Red Dog Music | Oct 9, 2018 | 0
The Focusrite ISA 430 mkII – a channel strip for the ages!
Let’s be upfront about this, the Focusrite ISA 430 mkII is not new. Well, in an industry where we lust after equipment from the 50s, 60s and 70s, I suppose it is. In realistic terms though, it’s not. Sound on Sound reviewed the ISA 430mkII in 2004 (and what a glowing review it got!). I’m such a big fan though, I thought it was worth talking about it again.
While I have never owned a 430, I did own an ISA 220 and I regret ever selling it (but I just had to have that Blues Junior then and there!). The ISA 430 mkII is a lot like that, but a whole lot more! Let’s take a look at what the ISA 430 offers…
Focusrite ISA 430 mkII features
The Focusrite ISA 430mkII really does offer a comprehensive set of features for both tracking, and then again at mixdown. Let’s start from the beginning of the signal chain, with the preamp and input section. To begin with, you get a choice of mic, line and instrument inputs. The 430 mkII gives you a range of input impedances to match with your microphone of choice.
The input section gives you coarse and fine gain controls, phantom power, polarity inversion and an ‘air’ switch to add in an inductor-based circuit to add even more tonal variety before you need to think about reaching for the eq.
When you do reach for the eq though, what a great eq to reach for! With sweepable high and low-pass filters, two fully parametric bands and low and high shelf eq – with separate bypass controls for each section – the ISA 430mkII eq section is versatile and musical: a great option for both gentle tone-sculpting or for mixdown problem solving.
The dynamics section of the 430 mkII gives you a compressor, gate/expander and a phase cancellation-based de-esser: the fundamental tools you want to clean up that take and get it sitting properly in the mix. Very usefully, the compressor section features a blend control for quick and easy parallel compression in the one box.
The compressor section also offers a choice of compressor designs. The first mode is a feed-forward VCA design, giving a more ‘modern’ sound, but engage the ‘Vintage’ button and the compressor changes to an optical feed-back topology.
The front panel of the ISA 430mkII might look a little busy – there are certainly enough controls on there! – but the way it is broken up into individual sections makes it quite easy to navigate. The reason there are so many controls is not just down to the number of sections and the versatility of what each section offers, but also the way you can order the sections for even more control, and the ability to hear what you’re actually doing to your audio. Want to place the compressor before or after the eq? No problem. Want to hear what the de-esser is taking out? Just hit the ‘De-Ess Listen’ button.
And all of this is before you even get to the optional AD conversion card, and the enhanced functionality that the flexible I/O on the back panel gives you. With an insert point between the preamp and the subsequent sections, and a further one that can be ‘moved around’ between the different sections of the unit, giving you the flexibility to patch in what you need where you need it to be. There are so many ways to use the ISA 430 mkII, I’ll just refer you to the wonderful block diagrams of pages, 10, 11 and 12 of the manual!
How can a Focusrite ISA 430 mkII fit into YOUR studio?
There are a number of reasons you might want to put an ISA 430 mk II in your studio. Let’s start with the solo artist/producer who records one part or instrument at a time. Chances are, you’ll only be looking at one preamp in your studio. That being the case, you’ll want one that sounds great all of the time. Yes, warmth and colouration are great, but you might not want that on every sound you record. Being a very ‘transparent’ preamplifier, the ISA 430mkII gets you recorded with the most pristine sound, which gives you the flexibility to add additional saturation and ‘warmth’ the the specific channels that need it.
Maybe you mix predominantly in software with plugins, but have some spare inputs and outputs on your interface and like the idea of adding some analogue outboard processing. With the flexibility of the back panel I/O on the 430mkII, you can use the eq and the compressor sections independently to process two different tracks. So, with one box, you get an eq and a choice of two compressors, with a free mic preamp and instrument DI included!
What about if your pro studio wants a selection of preamps and outboard for tracking and mixing. If you’re all about putting together a first-class pro studio, then you need an ISA preamp in your rack. Which one you want will come down to how you want to work. If you solely want the Focusrite preamp sound for tracking, then the ISA 428 or 828 may be more appropriate, but if you want to have outboard that pays for itself during the mix as well, then the 430 mkII is well-deserving of 2U of your space!
The Focusrite ISA 430 mkII really is a professional piece of gear. It’s not just that it sounds great, it’s also that it was designed with thought about how people might want to use it. The on-board feature set is already hugely impressive, but the way it offers such flexibility is what makes this such a top-level product. With a good microphone, this preamp and a good interface, you’ll never need to worry that your studio front end is a weak link in the chain, but the way you can tap the eq and dynamics processors means that you get a very useful tool come mixdown time.
I don’t want to keep going on about it, but I really like this unit and have 2U put aside for it, there might be an amp for sale soon… unless the wonderful and gorgeous people at Focusrite are feeling generous of course…
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