Last year in late November my family sang Away in a Manger together, and my wife commented on how good we sounded with the kids making up their own harmonies. She suggested that we should record it for our Christmas card and email it out to our friends and family.
I said, “Then we need a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface!” She was taken aback at my sudden and specific declaration. So I showed her the website on my phone, which I happened to have open. “See? It’s The Best Selling USB Audio Interface in the World!”
“It sounds like you’ve been looking at this for a while,” she deduced, correctly.
“But clearly we really need one,” I insisted.
So it was settled, and I ordered it within the next week. It cost $151.19 from the Focusrite website, which I thought was a reasonable price. When it arrived we recorded our song and sent it out to our family and friends. The Scarlett 2i2 performed like a champ, and I was pleased with the sound quality of its input. Here is our recording:
A bit of back story: Through the early 2000’s I used my computer’s sound card as my audio input, with variable results. “Lint in my Pocket” and “Aurelia Aurita” were probably the worst results, as the dying old sound card produced a lot of crackling and popping on the recording. The other New Folder recordings were better because I had a new computer with a healthier sound card, and the early tracks from Lost and Found were better still because I started paying attention to the noise level and applying a graphic equalizer to filter out the worst of it. But right when I felt like my recording technique was starting to mature, three things happened to derail me for a decade: 1) Medical education took over my life like a cancer, sucking up all of my free time and strangling all of my hobbies, 2) my wife and I had a bunch of kids, and 3) I migrated to Linux.
The first two of these were certainly more important, but the third one was not inconsequential. I have been tinkering with Linux since 2000, and in about 2006 I made it my primary platform for home computing. I was a poor student, and Free Software was also generally free software. But audio on desktop Linux can be a bit temperamental, and I never could get my audio inputs working the way they worked on Windows or OS X. I did manage to use Linux applications to make music (the drum part from “Rising Sun” was programmed on Hydrogen, and I started playing with LMMS in about 2012), but these don’t require audio input to work. What I really wanted was to record guitar on Linux, and I didn’t have a good way to do that.
Enter the Scarlett 2i2. From what I read online, it was a low-latency USB audio interface with good Linux support. Several people on Linux audio discussion forums reported that the device worked for them, including a few using a software environment similar to mine (for the record: Linux Mint 17.1, Linux kernel 3.13.0-37-generic, Audacity 2.0.5, JACK 5, QjackCtl 0.4.5, Ardour 5.11.4).
I should add a disclaimer here that I am neither a sound engineer nor a software engineer. I am a mere hobbyist in both realms, knowing only enough to be dangerous, and I am really not an expert. But what my story lacks in authority it makes up for in authenticity, and hopefully some other mere mortal out there will be encouraged to learn that a knucklehead like me was able to figure this out. I will assume that you know the basics about JACK, and that you can install software packages on your system.
Using the Scarlett with Audacity
When the box arrived in the mail I eagerly opened it and plugged the Scarlett 2i2 in, but it took me a few minutes to figure out how to use it. For some reason I was expecting it to appear as an input/output device in JACK, and I was confused when nothing appeared in the qjackctl connections window. After a few minutes of poking around I stopped the JACK server and opened Audacity, which is my fall-back standalone audio application in Linux. JACK is nice, and is very powerful, but I admit that its full capabilities are a bit beyond me and I am really happy when I can just get it to work at all. But Audacity I can understand. All of its functionality is in one application, and no supporting software is required. I realize that the all-in-one approach is not very Unix-y but I am more of a pragmatist than a purist when it comes to software.
Audacity has its audio I/O configuration right on the menu bar, and the Scarlett 2i2 showed up in the drop-down menu automagically! I don’t like to use Audacity for big projects, but I used it for “Away in a Manger” because it worked and because I was in a hurry to get this song recorded before Christmas.
Using it with JACK
When I recorded the guitar parts for “Alpha” I wanted to use Ardour, which is a more serious tool. This is where I had to buckle down and figure out how to get the Scarlett 2i2 working on JACK. After reading several forums I stumbled upon the solution 2 or 3 screens into a comment thread, which described a setting buried deep in the qjackctl Setup configuration dialog, on the Advanced tab (see images). The Scarlett 2i2 shows up in the drop-down menu on the “Output Device” and “Input Device” settings.
Using it with Ardour
Next I had to connect the Scarlett 2i2 input to the Ardour track I wanted to record into. This took a bit of poking around and consulting the Ardour reference manual, but it turned out to be as simple as choosing “Inputs…” from the menu which appears when you right-click on the track name. This opens a new window, where you simply choose the “capture_1” input, as shown in the screen shot.
Quirks and Other Observations
While I had the Scarlett 2i2 designated as the input and output device in Jack and listened with my headphones plugged into the monitor output on the Scarlett it worked beautifully, but if I set the output device as the computer’s soundcard then I had intolerable latency. I don’t have external speakers on my computer (an all-in-one Dell Inspiron), so if I want to hear the song through the computer speakers I have to reconfigure JACK. This is easy to do by saving a configuration preset in qjackctl. Maybe I will invest in a set of external monitor speakers to plug into the Scarlett 2i2 so that I don’t have to dig through the settings every time I want to record something.
The overall verdict: The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is an awesome and affordable device which works well in a Linux environment once you learn how to configure JACK. It is now an indispensible part of my home studio, and I can’t imagine how I ever recorded without it.
Note: The device described in this post is a 2nd generation Scarlett 2i2.
Episode 2 of the Conversations in Stereo podcast.
An optimistic outlook for the year.
A synth R&B track about goals and aspirations
Tom and Alan talk about their motivations for home recording and give a travelogue of sorts for how they got into the hobby.