Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 audio interface review

The Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 is a sleek and rather modest mid-range audio interface that manages to deliver high-end features at half the price of its direct competitors. Weighing just 7.5 pounds and sporting a sober two-tone finish with streamlined knobs and knobs, the 18i20 sports eight mic preamps and direct compatibility with production-level audio gear, among other highlights. This combination of features and value, along with its overall build quality, makes the Third Generation 18i20 a very attractive option for producers and musicians running new and expanding recording studios working on a limited budget.

I recently had the opportunity to test a third generation Scarlett 18i20 in my modest home studio by swapping it directly with my everyday recording interface, the Universal Audio Apollo x8. The two have a lot in common when it comes to workflow and compatibility with external gear, but the Apollo x8 costs more than double the cost of the 18i20. With their similar I / O setups, I was able to make a fairly straightforward comparison of the two units and explore the 18i20’s ability to fit into my existing studio workflow. While the 18i20 has a few flaws indicating its midrange cost, it can perform at a high level and save you money if you’re willing to bypass the limitations of the Scarlett audio interface.

The design of the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

The 18i20 is the largest of six Focusrite audio interfaces in the Scarlett lineup, the smallest of which (like the third-gen Focusrite Scarlett 2i2) are some of the best USB-powered portable designs available today. The 18i20 features the same red and black chassis as its smaller siblings, but its power requirements and rackmount capability make it a much more suitable audio recording interface for integration with installations. permanent studio rooms. It includes a single IEC power cable, as well as a USB-C cable for a comfortable connection to any USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 port on Mac and Windows computers. Four low-profile rubber feet allow for slip-free use of the 18i20 on desk surfaces, or you can optionally take advantage of the two included rack ears for mounting in any 19-inch equipment rack.

While the third-gen Scarlett 18i20 has much of the same connectivity and functionality as its predecessors, it features a major improvement in the materials and finish of the front panel, especially in its gain control knobs. Previous generations used plastic knobs which seemed imprecise and offered little resistance, but were replaced by more robust metal knobs that offer “steps” to adjust gain more reliably and consistently, giving a better feel. overall sustainability. The front panel also features a number of small, barely recessed buttons that provide access to a variety of toggles, including 48 volt phantom power and microphone / line switching. Accessing these functions via physical buttons is nice on paper, but they’re small and offer limited tactile feedback, which could be a hindrance to workflow if the 18i20 isn’t located directly in front of you.

The Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 comes with eight of its own built-in inputs, two of which are accessible through the front panel via microphone / instrument combo connectors. The rear panel has six additional microphone inputs, as well as eight line inputs; users can simultaneously connect line inputs and microphones and switch between the two, but the interface is limited to eight inputs in total. To access the 10 additional inputs, you will need to bring your own ADAT or S / PDIF compatible equipment and connect it to the corresponding ports on the back of the interface.

Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 audio interface
This slim audio interface comes fully equipped with the inputs, outputs, and digital sync with other devices you’ll need.

First steps with the 18i20

The Scarlett 18i20 works as a plug-and-play device on Mac and Windows computers without the need for additional drivers, but users must download and install Focusrite’s control software to function as intended. The Focusrite Control program is absolutely mandatory if you want to access and change the 18i20’s input and output routing options, but it also offers optional one-click toggles for some of the interface’s front panel controls without need to reach and press buttons manually. Compared to the simplified and intuitive front panel of the 18i20 itself, Focusrite Control has a confusing, difficult to navigate, and heavily text-dependent user interface in a way reminiscent of late 1990s web design. A quick read of the Focusrite Control user’s guide was enlightening enough, but it was still difficult to analyze exactly what the software could and couldn’t do.

I connected the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 to my Mac Mini and other existing studio equipment via a combination of its microphone and line inputs, adding eight more from my Panasonic WZ-AD96M preamp by connecting via ADAT. This brought the 18i20’s working total to 16 inputs, which reflects my daily studio setup using my Universal Audio Apollo x8. To make sure that the ADAT preamp and the 18i20 were properly synchronized, I also connected a single BNC cable from the world clock output of the 18i20 to the clock input of my ADAT preamp. The whole connection and setup process was incredibly straightforward and easy and Logic Pro, my digital audio workstation of choice, recognized and received audio from all inputs without the need for additional configuration. I imagine it would be just as easy no matter what you think of as the best DAW.

A big blow to the 18i20’s potential flexibility which reflects its mid-range price tag is its lack of dedicated converters for its two headphone outputs. Each pair of headphones connected to the front panel of the interface disables a pair of stereo outputs on the rear of the 18i20, which means that using two pairs of headphones will reduce the number of usable line outputs from the interface. from eight to four. If you’re also using a pair of studio monitors, that number of usable line outputs drops to just two. This might not be a big deal for smaller studios with fewer connectivity needs, but if flexibility is what you’re looking for, you’ll need to get creative and compromise.

The sound of the Scarlett 18i20

The Focusrite Scarlett 18i20’s mic preamps and converters have very similar characteristics to my Apollo x8, with a comparable gain range of 56dB and a maximum AD / DA conversion rate of 24bit / 192kHz. These stats mean more or less that the 18i20 is capable of recording at or above the industry standard for audio resolution at a level comparable to interfaces two, three, and even four times its price. While the technical reality is a bit more complicated than that, as all-in-one devices like the 18i20 often make technical tradeoffs to save space and cut costs, the 18i20 still shouldn’t have a hard time produce high quality files that are up to industry specifications.

Focusrite has upgraded the Scarlett line preamps to its third generation with all new “Air” settings that aim to recreate the rich, open high-frequency response of the company’s stand-alone ISA preamps. The Air setting alters the signal before it reaches your DAW, so it’s a good idea to experiment with it before applying it to your recorded sound; ring; I found it a bit crisp and harsh for my taste applied to drums and vocals, but it added a bit of extra magic to my Casio synth and distorted electric guitar in a very natural and organic way. For drums and vocals, I much preferred the 18i20’s preamps without the Air setting enabled; this made for a relatively neutral sounding recording with a bit of woolly low end that was a good start from the fragility commonly found in cheaper interface preamps.

Because I had the unique opportunity to do a direct A to B comparison of the 18i20 to my Apollo x8, it was easier than normal to perceive their subtle sonic differences. The 18i20 records at the same resolution as the Apollo x8, but its built-in preamps and converters make recording of the same input material which could be described as sounding “smoother”. It is neither good nor bad; the recording captured by the Apollo x8 just sounded more true to life in terms of detail. The new “Air” setting on the 18i20 has mitigated some of that haze when engaged, adding some presence and life to particularly woolly instruments. Overall, the differences in sound between the two are incredibly subtle – although the units have some technical differences in terms of components, circuitry, and construction, none of this will matter to the final listener. if the material is nice.

The rear of the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20
The Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 is incredibly affordable for its feature set.

So who should buy the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20?

Pound for pound, the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 stands up to much more expensive USB audio interfaces, an impressive technological feat that would have been unheard of only a few decades ago. A combination of future-proof scalability, build quality, and standard recording fidelity at a very affordable price point makes this an excellent choice for users looking to move from a smaller interface to large recording. sets, full drums and multiple simultaneous inputs without spending a fortune on a studio upgrade. The 18i20 isn’t completely flawless but in my opinion its limitations boil down to little more than learning opportunities for developing artists. Seasoned recorders may balk at its mid-range converters or bristle at the idea of ​​sacrificing line outputs for headphones, but engineering is little more than problem solving and the 18i20’s flaws are small. fry. It lacks high-end features like DSP, digital gain control, and advanced routing, but these features add significant costs, which is why they are typically found on high-end equipment. With that in mind, as long as you don’t run a very large commercial studio and need a very large I / O capacity, the Scarlett 18i20 absolutely deserves a place on your list of the best. audio interfaces for the money.