The Car Test

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bitflipper
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2017/07/26 17:57:41 (permalink)

The Car Test

Danny Godwin posted a thought-provoking article in the Cakewalk Blog about the longtime practice of testing out your mixes in the car, asking if it was still relevant (spoiler alert: yup, it is).
 
This took me back to my early days struggling to get a handle on the translation problem (meaning: make your mix sound good everywhere, not just in your studio). I'd been recording for 40 years at that point, but had only decided to get serious about mixing in 2004. I became an obsessive student, buying books, experimenting, and learning to listen. Yeh, 53 years old and just then learning how to listen.
 
After a year or so things were starting to sound pretty good, so I was excited to put my stuff on CD and take it out to the car. I had what I thought was a pretty decent sound system. I'd even taken a favorite reference CD (Dire Straights' Brothers in Arms) with me on the test drive before I bought the car because a crappy sound system would've been a deal-killer.
 
To my great dismay, my first CD sounded absolutely awful in the car! I threw it in the trash, cursing. Then I made another one, this time attempting to resolve the most glaring issues I'd heard in the car. Crapola again. Third try, it was starting to sound OK but nothing to brag about. I took that CD downstairs to the entertainment center, and was shocked to find that every change I'd made to accommodate the car stereo made it sound MUCH worse on the hi-fi.
 
Confused and frustrated, I made a fourth CD that was somewhere in between, something that didn't sound cringeworthy on either system. I took that CD to a pro studio and listened to it on high-end monitors in an acoustically-treated room. It sounded pretty good there, which was a relief but did nothing to dispel my confusion. Listening to it on the drive home, an epiphany struck: my car was a TERRIBLE place to listen to music!
 
It made sense. I'm in a small space with glass all around, so there's bound to be all kinds of weird resonances. I have tweeters that point up from the dashboard, bouncing off the windshield. I have woofers in the doors that don't have anywhere near enough space behind them for low frequencies. And what space there is was acoustically engineered in Detroit to make a satisfying thump when I close the door - intentional resonance! Four cross-fired speakers assure loads of destructive and constructive interference. And, as later measurements revealed, the amplifier itself was adding an 80Hz bump, an intentional design decision meant to disguise the poor bass response in the car's interior.
 
Fortunately, I had just bought Bob Katz's opus, Mastering Audio, and it couldn't have appeared at a better time. Bob explained that all playback systems are deficient in some way, but no two are deficient in exactly the same way. So unless you're mixing for a fixed installation such as a Disneyland ride, it's literally impossible to create a mix that sounds "right" everywhere.
 
The solution is to mix in a neutral space on neutral speakers and shoot for the statistical middle ground. I set about attending to acoustic treatments, upgraded my speakers, and re-arranged my recording space to get the speakers away from walls. Later, when I converted a garage for the purpose, I knew what needed to be done. I now have a reasonably flat space and great speakers, and mixes translate better. How do I know that? I take 'em out to the car.
 


All else is in doubt, so this is the truth I cling to. 

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    bitflipper
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/26 18:07:06 (permalink)
    Correction: Alex Westner is the author of the article.


    All else is in doubt, so this is the truth I cling to. 

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    #2
    bapu
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/26 18:24:25 (permalink)
    I read the article too.
     
    I test all my mixes in/on/with:
     
    1. ATH M50 with and without Sonarworks 
    2. Sennheiser IE6 earbuds
    3. Ultimate Ears IEMs (for flat response)
    4. Sennheiser HD600s
    5. Mackie monitors with ARC 2
    6. And yes, in the car
     

    My name is Ed but I Am still bapu after all these years.
     
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    #3
    Jeff Evans
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/26 19:08:25 (permalink)
    I think it depends on how your car is set up.  You can be lucky and have a car system that sounds very similar to the studio for me it does anyway. I have been graced with a nice system inside a Toyota Corolla. The main drive unit is much bigger and better than standard.  It can sound super loud but totally clean at the same time.  But what I hear in the studio essentially goes out to the car for me with one exception.  It is pushing any sub frequencies rather too well.  The commercial CD's all have the nice lows but don't go down too low.  The bottom end is controlled rather nicely. 
     
    If I am not careful I can let very low frequencies through that rattle my teeth a little.  (Electronic music can easily slip into some low octaves) So if the teeth rattling thing is there it means I need to re shape that part of the spectrum a bit more.  After a few tweaks I can get it sounding the same as the others.  Same volume and bottom end.  I guess a sub at home would let me in on the same sort of information. 

    Specs i5-2500K 3.3 Ghz - 8 Gb RAM - Win 7 64 bit - ATI Radeon HD6900 Series - RME PCI HDSP9632 - Steinberg Midex 8 Midi interface - Faderport - Studio One V3.5 - iMac 2.5Ghz Core i5 - Sierra 10.12.5 - Focusrite Clarett thunderbolt interface 
     
    Poor minds talk about people, average minds talk about events, great minds talk about ideas -Eleanor Roosevelt
    #4
    interpolated
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/27 15:10:54 (permalink)
    I examined a track today. A modern dance CD from 3 years ago.
     
    In Harbal, it measured -4.9dB Average and 9.06dBTP. Yet when analysed in Mediamonkey it rated the average loudness as -12dB RMS (Average loudness) and it looks like soundcard was falling about 4-5dB of the peak volume between times.
     
    So I'm not really sure what this says about the accuracy of two readings. I will listen to it later in Sonar with some more meters as I'm just looking for a working method for all my projects rather than referring to multiple meter standards.
     
    I'm also trialling and testing LM1n for TC Electronic which is going for a good price.
     
    Never read the article yet because it is probably beyond my grey matter and it's nice to just observe from the outset.
     

    I have computer stuff.
     
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    bitflipper
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/28 16:40:27 (permalink)
    It's tricky taking objective measurements with different tools, because they may not be measuring things the same way. It's really only apples-to-apples when you compare sources using the same measurement tools for both.
     
    Take RMS, for example. RMS is an average calculated over some time window such as 50 milliseconds. Most analyzers will let you specify the length of the RMS window, so you have the option of exchanging greater accuracy for faster responsiveness. 50 ms is a compromise, long enough to encompass an entire cycle of the lowest frequencies but narrow enough to watch the meter move.
     
    Unless the examined audio is a steady test tone, RMS will vary from one snapshot to the next, with different RMS window lengths yielding different numbers. When we talk about the RMS value for a song, it's an average of averages. It can be very misleading. Two productions can sound quite different and still have the same exact average RMS and peak readings.
     
    Still, such analyses can be very educational. For fun, create a new SONAR project and load up a variety of commercial recordings on separate tracks. Choose as diverse a lineup as you can. Route them all to an analyzer plugin such as SPAN, which will show objective information such as crest factor, average RMS, maximum peak values and spectral slope. Now compare, say, Dream Theater with the Dixie Chicks. You'll be surprised by the similarities, especially if the test songs are from the same chronological era.


    All else is in doubt, so this is the truth I cling to. 

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    #6
    interpolated
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/28 20:24:24 (permalink)
    Well essentially from what I read is, it's the same but different. I use test-tones initially to setup levels, pink noise to create balance between the peak output because this will save me a lot of time adjusting later on. I guess in the situation where I can have a purpose designed studio, all this calibration can be mostly done and save me time in the long run.
     
    Thanks for the info.
     

    I have computer stuff.
     
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    auto_da_fe
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/29 14:09:01 (permalink)
    I have a speaker in my car that rattles when the bottom (kick or bass) is too much.  (No decent commercial recordings make it rattle )
     
    I was going to try to fix it but I decided to leave it alone.
     
     
    JR

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    Jeff Evans
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/07/29 21:05:25 (permalink)
    auto_da_fe
    I have a speaker in my car that rattles when the bottom (kick or bass) is too much.  (No decent commercial recordings make it rattle ) I was going to try to fix it but I decided to leave it alone.

     
    That is great except in my case it is my teeth that rattle instead!   I agree with this though and for me it is about the bottom end.  That is why you don't have to sweat how the rest sounds so much in the car because as Dave correctly points out the car is not always ideal.  I am lucky in that my car sounds pretty decent overall.  But the bass end in many good commercial CD's has this nice depth to it but does not rattle anything.  It has taken me a while to get it but I have devised some tricky low end curves which I can apply in mastering that achieve the same result now.  Thanks to my car I was able to get onto this and sort it out.  It makes a huge difference as well.  Everything else in the spectrum seems to be lifted once I apply this curve and overall it can sound louder too. 
     

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    sharke
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/02 16:26:36 (permalink)
    bapu
    I read the article too.
     
    I test all my mixes in/on/with:
     
    1. ATH M50 with and without Sonarworks 
    2. Sennheiser IE6 earbuds
    3. Ultimate Ears IEMs (for flat response)
    4. Sennheiser HD600s
    5. Mackie monitors with ARC 2
    6. And yes, in the car
     




    I do the ATH-M50 thing with and without Sonarworks too. I'm always shocked by how much more overwhelming the bass is with Sonarworks turned off. Those M50's really are bassy.
     
    I also check on my Equator Audio D5's with ARC2 enabled. Commercial mixes sound to my ears absolutely perfect on this setup. But if I've been mixing through the M50's with Sonarworks enabled, I almost always find that the midrange seems to fall back a little bit when listening through the Equator Audios. It means that parts which sounded perfectly legible through the headphones are often lost on speakers. 
     
    It's a constant battle 

    James
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    CarlCase
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/20 14:29:09 (permalink)
    auto_da_fe
    I have a speaker in my car that rattles when the bottom (kick or bass) is too much.  (No decent commercial recordings make it rattle )
     
    I was going to try to fix it but I decided to leave it alone.
     
     
    JR


    That was a good decision.
    #11
    soens
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/21 00:56:01 (permalink)
    I listen with laptop speakers. If it sounds good there, it'll sound good anywhere.
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    bitflipper
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/21 18:35:00 (permalink)
    That's very true. However, I just can't bring myself to do it because everything sounds bad on my laptop speakers.
     
    That's why I travel with proper headphones, so I can watch a movie on the laptop if I get bored. As it happens, I am leaving within the hour on a business trip and had to make the agonizing decision not to take the good cans...compromised for the Shure IEMs, which work much better on airplanes anyway. Those stay in the laptop bag all the time - I would never insert those nasty little plastic things they hand out on airplanes into my ears! Even if they might serve well as the ultimate "bad" reference system.


    All else is in doubt, so this is the truth I cling to. 

    My Stuff
    #13
    soens
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/22 10:16:45 (permalink)
    I can't wear earbuds. They don't fit or stay in my ears. Can't wear safety ear plugs either. Have to wear over or on ear muffs/headphones.
     
    I've used cheapy ($5-$10) headphones at work. Some actually sound OK for general listening but after breaking so many I finally got a pair of $49 Skull Candy wireless for work. They sound good and give a good clue to the mix.
     
    For the car I load up a few tracks on the smart phone and play them thru Bluetooth on the car stereo - a Rosen in-dash factory fit unit with 6" screen I bought on Amazon for $600. Car speakers are factory "premium" JBL 6 speaker set - 4 in front, 2 in rear. I'll include a few commercial tunes of similar genre to compare with my tunes. Works for me.
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    DanBailiff
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/23 15:24:15 (permalink)
    I've been driving a Jetta with the Fender sound system. It's head and shoulders above what most cars are equipped with, but I would never judge a mix even on a better than average car audio system. Like you guys mentioned, it's an inherent acoustic nightmare. One thing I didn't see mentioned elsewhere is road noise. Even with a solid car and a decent audio system, there is the rumble and whoosh of driving that has to be overcome either through volume or EQ. What sounds good at a stoplight will sound a bit empty or lackluster at 65.

    I'd say the car test is fine to make sure the most important sounds in a track are heard, but if you're concerned about subtleties being lost, you're fighting a losing battle.
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    Lynn
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/23 18:18:24 (permalink)
    I've been using my 2000 Honda Accord to test my CDs for years.  I know the sound of nearly all my commercial CDs in that car, so I can compare my own mixes to them.  Things got easier about 4 years ago when I started using the speaker emulations in ARC 2, and more recently, Mixchecker which CW offered earlier this year.  These software programs get you in the ballpark quickly, and have allowed me to get better mixes on laptops, cellphones, and boomboxes in addition to my car.  When used in conjunction with a Focusrite VRM box with headphones, you have nearly all bases covered.  Now, when I take a CD to my car, I know what to expect, and those nasty surprises don't occur as often.  Nevertheless, I still start all my mixes in mono on a single Auratone (ca. 1979), and that may be the best method for me in the long run.  Still, I can't say enough for ARC 2 and Mixchecker.

    All the best,
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    soens
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/25 06:45:48 (permalink)
    P=no road noise.
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    smallstonefan
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/08/25 18:16:59 (permalink)
    My car sound system is actually really good for a stock system (Mark Levinson) and I listen to so much music on it I "know it" it so to speak. I really hear the difference when I listen to SiriusXM vs a CD - the satellite signal just sucks in comparison. 
     
    I listen in the car, at the office, and in the studio. In fact I'm doing that today with a mastering candidate. I really know I'm on to something when it sounds good on all three. For me, I've found the Avatntone Mix Cube was a breakthrough. If it sounds good on that, it sounds good most places. I just added a second so I can mix on them in stereo, or hit a button and just hear a mono signal out of one of them.
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    eduard87
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    Re: The Car Test 2017/09/17 08:56:59 (permalink)
    it's reassuring to see that we're all having the same experience :)
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