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Avid Pro Tools Carbon Production System – A Real-World Review

Producer/composer Rich Tozzoli has been putting Avid's new Pro Tools | Carbon to the test and says it's "a creative game changer."

Avid’s new Pro Tools Carbon is a hybrid audio production system based around a hardware interface with onboard HDX DSP acceleration that works in conjunction with your native computer’s CPU.
Avid’s new Pro Tools Carbon is a hybrid audio production system based around a hardware interface with onboard HDX DSP acceleration that works in conjunction with your native computer’s CPU. Mike Taylor

I can honestly say that Pro Tools is a vital tool in my daily workflow, so when Avid sent an advance unit of Pro Tools Carbon my way, I was anxious to put it through its paces and see what it could do on some real-world sessions.

Avid’s Pro Tools Carbon is a new hybrid audio production system starting at $3,999 that combines a hardware interface with onboard HDX DSP acceleration and your native computer’s CPU power. With this Hybrid Engine, you can track and monitor with near-zero latency when using AAX DSP plug-ins. Intelligently, when you put a track into DSP Mode for recording, the chips in Carbon process the AAX DSP plug-ins while the computer plays back your mix in Native mode. Simply switch off the tracks in DSP Mode and the whole session is back in Native Mode, ready for mixdown.

Let’s take a quick look at the Carbon hardware, then get into how it all works together. The sleek 25×34 simultaneous I/O, 19-inch, 1U rack-mountable interface features two variable Z, unbalanced, ¼-inch TS instrument inputs on the front, as well as four separate stereo headphone outputs. There are eight 20 Hz to 20 kHz XLR Mic/Line preamps on the rear (four of which have Variable Impedance), as well as eight channel Line In and Line Out DB25 25-pin D Sub multipin connections. There’s a TRS Monitor L/R Main output, ¼-inch footswitch connector for talkback on/off, WC I/O and two Ethernet connectors. Also on the rear are a pair of ADAT optical inputs and two ADAT optical outputs, offering 16 channels at 44.1 – 96 kHz and eight channels at 176.4 – 192 kHz.

Avid Launches Pro Tools | Carbon

Back to the front panel—you’ve got eight separate LED meters for the Mic/Line inputs and a Main L/R stereo out meter. Input levels are controlled with the Input Encoder knob on the left, which, when pressed, switches between Mic/Line, as instrument input is automatically detected. The Input Level Strip displays input source and amount of gain.

There are buttons for Input Selection, Z for impedance choices, Link, Phase, Phantom Power, Input Metering, Integrated Talkback, Output Metering and another knob for main output and headphone levels, as well as a master Mute button, Headphone button and DIM button. EXT or NET indicators light up on the front when properly connected to their source. The Output Encoder knob controls headphone and monitor (Main/Alt 1/Alt 2) out, indicated with the Level Strip above it.

Under the hood lies the all-important eight HDX DSP processors (2.8 GHz aggregated processing), which allow all of this hybrid production to take place. Note that at launch, all preamp and monitor controls will be from the front panel, but remote control is at the ‘top of the list’ for the upcoming updates.

Since I do production and TV composing from my own studio and in a variety of locations, I have long used my own ‘hybrid’ system of recording. I go ‘Native’ with my mobile rigs, based primarily around a MacBook Pro and several interfaces, and ‘combo’ on my main HDX system, with an HD I/O hooked up to a MacPro. It works, but Native-only production tends to frustrate me with latency and buffer sizes and so on.

That’s why Carbon is a different animal. To integrate it into my system, I simply connected an RJ 45 Ethernet cable from Carbon to my MacPro and selected it in the Network Device Browser on the computer. I then hooked up both the Main L/R outputs and ADAT output 1 into my Grace Design M906 Monitor controller. Since I run a lot of guitar-centric gear and pedal boards into my Manley, Millennia and Universal Audio preamps, they connected via a DB25 to the analog input on the rear of Carbon. My Grace Design m108 8-channel preamp connected via ADAT optical input 1 and now shows up on ADAT 1 of the Input Tab in the I/O setup.

Pro Tools | Carbon
Avid Pro Tools | Carbon

Literally within a few minutes, everything was connected and simply worked. It was remarkably seamless and since it’s connected via AVB Ethernet, you not only get 32-bit end-to-end workflow, but your regular computer audio will play back directly through the converters of Carbon.

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With Carbon, it’s all about DSP Mode. Each track has the ability to switch from Native to DSP Mode, which can be enabled for Audio, Aux, Instrument, Routing Folder and Master Fader Tracks. When selected, the small ‘lightning bolt’ icon turns from gray to bright green and all plug-ins on the track switch from Native to DSP (if a DSP equivalent is available). DSP Compatible plug-ins are identified with a DSP Compatible badge.

At this point, the entire signal path for the track will then run on the HDX DSP mixer in Carbon. Any Native-only plug-ins will be automatically bypassed in DSP Mode. What’s cool is that any tracks associated with a track put into DSP Mode (light green lightning bolt) are automatically also put into DSP Mode (dark green lightning bolt). This would include tracks being bussed to downstream (subgroups, routing folders), as well as effect return tracks from sends.  For effect returns, if a plug in does not have a DSP equivalent, the track can be placed in DSP Mode Safe. This places the track back onto the native mixer with a slight predelay. Note that you can also set DSP Mode to enable automatically when putting a track into record, and you can also set tracks into DSP Mode Safe to prevent DSP Mode from being auto-enabled.

So what this all means is that I was able to track my guitars through DSP plug-ins and some of my favorite effects with virtually zero latency, which is the only way to get that “feel.” Note that you can also use Aux tracks to put external reverbs, delays, etc. that have no DSP equivalent, into DSP Mode Safe. The main record tracks are running DSP with sub ms latency, but the reverb return is still on the Native mixer live, so your playback buffer is still relevant to the plug-in. This all adds up to me using Pro Tools for what it’s for—seamless creativity without technology getting in the way. Yes, it might require some forethought on DSP plug-ins, but it’s worth it.

Carbon is Mac-only at launch, with PC support hopefully added in the future. For those without Ethernet ports on your computer, you’ll need to use a qualified Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter; check Avid’s website for compatibility data. Also, the computer has to be qualified with macOS 10.15.7.

Also included in the package are a one-year subscription to Pro Tools software with its 115 AAX plug-ins (more than 70 AAX DSP plugins), a 5.4 GB sound library and standard support, and there’s also an additional selection of partner plug-ins from Arturia, McDSP, Plugin Alliance, UVI, Native Instruments and Embody.

Essentially, in one hybrid system, Pro Tools Carbon lets users have the best of both worlds: AAX DSP and Native. Carbon is a creative game changer in a lot of ways, and I can’t wait to see—and hear—where this is going.

Rich Tozzoli is an award-winning, Grammy-nominated producer, engineer and composer for programming such as FOX NFL, Pawn Stars and Oprah & Deepak Chopra.

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