SOMEONE CALL 4i4
When you have to travel, away from the comforts of home, as a musician there is nothing worse than having equipment issues; that is where I found myself recently. My production computer at home is a Windows 10 based machine but I use a mid-2013 MacBook Pro that has worked very well on the road, and that is where things start to get interesting.
The audio interface I normally travel with seemed to be having issues so instead of taking chances I searched for a backup. I had recently heard of the release of the new Focusrite 3rd generation of Scarlett interfaces and this gave me a chance to put it to the test. A visit to a nearby music store and a few minutes later I was off.
The first thing I noticed was the size of the box itself; it was surprisingly compact in a very no-frills, tight sort of way, which is exactly what you want when portability is an issue. It was something I could pack in my bag without worrying about losing precious real estate.
One cool bonus is the packaging also served as very nice storage and transport case for the interface itself. The 4i4 3rd gen is powered through the USB bus so there is no need for an additional power supply. You will also find integrated MIDI IN and OUT on the rear panel which saves you the hassle of additional cables and adapters. It just makes for a very sleek and travel-friendly package.
Back at the hotel when I opened the box, I found a beautiful red jewel. The only other items included were the usual quick start card and an interesting cable; what you might call a hybrid between the standard USB we all are familiar with on one end and a USB C connector on the other.
When I initially connected the 4i4 to my MacBook Pro I was greeted with a very interesting setup procedure unlike any I had encountered before. A browser window opened and proceeded to guide me in updating the firmware as well as assisting me in downloading and installing the interface’s supporting software. All in all, it was a very smooth setup.
The Focusrite Control is really flexible allowing me to create different configuration snapshots depending on my performance environment. On the road, I am using my MacBook Pro to playback virtual instruments namely HALionSonic 3, Omnisphere and Kontakt through various hosts and each one performed very well.
One of the keys to any audio interface especially one in which you need to play live is always in the area of latency. Latency is the time it takes for the interface to process the audio in real-time and this is literally a make or break situation.
I initially thought the buffer size was much smaller as I was experiencing a really smooth and acceptable performance even when at 256. The Focusrite Control application allows you to quickly adjust the sample rate as well so I was able to try using both 44.1 and 48k to gauge performance and each one was very smooth. So far so good.
EVERYBODY NEEDS THEIR OWN ROOM
Something to note is to make sure the 4i4 has its own dedicated USB connection so it is not sharing with other devices; for instance through a hub unless it has sufficient power. I found that when I used the 4i4 on a connected hub that it caused some lockups and performance issues, possibly due to the power demands being put on a non-powered hub, something I am sure to remember from now on.
ALL OF THE INS AND OUTS
The 4i4 features just as its name implies 4 in and 4 out plus you get a headphone monitor output with dedicated level controls on the front panel which is very helpful. All of this is made even more convenient when the Focusrite Control application is brought into play. Having the ability to configure input and output routings makes the 4i4 an ideal interface for on the road or in a production studio like mine.
THE PROMISE OF STREAMING
One of the things that attracted me to the 4i4 was not only portability but the ability to use it when recording my tutorial and review videos. The 4i4 features a LOOPBACK function that allows you to mix your computer and DAW audio together with the physical inputs of the 4i4. This works great in most applications supporting ASIO.
My experience in testing with OBS Studio, Techsmith Camtasia, Streamlabs OBS were that you had to use an additional application to route the audio properly; this is because most of the streaming applications only support Windows Audio driver formats (WDM, KS, etc.) so the Loopback driver was not available. I am hoping that this functionality would be addressed in a future update as it really would provide a very powerful function for those who stream and produce online content.
You can, however, use the Loopback feature to capture your computer audio into your DAW of course which comes in handy and provides a lot of creative opportunities.
As I was finishing this review I received a “beta” version of an updated Windows driver for the 4i4 and it is a gamechanger!
STREAMING PROMISES FULFILLED
After installing the updated driver I now had FULL access to all of the input and output drivers from within Windows itself. This opens up the promise of being able to use non-ASIO based applications with LOOPBACK functionality.
LATENCY; WHAT LATENCY?
Another WOW moment for me was the unbelievable improvement in overall latency performance. I was able to do some basic functions playing some of my virtual instruments (KONTAKT 6 and SAMPLETANK 4 for example) at near insanely low buffer sizes. This opened up something I had not experienced before, which was feeling even more closely connected to the virtual instruments themselves when playing.
This albeit beta driver is a huge step in the right direction and if it is this good now, I can’t imagine how a final released version will perform.
PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING
Portability, Performance and all the rest would not mean anything unless you had the audio quality that is an absolute must in an audio interface and I can say with total confidence that the 4i4 3rd gen did not disappoint.
I have done several sessions recording vocals and the sound of the 4i4 3rd gen is very pristine. The preamps used in the two front-panel inputs provide clean and dynamic sounding audio. The Focusrite Control also gives you access to the AIR setting on the mic preamps to give an additional lift to the sound.
As musicians, we are always looking for the best value for our hard-earned dollars and here again, the 4i4 3rd gen is shall I say right on the money. With a retail of around $220, it is a great value seeing everything that you get. The 4i4 also includes a generous set of software instruments and even a version of Ableton LIVE to get you started. There is even an opportunity periodically to download a FREE plugin or instrument from a Focusrite software partner which continues to add value to an already wonderful package.
I can say in my time using the 4i4 3rd gen I continue to be impressed by the sound, stability, and performance. Another aspect of being a Focusrite customer is fantastic and responsive customer service. During my review, I had a few questions and needed help understanding some aspects of the 4i4 and they were very quick to respond in answering my concerns.
THE Ps HAVE IT
So what started off as an emergency situation actually turned into a wonderful opportunity to discover a very exciting and powerful new interface and a very supportive company and community in Focusrite. If you are looking for a new interface or need one as I did to take on the road I would highly recommend checking out Focusrite. You can find more information here. https://focusrite.com/usb-audio-interface/scarlett/scarlett-4i4