Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Review

I recently recorded narration for an auto-running Powerpoint presentation using the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB interface and pre-amp. The results were good and I learned a few things along the way. The first lesson is don’t record the narration in Powerpoint directly. I learned this lesson a long time ago and had to re-learn it as apparently I forgot. Powerpoint doesn’t do a very clean job of starting and stopping recording and makes it hard to access the clips afterwards to trim them of the various pops and clicks. I ended up use Ableton Live Lite to do the recording as it came with the Scarlett 2i2. This was my voice over various slides and I just needed a clean recording with good handling of the proximity effect low end from using a SM58 up close.

The Scarlett is pretty easy to setup. Install the drivers, restart, plug-in the interface to the USB port and you’re good to go. Depending on the software you use to record, you may or may not to change preferences to access the Scarlett via USB vs the internal audio components. The only hitch in my case was that I was using a Macbook Air and the drivers came on a CD. I was able to download the drivers from Focusrite’s site. My backup plan was to use remote disc to borrow the DVD drive on my Mac Mini remotely.

The Scarlett is pretty straight-forward. There are two inputs that are combo XLR and 1/4″ jacks. The 1/4″ inputs are switchable between line and instrument for impedance matching. Each input has a gain control circled by LEDs that act as the meters. Green is good. Orange is hot but acceptable. Red is clipping. 48V phantom is optional but it is on or off for both inputs, not one at a time. I was using a dynamic Shure SM58 so did not need plantom power so I left it off. Monitoring can come from the computer output and / or direct monitoring. I didn’t want any monitoring in this case as I was not playing along with music and I didn’t need my own echo leaking back into the mic. Monitor out can feed headphones or be an input to powered speakers or an amp that is connected to non-powered speakers. There is a large monitor volume control knob (even if you treat the two outs as mono outs, not stereo, there is only the one level control). The only other control is a small switch for turning direct monitoring on or off. This allows feeding the input directly to the output if timing is critical and you need to hear what you play or sing without round trip latency as you record along with other tracks being played back from the computer.

The Scarlett is USB bus powered. This is mostly a good thing. In fact, it is why I finally bought this unit. I’ve been contemplating downsizing the recording studio for years by updating my audio interfaces and doing away with digital tape and the large O2R digital mixer. That would require 16 or more input channels and pre-amps and a super reliable interface to the computer. The thing is I hardly ever record anything in studio anymore. I’m usually on the road and recording one or two channels at most. The idea of buying the first of several studio-capable units and then having to take it on the road in a rack case vs something small that can go in the computer bag wasn’t appealing and kept me doing anything for quite a while. I finally admitted that my greatest need was 2 channels into the laptop anywhere I might be and the Scarlett looks perfect for this use. Does USB power mean my laptop batteries won’t last as long. Yes but who cares? If I’ve got to plug something in it might as well be the laptop since I’ll be travelling with that adaptor anyway.

So, how does it sound? For my use on my own spoken word voice tracks? Every bit as good as using my higher end Focusrite preamp into the 02R or using Yamaha’s own preamps that are in the 02R. For powerhouse lead vocals I’d still prefer my tube preamp but I now have the option of sending that into the computer via the line input on the Scarlett.

With the narration project done it was time to have more fun with this new interface. I plugged in a Telecaster and setup to use it as an input in GarageBand so I could play through GarageBand’s various amps and effects simulators and play with a backing band made of Apple Loops. First I’ll say that GarageBand’s amps can’t replace the real thing. They sound okay but not quite real enough for me. The option to record one of my real amps into GarageBand is always there though. For practice or songwriting, the GarageBand setup is pretty handy. I’m sure Live would also work fine for this but I only had so much time to learn how to place loops and edit midi in so many programs this week.

Before I knew it I was jamming with a simple blues backing track. With about 20 minutes of work I had drums, bass and the second guitar part of “Sweet Home Alabama” ready to play along with. And then I was reminded how good it is that you can slow the backing tracks down without altering pitch! It has been a while since I played with a band or even a metronome and it showed — not in a good way. The intro, for example, that sounded great to me whenever I’d sit around noodling at the guitar falls apart when I have to play it at the tempo of the real song. No problem though. Just slow down the tempo until I can manage to play it fairly clean and woodshed until I work my way up to full speed.

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is going to be a very handy part of my equipment setup for a long time to come. I can even see recording location audio for video direct to computer instead of into a Tascam or Zoom portable device at least when there is time and conditions to set things up and manage the production.

GarageBand for simple DVD menu audio

It is the holidays which means I really need to finish that DVD project from this summer’s trip. The movie itself is done with titles and credits and audio. It was created with Aperture’s slideshow tools and came out great. The Ken Burns effect seems to know which way to move when — I think this is luck, not image interpretation in the software but it came out perfect.

I decided to go simple and just make the DVD with iDVD. It took a while to find a template that was simple, 16:9 and matched the look of the movie well enough but I found one. I made some changes as the font on the sub-menu was too large for my chapter titles to fit comfortably and there was one more layer of navigation than I wanted in the overall menu tree. The only steps left were adding audio to the menu screens and burning the DVDs. I didn’t want to use copyrighted music even though these are for family and friends so I needed to either buy something for this use or make my own. I am a musician, sort of, so I decided to make my own. Mind you I am not a musician that could make his living at music but a short background track for a menu screen is within my skills.

Some of my readers know that I have been moving from Windows with Vegas and Sonar to OS X with Aperture and CS 5.5. Notice no mention yet of composition tools on my Macs. Adobe Audition is meeting my audio for video editing needs so far so I haven’t run out to acquire something to replace Sonar’s loop and midi capabilities. GarageBand came with iLife on my Macs though and I thought I’d give it a try. If you don’t want to read further, the punchline is that it worked out really well.

I created a new project, dragged in some soft, wandering piano, added Motown drums and a world, fretless bass. Balancing the levels and doing a little panning gave me a nice backing track but it needed just a little something extra. I added some gentle electric guitar accents and was very happy. Finally I put fades on both ends of the track to make looping sound smooth and saved the file. I dragged the file onto the menu screen in iDVD, previewed it to make sure everything worked and am now burning a DVD so I can test it outside the computer.

Next up I need to add audio narration to a slide presentation. I’ll be using a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 for that task and will use it as the basis for a 2i2 review I’ll post here soon.

Adobe Premiere Pro first impressions

It started out innocently enough. My wife wanted to see a presentation at the local historical society but could not attend. I thought “why not ask if I can shoot the presentation on video?”. I asked, the speaker and society said yes and we were good to go, or so I thought. It hit me a few minutes later that I could not shoot this with the DSLR as it was too long. The D7000, like most DSLRs, can only shoot about 20 minutes before it needs to cool the sensor and it can get noisy even sooner.

So it was back to tape with a compact Camcorder that records on SD as backup. The compact unit can’t use external mics which is why I used the old PC-100 with DV tape as the primary. All is well once again, or not.

I got to the even early and helped setup the room and the projector. I setup my gear and got ready to go. The slides were washed out because of the room lighting. We were assured that they’d adjust the lights before the talk began. Although the room was wired so the front half could be turned off and the back half left on, they turned off ALL the lights for the presentation! These camcorders are okay in low light but not so good in no light. Basically I got a shadowy figure of the author against the backdrop of the slides. The sound was great though.

I wrote to the author and asked for the slides. She sent them as a PDF but I was able to export each page as a JPEG file. So now it was time to salvage the project and make a short film of the slides with the recorded video in a small corner just to liven things up and connect it to the presentation at the event in some way. The presentation happened to be about a praying indian village in our town after King Philip’s War so I also zipped around the area shooting some still and video with the Nikon to add something interesting to look at for the long stretches of one slide.

With basic concept and clips ready it was time to put the movie together. I have been a huge fan and user of Vegas Video for years but I’ve moved to Macintosh recently and wanted to do the movie on my Macbook Air. You may be thinking “what, make a 40 – 60 minute production on a Macbook Air? Are you nuts?”. As it turns out the machine, with an external USB drive, was more than up to the task but the included iMovie was not. iMovie is great if you want to make a basic slideshow or do some trimming on a single video track. It is not so good if you want to manage several audio and video tracks in one project. That’s why they sell Final Cut Pro. But they don’t offer a trial of Final Cut Pro and with all the mixed reviews I wasn’t going to run out and buy it to see if I liked it. Adobe to the rescue! Adobe offers a trial version of Premiere Pro and of the entire Creative Suite. That is what I used to put this video together and I rather enjoyed it with a few minor issues.

No one expects you to use a Macbook Air for video editing or so it seems. Premiere Pro uses the two delete keys on a normal Mac keyboard for trim and ripple trim. The one that is on the Air is the trim version. I needed ripple trim a lot for this project and getting to it with the mouse wasn’t much fun. I can remap the key and will if I decide to buy Premiere Pro to keep using.

Sometimes Premiere Pro found the media just fine when starting back up and other times I had to relink it to the clips on the external drive. Not sure if this is Premiere Pro or OS X’s fault. Easy enough to fix but annoying to have to deal with when I never even disconnected the drive.

Having After Effects and Audition in the trial suite was really handy. I was able to take out clicks and hum and normalize the volume very fast and I was able to turn some footage of a babbling brook into something appropriate for the video by using a Sepia filter in After Effects.

The titler in Premiere Pro did all I needed and did so more easily than the one in Vegas Video, in my opinion. For this kind of film I don’t like a lot of transitions or effects. The basic crossfade was perfect for my needs. I used it at default settings most of the time and stretched it out a little longer for a few changes.

It looks like Adobe Creative Suite Production Premium will become my go to toolset for editing video on my Mac.

Lewis Studios is changing, sort of

After many years of producing GroupWise utilities, Lewis Studios is going back to its original business and, with that, this site is changing. To our software customers, don’t worry, we still provide GroupWise utilities on this site and still support the software you may have purchased from us such as the GroupWise Automatic Print Utility. Go to the Software page to find the software. Note that some items have been removed for lack of demand. In particular no one was using the Outlook 2000 or Lotus Organizer migration tools anymore so we retired them.

Did you ever wonder why a small software programming company was named “Lewis Studios”? It is not because of the elegant design of our user experience — these are basic utility programs often only used once by a given user. Lewis Studios was originally launched as a photo and video business. Since it was already a business with bank accounts and other business essentials, it became a convenient way to manage the finances of our small side business producing software.

Our focus is now shifting back to photo and film making services, specifically for marketing and training productions, along with marketing services ranging from strategy to partner programs to web design and content marketing.

We are excited about this return to media and story telling and hope you follow us on this journey.

Scott Lewis
Lewis Studios