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The Focusrite Scarlett series of audio interfaces is one of the most popular on the market. But with six different models, how do you know which one to choose?
To record one audio track at a time, or a microphone and an instrument together, the Focusrite Solo is ideal. For MIDI capability, the 4i4, 8i6, 18i8 and 18i20 all have a MIDI interface. To record two mics or instruments at the same time, the 2i2, 4i4 and 8i6 are suitable. For 6 mics/instruments, choose the 18i20.
The information in this article is based on the 3rd generation of Focusrite Scarlett interfaces, which is the current generation at the time of writing. Choosing which interface is most appropriate for you is largely a case of deciding how many inputs and outputs you need, and what type they should be. There are also extra features such as MIDI, which may influence your decision.
Read on for help working out which 3rd Generation Focusrite Scarlett audio interface is best for you.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
Before you start trying to decide on the right model for you, it’s worth considering if you actually need an audio interface at all! That’s why I wrote a whole article asking do you need an audio interface? It will take you through different musical applications and their requirements, and you’ll discover if your personal musical activities need an audio interface.
Summary of the Focusrite Scarlett series
There are six different models in the 3rd Generation Focusrite Scarlett series of audio interfaces. Here’s a table listing the basic features of each. The interfaces are ordered from the cheapest and most basic to the most expensive and fully featured…
|Model||XLR inputs||Jack inputs||XLR/Jack inputs||MIDI||Headphone Outputs|
The table does not include all inputs, outputs and features – just the basic, most commonly asked about ones to keep the table compact and readable. For details on balanced line inputs/outputs, loopback inputs, S/PDIF inputs/outputs, ADAT inputs/outputs, check out the detailed model sections later in this article.
The Scarlett Focusrite series is generally very highly thought of, with many favorable reviews and user endorsements over the years. They are not the cheapest audio interfaces you can buy, but they are still very affordable, especially at the lower-end of the range.
Don’t think that if you buy one of the cheaper interfaces, that you will be getting a lower-quality product. That just isn’t the case. Many of the same components are used on all models in the range. For example…
- The same mic pre-amps are used right across the range
- The same converters (ADC & DAC) are used right across the range
- Air mode (adds life to acoustic instruments & vocals) is present on all models
- The same software/drivers are used right across the range
As you move up the range, you are simply getting more inputs, outputs and features.
Every model in the Focusrite Scarlett audio interface range (affiliate link) is available from Amazon for a very competitive price. I have been using several models for years in my home studio. They have always given me great sound quality, and proven to be very reliable and durable.
Picking a Focusrite Scarlett for you
Let’s take a look at the different ways you might want to use your Focusrite Scarlett. Each activity will determine which models will be appropriate for you. Remember though that how you use your interface may change in the future, so you may want to plan in some future-proofing before deciding on a unit to purchase.
Here’s a summary of this section in table format for quick reference…
|Record one mic or instrument||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Record a mic and an instrument simultaneously||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Record 2 mics simultaneously||X||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Record 2 instruments simultaneously||X||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Record a band “live”||X||X||X||X||✔||✔|
|Record drum set with multiple mics||X||X||X||X||X||✔|
|Have 2 headphone listeners||X||X||X||✔||✔||✔|
|Portable recording (no mains required)||✔||✔||✔||X||X||X|
|Play electric guitar through amp sim||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Play MIDI keyboard through ROMpler||X||X||✔||✔||✔||✔|
Before we look at various activities using a Focusrite Scarlett, it’s worth considering if you need an audio interface at all. That’s why I wrote my “Do you need an audio interface?” article. It will help you decide what you actually need, potentially saving you some money.
Recording one mic/instrument at a time
The Focusrite Scarlett Solo (Amazon affiliate link) is ideal for recording a single microphone or single instrument (such as a guitar) at a time. This allows you to record a track into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), then record another, then another – so-called multi-track recording.
As the Focusrite Scarlett Solo has one XLR microphone input and one jack instrument input, you can record a microphone and an instrument simultaneously. You just couldn’t record 2 mics or 2 instruments at the same time, like you can with the other models.
Probably the most common instrument to connect to an audio interface is an electric guitar. That’s why I wrote my “How to connect a guitar to a PC” step-by-step guide. This is one of the most popular articles on this website! It walks you through the steps in connecting a guitar, what equipment you will need, how to set everything up and helps you avoid some common pitfalls.
Recording two mics/instruments at a time
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (Amazon affiliate link) has two combination XLR/Jack inputs. You can plug either an XLR cable or a jack cable into these inputs. This makes it ideal for recording 2 sources at the same time. These could be…
- 2 microphones e.g. a singer and an acoustic guitar
- 2 instruments e.g. 2 electric guitars
- 1 instrument and 1 microphone such as an electric guitar and a singer
Even if you never intend to record 2 sources at the same time, the 2 inputs can still be useful. For example, I have a microphone permanently plugged into input 1 of my Focusrite Scarlett. I also have a jack cable permanently plugged into input 2, intended for use with electric guitars.
This lets me set each input’s gain, pad and instrument setting appropriately for each source permanently. I don’t have to mess around with the input settings, as I use each input for a dedicated purpose.
If you’ve never worked with two microphones before, I highly recommend checking out my article on how to connect multiple microphones to a computer. It will show you how to go about connecting your mics, setting them up and how to get the best possible recordings.
Record keyboards etc. using MIDI
The Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 (Amazon affiliate link) introduces a MIDI input and output. This allows you to connect a MIDI keyboard or other device to the Scarlett, and use this input in your DAW to record MIDI. The MIDI output can be used to playback MIDI data on other devices from your computer.
The 4i4, 8i6, 18i8 and 18i20 all have a MIDI input and output.
Record a band “live”
You could of course record a band using just one microphone. Simply place the mic in the middle of the room somewhere and hit record. The problem with this approach is that all the sound gets capture on one track, so you cannot adjust levels of any particular instrument afterwards e.g. if the bass was too quiet and you wanted to boost its volume a little.
What we are talking about here is recording a band with each instrument on its own separate track. For example, vocals, guitar, bass and drums could all have their own track. You can then “mix” the song post-recording, changing levels of each instrument if necessary.
Each track will require its own input. I would suggest a minimum of 4 inputs is necessary for this, like in the vocals, guitar, bass, drums example I just used. The Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 (Amazon affiliate link) has 4 combi mic/instrument inputs, which I would suggest is a great starting point for this type of band recording.
Record a full drum set using multiple mics
If you’ve ever seen a video of a drum set being recorded in a pro recording studio, there will be lots of microphones around it! Each drum will probably have a microphone, sometimes more than one. The same for each cymbal, and there may even be a “room” microphone to capture the ambient sound from the room.
This setup allows very fine-grained control of your drum set recording. Each drum and cymbal can be adjusted individually in the mix, letting you get the balance just right in your song.
In a home studio, this type of setup is probably unrealistic. But if you are lucky enough to have the space for a full drum set and microphones to record it, you probably want to go for the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (Amazon affiliate link). This has 8 XLR inputs, allowing you to have a mic on each of the kick drum, snare, toms, hi-hat, crash cymbal and ride cymbal.
In general (not just for recording drum sets) it can be tricky to determine how many inputs you need. For more help, you may find this article helpful. It will help you work out how many inputs you need for your particular musical activities, potentially saving you some money along the way.
Having 2 people listening on headphones
If you ever work with another person, two headphone outputs can be useful. For example, suppose you are recording a singer. The singer will need headphones to listen to the track they are recording vocals for, and you could monitor the session and make appropriate adjustments during the recording using another pair of headphones. The Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 (Amazon affiliate link) is the first model in the range with 2 headphone sockets.
You could of course use a headphone adapter that changes a single headphone output into a double output. The problem with this approach is that both headphones will get exactly the same output. With different sockets on the audio interface, you can set the volume on each pair of headphones individually.
The Focusrite Scarlett 8i6, 18i8 and 18i20 all have 2 separate headphone outputs.
A portable recording setup
Laptops allow us to not have our recording station in just one place. Perhaps you want to take your laptop to a hotel, and record some guitar parts there. Or maybe even do some recording outside.
If you are recording where there is no electrical mains supply, this is entirely possible using a laptop and a Focusrite Scarlett audio interface. You just have to make sure that the interface you choose is not one that requires a separate mains power supply. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo, 2i2 and 4i4 all get their power from the USB cable. So as long as your laptop’s battery is charged, you can record anywhere you like!
Playing electric guitar through an amp sim
Using a computer as a guitar amplifier is increasingly common these days. This is accomplished using an amp sim (guitar amplifier simulator), which is essentially a guitar amplifier in software.
You plug your guitar into an input on your audio interface, set the amp sim to use that input, and you have a full-featured guitar amplifier on your computer. Amp sims often come with effects as well, so you could have a full guitar rig inside your laptop.
Any of the Focusrite Scarlett range is suitable for this application, as all you need is one jack instrument input to plug your electric guitar into.
For more details on using your PC as a guitar amp, check out this article: “How to use your PC as a guitar amp – an illustrated guide“. You’ll learn how to install and set up an amp sim, what equipment you’ll need and how to connect and configure everything to turn your computer into a fully functioning guitar amp.
Playing a keyboard through a software ROMpler
Software ROMplers are applications that contain many sounds that can be played over MIDI. They often provide pianos, organs, strings, percussion, loops and much more. Widely used software ROMplers include IK Multimedia’s “Sampletank” and Native Instruments’ “Kontakt”.
To play a software ROMpler using a MIDI keyboard unsurprisingly requires a MIDI input. You connect your keyboard’s MIDI output to your audio interface’s MIDI input. You then configure your ROMpler to use the audio interface’s input, and you can now play any of the sounds the ROMpler provides using your MIDI keyboard.
The Focusrite Scarlett interfaces that have a MIDI input are suitable for this application i.e. the 4i4, 8i6, 18i8 and 18i20.
Focusrite Scarlett model details
This section gives a little more detail about the features and capabilities of each of the models in the Focusrite Scarlett range. All the models come with a suite of software, including at the time of writing…
- Ableton Live Lite
- Avid Pro Tools
- Softube ‘Time and Tone’ bundle
- Focusrite Red 2 & Red 3 plugins
All the models also use the same high-quality mic pre-amps, which have a 56 dB gain range and +22dBu maximum input level.
All the mic and combined mic/instruments inputs are capable of providing 48V phantom power, which is needed by large diaphragm condenser microphones. They also all have the “Air” mode, which is an enhancement that “adds life to acoustic instruments & vocals” – it effectively increases the presence and treble.
Focusrite provides a very handy detailed comparison of their audio interfaces including the Scarlett series here.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo
The Solo has 1 XLR microphone input and 1 balanced line/instrument ¼″ jack input.
A pair of ¼″ jack balanced line outputs are provided by the Solo, suitable for connecting to an amplifier or studio monitor speakers. It also has a ¼″ jack headphone output.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
The 2i2 has two inputs like the Solo, but this time they are both combi XLR/Jack inputs. This means you could plug in two microphones or two instruments, unlike the Solo where you could only plug in a microphone and an instrument.
Like the Solo, the 2i2 has two ¼″ jack balanced line outputs and one ¼″ jack headphone output.
Focusrite Scarlett 4i4
The 4i4 is the first interface in the range to provide a MIDI input and output. All the models from the 4i4 upwards provide MIDI connectivity.
The 4i4 provides 2 combi XLR/Jack inputs, just like the 2i2. But it has a pair of ¼″ jack line inputs as well. Anything providing a line-level signal can use these e.g. keyboards, mixers, sound modules, another audio interface, etc.
Two pairs of ¼″ jack line outputs are provided, so you are now not limited to outputting to one set of speakers or other output devices. There is one ¼″ jack headphone output
It also has a stereo loopback input, which can be used to record the audio that your computer is outputting.
Focusrite Scarlett 8i6
The 8i6 gives you an extra ¼″ jack headphone output over the 4i4, so you can have two sets of headphones plugged in. It also gives you an extra pair of line-level inputs, giving you four in total.
The 8i6 is the first in the range to give you an S/PDIF digital input and output. These allow for sending and receiving digital audio data without having to convert it to/from analog audio. This allows for better sound quality, with less information being lost.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i8
The 18i8 gives you everything the 8i6 gives you, with the addition of another 2 combi XLR/Jack inputs, giving you 4 in total.
It also adds an optical ADAT input. This allows you to connect another audio interface to add more input channels.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
The 18i20 has the highest number of inputs and outputs in the range. It gives you…
- 8 combi XLR/¼″ jack inputs
- Optical ADAT input and output
- 1 S/PDIF digital input, 1 S/PDIF digital output
- Stereo Loopback Input
- 1 MIDI input, 1 MIDI output
- 10 ¼″ jack line outputs
- 2 ¼″ jack headphone outputs
The 18i20 is also the only interface in the range that comes in the rack-mount format, rather than the more compact desktop form factor.
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!