New Gear Review: Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic from Focusrite

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Focusrite’s Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic is a unique and flexible tool, most notably offering front-end compression across all 8 of its channels—a feature not commonly found among similar units on the market.

As DIY spaces and smaller portable recording rigs become more and more popular, the industry has responded in kind.

Manufacturers now offer an array of single-rack space units, and even truly “throw-in-a-bag-and-go” portable recording solutions, many of which are no bigger than a set of headphones.

Thanks to the portability and reduced cost of this type of system, many budding engineers are now building home studios around these devices. But what happens when your rig requires expansion? No one wants to start over from scratch and have to scrap their current setup just to expand their capabilities. Focusrite has recently unveiled a new unit that should fill exactly that role.

The Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic is an 8-channel mic preamp with A/D and D/A conversion and front-end analog compression. It is not truly an interface, but rather an expansion unit designed to be integrated into your current setup. Uniquely, the device is bi-directional, meaning you are not only expanding your inputs, but your outputs as well, which greatly enhances the flexibility of the unit. Let’s take a look at what it offers and then put it through its paces.

Features

The OctoPre Dynamic is one-rack space and very easy to set up and install—even with other manufacturers’ gear. I was up and running in mere minutes after connecting it to my UA Apollo.

The rear of the device houses all the connections: Inputs 1 through 8 use a combo jack and can accept mic or line level signals via XLR or TRS, respectively. Additionally, inputs 1 and 2 can also be used for Hi-Z instrument sources. Analog outputs 1-8 are all balanced TRS jacks.

Because the OctoPre is an expansion unit, and not an actual standalone interface, you will need to connect it to your interface via ADAT interconnect. Two TOSLINK inputs and outputs utilize S/MUX to allow users 8 channels of I/O at 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96kHz, and even 4 channels at 176.4/192kHz. BNC Wordclock ins and outs are also available to help synchronize the OctoPre with your existing digital gear.

The front of the unit is packed with knobs, buttons, meters and indicators, but all are very easily read and understood, even in a dark environment. Each mic pre offers up to 50dB of gain (oddly labeled as 0-10). No pads or low cut switches are offered on this unit. The travel of the knobs is smooth and easy.

On the far right side of the unit are switches that reconfigure inputs 1 & 2 for a Hi-Z instrument signal, still offering up to 50dB of gain. Useful 5-segment input meters make it easy to set levels, and a nice overload LED lets users know if they are clipping the input to the compressor section.

Phantom power is only switchable in 4-channel blocks for channels 1-4 and 5-8. This is not necessarily a bad thing and definitely in keeping with the price range of the device. Soft switches allow the user to cycle through sample rates and sync sources quickly and easily, and a “lock” LED illuminates to signify that digital sync is working properly.

Underneath the mic pre gain knobs are compression knobs, and this is where the unit starts to get rather interesting. Each mic pre has a built-in front-end analog compressor to affect your signals pre-A/D conversion. The knob is only labeled “OFF – MAX,” however it is effectively a threshold control that lowers the threshold as the knob is turned towards “MAX.” A yellow LED lights to indicate that compression is taking place, but no further information about gain reduction is given. You’ll have to use your ears… usually sage advice.

Attack and release times for the compressors are fixed at 1.2ms and 28ms respectively. The compression circuits default to a 2:1 ratio, however the aptly titled “MORE” switch (available for each channel) engages a 4:1 ratio. A surprising amount of basic compression needs can be handled with just these two settings. The circuit also provides automatic make-up gain, keeping the output level equal to the input level, which also makes setting by ear significantly easier, especially when you need to move fast.

Another feature that adds value to this unit is the ADAT-to-Analog output option. Having an additional 8 possible outputs greatly enhances flexibility. Home studios that utilize any kind of analog summing will find this extremely useful, as will any studio that has external effect processors—or even setups that may require additional cue mix feeds for the artist.

In Use

As mentioned, the OctoPre Dynamic is easy to set up and get going—I had it connected to my interface and up and running in just a few minutes. As a matter of fact, the only trouble I ran into was from assuming that Pro Tools would need to be set to aggregate I/O in order to use an additional device, which was totally unnecessary.

The combo jacks located on the rear of the Scarlett OctoPre Dynamic allow for quick and flexible connectivity in time-sensitive situations such as changeovers at live shows.

Initially I brought the device to a live show and used it to record Brooklyn’s Boytoy.

The combo jacks made getting feeds from the board a snap. It was easy to dial-in levels quickly, and the on-board compression really saved the recording during some of the whisper-to-a-scream vocal moments.

On a solo keyboard piece, the Hi-Z input had more than enough gain and the compression came in handy. Although the compression was very easy to over-apply, I could quickly dial in the dynamic range I was looking for.

One thing of note is that there is a slight “click” noise when engaging the compression circuit, something that I feel should be seamless… however no other bypass option exists.

To Be Critical

I feel it’s important to fully understand the intended purpose of a piece of gear when reviewing it. The scope of the OctoPre isn’t to be your primary interface; it’s designed for anyone looking to expand their current setup for more I/O without breaking the bank.

While there are similar devices out there that offer more flexibility and options, you’d be hard-pressed to find them anywhere near its price point of $599. The OctoPre could be very useful as a home or portable rig, and especially as a live rig where artists may want to record and/or play back multiple tracks during a gig.

I felt the preamps in the Scarlett OctoPre were not quite as open, clean, and clear as the stock UA preamps on my Apollo. And while the unit is easy to use, there is little flexibility in setting parameters and connection options, meaning you must commit to that setting/setup.

It is worth mentioning that while the ADAT connectivity is supremely useful, not every interface has ADAT connections. Without S/PDIF, AES, or even a USB connection, you are committing to needing that type of connection for the life of the unit, which could end up limiting future interface purchases and upgrades, or requiring some kind of adapter.

Summing It Up

The only direct comparison for the OctoPre Dynamic I can offer is against my UA Apollo. In practice and on paper, the Apollo outperforms the OctoPre, offering more features, a higher max input level and greater dynamic range—although the very low noise floor of each unit was quite similar. That being said, the OctoPre is roughly 20% of the price of the Apollo and performs very well for a piece under $600.

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  • Get Real

    Of course, the only UAD Apollo pre that is affordable is two channel, as opposed to eight channel. It is a lot easier to put high quality components into an inexpensive two channel unit than an eight. However, if what you want to do is record e.g. a real band, instead of sequencing to loops, you will need more than two ins.