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How to make your recordings sound great in the car

Sometimes recordings that are made in the studio just don't sound like 'real records' when played in the car. How can you solve that?


A question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

"I am using the Tascam 2488 with Shure KSM44 mic...etc. all good gear. I am also using the event 20/20 passive speakers with a great Hafler amp. I even recently bought a great RTA that tunes the room. My problem is, I can mix a great sound in the studio but when I take it and play it in the car or in the house, it sounds like I was deaf during the mix. I've been around and mixing for years (a tape man originally). I have tried almost everything but I sure could use some advice here."

David Mellor responds...

Ah yes, an age-old conundrum dating to the time of Confucius, almost. You mix a track in your studio and it sounds great. But you play it somewhere else and it sounds terrible.

FREE EBOOK - Equipping Your Home Recording Studio

Equipping Your Home Recording Studio

What is the problem and how can it be solved?

The problem is that every listening situation is different. Here are a few examples -

  • High quality domestic hifi
  • Standard quality domestic so-called 'hifi'
  • Portable stereo
  • Personal stereo
  • Car audio
  • Club PA
  • Radio in the kitchen
  • AM radio
  • FM radio
  • Internet streaming

Yes there are a few overlaps in the list, but then the problems overlap too. Basically there are four variables...

  • Recording/transmission format - vinyl, CD, streaming, AM radio, FM radio etc.
  • Loudspeakers
  • Acoustics
  • Background noise

Yes there are more variables, but these are the main ones. Let's take them in turn...

The recording or transmission format is certainly a variable, but you will get least benefit from considering it as you are mixing. I've never heard of anyone mixing through an FM radio transmitter for example. So although it can be done, and might be worthwhile, it isn't as worthwhile as the other things you can do.

Loudspeakers are very significant. Loudspeaker design is pathetically behind every other aspect of sound engineering. That's why they all sound so different.

Microphones sound different too, but mics that are designed to be accurate sound very much more similar to each other. Purely electronic equipment, when designed to be accurate, sounds extremely similar. But loudspeakers...? What's going wrong?

There are three main ways in which loudspeakers differ...

  • Frequency response
  • Distortion
  • 'Boominess'

If for instance your mix has important low bass content, but is lacking in upper bass, then it will sound great on big loudspeakers, but small loudspeakers will lose an important component of the overall sound.

If you mix on monitors that are clean, then when you play it back on loudspeakers that distort (and they all do to some extent), then it will lose clarity. If clarity was important to your sound, whoops - you've just lost it.

Boominess is significant. If you monitor on loudspeakers that have a tight and controlled bass end, you will be inclined to mix to that advantage. But on typical loudspeakers your mix will be hopelessly unfocussed in the bass.

The acoustics of the listening environment are also important. In your studio you are probable sitting midway between the monitors, in the near field. You have ideal listening conditions.

But how many people will have a similar environment? Hardly any. So your mix has to be able to cope with kitchen acoustics, car acoustics, in-ear acoustics. All of them very dissimilar to near field monitoring. (Which raises the question of why we do it that way.)

Cars have the additional problem of background noise. Any component of your mix that is lower in level than the background noise will be lost.

Part of the solution is to have a variety of monitoring systems in your studio. Your favorite pair of nearfields, yes. But you should have distant monitors too. And if you can gut a portable stereo and use it for its speakers, so much the better. (It would be nice if it were possible to buy such a thing pre-gutted.)

Mix from the sweet spot yes, but also listen from around the room. Listen from outside of the room too - often that will tell you something about your mix that you didn't know before.

Play some CDs that you like through your monitors. See how they sound good from any listening position. Analyze the qualities that make mixes 'transportable'.

(I say compact disc because it is the best commonly-available sound source. Streaming services, unless they have a WAV option, are slightly degraded and potentially introduce an undesirable variable.)

And finally, you can't consider a mix finished unless you have heard it in your car. If your car has a CD player, then that's a good way to listen. WAV files played back from your phone through your car's aux input are good too. Bluetooth, I'm afraid, is degraded.

Play the audio repeatedly as you drive. Sooner or later you will come to the realization that your track simply does not stand up against the rest. Or if you don't come to that conclusion, you have indeed made a good mix.

In conclusion, there are no short cuts here. The wide variety of possible listening envrionments means that you have to make your mix transportable. Mixing using a variety of loudspeakers is one way of achieving that. Listening from different positions is another. And finally, you need to put your mix onto CD, or copy the original WAV file to your phone, and take it to a variety of listening locations.

Only when it stands up everywhere can you consider your mix finished.

By David Mellor Thursday August 22, 2019