Focusrite's Scarlett and Saffire interfaces have been adopted by many professional and home recording artists and producers across the world. Given their price, the quality of the preamps and converters on these units have made them into two of the most popular interface ranges ever! However, whilst the Scarlett line has seen a number of new models introduced recently, the Saffire range has remained largely the same for a good few years now. So, with the newer Scarlett models providing USB 2.0 alternatives to many of the interfaces in the Saffire range, does this mean that the Saffires are edging closer towards discontinuation? Read on and we'll bust the myths and explain the differences between these popular lines...
Ok, so the first thing to note is that having spoken to Focusrite, the Saffire range isn't going anywhere. Whilst USB speeds have increased dramatically during the last few years and Firewire is slowly being phased out in place of the lightning-fast Thunderbolt protocol, Saffire interfaces most certainly still have their place in the modern market.
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For those using a Mac computer, the prospect of using Firewire over USB 2.0 is still an attractive one. Although in practice you're probably not going to notice any differences in transfer speeds between USB 2.0 and Firewire without performing scientific measurements, it's no secret that Firewire works super smoothly on Mac computers. Whilst USB data has to make a rather more laborious trek through your computer, Firewire data bypasses your computer's CPU in order to speed up transfer times. Now, as I mentioned, in practice this is unlikely to cause any differences in latency that are detectable by the human ear, but there will still be Mac users out there that like knowing that a Saffire interface is performing just that little bit faster than the Scarlett USB 2.0 equivalent.
On top of this, those worried about the demise of Firewire in favour of the faster Thunderbolt protocol will be relieved to learn that all Saffire interfaces are Thunderbolt-compatible. Therefore, if your computer only has Thunderbolt connections, all you will need to do is purchase an appropriate Apple adapter. However, just to be clear, this doesn't mean that the Saffire interface will then function at Thunderbolt speeds; it will still only work at Firewire speeds, but this compatibility means that the Saffire is future-proof and will not become redundant with the Thunderbolt technological progression.
SCARLETT vs SAFFIRE RANGE
The Saffire Firewire range is made up of the Pro 14, Pro 24, Pro 24 DSP, Pro 40 and Liquid Saffire 56, all of which supply a varying number of inputs and outputs to suit different project sizes. The Pro 14, Pro 24 and Pro 24 DSP are all bus powered (i.e. they can be powered from a Firewire connection to your computer), whereas the Pro 40 and Liquid Saffire 56 require a mains connection due to their larger design.
The Scarlett USB 2.0 range consists of the 2i2, 2i4, 6i6, 18i8 and 18i20. Generally, each Scarlett interface has a Saffire equivalent that is similar in terms of size and specs, so whether you prefer a Firewire or a USB interface, you can be sure that there is a suitable model for you.
Some things to consider though are that the Scarlett interfaces are less friendly when it comes to being bus powered. In fact, only the 2i2 and 2i4 in the Scarlett range are capable of being bus powered, with every other Scarlett model requiring a connection to a mains source in order to work.
Another point that you might want to consider is that Saffire interfaces are currently a little bit cheaper in price compared to their newer Scarlett equivalents, so if you're on a budget and are using a Mac (or a PC with a stable Firewire card) or are looking for more features for your money, then a Saffire interface may well be more appropriate. Let's look at some examples...
The Firewire Saffire Pro 14 is very similar in terms of features to the USB 2.0 Scarlett 6i6. Although the 6i6 features a second headphone output for running two pairs of cans at once (useful if you want to monitor a recording whilst feeding a second mix to a vocalist who is simultaneously recording a take), the Saffire Pro 14 is currently a full £40 less than the 6i6, so if you don't require an additional headphone output and have a reliable Firewire card in your computer, then the Pro 14 could end up saving you a significant amount of money.
Then there's the Saffire Pro 24, which also closely resembles the Scarlett 6i6. For example, both interfaces feature two headphone outputs, two microphone preamps, two additional line inputs, S/PDIF in and out and a similar number of analogue outputs (the 6i6 has 4 and the Saffire Pro 24 has 6). Both are currently priced the same, but the Saffire Pro 24 features an optical connection, which allows you to add an extra 8 inputs to your set-up by hooking it up to a device such as a Focusrite Octopre or Octopre Dynamic.
Then there's the Saffire Pro 24 DSP, which is somewhat unique compared to all the other interfaces in both the Saffire and Scarlett ranges because it has built-in compression, EQ and reverb, which can be applied to tracks and recordings in order to lessen the burden on your computer's CPU caused by using software plug-ins. Plus, the Saffire Pro 24 DSP features a very cool built-in feature called VRM...
VRM uses special algorithms in order to allow you to hear your mix through your headphones as if you were listening through a pair of speakers in front of you! This allows you to make more informed decisions when mixing through headphones (which many home-studio owners may find themselves doing due to noise level constraints or having to mix on a laptop outside of their normal studio environment).
One of the main problems with mixing through headphones is that any stereo sonic phenomena are heard in an unnatural, exaggerated way. For example, if you hard-pan something to the left, you will only hear this sound in your left ear due to the enclosed nature of the ear-pieces. If, on the other hand, you listen to a hard-panned sound through speakers, although you will be able to ascertain that the sound is only emanating from one speaker due to a more direct sound travelling to one ear, you will actually be hearing the sound in both of your ears due to the sound spreading out in the air and bouncing off nearby surfaces.
VRM technology models the way you hear when listening to music through speakers by recreating spacial phenomena in your headphones, so it sounds like you're listening through a pair of speakers even though you're just wearing headphones. Of course, you don't have to use this feature if you don't want to, but it's useful to one have at your disposal should you require it.
The second thing that VRM is useful for is to allow you to reference your mix on multiple systems very cheaply and easily. Listening back to your mix through as many different systems as possible is an important part of the mixing process, because different systems will highlight different problems in your mix. The VRM software works in combination with the hardware to allow you to choose different speakers and environments in which to listen to your mix. Using special algorithms, you can then hear how your mix sounds in different situations. For example, you can listen to how your mix would sound when listening to your track in a living room through television speakers. Or, you can hear how your track would sound in a professional, acoustically-treated studio though a pair of expensive monitors. There are plenty of choices contained within the VRM program, which allows you to get a really good idea of how your mix will sound in pretty much any situation. The only thing that you have to bear in mind is that you'll need a decent pair of headphones with a flat response in order to get the best out of VRM as using a cheaper pair will colour the sound, which will lead you to making ill-informed mix decisions.
Although the Saffire Pro 24 DSP is the only interface in both ranges to have VRM built-in, if this is a feature that you are interested in then you will be pleased to know that you can purchase VRM functionality separately with the Focusrite VRM Box. The VRM Box can be used as an interface on its own or combined with any other interface with an S/PDIF output.
Whilst we're on the subject of interfaces with unique features, we would be foolish not to explain a bit more about the Liquid Saffire 56, which again does not have a USB 2.0 twin. The Liquid Saffire 56 is currently the most expensive interface out of both the Scarlett and Saffire ranges due to its vast range of connectivity (8 inputs, 10 analogue outputs, S/PDIF in and out, MIDI in and out, 16 channels of ADAT I/O and two headphone outputs) and its secret weapon: those two Liquid preamps.
Having a Liquid preamp is like having a selection of professional microphone preamps in your studio to choose from, each with their own character in order to give that desired sheen to your recording. The Liquid preamps on the Saffire 56 can be set to model a choice of 10 classic preamps, including the Neve 1073, the Pultec MB-1 and Telefunken V72. You can even control the harmonics of the Liquid pres, which allows you to refine the sound to your tastes, whilst still retaining the character of the preamp model that you chose.
Ok, so let's move back to talk about the ranges in a more general way and another feature that all Saffire interfaces have that none of the Scarlett interfaces possess is what Focusrite call 'virtual loopback inputs'. This is a handy feature if you want to sample audio from another application on your computer as it allows you to route a signal from any application directly into your DAW and then record it if necessary. Sure, there are separate programs that you can download on your computer to achieve this same thing, but they usually require you to alter your audio preferences and disable your audio interface in order to use them, which does make things a little more fiddly.
In terms of the Scarlett vs Saffire debate, the main thing that sets them apart is that the Saffire range uses the Firewire protocol, whereas the Scarlett range makes use of USB 2.0. Therefore, this should always be your primary concern when purchasing as there are no differences in audio quality between the ranges as they make use of the same components. If you've got a PC then I would almost certainly recommend plumping for a Scarlett over a Saffire, because Firewire can be notoriously temperamental with PCs, unless you've got a decent Firewire card. If you own a Mac on the other hand, where both Firewire/Thunderbolt and USB should run seamlessly, then you have a few more things to take into consideration...
Firstly, you should compare the specs of all the Saffire and Scarlett interfaces (CLICK HERE to view a handy comparison chart). As I've already mentioned, although there are many similarities between some Scarlett and Saffire models, you may still find slight differences that might sway your decision. So, if for example you are considering whether you should opt for a Saffire Pro 40 or Scarlett 18i20, you need to ask yourself questions such as whether you would find the virtual loopback channels of the Pro 40 useful.
If you're still stuck between a Scarlett and a Saffire interface then there are some final things that you might want to consider, such as how many spare USB and Firewire ports you have. It may sound obvious but if you're running low on Firewire ports on your computer, but have plenty of USB ports available, then a Scarlett will probably integrate better with your set-up. Alternatively, if you're using a USB back-up drive then you might want to consider a Firewire/Thunderbolt Saffire interface (if possible) in order to avoid conflicts on the USB bus (although this isn't worth losing too much sleep over as most people won't have any problems with this at all).
Another small point to think about before buying is that Firewire is not hot-swappable, whereas USB is. By this, I mean that if you accidentally unplug your USB interface whilst your computer is on, you don't risk damaging your equipment. If you do this with a Firewire device on the other hand, you could potentially fry your computer's Firewire card and/or damage your interface. Now, I don't want this to scare you, but rather act as advice! If you're working from a home studio where your interface stays connected most of the time and isn't likely to get knocked then Firewire should be perfectly safe. However, if you have a rather clumsy nature or use your interface in situations where it could potentially take a knock and become disconnected, then a Scarlett interface should give you more peace of mind.
Having covered the main technical considerations, if you're still unsure about which interface to go for then you've reached the stage where you can just pick the one you like the look of best! Whether you prefer the more old-skool look of the Saffires or the sleeker, more modern rounded edges of the Scarletts will be a purely personal opinion.
If you would like to make accurate specification comparisons between any Focusrite interface, Focusrite have compiled an extremely handy chart, which lets you see all the main specifications of an interface (including number of inputs and outputs) at a glance. You can also apply your own filter in order to narrow down your search based on your specifications so it's a great tool for finding the right product for your needs.
I hope this article has helped you but if you still require any advice or have any questions about buying an interface, then feel free to give our experts a call on 01202 597180, click the links below, or e-mail [email protected].