Live Recording with Avid Pro Tools | Carbon

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Live Recording with Avid Pro Tools | Carbon

Words by Pablo Francois

A conversation with Drew Parsons from Avid about the quality interface.

Mobile recording has come a long way in recent years- a fact that can no doubt largely be attributed to the ever growing maturation of small scale interface as a product category. Despite all the massive strides taken in regards to these kinds of small scale studio applications, the final frontier has (and will always be) in the context of full band, live recording and the ever growing number of inputs and monitoring paths required for capturing live, ensemble instruments in the open air.

Industry icons Avid have for years been at the forefront of this kind of expandable, mobile recording workflow, with the brand being largely responsible for narrowing the gap between Home Recording and Commercial Studio and spawning a whole generation of DIY home engineers in the process. 

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

Their latest hardware offering, the awesome new Protools | Carbon takes this premise into previously uncharted territory, combining deep Protools integration and extremely powerful DSP with pristine conversion, premium componentry and fully scalable I/O (potentially 24 inputs and 34 outputs of continuous I/O!!). The result may well be the best solution out there for live, full band recording on the fly.

When a video landed on our desk of Avid’s Drew Parsons tearing it up with friends in Melbourne’s Empire Studios live room (with a very visible Carbon interface toiling away in the background), we just had to get the lowdown on how much of this fantastic sounding recording was coming from Drew’s Carbon Rig and how much was the product expensive studio trickery.

As it turns out, what you are hearing is all Band and Carbon Rig, with Drew bringing his own mics and mixing it himself at home. We recently caught up with Drew to have a chat about the process and to discuss Protools Carbon in the context of full band recording. 

MM: Hi Drew, one thing that instantly piqued my interest was the quality of the recording, especially given the apparent ease of the workflow. Can you quickly give us a bit of background on the project, the setup employed at the tracking stage and why you guys ended up opting for a mobile setup like this?

We are all busy people, so the basic idea for this project was to track a live band in as short an amount of time as possible, with all of us in the same room and using Protools | Carbon. In terms of specs, with its 8 inputs, onboard DSP and ADAT expansion all in a minimal 1U footprint, the Carbon unit served as the perfect centrepiece for our little mobile rig and I knew that the preamps and conversion onboard were top notch, to the point that we could easily get the kind of results we needed with little very little from our end in terms of setup time or A/Bing anything. I knew it would give us something good enough to take to mix with the least amount of hassle! 

The basic setup was Drums, Bass and Guitar for a total of 17 inputs all up, 8 of which came directly from the Carbon interface and the rest coming from the 2 ADAT inputs, utilising a couple of Focusrite ISA mic preamps with the A/D option card to get additional inputs into Pro Tools and expand the track count! We used mostly our own microphones (with a couple borrowed from the Studio space we were tracking in) and then recorded everything directly to my 2018 Macbook Pro, right there in the live room. We focused on recording the three of us all together and after we got the best take all the way though, we recorded Leigh’s guitar solo overdub. That was literally it!

MM: Given the fidelity and overall professionalism of the final product, it’s actually pretty crazy to think that you can yield these kinds of results with just a tight band, a basic set of microphones and a decent mobile rack setup. Obviously the tight band part is definitely paramount, but how much of an influence do you think factors like conversion and Protools audio engine had on the overall outcome of the session?

I’m a firm believer in conversion quality and its overall effect on recording fidelity. From the offset, it was pretty clear that with Carbon, Avid hadn’t cut any corners in regards to sound quality across the board. 

The converters on the Carbon interface have four ADCs per channel, which gives a total of 126 dB of dynamic range and I think that’s definitely something that shines through in the final product here. There is a clarity of capture (especially in the low end) that is really malleable at mix and I think that’s a really helpful thing for musicians recording on the fly like this. 

The clock also employs JetPLL jitter elimination for the best possible audio integrity and the entire gain structure works at 32-bit precision from input to the HDX DSPs, and then into Pro Tools, which means awesome headroom throughout and without any signal degradation, so you are really getting as much detail going in as possible, which definitely helps at the mix stage. 

MM: When it comes to Interfaces, conversion and preamp quality are definitely two fingers on the same hand. How did you find the pres on Protools | Carbon?

Honestly, I think that the new padless Preamps on the new Carbon interface are the most transparent preamps Avid has ever produced. With Variable Z built in, you can easily just adjust input impedance to optimize or alter the tone of any microphone or instrument—from dynamic and ribbon mics to guitars and bass, which definitely helps keep signal flow and gain structuring in check. As someone who has spent a lot of time adjusting preamp gain or trying to balance different signals and gain structures, it’s such a breath of fresh air in terms of workflow 

MM: A lot of the biggest challenges facing itinerant engineers pertains to CPU load, Buffering and Latency times within the digital recording chain. With Carbons’s powerful onboard DSP providing much of the heavy lifting, how did the general recording experience differ in regards to stability and latency?

While recording, all the audio channels and plugins were running in DSP Mode on Pro Tools

Carbon, which means there is very little the CPU needs to do. This meant I could spend more time focusing on my performance rather than stressing about IT concerns. 

The low latency times on our Protools | Carbon rig is definitely one of its strong suits.  As the bass player, I did not have an amp in the room, so I was totally relying on headphones to hear myself. With Pro Tools | Carbon the latency was so low while using the DSP, it felt instant in my headphones and this definitely helped us lock in and get the best live take possible. Those kind of natural, performance based things are so integral to this style of recording and the overall finished product. 

When you are trying to lock in with a live band, things like latency time and individual headphone mixes are extremely important and having a system that can handle that kind of processing and routing so easily was definitely a massive timesaver.

MM: I imagine that for a trio who prefer live recording, having the four headphone outs right there on the interface would be super handy for your particular setup. Can you talk to us a bit about your experiences monitoring in Pro Tools Carbon, the benefits of having multiple headphone outs and how these separate headphone mixes can be routed from within the software?

Yeah, it’s great having the four headphone outputs. In Pro Tools under the hardware setup, you can change each headphone output to monitor the main L-R of Pro Tools or change each headphone output to be its own discrete output. All you need to do then is set up a bus send on each track set to pre fader to each of the headphone outputs and you’re done. No additional mixer application needed, it’s all inside Pro Tools.

HOT TIP: There is actually a shortcut in Pro Tools called ‘copy to send’. I set the levels of the faders in the mixer and using the shortcut option+command+H I can copy the levels of the selected tracks to a bus send. Makes setting up headphone mixes fast and easy.

MM: With this one being tracked directly to the Carbon Rig in the live room, can you tell us a bit about the mixing process that occurred after the basic tracks were recorded? 

It was mixed all at home in Protools. We wanted to keep the vibe of the live recording so not a great amount of processing was done. We couldn’t do a lot of editing because there was guitar spill in a few of the other mics, so mostly EQ and a bit of compression to fatten things up. We used mainly plugins that would ship with Pro Tools | Carbon. My go to plugin was the Brainworx BX_Console N, which is based on Dirk Ulrich’s Neve console.

MM: That actually sounds super easy in terms of workflow and file management-tracking and mixing on the same hardware, in the same DAW, but having the ability to easily pack up and work from different locations for the different stages of the record making process. 

It’s actually so convenient, recording and mixing with the luxury of modern technology. We all have Pro Tools at home, so we can all work on the session individually and then send a message to the others to hear what we have done. With all the lockdowns we have been through in Melbourne especially, knowing we still could mix this project remotely has been such an easy and rewarding experience.

For more information about Protools | Carbon contact their Australian Distributor Innovative Music.