| | Focusrite ISA428
|Ease of use||5|
|Bang for buck||5|
Overall: 4.5 |
Reviews on preamps tend to focus on sonic qualities which naturally sit at the forefront of any purchase decision. With the ISA 428 users can be assured of a clean, sweet, low noise, high bandwidth signal path, with the benefit of a variable high pass filter and switchable mic impedance, allowing a significant degree of corrective and even creative tone shaping. Switchable phantom power, insert, phase reverse, and a reasonably reactive VU meter on each of the 4 preamps are augmented by a simple but usable peak LED display on the right hand side of the unit, and 4 individual instrument (DI) inputs to the left. It's built like a tank too, with robust pots and switches for day in day out usage.
On its own, 4 channels of high quality preamp, for the kind of price the ISA428 hit the street at might already be considered good bang for buck, but looking around the back of the unit reveals a device that actually looks a little more like a mixer than a preamp, and greatly elevates both value and utility. Mic inputs on XLR; line inputs on 1/4"; insert send and return for each channel on 1/4"; line output on XLR; and if you choose to fit the optional 8 channel AD convertor, access to further 4 line level ADC inputs; two ADAT outputs; two AES outputs on 9 pin D-Sub (one switchable to SPDIF) and BNC wordclock in and out - and all audio connections bar the DI's are balanced.
Taken in sum, between the sonic quality and industrial grade connectivity the ISA428 is an incredibly flexible unit which can live comfortably at the heart of any DAW based system. If your preference is for ITB monitoring, it gives you a great front end, with the switchable balanced inserts interfacing with your dynamics and tone boxes. Add the digital option - with its very respectable quality AD convertor, and you can plumb up to 4 more preamps - or another ISA428 - straight into your ADAT equipped audio interface, with the SMUX facility allowing conversion rates up to 96K for all 8 channels.
If however, like this author, you are not a fan of ITB monitoring, then the ISA428's extensive connectivity really is manna from heaven. You can use the balanced insert sends as auxiliary outputs to a mixer, while the main outputs for each channel feed your interface ... or if you want to access other gear, you can use the inserts as intended for outboard, and use the digital board for conversion, and the main outputs for monitoring. Hook it up to a patchbay and you can really take full advantage of its flexibility.
Although superseded by the ISA428 MKII, the original misses little over its new sibling, indeed many will find the VU meters on the ISA428 more pleasing to the eye against the somewhat spartan look of the MKII. When the discussion is centred around often highly subjective sonic qualities and character, the ISA428 might lose out against more esoteric brethren. Yet viewed within the context of its mixer like connectivity and AD expansion it integrates snugly at the heart of any DAW based system delivering great sound and functionality. Personally I was so impressed I bought a pair: highly recommended!
|Ease of use||4|
|Bang for buck||3|
Overall: 3.25 || |
Sleek Look, Slim Sounds
The modern Focusrite company just can't win. Despite consistently offering, in my opinion, some of the better bang-for-your-buck gear aimed at the home/amateur recordist in recent years. On occasion they've released products that, given their price point, were incredible: "Wow! I can't believe how great this sounds for 199 bucks!" But that doesn't matter because to some Focusrite will always be remembered for their original ISA 110/130, a truly awe-inspiring design, and their adoption of a more, ahem, consumer model is always going to be seen as a major sell-out. In the modern age devices like the Saffire range continue to defy what is possible at a given price point.
Unfortunately, this is not the ISA428 story.
It's an okay preamp. It has some decent options, including variable impedance with its "ISA 110 Mode" (yeah, right), a very usable, ripple-free high pass filter with a good range (up to 420hz), phantom power, 4 DI's with handy front plugs, a gain switch, trim control, push button insert, built in soft limiter for hotheads and noobs--all good stuff. Build quality is decent enough, and the ergonomics are excellent; only a nimrod would get lost on this clean layout. Additional options, like AD conversion with up to 192khz was pretty cutting edge for when it debuted.
All very handy, this was a good design brief. However, if you've ever spent much time using a Saffire you'll be familiar with what to expect sonically; as clearly the Saffire was a cost-cutting spinoff of the 428. It's not that the preamp is terrible, because it's not.... it's just too middle-of-the-road in every category to really inspire. The frequency spectrum is pretty well-balanced and represented, and the high frequency handling is certainly better than most (most preamps sound "dark" compared to the 428), the low end is okay... nothing special but its there. Midrange is a bit "hazy" in my opinion. But there's just no distinction to the whole affair. It lacks the "stupidly squeaky clean" feel of a Millenia, the transparency of a GML (okay, not fair... we'll say Grace), the size of a Neve, the punch of an API.... It's most distinguishing feature is its ability to be undistinguished. Okay, if I had to give it a character I'd say "bright"; on the flip-side I'd say it can often sound anemic... it's definitely not helping, I don't think it was hurting.
That being said, if you can't get decent sounds don't blame the preamp. This is a prosumer grade preamp and it can yield professional results in the right hands. A word of warning: even though it comes equipped with a soft limiter to prevent digital overs you don't want to push this preamp that hard--leave it some headroom, as it doesn't saturate as much as "pinch." This is a preamp you want to keep in its zone, which is admittedly fairly wide (although it lacks a sweet spot). In all fairness, there is one particular application I liked the ISA428 on--drum overheads when pretty much I was looking for "cymbals only", in which case the HP filter came in useful. Admittedly, I'd never buy them for this purpose--personally I'd use Focusrite Reds which I find to be pretty acceptable pre's; or really splurge and get an original 110 in a 4 rack (albeit hopefully with a rebuilt PS).
Now if these had debuted around 1200 dollars instead of 1600 to 1800 dollars it may have been a better deal. Well, there wasn't much competition in that price range really when it came out. However, within a few years there was PLENTY. Quite frankly, most things considered, the 428 was often the least impressive thing you could buy for that kind of money towards the end of its product cycle.
Bottom Line: at the end of the day all the features in the world cannot save you from its middling sound. Probably a good deal if you can track one down for your home or project studio for 800-900 bucks. It's not terrible, but there are so many better options out there these days I just can't imagine anyone getting too excited about these. I honestly believe they have no place in a professional "finishing" studio (i.e. do more than just demo grade stuff, commercial audio, you know--disposable audio). They are, however, better than consumer grade stuff... just not so much greater your wig flips, which can certainly feel like a let down.