Review: Focusrite ISA One

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


Review: Focusrite ISA One

isa one
Words by Liam McShane

Focusrite Australia | Enquire for pricing

Today we’re revisiting a classic: the Focusrite ISA One. With VST synths and sample replacements for drums becoming commonplace in many projects, bedroom ambition or Billboard mainstay, interfaces with large numbers of preamp inputs are becoming increasingly unnecessary. Those looking to make their recordings sound more professional on a budget are better off putting the money towards high quality gear with fewer inputs, to maximise recording quality where it matters the most, which will predominantly be vocals. 

You could reach this conclusion, go and buy an interface with high-end AD conversion to run a couple of different microphones through and decide that anything more is unnecessary, and achieve great sounding results. Many people have. But what you won’t get is world-class sounding recordings with a sound that you can truly call your own, unlike the stellar audio that Focusrite have been so closely associated with.

Read more gear reviews here.

The arcane knowledge of preamplification marks the cusp of the transition between the hobbyist engineer and the true professional. Starting to match high-end preamps with different microphones is when you stop painting by numbers, it’s when the recording studio really starts to become its own instrument. As fun as this sounds, the romance starts to fade when you realise how much this game costs to play. 

In a Reddit thread asking about how pop artists achieve their “consistent sound”, user Raspberries-Are-Evil writes: “I have worked with Dua Lipa in the past. Her producer was very particular about the vocal chain as well. They wanted a Sony C800 and a Neve 1073 and a Fairchild. I have these items in my studio and they still sent, overnight mind you, this gear because they wanted these specific units”. With a Fairchild 670 recently going for $80,000 on, this would put the price of Dua Lipa’s vocal sound in today’s market at an eye-watering $100,000. This may only be a small price relative to her success worldwide, but for those of us who haven’t quite hit international stardom this presents a dilemma. It’s a kind of catch-22 situation where we are cognizant of the necessity of such gear to let us transcend merely sounding “great”, but also can’t spend time learning to use this gear so we can paint our unique sonic imprints due to the prohibitive cost of entry. 

This is where the ISA One comes in. Focusrite’s ISA One is a portable, rugged preamplifier that gives you world-class circuitry and unmatched versatility at a very accessible price. 

Inside a metal chassis the size of a lunchbox lies the preamp circuit of Focusrite’s ISA 110 preamp, recreated using the same Lundahl LL1538 input transformer as originally designed by the late Rupert Neve for George Martin’s console at AIR Studios. The sloped face of the unit sports a distinctive coat of royal blue with yellow highlights, with a field of controls that are almost overwhelming at first sight. An input button lets you switch between balanced XLR and TRS ports for mic and line level inputs and unbalanced DI instrument input. Standard switches for Phantom Power, Phase, and High-Pass Filter are present, with a button to switch the gain knob’s range of control between 0-30 dB and 30-60 dB gain for mic level input. An Insert button engages the insert circuit that can be patched in via the send and return ports on the rear of the device. A Trim knob offers an additional 20dB of gain for Mic and Line inputs. A button labelled Z In is where things start to get really interesting. Focusrite is deeply aware of the effect of preamp input impedance on the character of a microphone, and have included four levels of input impedance to help shape your sound.

These four impedance levels – 600 Ohms, 1.4k Ohms as in the original ISA 110, 2.4k Ohms and 6.8k Ohms – all achieve different sound characteristics for a given microphone. Lower impedances reduce microphone output and emphasise low-mid peaks and natural resonances of the microphone, whereas high impedances make things louder, brighter, and flatter. This is of particular interest to any ribbon microphone owners. Ribbon microphones are the most sensitive to variances in impedance, and the ISA One has enough gain to power them. Stick your ribbon mic in front of a guitar amp and play around with the ISA One’s input impedances until something magical happens. By giving you the ability to control input impedance, Focusrite is practically handing you the holy grail of electric guitar sounds.

The ISA One comes with an optional A/D conversion card that supports sample rates of up to 192kHz that connects to your DAW via Dante. A clock select button on the right-hand side of the unit lets you switch between different internal sample frequencies all the way up to the 19 kHz maximum, with another button letting you swap between a standard world clock and Dante network clock, with an LED indicating successful synchronisation. The ISA One has an independent headphone amp with dedicated volume control. Cue mix inputs on the rear of the device let you patch in your DAW’s output for real-time monitoring. And right in the middle of the ISA One, beside two LED input meters sits a nice big VU Meter. Lovely!

The ISA 110 preamp circuit has a clear, warm sound. The colouration isn’t as overt as that of some tube-based preamps, but therein lies the key advantage of the unit – you can use the ISA One to record numerous input sources without needing to fear the stacking effects of a colourful preamp used on multiple tracks. You could record an entire album with this thing alone! The portable nature of the ISA One makes it the ideal tool to help you get your own signature sound consistently wherever you go (just like how the very best do it). The versatility and quality of sound offered by the ISA One makes it a truly unique product, the only one of its kind, and represents an opportunity to capture world-class recordings that reflect this uniqueness in kind.

Head to Focusrite for more information.