Sound of Your Music PASMAG 2

WHAT MEASURED PATH LENGTHS LOOK LIKE WHEN SOUNDSTAGING A VEHICLE

Is music about emotion? Entertainment? Art? It is likely all of these and infinitely more. For many decades, we have been reproducing music in our homes, offices, cars and everywhere in between. Just as creating and capturing music is both a science and an art form, so too is faithfully reproducing these recordings. In this issue of Listen Up, we are going to look at the basics of reproducing music in your vehicle.

Sound of Your Music PASMAG 1a

THE FRONT SEAT STAGING PROCESS IN MACKINNON'S OWN SUBARU WRX STI

Let’s dispel a longstanding myth.

Music reproduction enthusiasts often suggest that the reference for music playback is a live performance. Sadly, this often isn’t true. If you want the nitty gritty details, give Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms by Floyd Toole a read. Ultimately, the reference for the recording you are listening to is the record producer’s perception of what he hears in his studio. They way it sounds to this person is determined by the room acoustics, equalization, the speakers in the room and how he imagines the track should sound. This person uses that information to decide how the processing and mixing are performed. Now, we aren’t suggesting that you don’t attend live performances, but remember that each audio system was tuned by someone or something to a reference. Theissue is, this reference is often as variable as the resulting system performance.

That’s the perfect segue into reproducing music in a vehicle. The basic design of a loudspeaker goes back many decades. While the concept of a fixed magnet and voice coil that moves a cone hasn’t changed a great deal. The materials used to build speakers and the ability to model the electrical and mechanical characteristics of those parts while in motion has allowed modern speaker designers to create speakers that produce significantly less distortion than even those manufactured a decade ago.

Every speaker has a frequency range in which it performs its best. All speakers have a frequency at which the cone and suspension components naturally resonate. We want to avoid playing in that range as distortion increases. Conversely, all speakers have two high-frequency performance characteristics that need to be considered. The high-frequency limit of a speaker is based on its mass and suspension. There is a point at which it simply can’t move back and forth fast enough to produce an audible sound. There is also a matter of directivity. Directivity describes a reduction in sound reproduction off-axis from the speaker. In essence, you get a reduction in high-frequency output if the speaker isn’t pointed directly at you—speakers are like flood lights in the lower part of the range they’re designed to play in and like spotlights at high frequencies.

Combining these speaker characteristics means that we need several different sized speakers to properly recreate the entire audio spectrum in our vehicles. We need a woofer to recreate the frequencies below 80 Hz, a midrange or mid-woofer to handle the frequencies from 80 Hz up to two or three kHz and a tweeter to take care of the information  above that.

Sound of Your Music PASMAG 4Sound of Your Music PASMAG 3
TARGET FREQUENCY RESPONSE AND SPEAKER DISTORTION GRAPHS FOR YOUR REFERENCE

This leads us to system design and tuning. With the proliferation of DSP processors in the past few years, a skilled system tuner can manipulate the signals going to your amplifiers to precisely control the sound of your system. Just like an engine tuner, these highly trained technicians have been educated in techniques and methodologies that produce a system that functions well but is also reliable. They understand how the physical size of the vehicle cabin affects subwoofer frequency response – increasing its output at lower frequencies. They understand how the hard surfaces like the glass and dashboard can reflect high-frequency information. These reflections change the overall frequency response, and can also cause complications with imaging. Imaging refers to the ability to place sounds in their accurate position within the soundstage. Tuning is as skill, and can make or break the result of even a modest audio system.

When we listen to our music, we need some semblance of accuracy in the reproduction. There is a correct sound with room for adjustments for personal preference or to add bass to an old recording that doesn’t have enough. [NOTE: In many cases, people’s car audio systems are the best and highest end systems they own. Let’s not imply that if someone listens to a mono Sonos system at home or a pair of earbuds, those should serve as their reference system.] Those of us who are on the “picky” side of sound reproduction grimace at the terms “warm,” “bright” and “forward.” If your system possesses any of these characteristics, that is the result of someone applying their preference to it, or it could be simply that the equipment used in the system isn’t free of distortion, or isn’t configured properly. There is always room for personal preference. But, remember, adding your own “spin” is like buying a beautiful painting, then getting out the Crayolas and making your own adjustments.

Visit a local car audio specialist. Talk to them about accurate sound reproduction. Listen to some quality equipment that is both installed and tuned properly. The experience can be truly eye-opening. You may find that you are hearing your music for the first time, all over again.

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