Focusrite Forte review

The Focusrite Forte audio interface delivers two channels of clean, professional-level recording and playback to both PCs and Macs, but it's not as effective at remote recording thanks to its AC-power requirement.

The Focusrite Forte ($749.99 list) is one of a host of portable, higher-end audio interfaces that have appeared in the wake of Apogee’s now-iconic original Duet. It one-ups the Apogee lineup in that it works with PCs as well as Macs—helping not just PC users, but also musicians and engineers, like myself, who use both Macs and PCs on a regular basis, and don’t want to be restricted to a specific platform for a particular piece of gear. That said, there are a few limitations with the Forte you should be aware of before purchase, such as its AC power requirement when using phantom power, and sound quality that, while very good, doesn’t quite catch Apogee. But overall, it’s a top-quality piece of audio gear that’s easily worth its high entry price.

Design, Display, and Connectivity
The Forte gets its name from the company’s original recording console, which was based on famed engineer Rupert Neve’s designs for George Martin’s AIR studios. At least physically, if an audio interface can be beautiful, the Forte certainly is, with its solid aluminum enclosure, colorful OLED display, and oversized volume and control knob. The small display shows individual track levels with fat meters that turn green, yellow, and red depending on signal level.

Below the display are four touch-sensitive mode buttons for selecting input level (which alternates between input 1 and input 2 when you press it again), speaker volume, headphone volume, and DAW mode for controlling a software transport. The multi-function encoder knob spins around smoothly, but with a lightweight feeling to it, unlike the Apogee Duet for iPad & Mac’s knob, which clicks ever so slightly as you turn it. As with the Duet, to make selections, you push the Forte’s knob down.

A ¼-inch headphone socket sits on the front edge; two would have been better at this price, as many engineers and musicians tend to work with another person simultaneously. (The MOTU Track16, which we haven’t tested yet, is the only similar unit on the market with two headphone outputs, although one is 1/4-inch sized and the other is a consumer-level 3.5mm jack.)

Around back, you get a power input, a USB 2.0 port, an input socket for the breakout cable, and a pair of TRS line outputs—meaning that if you’re not recording, you don’t need to attach the breakout cable even when listening over speakers, unlike the Duet. The “loom connector,” as Focusrite calls the breakout cable, contains a pair of XLR microphone inputs and a pair of TRS line/instrument-level inputs, so you can connect two mics and two instruments at the same time and leave them all hooked up; the Duet, by comparison, combines the inputs together, which is fine in most cases but could become inconvenient if you do a lot of stereo miking.

However, chances are that if you’re attaching the Forte’s breakout cable to record, you’ll also need to plug in the AC adapter, as it’s required whenever you record microphones that require phantom power. For most people recording at home or on the go, that’s pretty much all of the time, since both small- and large-diaphragm condenser mics need phantom power. In addition, when running without the AC adapter, the speaker and headphone outputs are limited to -18dB—not as big a deal, but something to note if you’re monitoring over headphones with a high impedance and you’re recording at a noisy venue; I certainly noticed it with several different pairs of closed-back headphones, all of which could have gone a little louder than the -18dB point without discomfort.

Setup, Performance, and Conclusions
Setting up the Forte is a snap; you register on the company site, download the drivers and bundled Midnight Plug-in Suite software, install everything, and then connect the Forte via USB. A reboot is required after installing the software, even on a Mac, which isn’t true of the Apogee Duet. The bundled Forte Control software (pictured above) offers low-latency monitoring and level control.

I tested the Focusrite Forte with an Apple MacBook Pro running OS X 10.8.3 (Mountain Lion), a quad-core Xeon-based Mac Pro running OS X 10.7.5 (Lion), and a Lenovo ThinkPad L420 running Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. In all three cases, I tested recording and playback using Avid Pro Tools 10, which worked perfectly, and at acceptably low latencies. The Focusrite Forte records at 24-bit and 192kHz, thanks to its built-in D/A converters. The two mic preamps are the same ones from the company’s RedNet range of pro audio interfaces, and offer 75dB of gain range.

As I expected from a higher-end Focusrite interface, sound quality was sublime for both recording and playback. I didn’t hear quite as much detail in the upper midrange to high-end as I did on the Duet; recordings made through a Rode NT-1A mic sounded a little more present, with less of a thin veil over the result, with the Duet, although the Forte sounded just as warm and full otherwise.  The Forte’s preamp also sounded a bit cleaner than the Avid Mbox Mini’s, although I’d argue you could make excellent recordings with any of these interfaces. Still, the differences are there.

The same goes for playback; listening to Dave Matthews Band’s “Funny the Way It Is,” I heard a clean, smooth, and well-separated presentation through the Forte, although the Duet lent a little more presence and clarity to specific details in the recording that didn’t jump out at me quite as much with the Forte. Both exhibited exceptionally tight and extended bass response.

All told, the Focusrite Forte sets out what it’s designed to do, and unlike some of the competition, it works on both PCs and Macs. You can also leave the cable loom detached except when you’re recording. That said, it’s not exactly equivalent to the Apogee Duet, as it sounds a bit different, and requires the AC adapter to be attached most of the time. The Apogee Duet is probably a better choice if you’re exclusively on the Mac platform, as it integrates a bit better, and its iPad connectivity is second to none in its simplicity.

Other options: Propellerhead Reason fans can save a bit of cash by looking at the clean-sounding Propellerhead Balance interface, which integrates better with that company’ software, while the Editors’ Choice Focusrite iTrack Solo brings clear recording to PCs, Macs, and iPads at a budget price.


Verdict
The Focusrite Forte delivers two channels of clean, professional-level recording and playback to both PCs and Macs, but it's not as effective at remote recording thanks to its AC power requirement.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc