Focustrite ISA 220 Mic Pre, EQ, and Dynamics Processor

Discussion in 'Recording/Live Sound' started by LSchefman, Jun 26, 2004.


  1. LSchefman

    LSchefman Supporting Member

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    My ISA 220 arrived today. It does more stuff than my Red 7, and is replacing it. The ISA is part of the "ISA" range, with blue front panels.

    Focusrite makes several ranges, the Red Range, which is great sounding with nicer front panels and knobs, the Blue Range, which is strictly mastering gear, the ISA Range, which uses the Red Range electronics, but has more features and isn't as pretty, and the Platinum Range, which is designed for project studios at a lower price point.



    So here's the rundown:

    -Mic Preamp, true transformer balanced operation, identical to Red Series
    -Line Preamp, same as Red Series
    -Instrument Preamp (direct box)
    -True Class A operation with discrete transistors
    -Rupert Neve-designed EQ with high and lowpass filters, parametric EQ, and shelving EQ, each switchable into or out of the circuit, and either pre-compression or post-compression
    -Compressor
    -Limiter
    -De-esser
    -24/96 Digital I/O (stereo, in case you want to use its converters for a stereo mix, and user-upgradeable)

    So, all this stuff, and of course, it arrived the day AFTER I had two vocal recording sessions. LOL. Figures.

    I'll try it with acoustic guitars until my next vocal session.

    However, I'm pretty confident I'll like it based on how I feel about the Red 7, which incorporates the same mic preamp and compression circuit.

    I wasn't surprised to hear that the ISA 220 is the mic pre/dynamics box used on the new Sting record with Blue mics. I feel that for some reason, the Blue products match up well with this preamp circuit. But I was surprised to find out that they also used it as their direct box of choice for Sting's bass, so that's something I really want to check out.

    And I have a bass session coming up on Tuesday! ;)
     
  2. LSchefman

    LSchefman Supporting Member

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    Well, I was too lazy to do any fresh recording, so I used the line level input to use the box on some acoustic guitar I recorded yesterday. I had done this recording using the mic preamps on my console (Tascam M-600, 64 inputs, 16 busses, split console format), and using an inexpensive - no make that cheap!- Oktava mic.

    The ISA 220's compressor gave the track a warmth, immediacy, and clarity that reminded me immediately of the acoustic guitar tracks on Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers'. I clicked on the parametric EQ, set the "Q" about in the middle, and boosted 12 K by about 2 db. The character of the track changed only subtly; there was a bit more air and crispness.

    It was how I'd wish all my EQs and compressors sounded. It had "that" sound. Hard to beat Rupert Neve at the top of his game. It made the track recorded with the inexpensive mic, and my console's less-than-stellar mic preamp sound fantastic. My Collings sounded like the expensive guitar that it is.

    Then I copied the track, and used the Waves Renaissance EQ and Compressor, two software compressors I've liked and used on drum and guitar tracks in the past. I'm not huge on software plug-ins when good hardware is available, but hey, I've only got so much coin, and what works, works! Anyway, I could flip back and forth between the two tracks, and the two processors, on my console.

    I matched the settings, the Q, everything as best as I could, both by comparing the settings, and by ear.

    As you might expect, there were differences, but they were much greater than I thought they'd be. The ISA 220 tracks were lifelike and 3D, with a palpable quality to each pick attack, etc. There was a warmth, but at the same time, great detail. It sounded like a beautiful recording done in a pro studio with a great mic.

    The Waves plug in tracks were undefined and cardboardy by comparison. This was not subtle; it sounded like completely different source material. The Collings sounded like any old guitar, and the delicious quality imparted by the ISA 220 was completely gone.

    As soon as I get some energy together, I'll record the guitar through the ISA 220's mic preamp, and let you know how that one works.

    One bad thing about the unit: the lettering on the front panel is tiny, and it's white on gray in the signal processing sections. I can hardly read it.
     
  3. MichaelK

    MichaelK Member

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    Good review! BTW, I've heard from a bass player who has a Focusrite Red compressor that it's terrific on bass. I never used one, meself.

    I love the Waves plugs, but I would expect exactly those results from a comparison with Focusrite hardware.
     
  4. LSchefman

    LSchefman Supporting Member

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    >>Good review! BTW, I've heard from a bass player who has a Focusrite Red compressor that it's terrific on bass. I never used one, meself.<<

    I've used one on bass with my Red 7 and a direct box. Very round, thick, and present.
     
  5. Scott Peterson

    Scott Peterson Staff Member

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    Very cool and detailed review - sounds like a winner to me.

    The platinum range gets pooped on alot on various forums; but I got some great results from the Voicemaster Pro I had.

    The ISA stuff is very very nice. Congrats and post some followup once you record more!
     
  6. LSchefman

    LSchefman Supporting Member

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    >>The platinum range gets pooped on alot on various forums; but I got some great results from the Voicemaster Pro I had. <<

    My two cents:

    Many of the people who diss the Platinum range aren't actually listening to the gear, they want to brag about their BS high end modules, which in many cases, quite honestly don't sound as good.

    I've worked with a LOT of old Neve and Telefunken modules, and most of them sound like absolute crap, because they're old and not working right. What most people don't know is that transistors age, just like tubes, and of course, old tube circuits need to be maintained every now and then.

    Even the ones that work right are highly colored; that, after all, is the reason that they are still sought after.

    First of all, the mic preamps in the Platinum range are all fully discrete, not ICs. That alone is amazing for the price. Are they transormer balanced? No, they're electrically balanced, like 99% of the very high end gear out there is anyway, but they sound quite good, open, and clean.

    If it seems like I have an axe to grind, I honestly don't, since I've never owned a Platinum Range piece of gear. However, I have heard them, and I've always been extremely impressed with what they can do for the money.

    I honestly believe that the channel strip you're using competes with most high end gear, and as Roger Nichols says, the stuff you can buy for relative peanuts these days would have been to DIE for just a few short years ago.

    It's the same old thing, like the people who don't like the Korean PRSs because they somehow "dilute" the cachet of the expensive ones.

    If I ever replace my console with a digital board, which I may do at some point, I would probably pick up a few of the Platinum preamps to augment the more expensive stuff I have.

    Just ask someone who's dissing the Platinum stuff to name something that actually sounds better in that price range. Not just different, but better.

    It's awfully hard to do.
     
  7. MichaelK

    MichaelK Member

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    >> I've always been extremely impressed with what they can do for the money.

    >> Just ask someone who's dissing the Platinum stuff to name something that actually sounds better in that price range. Not just different, but better.

    I agree. They nailed it in that price range and to my knowledge, no one else has.

    I have a Compounder, the Platinum range compressor. There is no better compressor in that price range, hands down. It has its limitations, but the truth is every compressor does.

    >> I honestly believe that the channel strip you're using competes with most high end gear.

    Wellll... the way the circuitry handles high transients and its level of self-noise is where I hear the difference. But I'd put it this way: it's so close that it shouldn't make a damned bit of difference if the music is any good. Analog recordings from 15 years ago have a sh*tload more noise than anything we do today, and they sound great to me. So your statement that it competes is true.
     
  8. LSchefman

    LSchefman Supporting Member

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    I probably shouldn't have said "competes"; I probably should have said, "can hang with."

    As in, "can be quite good sounding in the context of musical tracks and part of the same production without sounding out of place."

    PS - if you want to hear transients rounded off more than current high end gear, and high self noise, pick up an old Telefunken module, and most old Neve modules.

    Or critically listen to a lot of highly regarded, expensive, current tube gear.
     
  9. MichaelK

    MichaelK Member

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    I understood what you meant - I wasn't clear that I was agreeing with you. All I'm saying is, as good as Platinum range is for the money, there's a reason the Red and ISA ranges are about triple the price.
     
  10. LSchefman

    LSchefman Supporting Member

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    >>there's a reason the Red and ISA ranges are about triple the price<<

    Because they're cooler looking! LOL!

    Naaah. It's really because they're transformer-based, etc.
     
  11. jzb

    jzb Member

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    The recent tracking of Bass I did had the following signal chain:

    Bass -> Pedal Board -> DW Fearn Tube DI -> Manley Mic Pre -> Drawmer 1960 compressor -> ADAT.

    I finally got *no* complaints from this particular bassist... he liked what he heard for a change.

    -j
     
  12. LSchefman

    LSchefman Supporting Member

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    Nice signal path! I've used the Manley preamps a lot, and they sound great...very smooth and tasty.

    I've heard good things about the Fearn as well.
     

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