Why Do Your Final Mix in Your Car (And How to Start)
There’s nothing quite like the sensation of roaming the street on your very own set of wheels, with a groovy Anderson .Paak track to go along with it. Now imagine you’re Anderson .Paak, and you’re hearing Dang! for the first time since it was polished in the studio (sidenote – Mac Miller, you’ll never be forgotten), how do you think that experience plays out?
While it is one of the most common ways people would actually listen to your music (Remember how Jay-Z detailed in So Ambitious about playing his mixtape in the car, and peeking out the side of his eye to see if his uncle was bumping his head to it?), producers of all kinds actually utilize the car test for their very own mixes.
Mind you, this has been going on for as long as cars have been housing listening devices.
This article goes over the reason why listening to your final mix in a car can be so useful, as well as how to expand on the practice by yourself.
I have a studio, so why mix in a car?
Ironically, even the best acoustical studio set-up in the world would not be a complete representation of how the listener perceives the final sound experience. Usually, people listen to music on cheap earphones, their laptop speakers and more often than not – in the car.
Although applications such as Audified’s Mixchecker exists to simulate the final sound experience, rarely does it match the experience in real life.
So this makes sense to make an effort to listen to your mixes, be it an album production, film music or game music in a setting where most listeners tend to be in. At the end of the day, not everybody falls into the category of a studio production enthusiast or professional, and that’s just how it goes.
The car not only provides for a more realistic environment in which to have an effect on someone hearing your music, but it also offers you a terrific way to indulge in your music in a different perspective.
Setting Your Car’s Audio Up For Listening
First things first, you would want to keep the EQ settings on your car unchanged for your mix. Allow for the usual settings to remain in order to listen to your mix in the same vein as all your regular music.
Matter of fact, prior to utilizing the car test on your ride, it is highly recommended that you drive around in it for a couple of weeks and during that time, capitalize on listening to professional recordings such as MP3s, CDs or heck, even cassettes.
This will give you a feel for the system housing your car sound, as well as provide a benchmark of how good or bad the music in it comes across.
Note that this will be the best time to make EQ adjustments, in tune with how you generally enjoy hearing your music in the car. Keep at it until you find yourself not reaching for the knob or controls to make further adjustments; that’s when you’ll know your car sound system is in tune with your hearing preferences.
Kicking-off and Making Incremental Adjustments
Now, as you approach listening to a new mix, it’s important, to begin with, a professionally mastered song that’s dialed in for your ears, as a means of tuning out the immediate soundscape within the car.
From the quality of treble and bass, to the manner in which your car sound system handles rhythm and dynamics, these are the aspects to be scrutinized. Ideally, your speakers should be tested with songs of both high familiarity and emotional appeal.
This ensures you would pick up on discrepancies in the stereo such as bad settings, or in an extreme case, a blown speaker.
Royals from Lorde is a good example due to its minimalist approach to electropop, and muscular undertone. The song leaps out at first with the bass drum making a thunderous impact. As the initial impact on the drum skin fades away, you’ll sense both depth and some form of decaying resonance. Fast-forward to the climax of the first chorus and you’ll notice the multi-tracking and overlay of Lorde’s voice with those of her backing singers.
This produces both a soaring and spacious sound effect which should translate to your car sound system sounding huge here, with the speakers generating an immense soundstage.
I get it – the first time your mix is played on a car sound system, specifically if it’s an early version of that particular mix, you would be hard-pressed not to make adjustments to the bass and treble.
While this is perfectly normal, hear me out, do not get swayed into this mindset. Why? Precisely because the imbalances you find apparent in the car, is why you are doing all of this, to begin with!
Now, the first few minutes are the most important when hearing out your mix. First reactions tend to be the most accurate due to the environment change in which the car provides, not to mention a tiny bit of separation exists against the mix, compared to how it sounds in a studio setting. This is especially helpful, being that dialing in your mixes hours on end can result in you completely losing track of what you’re listening to and for.
The key is to list down the initial two or three things that you notice being off in regards to the car mix. More often than not, bass synth(s) and the kick drum tend to be the ones that cause disruption to the mixes and this can be visible early on. To proceed with modifications, a good guide would be to perform them in increments of decibels (dB).
For instance, if the kick is apparently too loud, you should go about dialing back -5dB on the kick’s fader within your mix. By performing such incremental modifications based on your listening notes, adjustments can be made more seamlessly, without necessarily ruining what could have been a good mix in the first place.
At the end of all this, if you find your mix on the quieter side, realize that this is no big deal. All you merely need to do is boost your output with a form of mastering software like Izotope’s Ozone.
However, if you’re not feeling particularly confident doing mastering yourself, using a popular web-based mastering service, Landr, does a decent job – although I wouldn’t recommend it for the most part if you can do your own mastering.
Remember to enjoy this unorthodox mixing process.
You might feel tempted to give up after that first car listen. With your mix sounding superior in a studio setting and then translating into what sounds like a bad mix in the car – this can quickly make you feel demoralized.
You might even start to doubt yourself as a good mixing engineer or producer!
But holster up and don’t make any extensive changes just yet.
Based on your listening notes, proceed to continue to adjust your mix incrementally.
In fact, after a few rounds, you might even uncover a different set of problems within the mix. That’s perfectly fine! Fine-tuning a mix takes plenty of time and patience.
Once you do achieve a mix sounding wonderful in the car, as it does within a studio setting, you know you’ve hit the sweet mixing spot for your music.
Having said all the above, not everyone’s car’s audio system is ready for critical listening. You might need to upgrade or change a few things in your car. Take note that the sound systems you find in cars are also quite different from your studio speakers.
Worry not, here are 5 tips to upgrade your car’s sound system so you can start mixing in your car.
1 – Get Rid of Your Car Factory Speakers
The first thing you can do to elevate the audio experience of your car is to switch up the sound system that originally came with your car.
You may have already noticed that the sound quality being emitted through the speakers by your car sound system is sub-par. This is due to it lacking the adequate power to cope with your music needs over prolonged periods. What ends up happening is the speakers begin to get damaged, and the unfortunate outcome of that is distorted music.
The equalizer in your car audio system is tuned to be more bassy and brighter as well, as that is what our ears love listening to – thus mistakenly judging a good or bad mix.
Purchasing a new head unit is a great idea if you plan to utilize your smartphone or laptop to play music. Keep in mind, the need for a USB port on your audio player and a digital audio converter (DAC). The latter should be bought with consideration to quality as the audio conversion quality would matter.
Something worth noting is that the majority of today’s head units are fitted with Bluetooth connectivity. While this eases the process of listening to your music, the convenience of being wireless also means your music plays at lower quality. So you might want to skip Bluetooth altogether if you’re listening to your mixes in your car.
2 – Add Components For Better Sound
Investing in additional components such as that of an aftermarket amplifier is a sure-fire way to enhance your music experience whilst driving. This will boost the power being generated by your speaker system, not to mention giving you thorough control over music preferences. Weak signals are transformed into strong ones from the audio source giving rise to gratifying sounds from your speakers.
The result? A cleaner, crispier effect with no distortion, even when the music is at its peak volume.
This extra conversion power unlocks the capacity of your car speakers. In terms of indulging in your music, the amplifier is an upgrade you wouldn’t want to do without.
Want to dig deeper into the world of car speakers? The Drive writes about choosing great car speakers to improve your car’s sound quality.
3 – Subwoofers Add More Depth
While you may not be a fan of heavy, thumping bass, there is still an area for appreciation in terms of the added depth dimension the subwoofer contributes to your music. This also enables you to listen to some frequencies of your mix that you might otherwise miss with the absence of a sub-woofer.
Also note that if you’re planning on installing a subwoofer, you’ll need a good subwoofer amplifier to pair with it as well. Put simply, an amplifier acts as a large power supply to support your subwoofer while doing its bass amplification job.
Check out these recommendations for some best subwoofer amplifer you can get in the market.
4 – Always Export High Bitrate Files for Listening
Sure, a lossy MP3 file might sound decent on your earphones, but you wouldn’t want that if you intend to listen to your mix in the car. So when you export your mixes for a listening session in the car, make sure they are high-quality as well.
Music files played on the phone and in your car system generally go down towards 128kbps, and the reason people settle for this is due to its small file size. And with untrained ears, it actually quite hard to hear its difference.
However, a seasoned music producer or sound engineer would be able to point out a low bitrate file from a high bitrate file.
A general rule of thumb would be to aim for an MP3 file at 320kpbs bit rate at a bare minimum. The downside is that most car audio players would not be able to play an uncompressed wav. file, so go for the highest quality MP3 as possible.
5 – Deadening Your Car
Sometimes, external sounds are at fault for destroying a good critical listening session. Of course, it’s important to be able to hear outdoor noises especially if you’re driving, but what we are doing here is more towards optimizing your car’s audio listening environment.
You can deaden the sound bounces in your car with sound-deadening materials such as panels that can be attached to your doors or to where the speakers are located. They are inexpensive, and yet installed correctly, can significantly decrease the vibrations created by your speakers.
Consequently, this improves your car’s sound quality and lessen external sounds – so you can listen and judge your mix better.
Another good option in the region of sound deadening would be damping floor mats. What they do is they reduce car tire vibrations and assist with controlling noises from the external.
Don’t obsess over it!
Yes, mixing in your car can make sense, but don’t go overboard with it.
We’ve recommended some upgrades to your car sound system but in truth, most of your upgrades should go towards your home studio instead of your car.
At the end of the day, it comes down to balance.
Let us know in the comment section below. Do you listen to your mix in your car? And if so, how was your experience?