by Anders Johanson November 22, 2020 9 min read
When you are first starting to figure out what you will need to begin putting together a home studio, some of the initial things you may begin to research are the digital audio workstation you will be using and the audio interface that will plug into your computer. With so many options for both of those things out there on the market, it can get overwhelming. Not only do companies have multiple styles of interfaces with an array of inputs and outputs and connection requirements, but they have various versions of interfaces within different product lines, some that boast certain features while others offer similar ones but yet are still different, it can all get very confusing. In an attempt to help you choose both your DAW and interface at the same time, a handful of digital audio workstation companies have produced their own interfaces to try to market both together as a way to establish brand loyalty and streamline your workflow and studio. Steinberg, the makers of Cubase, have their own line of interfaces, ranging from their budget-friendly portable unit with only one input all the way up to their rack mountable professional unit with multiple inputs, outputs, and other routing features. Avid, the creators of Pro Tools, still commonly referred to as the industry standard digital audio workstation, have produced their own line of interfaces for a while now, but recently launched an exciting new product that may prove to be somewhat of a game changer in the interface world.
The Pro Tools Carbon is a new interface from Avid, and comes labeled as a hybrid audio production system. This labeling is new as this interface is the first to do what Avid says it offers. The Carbon will integrate itself into your computer's hardware in a deeper way than any other interface would, and it does this by assisting your computer in its CPU usage, taking on some of the processing power to free up your computer to do more work. This means that plugins that would normally suck your CPU and take up a lot of room in your project session could be partially absorbed by the Carbon, opening up your computer’s processing ability in order for it to continue working smoothly. This only works with plugins that are AAX (Avid Audio eXtension) compatible, a file format that Avid natively controls. Fortunately just about any plugin or sample library you could find out there should be AAX compatible - Pro Tools is the industry standard, after all. It’s no wonder they continue to hold that title as they are constantly evolving and developing new products such as the Carbon, a device that, while certainly not cheap (according to Sweetwater it’s slated to hit the market at $3,999.00, or what could be a decent down payment on a car), will solve many issues for producers everywhere. CPU workload is a problem that can’t be fixed after a certain point, unless you have the space or budget for slave servers that can contribute processing power to your main machine, a solution that, in itself, could be lots of fun to play with. Avid’s solution, however, kills a few birds with one stone in that it provides you with a professional audio interface, eight onboard inputs with top-of-the-line microphone preamps, but the input total can be expanded to up to 25 inputs via different connections. On top of everything that it offers as an audio interface, it is now an option that can hold your computer’s hand and give it some help processing your plugins and libraries - something no other interface can do.
If there’s any downside to Avid’s Carbon interface it is that it is only compatible with Mac operating systems, so if you have a Windows computer you are out of luck where this is concerned. Where this really helps Apple users is right in the product’s featured function - CPU usage. Apple has made it notoriously difficult to expand RAM in their machines, although this capability is coming back in the newest iMacs, so the ability to have an external device take on some of that processing power will be a huge boost. With the Pro Tools Carbon’s ability to lend a helping hand to your CPU usage, Apple users can breathe a sigh of relief and carry on their merry way when in the middle of a project, rather than have to worry about bouncing down tracks, exporting, re-importing, aligning, and so on.
Avid’s new Pro Tools Carbon interface comes loaded with some features that really set it apart from other interfaces in its price range, and start to answer any questions as to why this interface is as expensive as it is. I’m going to break it down into two sections, hardware and software, to give a brief overview of everything the Pro Tools Carbon has to offer.
With other interfaces such as Universal Audio’s Apollo line and Focusrite’s Red Thunderbolt line coming in around this price point, the Carbon should take a few steps forward and enter the spotlight if you’re a Mac user looking for a professional studio interface. The front panel alone shows off some of the versatility of this unit, available at any point if you’re seated at your desk. You’ll still have to climb behind your desk or make use of an external patch bay to plug anything into the back, which is standard for rack mounted interfaces, as the only inputs on the front of the device are two quarter-inch, instrument level sockets. This makes it easy to plug in a guitar or a keyboard from the front, but does make it a little inconvenient if you need to quickly use anything with an XLR cable. (Though if you’re a professional in a studio environment, you might already have that covered.) However, the front panel also has a button to switch to the first and second inputs on the back of the unit, meaning you could have instruments plugged into 1 and 2 on the front, and XLR cables plugged into 1 and 2 on the back, and with one touch of a button you can switch between the two. The instrument inputs on the front of the unit can also toggle through a few different impedance settings by pressing one of the buttons on the front panel, giving you the ability to match the impedance of your bass or electric guitar so your direct input recording is nice and clear.
The front panel has a built-in microphone for talkback into an isolated recording booth, or wherever you decide to patch it to. It has the typical input gain and monitor volume knobs, as well as a graphic input level readout to show you if any of your channels are clipping. The Pro Tools Carbon can connect to up to three sets of monitors, all switchable from the front panel, and it can also send audio to up to four sets of headphones, also switchable from the front panel. The headphone and monitor outputs can all be configured within ProTools to send specific audio feeds and levels to different locations should you need to send a click track to only the drummer for a studio session, or if you’re composing in surround sound and want to send tracks to certain speakers in the mix you can set it to do that for you as well.
The back panel has eight combination quarter-inch and XLR inputs, but with the help of a patch bay and the front panel’s input switching functionality, you could have all eight channels using both XLR and quarter-inch inputs, a total of sixteen channels between the unit itself and an external patch bay, then just toggle between what you need using the button on the front. The Pro Tools Carbon works on an Ethernet connection to be hardwired into your computer. If you have a Mac that doesn’t have an Ethernet input, there are Ethernet to Thunderbolt adapters available that will work just fine. The entire system runs on a DSP-based processing system, and offers absolutely zero latency for monitoring no matter what. That is a pretty hefty feature to have, and something that will prove to be invaluable for many producers and engineers.
AVID Pro Tools Carbon Software
Along with the incredible hardware feature set that accompanies Avid’s Pro Tools Carbon interface, it comes packed with many software and software integration features that set it apart as well. Of course, being an Avid product, the interface will seamlessly integrate into the Pro Tools software suite. The interface was designed with the digital audio workstation in mind, so the two go hand-in-hand in perfect hardware and software harmony. That specific feature is pretty standard across interfaces these days, most don’t need any configuration to be ready to use with your DAW of choice, but the Carbon will be ready for Pro Tools as soon as you plug it in. The Pro Tools Carbon comes with 115 plugins from the Avid Complete Collection, giving you nearly everything you should need to get started producing music right after filming your unboxing video for your YouTube channel. It also comes with a package of third-party plugins and software instruments from companies like Native Instruments, McDSP, Plugin Alliance, and UVI.
The most notable feature on this new interface is its ability to assist your computer in processing power. This comes from the inclusion of eight individual Avid HDX DSP cores, a proprietary Avid creation. These eight cores will combine to complement your system’s needs and allow you to run more plugins, more software instruments, and have more tracks in your project, as it essentially functions as an additional RAM bank, but also in some ways as an entirely separate computer. Any AAX-formatted plugin will be able to slide over to the Carbon's hardware and use its resources, freeing up your actual computer to do the work it needs to do. With the majority of plugins and software being AAX compliant, the question of compatibility should never be an issue for someone running Pro Tools and using this interface. This technology will make every step of the production process smoother than ever before. From importing files, to mixing with multiple plugins and chains, to exporting large file formats - taking the resources off of your computer's hardware and placing it onto the Carbon is huge. With sample libraries and plugins becoming more CPU-intensive now than ever before, this type of hardware is truly revolutionary. Imagine being able to plug something into a video game console if the graphics aren’t quite right, or the system keeps overheating. You feed it into an external booster and suddenly your Xbox becomes what Microsoft said it would be when they announced it. Might be a bit of a stretch but I think the analogy holds. With Avid’s Pro Tools Carbon, your computer will run smoothly and comfortably without running the risk of crashing Pro Tools in the middle of a mixing session, or when recording a large project, or any other of a number of scenarios that could cause a computer to crash. With the help of the Pro Tools Carbon, that will no longer be something you’ll have to worry about. Well, at least not for a CPU-related reason.
Far be it from me to recommend who should get this and who shouldn’t get it, but this interface seems geared towards a more serious and professional producer in a full-time audio career and in a fully equipped studio. If you aren’t putting it through its paces in the right environment, and taking advantage of all of its incredible features, it might be overkill for your studio, especially when things that cost a fifth of its price can do most of what it does and get the job done. The other fact of it being limited to only Macintosh computers cuts out a considerable amount of its potential clientele, though I’m sure Avid took that into account when making it. Still, though, if you have a Mac and money is no object, by all means definitely buy the Pro Tools Carbon. I could not even begin to list the number of headaches that will be cured by having an interface as incredible as this one, and for Universal Audio to finally have another serious competitor against the Apollo line. It seems like nearly everyone has some version of the Apollo, which is fine seeing as that was one of the only top-tier options, and still will be for people running on a Windows machine.
Is the Pro Tools Carbon alone enough to make someone jump from Windows to Mac? It’s hard to say for sure as there are so many variables. If you built a Windows machine specifically for music production, like I did, it might not tip the scale far enough to cause you to scrap it, jump ship, and move to Apple (though it might make you just a little more envious). Or if you’re already using another digital audio workstation and you don’t want to switch to something new that is an entirely acceptable reason to stay put where you are. However, if you’re just getting in on the ground level and you’re looking to build up a serious studio and you aren’t sure which direction to go, or if you’re working for a studio and they’re wanting to make a shift over to an Apple ecosystem, then I would definitely encourage you to go the Apple route and put the Pro Tools Carbon at the heart of your system.
Avid had been quiet for a while as far as major hardware releases were concerned, but this new interface has launched them pretty far ahead of other companies at this stage in the game. If you’re in the market for a high-quality, high-budget, powerful interface to put at the center of your studio, the Avid Pro Tools Carbon will be the new industry standard interface for the industry standard DAW, and if this takes off the way that it should, I don’t see that changing for quite some time.
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