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Mackie Element Carbon Review 2021

The Carbon is part of Mackie’s Element series of USB microphones. At $149.99, it’s near the top of the line’s pricing, and is the only mic with five selectable polar patterns. The Carbon has a sturdy build and delivers a clear audio signal that will appeal to gamers, podcasters, and musicians alike, but those seeking DSP (digital signal processing) presets will want to look elsewhere—the Carbon is a DSP-free condenser mic. That said, its various polar patterns make it relatively easy to use in a variety of scenarios. The visual design might appeal to some, but the Carbon’s surface feels overpainted with logos, words, knob markers, and more, which isn’t a selling point if you want a good-looking mic for on-camera appearances. Looks aside, in terms of audio and ease of use, the Carbon gets most things right.

A Lot to Like Behind a Cluttered Design

The first thing you notice about the Carbon when taking it out of the box is that it’s big. Measuring roughly 11.3 by 3.8 inches (HW), it’s sized like classic old-school cylindrical condenser mics, not like many of the relatively compact USB models we test. That makes close-miking someone speaking in a desktop scenario much easier.

Even the built-in stand feels substantial—the build is heavy and sturdy, and the bottom of the stand is rubberized. We’ve seen plenty of tripod-style stands, as well as other lightweight stands, that seem easy to tip over. Here, the mic can swivel upward, flat, or even backward, and the knobs on either side ensure that whatever position you choose, the Carbon stays locked in place.

The visual design feels rather cluttered. Every knob has graphics surrounding it telling you what it does, and the logo appears three times on the mic and stand, while the word Element appears twice and Carbon once. Even if you like the logo, which might seem a little cartoonish to some, a less-is-more approach would go a long way here, as people are often using their mics on camera.

Behind the cylindrical grille, the Carbon employs a 14mm condenser capsule that delivers a frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz. Below the grille, the front face houses a mute button and a headphone volume knob. The underside of the mic houses the USB-C connection for the included USB-C-to-USB-A cable (which is perhaps one of the longest cables we’ve seen included with a mic), as well as the 3.5mm headphone jack. There’s also a threaded screw mount here for standard mic stands if you don’t want to use the desktop stand. The back panel houses a gain knob and the polar pattern selection knob. 

The mic can be used in five different selectable polar patterns—stereo, cardioid, figure-8, super-cardioid, and omni (this is the order they appear in on the knob). For a mic this price, it’s an impressive array of patterns, making the Carbon one of the more versatile USB models we’ve tested. It delivers audio at 16-bit, 48kHz. For the price, it would be nice to see 24-bit depth, and perhaps a higher sample rate, but for most streaming and podcast uses, these specs will be more than sufficient.

The Carbon comes bundled with some useful software freebies, including plenty of basic EQ, reverb, and dynamics plug-ins, as well as ProTools First. The mic is compatible with Mac OSX (or higher) and Windows XP Pro, XP Home, Vista, 7, 8, and 10. Aside from the aforementioned mic stand and USB-C cable, there are no other included accessories.

Versatile Performance

Connecting the Carbon to a 2019 iMac to use with GarageBand was a simple process in testing. The software immediately recognizes the mic, so you can start recording right away. Monitoring via the Carbon’s headphone jack provides the best listening experience; it’s a low-latency jack, and the headphone volume knob allows for setting ideal levels.

The multiple polar patterns are also quite useful. Most vocalists and podcasters are likely to stick with cardioid for speaking, but you can also go to supercardioid or figure-8 for when you have two vocalists sharing the same mic, or when you want to capture some room sound. Stereo mode is also quite cool—if you set up a stereo track in your recording software, the mic will offer a realistic stereo image, which can be ideal for recording room sounds as backgrounds, or for getting room sound when recording musicians in a larger space. There are plenty of options to work with here, and the mic avoids any DSP (digital signal processing) while still managing to provide a crisp, clear audio signal.

Compared with some other similarly priced USB mics we’ve tested, the Carbon’s audio output is perhaps a little more straight forward—crisp and rich—than something like the $170 Blue Yeti X, which has somewhat of a unique character to complement its clarity. The Carbon will sound more like a typical cardioid mic when used in that mode, while the Yeti X can have a more open sound that seems to capture the room a bit. Both are solid podcast options. Perhaps the Carbon sounds most similar to the $250 Shure MV7 in its natural tone setting (it has multiple DSP presets). 

Ultimately, the Carbon is a standout for its extra polar patterns more so than how it sounds. The audio is clear, crisp, and it’s easy to avoid distortion, but there’s not necessarily a wow factor. Often, that’s a good thing, as it’s more of a blank canvas than a mic with tons of character, allowing for versatility.

It Sounds Better Than It Looks

The Mackie Carbon isn’t the best-looking mic we’ve tested, but its design gives it plenty of advantages, as its size makes it easy to use in desktop scenarios with ideal placement. The onboard controls are also quite helpful. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is the versatility the multiple mic patterns manage to provide without using any DSP presets. It’s a worthy competitor to the more expensive Shure MV7 and the Blue Yeti X, as well as the less expensive, also DSP-free $99 Rode NT-USB Mini. Whether the mic tone is for you will come down to personal preference, but the Carbon offers a clear, crisp signal that will certainly be at home for musical vocals, podcasts, and streaming.

Mackie Element Carbon Specs

Type Condenser
Pattern Multi-Pattern
Sample Rate 48kHz
Bitrate 16
Frequency Range 20Hz-20kHz
Gain Knob Yes
Headphone Jack Yes
Low-Latency Monitoring Yes

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