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I went to a seminar on car audio recently. High-end car audio to be precise. The kind of high end where an aftermarket company will take a perfectly good top-of-the-range luxury car and modify and tune it into the ultimate driving experience, with audio to match.
At one point during the presentation (in which questions were allowed and didn't have to wait until the end) I got the feeling that the audience wasn't quite understanding how high high-end can be, and that the presenters weren't stating something that was obvious to them but not so obvious to anyone else.
Having poked about a bit in my fairly high-end but well worn BMW, I knew something about the scope of car audio. So, already pretty much knowing what the answer would be, I asked this question...
"In a very high-end installation, how many loudspeaker drive units would there typically be?"
"Oh, er, around twenty-four or thirty-two".
There were gasps in the audience, there really were. Actually I was expecting the answer to be around twelve or maybe sixteen, so thirty-two surprised me too.
And, latching onto the point which had clearly captured the audience's attention, the presenter went on to explain how resonant chambers might be constructed under the floor to enhance the bass. Clearly this is a totally different world to home hi-fi or studio monitors. (If as a result of reading this you construct a resonant chamber beneath your studio chair, don't forget to let us know!)
So, leaving the seminar behind, I have to ask the question - if you are going to check your mix in a car, should it be a high-end tuned aftermarket model with thirty-two loudspeaker drive units (yes of course you can afford it!) or a clapped-out runaround with just two speakers for stereo?
OK, that's one question, but here is another interesting issue. As I said earlier I own an old and well-worn BMW, but it is a 7-Series and as such can be expected to have a decent sound system. I don't have any complaints about the sound, but to be honest I find I have fewer complaints about everyday sound systems since I tuned my ears to accommodate MP3 quality back in the early 2000s. The sound in my car is good enough, but it isn't like listening to a pair of BMW 800 Series loudspeakers, or classical music on a pair of Quad electrostatics.
So although I might test my mix in the car, I won't make any creative decisions there. I'll only listen for faults, then return to my studio monitors to fix them.
But recently I did something a little different. Whereas I would normally take a mix that was finished, other than small tweaks, to the car to check, I took my latest mix and three or four earlier versions and went out for a spin. (Yes, it makes a difference when there is engine and road noise.)
Honestly, I couldn't tell the difference between my latest mix and the earlier versions that I thought it had improved upon. Granted, the differences were fairly small but they were clearly audible without effort on my studio monitors, and barely perceptible in my car.
What this says is that although you should test your mixes in your car, you can only expect to find the bigger problems. Minor issues may not be audible.
So what is the most important thing you should listen out for when testing your mix in your car? My opinion is that it is the balance between the vocal and instruments that can really stand out. What sounds like a good balance in the studio can sound vocal-heavy or vocal-light in the car. And if it doesn't sound right in a location similar to where many people might listen, it is important to consider making a compromise.
In summary, your car is a great place to gain additional perspectives on your mix. If you can test in a friend's high-end aftermarket-tuned model (you have those kind of friends don't you?) then so much the better. It is vitally important for the success of your music that it sounds great in as many playback settings as possible.
P.S. Someone sent me a question, what's the difference between a loudspeaker and a loudspeaker drive unit? Surely they are the same? Well, there is the opportunity for confusion here, so if I am talking about a single drive unit, then that's what I'll call it, or 'loudspeaker drive unit' in full. When I say 'loudspeaker', or 'speaker', then I mean the whole cabinet with one, two or several drive units. In a high-end installation in a car, then since the drive units are distributed around the cabin then in effect the whole car is the loudspeaker. Makes a change from my dad's Morris Minor.