The Big Review: Avid Pro Tools Carbon

Pro Tools Carbon is Avid’s first true ‘Pro Tools In The Box’ for musicians and producers. Is it the dawn of a new beginning or a false start?

MT VERDICT

+ Near-zero tracking / drop-in latency with onboard Pro Tools DSP
+ Included perpetual Pro Tools software license and 1-year plug-in subscription
+ Exceptional audio quality throughout

– Only works with approved Apple computers and adapters
– Advanced functions only available from Pro Tools
– Provides no software to view, store and recall front panel settings

Pro Tools Carbon successfully brings Avid’s established near-zero latency studio technology to producers and musicians in this pristine audio production interface. But as a premium product exclusive to Mac users, software implementation could be tighter.

REVIEW OVERVIEW

Awesome
7

Price $3999 / £3839
Contact Avid 

Ten years ago, Avid introduced Pro Tools HDX, a state-of-the-art pro recording system with transparent and effortless sub-millisecond latency management, designed for commercial music production facilities. Today, HDX is still at the heart of most professional studios, but fewer productions require large commercial facilities and instead record at home.

Consequently, tracking latency has become a growing issue for professional musicians and producers alike.

Avid Pro Tools Carbon
A slick front panel layout is matched by comprehensive analogue and digital connectivity at the rear. Lack of USB or Thunderbolt connections is proof of AVID’s commitment to the AVB Ethernet protocol.

Pro Tools Carbon brings Pro Tools commercial studio technology to the sprawling market of homegrown music production. This is a rugged 8-channel interface with built-in preamps and comprehensive monitoring, designed for a flexible and contemporary mobile production environment.

Carbon connects to a computer via AVB over Ethernet, either by direct connection or through approved adapters. There are eight onboard HDX processing chips, almost half the DSP found on a single Pro Tools HDX PCIe card. Avid notes that Carbon does not daisy-chain with other devices, but the presence of a second Ethernet port suggests this will probably change. Other Ethernet devices – such as the Avid S3 controller used for this review – should connect to the computer via a second network port or adapter.

Avid Pro Tools Carbon
Taking the lid off Carbon reveals a large fan and heatsinks, which silently manage the heat generated by all DSP chips. Air flows through the front and out of side and rear panels.

Mac and Pro Tools exclusive

Audio Video Bridging (AVB) is an open-source protocol, which Avid uses on their Venue live sound products, but it is also conveniently embedded in Mac OS. However, PC users will be disappointed as there’s no AVB support under Windows; only selected Apple hardware supports Carbon.

Carbon offers a Pro Tools-exclusive experience: other DAWs can access the hardware through CoreAudio and even share it while Pro Tools is running, but none of the advanced features are accessible to third-party software, making Carbon an extravagant choice for users of other DAWs.

In use

Carbon requires Pro Tools 2020.11 or newer; this review used 2021.6, which worked flawlessly under Mac OS 10.15.7 on a Mac Pro 2013. At the time of writing, Avid reported some audio issues with Carbon and Big Sur on M1 Macs, which are currently under investigation.

Carbon’s similarity with Universal Audio Apollo x8p doesn’t go unnoticed. Perhaps Avid didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Still, on both devices, rotary push-switch encoders and a cluster of preamp functions (+48V, phase, input toggle, stereo link) are located in near-identical positions. There are some notable differences: on Carbon, it is possible to push, hold and turn each knob to ‘scroll’ through options, while on Apollo, only push/toggle is allowed, making its operation a little cumbersome; headphone outputs tidily share digital volume level with stereo monitoring, instead of having analogue controls.

Carbon’s input stage is engineered for safe level handling: A/D converters are about 12dB less sensitive than the Apollo’s, which reduces the noise floor by about 10dB (for quieter performance overall). This lower sensitivity means there’s less chance of accidental clipping and no input pad is necessary. You can feed in a full scale +24dBu sine wave without distortion. Input impedance multi-selectors on mic inputs 5-8 as well as on both instrument inputs are handy sound colouring and filtering tools. They are especially handy for taming harshness on DI guitar and bass or impedance-matching ribbon mics.

Avid Pro Tools Carbon
A bespoke Pro Tools Hardware Setup for Carbon allows you to configure stereo monitoring, headphone outputs, talkback and dim levels

Overall, Carbon’s analogue and digital performance is impeccable. Preamps and converters sound extremely good and are on par with similar devices in the same price bracket. You can manage up to three sets of stereo speakers and four sets of headphones levels directly from the front panel, including mute, dim and a built-in talkback mic. This gives it enough flexibility to be a true studio centrepiece or a semi-portable recording interface. Multichannel monitoring is currently not supported, but there is an unused ‘SUR’ (Surround) option on the front panel, suggesting that future implementation for Pro Tools Ultimate (necessary for multichannel operation) might be under development.

Avid Pro Tools Carbon
Competition is fierce! A loudness-matched listening test across Pro Tools Carbon, Lynx Aurora 16 and Apollo x8p indicates that Carbon sounds just a touch brighter than its competitors

Professional tracking with Hybrid Engine

When it comes to recording, Carbon-powered Pro Tools is in a league of its own. That’s partly because of Avid’s new Hybrid Engine for the Pro Tools mixer (available for Carbon and Pro Tools HDX users). In contrast to previous engines, the mixer now runs natively on your computer (with up to 2048 tracks with Pro Tools 2021.6) and only record-enabled tracks switch to DSP. This means that only those tracks with audio actively being recorded benefit from super-low latency (for impeccable drop-ins) and AAX DSP plug-ins in the monitor path. Carbon has enough onboard DSP to manage a full tracking session using every available input with spare DSP for monitoring plug-ins. AAX DSP plug-ins seamlessly switch to their Native AAX version once recording is over.

Avid Pro Tools Carbon
Tracks in ‘DSP-mode’ (green thunderbolt) use Carbon’s DSP to reduce latency to under 1ms and run AAX DSP plug-ins in the monitor path for seamless drop-in/out operation. AAX plugins in Aux channels that create a latency can still be used while tracking.

Carbon’s front panel controls are all digital, but there is no provision for software mirroring of their functions that would display numerical readouts or store presets. Avid possibly rushed this product to market without fully developing all of its features, as Carbon’s lack of integration with Pro Tools’ very own Mic Preamps section seems to indicate. In this sense, UAD Apollo x8p sets a benchmark for digital integration (even more so using Universal Audio’s free Luna software), and considering Carbon’s higher price tag, pressure is on Avid to bridge the divide if they want to offer value for money.

Deal or no deal

Avid wants musicians and producers to join the Pro Tools community instead of other popular production platforms, and with Carbon, they have created the perfect environment for it. This is a dependable interface that delivers on quality and a serious contender for music professionals who need the performance of a DSP-based Pro Tools system without the hassle.

Although Carbon comes with a perpetual Pro Tools license, bundled Avid software and plug-ins are subscription-based, which will kick in 1 year after purchase. License upkeep can be a burden, and potential buyers should evaluate Carbon’s hidden costs before committing.

System Requirements

  • Avid-qualified Mac computer, Mac OS 10.15.7 (Catalina) or Mac OS 11.3, 11.4 (Big Sur)
    Onboard Ethernet port or Apple Thunderbolt 2 to Ethernet Adapter. For Macs with Thunderbolt 3 connectors, a further Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter must be added to the chain (i.e. both adapters chained up)
  • Pro Tools Ultimate 2020.11 (or later) or Pro Tools 2020.11 (or later) is required to operate Pro Tools Carbon.
  • Intel Core i5 or Apple M1 CPU
  • 16GB RAM (32 GB recommended)
  • Pro Tools installation requires 15GB, extra space is required for bundled libraries and plug-ins

Key Features

  • 8 balanced mic/line XLR/TRS inputs with Variable Z (impedance) on inputs 5–8 and additional instrument inputs on channels 1-2. Line inputs are also available as 8 balanced inputs via 25-pin D-sub.
  • 8 line outputs on D-Sub connection
  • 192KHz/32bit conversion
  • 8 HDX DSPs for AAX DSP plug-in processing and low-latency monitoring
  • Dedicated stereo monitor output with front panel volume, dim and mute controls for up to 3 stereo speaker sets (additional sets via line outputs 1-2 and 3-4)
  • 16 channels of ADAT I/O (at 44.1 / 48KHz)
  • Built-in talkback microphone
  • 4 headphones outputs with independently adjustable level on front panel
  • Perpetual Pro Tools licence, with included 1-year subscription to Avid Complete Plugin Bundle
  • 9 bundled 3rd party plug-ins (AAX DSP plugins: Brainworx bx_console N, Brainwork_rockrack, Brainworx bx_masterdesk, Purple Audio MC77, McDSP 6050 Ultimate Channel Strip HD – Native Plugins: Arturia Rev PLATE-140, Embody Immerse Virtual Studio, Native Instruments Vintage Organs, UVI Model D Piano)
  • Dimensions: 19” / 44.2cm, 1 rack unit, depth 34.8cm without connectors mounted
  • Weight: 5.44kg / 12lbs