower, but I’d imagine there would be no problems going a bit lower on most modern machines. It’s worth noting that the ASIO driver is locked to 24-bit recording, so if you want to ease the load on your computer a bit by recording at 16-bit, you’re out of luck. However, this shouldn’t be a hindrance at all on any relatively modern computer and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to record at 16-bit these days anyway. In what seems to be a common occurrence, the drivers developed during the interface’s infancy were not very reliable, but users report that updated versions are much more stable. The majority of users report no problems with the drivers, but there are occasionally some that report small issues.

Drivers and Stability Rating: 4 stars

 

Durability

The Scarlett 2i2 has a sleek, attractive design and a durable build quality. It doesn’t feel flimsy and I’d imagine it could hold up to a lot of use. Knobs have smooth ranges of travel and feel securely attached, and switches are aligned perfectly and give great tactile feedback. The interface’s sturdy construction, small size, and simple connections are all attractive traits for a portable setup. I don’t think owners of the Scarlett 2i2 would need to worry much about sustaining damage. However, it is a little light, which makes it easy to accidentally drag across a desk by a cable.

Durability Rating: 4 stars

 

Price

The Scarlett 2i2 currently retails for about $150. This is a good price point for a simple interface that doesn’t offer a ton of flexibility, but there are other interfaces in the same price range that I feel offer a little more. However, it’s not uncommon to see B-stock models (generally lightly used for demoing purposes at trade shows and sometimes customer returns) in the neighborhood of $120 to $130, and the interface tends to fetch anywhere from about $85 to $130 used, which makes it an attractive option for a basic audio interface. Many retailers also like to sell the Scarlett 2i2 as part of “all-in-one” type bundles, which include a pair of headphones or monitors, a microphone with a stand and pop filter, and a light version of a DAW. Those packs generally run between $300 and $500, which isn’t a bad price for someone totally new to recording looking to obtain an introductory setup. I think $150 would be a pretty good deal if the interface worked as advertised, but because of the fact that Focusrite’s suggested solutions to the instrument input clipping problem all involve spending more money, I don’t think the Scarlett 2i2 is a really much of a bargain.

Price Rating: 3 stars

 

Summary

For a lot of applications, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a perfectly suitable audio interface for someone who records at home or in project studios. Its converters are good quality and its preamps are more than adequate for making good recordings with microphones and line level sources. However, it is unsuitable for recording guitars direct with passive pickups (even moderately low output ones) because of the signal clipping caused by its high amount of minimum preamp gain when the inputs are in the Hi-Z instrument mode. Given that direct guitar recording is one of the most popular uses for budget interfaces and home studios (and given that Focusrite often markets this interface with a focus on its supposed suitability for direct guitar recording), it’s a downright stupid design flaw and I personally think that Focusrite is a bit deceptive because of it. To stay among the competition these days, I also think it could use MIDI and S/PDIF functionality. If you don’t need a lot of input and output flexibility and you’re absolutely sure you’ll never need to record passive pickup guitars direct (or you don’t mind paying extra for more equipment to do so), then this interface is a solid choice. If you want to record direct guitars and you don’t have active pickups, then run far away from this interface and grab something else instead.

  • Pros:
    • Analog inputs with preamps can accommodate many sources with their combination jacks (XLR microphone signals, 1/4″ TRS line signals, and 1/4″ Hi-Z instrument signals**)
    • Phantom Power available for both inputs
    • Hardware direct monitoring capability
    • Built-in headphone amp with low impedance output and separate volume control
    • Sleek, elegant design and sturdy construction
  • Cons:
    • **Minimum preamp gain in Hi-Z instrument mode is excessive and offers very little headroom, making it practically impossible to record guitars with passive pickups directly without clipping
    • Headphone amp does not have adequate power for high impedance headphones in situations louder than quiet mixing
    • Does not have the added flexibility of MIDI and S/PDIF capability (now becoming much more common in this price range)
    • Unit is lightweight and can drag across desks easily

Overall Rating: 3 stars

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