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Focusrite Forte Premium USB Audio Interface Review

April 8, 2015

The Forte is a two input/four output premium audio interface from Focusrite. Designed to be a portable unit with outstanding sound quality, the Forte features two high end microphone preamps based on Focusrite’s flagship RedNet devices, and high quality conversion operating up to 192 kHz/24 bit. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with the Focusrite Forte in various production and performance situations.

While the Forte does have a few small drawbacks which I’ll highlight later, its stellar sound quality and industrial design make it an outstanding option for music production on the go.

Hardware

Like Apogee’s Duet series, the Focusrite Forte draws design inspiration from Apple’s aluminum unibody design. In my opinion, Focusrite does a better job than Apogee in this department. During my brief interaction with the Apogee Duet 2, I found the build quality of the unit to be subpar for a $600 device. The unit just doesn’t feel as solid and hefty as it should. The Focusrite Forte’s build quality is more similar to the RME Babyface, and feels much more reliable and less plasticky than the Duet 2.

The two most obvious physical aspects of the Focusrite Forte are the four touch sensitive buttons and the OLED display. From left to right, the four buttons let you control parameters for inputs, line outputs, headphone output, and DAW control. For inputs and outputs, you can easily configure gain, volume, and dim/mute settings. DAW control is one of favorite features, and effectively turns the Forte into a basic transport controller. Rotating the knob can be configured to fast forward and rewind, and pressing the knob acts as either a play or record button.

The Focusrite Forte is a two input/four output unit. Output connectivity can be accessed on the unit directly – a stereo headphone output on the front and a pair of line outputs on the back. For input connectivity, there is an included breakout cable with a locking connector. The breakout cable features two 1/4″ inputs for recording instruments like guitar and bass, and two XLR inputs for recording with microphones. I really like this particular setup because most of my work doesn’t involve recording physical instruments. This means I don’t have to attach the breakout cable just to connect two speakers to the interface.

Software

Forte Control is the free software mixer companion for the Focusrite Forte. This is where you can build independent mixes to send to the line outputs and headphones output. Each input channel has independent (but linkable) gain and +48 phantom power control. There are also options for a 65 Hz high pass filter, a -10 dB pad, and polarity switch.

Overall, Focusrite’s Forte Control is a very well designed software mixer. The modern interface is quite attractive to look at, and all the important controls are easily accessible. Custom settings can also be saved for easy recall. The Forte also ships with the Red 2 EQ and Red 3 compressor plugins. While I’ve never used these particular plugins myself, the general consensus is that they do sound good, and free plugins is never a bad thing.

Sound Quality

The Focusrite Forte can operate at a 192 kHz/24 bit maximum, and its preamps are based on the flagship RedNet units, giving you up to 75 dB of gain. I used the Forte on a quick voiceover session, and the preamps provided more than enough clean gain for the Shure SM7B. The Forte’s preamps are not as flat and analytical as the RME Babyface’s. There is a very slight hint of warmth in the frequency response. Colored preamps is not a bad thing, but it’s just something to keep in mind.

While the Focusrite Forte is technically bus-powered via USB, there are a few limitations you should know about. When the unit is not connected to a power source via the included power supply, +48v phantom power cannot be used. While this is definitely a drawback, I don’t think it’s a deal breaker. I don’t think I’ve ever recorded a vocal or instrumental session without a power outlet close by. If you often find yourself in situations without outlets, then this interface probably won’t work for you. The second limitation is the maximum output level through the line outputs and headphone output. When the Forte is only receiving USB bus power, the outputs are limited to a -18 dB maximum. For reference, -25 dB is a comfortable level for the Sennheiser HD600s, while -35 dB is plenty loud for more sensitive headphones like the Sony MDR-7520.

A question that often comes up is how the Forte compares to the Focusrite Scarlett audio interfaces. When it comes to quality, there is no comparison. There’s a reason why the the Forte costs just as much as the Scarlett 18i20. With that Forte, you get high end preamps with 20 dB more clean gain and audibly better conversion. The compromise, of course, is you only get two input channels and four output channels.

Conclusion

The Focusrite Forte is a very compelling option for the musician or producer looking for a high quality mobile interface that won’t break the bank. Even though it’s pricier than Focusrite’s midrange Scarlett audio interfaces, the Forte offers superior sound quality in the form of better preamps and conversion. Once again, if you’re looking for +48v phantom power over USB bus power, this is not the interface for you. I see this product as an attractive offering for musicians who have the “luxury” of recording with a power outlet close by. It’s also a great option for “in the box” producers who are mainly looking for awesome DAC conversion for monitoring. In conclusion, the Focusrite Forte packs high end preamps and converters, a color OLED display with touch sensitive buttons, and a control knob with DAW control capabilities into a beautiful and sleek aluminum housing for less than $400.


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