Welcome to the "FM Sound Wise" blog, where I will occasionally share my experience in audio technology, mixing, mastering, and all things related. Inspired by recent studio upgrades and many questions about new acoustics, speakers, and more, in the first blog post I've written about my experience in upgrading sound system in the studio.
sound system upgrade
ATC SCM45A Pro | Auratone
The studio has recently undergone a major update, including improvements to room acoustics, workflow gadgets and metering tools, as well as upgrades to the listening converters, analog summing, monitor room control, and digitally controlled analog bus compressor. However, the most significant upgrade is the reconfiguration of the sound system, which now includes the ATC SCM45A Pro and Auratone 5c active Sound Cubes, in addition to the existing Adam A77X system and Audeze LCDX headphones. Recently, I've been learning and utilizing SketchUp and AutoCAD to create precise 3D plans for the new studio layout, which are also displayed in the accompanying images. After two months of adjustments, calibrations, and experience in the new listening environment, here are some conclusions and impressions.
Working on the Adams in a partially treated room was always conducive to the creative process and vibe, but not fully sufficient for critical listening and discerning the nuances of mixdowns or individual sounds. This is where the Audeze LCDX headphones were always helpful. For mixing and mastering, it was always a 20/80 split between speakers and headphones. After the full room acoustic treatment with Anthill Audio, the ratio shifted almost to 50/50, with a significant improvement, but still slightly more in favour of headphones. During this period, the ATCs had arrived but were waiting patiently for robust speaker stands made of steel and filled with sand for the best resonance control and the ability to carry 50 kilos each for both Adam and ATC. The stands are inspired by Sound Anchor ADMID stands and were custom made by Davor Vrdoljak aka Venom, who not only met the main needs of the stands but also executed the option of height and angle rotation adjustment for each speaker. The next step was mounting the speaker "fortress" and finding the best position for the flattest possible response. Once we found the sweet spot, we tried to correct the minor bumps and dips with Sonarworks, but the difference was so small that I decided to continue working without corrections and avoid any additional phase shifts. It was cathartic to realise that the ATCs were well-suited to my room, and vice versa. This was a highly engaging and informative experience led by Goran Egić from Anthill Audio.
During the process, I listened to the ATCs but withheld judgment until everything was set up, and then it finally happened. I had many expectations, but they were mainly assumptions and somewhat abstract when, for example, trying to imagine even better transient response than in the Audeze headphones. I hadn't had much experience listening to this level of studio sound reproduction before. What shocked me initially was the mid-range representation of the sound picture that allows the effortless hearing and picking out frequencies inside the vocals or snare drum in the room. The mid-range was so obvious that it took over the first place in my first impressions. I understand that the ATC mid driver is the best out there with lowest distortion possible, but haven't expected this level of precision in the room when it comes to sound surgery.
After a little while, my attention turned to the low end, and there I experienced a slight paradox of underwhelming and overwhelming impressions. At first, it felt like I needed more bottom, but at the same time, I actually heard the sub notes and how they blended with the kick fundamental, and this was also something I could only grasp precisely inside headphones before. It was just right - tight and not hyped or blurry. I could talk more about low-end problems in general, but I'll just say that the ATCs handled it very well. In the future, integrating an ATC Sub is an option to extend the lowest octave and offer the full spectrum/club experience in the studio, but it's not crucial for the low-end adjustments for now.
The top end was my next focus, and this area, along with mid-highs, shares the guilt for ear attack and fatigue. After two months, I can confirm that the ATC tweeter is non-intrusive but an honest and assertive friend when it comes to catching ugly vocal sibilants or harsh "shurikens" from hats, snares, and other instruments. It just shows the problems without extra distortion in comparison to the slightly aggressive ribbon tweeter of the Adams.
While switching focus through the low, mid, and high-end, despite the ongoing awareness of the full spectrum, I then fully zoomed out and listened to the full spectrum. This, along with the impression of how surgical yet pleasant-sounding the ATCs are, led to a realisation of what's going on in the stereo field. The width, depth, and phantom centre of sound blew me away. This is one thing that headphones cannot reproduce realistically, even with cross-talk plugins. The soundstage experience of the ATCs includes their transient response quality, which allows you to really hear the start and the precise sustain/length of sounds and their position in the field. I can now fully rely on speakers for Mid/Side EQing and the width and length of reverbs and other spatial effects. It's amazing. This is surely due to the quality of ATCs' drivers and boxes, but they are also my first big (midfield) speakers I've worked on, so the whole impression is that everything is bigger and can be louder without extra distortions. I am immersed and hugged by the sound and feel like I'm inside the song, fixing resonances and clearly hearing what my analog gear is doing to the sound as well.
After executing about 80 masters and working on many mixing projects over the last 2 months, I can confirm that the usage ratio of speakers versus headphones has shifted to 90/10 in favour of speakers.
The next addition to the FM Mastering sound system was swapping the small A3X Adams for a new edition of the active pair of the original Auratone Sound Cubes, which are placed closely on the desk with a slight upward rotation. This is a nice addition for checking how the sound acts on mini reproduction systems like laptops or mobile phones, and so far, it works like a charm. Vocal ringings and other mid-range problems are nicely presented on these. They are also pretty good for checking how the low and low mids act on small systems.
The ATCs, Adams and Auratones are all plugged into the Dangerous D-Box+ with updated converters and are now seamlessly switchable with dedicated ABC buttons. Bringing ATCs in the house leaves no real need for any other speakers, but I decided to keep the Adams to have an option of listening to a different sounding system with a bit more distorted and smeared sound. Next to the ATCs, the beloved Adams now feel a bit more like a HIFI system, pulling back the midrange and acting more as a "smiley face" curve. The Adams' reproduction now leans more towards what people are accustomed to hearing outside of studios. The upgraded FM Mastering listening configuration of ATC + Adam + Auratone + Audeze is a major step up in my ever-evolving setup and has injected a lot of new confidence during mixing and mastering decision-making.