What is it?
Avid Pro Tools | Carbon is a DSP-based audio interface/DAW system that brings many of the advantages of Pro Tools HDX at a lower price point.
Latency-free recording. Seamless integration into Pro Tools. Mix and match DSP and Native plugins. All preamplifier, monitoring and other interface parameters are stored in the Pro Tools session. Excellent quality pre- and headphone amplifiers.
Might be too expensive for some. Mac only (for now) and requires MacOS Catalina or better. No separate control panel/mixer for use with other DAWs.
The bottom line:
A welcome return by Avid hardware to the project studio market with a system that avoids all that mucking about with separate mixer software.
While Avid has often dabbled in the project studio interface market, these products have never really provided the advantages that a full Pro Tools HDX system brings—namely, predictable DSP usage and latency-free recording built right into the software. Pro Tools | Carbon’s ‘hybrid’ system finally delivers HDX-style workflows in a more affordable package. You can also use the hardware as a CoreAudio device, but as there is no separate software for configuration, its usefulness might be limited.
Equipment: Build quality
The 1U high Pro Tools | Carbon interface is powered by an internal Power supply via an IEC mains cable. It’s beautifully built and feels extremely sturdy. The first thing you notice is the four (!) independently assignable headphone jacks on the front panel—which is a clear indication of the applications Carbon is for. It’s a network-based system using the Audio Video Bridging (AVB) protocol, so your Mac will need either an inbuilt Ethernet port or an Apple-certified Thunderbolt adapter—not all third-party ones will work.
Tantalisingly, there is a second port on the back of the interface that hints at expansion, but for now, this is limited to two ADAT connections. On the rear there are eight analog inputs/microphone preamplifiers on XLR/TRS combo sockets with phase swap and phantom powering abilities, four of which have variable input impedance. Outputs are on a DB25 socket and another of these provides eight ‘alternate’ inputs—and you can mix and match how you connect these up. The main Monitor outputs are on TRS sockets, while the front panel features an on/off switch with indicators for network connections, clocking security and a brace of nine- segment level meters.
Two unbalanced variable impedance instrument inputs are located here and there’s a talkback microphone with a momentary button—which can also be activated from a footswitch connected to a socket on the rear panel. Three sets of monitors can be selected from the front panel and there’s a programmable Dim button. The unit can also be controlled via the Hardware setup section of Pro Tools and I suspect most users will use this in preference to fiddling about with the hardware—and some parameters can only be accessed from there.
The preamplifiers on the Pro Tools | Carbon are excellent and easily up to the standards of my go to network-based interface, the Metric Halo ULN-2. Like UAD’s Thunderbolt-based Apollo system (when using the Luna DAW), you don’t need a separate mixer application with Pro Tools. Both Apollo and Pro Tools | Carbon can process latency-free plug-ins on DSP hardware but it’s much easier to engage low-latency recording in the latter system, as engaging DSP mode cascades any processing ‘downstream’ if the Track has multiple sends and auxes. When DSP and Native versions of plug-ins are available, Pro Tools will utilise the correct versions depending on if you have selected DSP processing or not. DSP resources are assigned only when required—you don’t ‘eat them up’, so they are always available for recording at whatever stage you are in a project.
Equipment: daily use
To get the system up and running, all that is required is to connect the Pro Tools | Carbon unit to the Mac via the supplied Ethernet cable and set it as the audio system in Pro Tools. To assign a Track (Audio, Auxiliary Input, Instrument, Routing Folder or Master Fader) to the DSP chips, you just engage a small ‘lightning bolt’ icon, so it turns green. Once this is done, all processing and routing on that Track is undertaken on Pro Tools | Carbon hardware. This allows for latency free monitoring and plug-in processing—which is perfect for ‘printing’ effects when recording. Only specially configured DSP-ready AAX plug-ins can be assigned to hardware resources, but you can freely utilise ‘native’ plug-ins as well.
Pro Tools | Carbon has fewer DSP ‘slots’ available than a HDX system, but in practice I didn’t find this a limitation for recording a typical band and undertaking some small ensemble orchestral overdubs. The input/output latency time using DSP Mode is 1ms or less, so there’s no more messing about with buffers or disabling plug-ins when you want to add one more guitar solo. The variable impedance inputs are a brilliant addition, allowing you to dial in just the right tones for guitar and bass.
Equipment: The Bottom Line
Pro Tools | Carbon is the system that many Pro Tools users have been eagerly awaiting, bringing the advantages of the more expensive HDX rigs to project studio pockets. The implementation of latency free monitoring and DSP plug-in use is very simple to use and doesn’t get in the way of a recording workflow. Being able to set up latency free monitoring directly within Pro Tools emphasises how clumsy working with most audio interfaces is, and the quality of the interfaces’ inputs doesn’t get in the way—though you can easily drop in eight channels of 500 series preamplifiers via DB25 if you wish! If you’re a Pro Tools user looking for an audio interface, this is the one you’ll want to get.