Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 Review

08-29-2013 10:04 AM

I’ve been wanting to get my hands on the Focusrite 18i20 since it was announced, not because I’m in need of another interface - I currently have five sat in the studio, but because for the price it seemed to offer a lot for the money.
The Unit
The unit is striking in it’s black and red livery, although if you are going to put it in a 19” rack then you won’t see much of the red., however the front panel design is smart and modern and has everything clearly labelled, in fact well enough not to have to use the manual. It has two multi-input balanced mic/jacks on the front with the usual inst and pad buttons as well as 48v switches in banks of two 1-4 and 5-8. There are indicators to tell you when you have a USB connection and should you want to send stuff around in the digital domain another light to tell you the unit is locked via the digital connection - in the case of this review into an Omni. Above that you have 8 multi LEDs to set input level, then a monitor volume knob, dim and mute. Finally we have two headphones outputs on jacks with volume controls. My only gripe about the front panel having used the 18i20 is there are no output LED indicators which would have been a help when I was grappling with trying to get an output from the unit. I know there is limited space, but they could have taken a note out of the Avid Omni design where the 8 LEDs are switch able from input to output indicators.
More holes than a Swiss cheese
On the rear of the unit are six more XLR/Jack multi inputs, eight line output jacks. There are then two monitor sends on jacks, optical in and out on Lightpipe, Wordclock, USB2 real MIDI in and out connectors SPDIF in and out and the power connector, a real wall socket too, not one of these small PSUs which are so prevalent in modern studio equipment design.
If you are keeping up with me then you’ll begin to realize that for £399/$499 you get a lot of stuff for your money. Not content with that Focusrite then include their MixControl software, a gig of Loopmasters samples, the Scarlett plug-in Suite in VST/AU and RTAS (note there are no plans for an AAX version of these plug-ins) and also a coopy of Novation Bassstation software in VST/AU. That’s a nice bundle but if you are a Pro Tools user considering this then you may want to scratch most of that bundle from your mind, the Scarlett plug-ins will work in Pro Tools 10 but not Pro Tools 11, leaving you with just the Mixcontrol and a gig of samples.
What I will say, is don’t let that put you off, what you get in terms of hardware far exceeds any gains you may have got with the software bundle. Even if the 18i20 didn;t come with any software it would still be one of the best value hardware interfaces at that price point - in fact perhaps the best value.
It’s all well and good having an interface with more connections than Simon Cowell and more knobs than a door factory (trust me there were so many more options for that line) but what really matters is the sound. Focusrite make some amazing pro gear, I have an ISA 430 MKII in my rack so I know what the pro stuff sounds like. The big question has to be are Focusrite just putting their badge on a substandard interface or do they sound any good? I tried both voice, using an AKG C414MKII and an electric guitar into the front sockets. Both of them sounding clean and transparent, with very little evidence of colouration, it’s also nice that you can plug a mic, guitar and headphones into the front panel and you get audio without the need to fire up your DAW. I also tested audio playback from a large Pro Tools session both through headphones and via Lightpipe and they sounded very clean. It’s one thing a brand using their name on cheaper products, but buyers beware if you think you are getting eight £1000 front ends in a USB interface costing £400, however I am glad to report that what you do get are very clean sounding pre-amps which are a lot better sounding than some other units in the market space.
In Use
I fired up Pro Tools 11 and tracked the aforementioned mic and guitar and it all sounded nice and clean. Focusrite interfaces do ship with the MixControl software which allows complex low-latency audio routing, in fact 16 separate mixes, however I’m a creature of habit and too lazy to figure out how to make it work properly, so I tend not to use it. If you do make the time to learn it and use it, then you can get some cool routing set-ups for headphone sends etc. That said it all seemed to work without a hitch and I was tracking in Pro Tools without reading the manual and getting great results.
Ironically - if you get all these lights on then you won’t hear a thing
Who Should Buy This?
I’m not sure who the 18i20 is aimed at not because it doesn’t tick any boxes, on the contrary it seems to tick all of them for so many people. Singer song writers, bands who need to track drums (8 x XLR inputs with room to grow via the ADAT), live recording rigs, electronic musicians (note the Mac/Windows and iOS connectivity) and real MIDI in and out. Live bands could use this too, as could keyboard players, even small post production facilities not using Pro Tools HD rigs. To make it easier I would say if you want a lot of I/O and a great sound and have around £400/$500 to spend then I don’t think you’ll find many other things that come close, also if you want more I/O then you should consider this unit with their Octopre, then you would have 16 channels of high quality mic inputs. I checked on the Sweetwater website to see what alternatives there are, there are the highly likeable Presonus 1818 and the MOTU Ultralite MKIII, both worthy contenders. For the same money you can get an Mbox with Pro Tools Express, which may be an option if you are starting from scratch, but if you already have Pro Tools then the Mbox just doesn’t have the connectivity most bands need. There are also some very good Firewire alternatives from Focusrite, Presonus and MOTU. If this proves anything then there’s never been a better time to buy a fully featured interface for the price.
Our Recommendation
Is a simple one - check this baby out, you get a lot of interface for your money. We can’t seem to see where the corners have been cut, apart from the knobs on the front panel (that’s a joke, they are round), but joking apart it doesn’t feel cheap, with an excellent build quality and sound. The Scarlett 18i20 really is a great interface at a nice price which would be an excellent addition to a lot of budget studios using any DAW on any platform, be that Windows, Mac or iPad. If you are a Pro Tools user and don’t need a HD/HDX solution and looking to replace an old M-Audio or Digidesign interface such as the 002r or 003r then take a look at this baby, you may be surprised how good it is.
If my 19 year old son asked me what to buy (and he does) then I’d tell him to get this - so I suppose this get’s the Pro Tools Editor Son’s Choice Award! Check it out.

  • Lots of bang for your buck
  • Great sound
  • Excellent build quality
  • Easy to use
  • Works on Mac, Windows and iOS
  • Nice software bundle


  • No output indicators
  • Bundled free software is not going to work in Pro Tools especially Pro Tools 11
  • Sexy red chassis gets hidden in the rack

More information
Geek Specs
Digital Performance
A-D Dynamic Range 109 dB A-weighted (all inputs)
D-A Dynamic Range 108 dB A-weighted (line outputs)
Supported sample rates 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz A 96 kHz
Clock jitter +28 dBu
Instrument Inputs
Frequency Response 20 Hz – 20 kHz ± 0.1 dB
THD+N 0.007% (1 kHz, –1dBFS, 20 kHz BW)
Noise (NiPoS) –103 dBFS CCIR-RMS (measured at min. gain)
Maximum input level +8 dB (without pad)
Line Outputs 1 & 2
Maximum Output Level (0 dBFS) +16 dBu, balanced
THD+N 0.001% (1 kHz, –1dBFS, 20 kHz BW)