How does your favorite song sound to you?
For starters, it is a multi-part piece of science and art that is fused into creating an optimal space for music to live in. It is to expand and concentrate how sound travels through sonic waves and channel separation in an enclosed space – such as an automobile interior.
In other words, this is one way to put lightning in a bottle – theoretically.
This subject was prompted by an industry friend of mine. She posted a PR piece from her employers about which songs are put to the test to create a sound system for their vehicles.
According to Rustyn Robinson, an engineer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, his pick is from his native Scotland.
His test track is the Average White Band’s hit single from 1975, "Pick Up The Pieces."
Robinson's job is to tune the audio systems inside FCA's vehicles to ensure the best quality sound for their customers. Even if the owner of a new Ram pickup truck or Dodge Challenger might not care about what they listen to behind the wheel, there is someone back at the manufacturer that does.
In an age where digital recording and sound reprocessing is the norm, you have to give Robinson some credit for taking a multitrack analog recording from the mid-1970s as his test track for audio systems inside FCA’s coolest vehicles. When you offer audio systems with the brand names of Alpine, Beats Audio, Harmon Kardon, and so forth, you have to make sure that these audio systems meet the criteria of discerning ears for sound reproduction.
In fact, Mr. Robinson does not realize that he has bent many ears through his work.
It is not just FCA that has been putting in the work to ensure that both analog and digital music tracks can be optimized inside of your vehicle. Every manufacturer has a sound engineer employed to ensure that even the lowest end of audio sounds right inside your vehicle.
Of course, every one of these manufacturers have put in a high quality audio system that bears the name of a top end brand. You may have heard the names Naim, Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen, McIntosh, and Bose. You may recognize them as being the top of their game in terms of audio reproduction. The expectation that these brands affixed to an audio system inside your vehicle – as specified by that manufacturer of your vehicle – has to sound exactly like the systems of the same brand you have at home or on your headphones.
Keep in mind that because the speaker wears a certain label, they might not be the perfect sonic experience for the listener. How many Bose systems have you heard that does not sound like the ones you hear through one of their noise-cancelling headphones or their home audio system? Granted these are two different sonic spaces – one concentrated into the human ear; the other spread out into a much larger space that a vehicle’s cabin – but one expects a certain quality of sound that is associated with that brand.
It takes a bit knowledge and experience to discover what your vehicle’s audio system should sound like. Let me take you back a few decades to when I bought a new Acura Integra. The RS model did not come with an audio system, so I wanted to have one installed in it. The Acura dealer offered up one of their audio set-ups from Alpine for the Integra, which would be fine. The salesperson recognized that I had a more discerning ear and would probably want to head across the freeway to an audio/electronics chain for a custom set-up.
In the end, I got a very balanced sound from a set of four Infinity coaxial speakers – each replacing the standard cone speakers supplied by Acura – and a Sony pull-out cassette head unit. OK, I should’ve gotten the detachable face version, but I like the specifications from this self-amplified unit. The car sounded great, but I could only imagine if I chose the Alpine-supplied unit from the dealer instead.
The sound I wanted was based on what I wanted my ears to listen to – which was everything. Jazz recordings was the test for me. They were recorded and engineered in analog with true sound separation. You can hear the cymbals from the snare, the congas with the trumpet, the bass and electric guitar from each speaker. That is what I was looking for in a custom audio system that was both subtle and powerful in its delivery.
What about today’s digitally-mastered music? What I miss from analog recordings is that true separation of sound that is now reprocessed for today’s tracks. A song like Van Morrison's "Wavelength" that used a Moog synthesizer as its underbelly is one of my tests. There's also "How Long" by Ace – an old band of vocalist Paul Carrack – with its honest sound separation using an organ instead of a synthesizer.
I will also plunk in some old school hip-hop, funk, and R&B to test out on modern audio systems. Busta Rhymes can blast through your speakers, while the late Guru of Gang Starr knows how to smooth all out. I also found I can test the speaker’s strength by sending Mariah Carey or Patti LaBelle through them. These are just a few artists that can be put through the test.
By "plunking," I mean connecting the audio system through Apple CarPlay and use Apple Music to send the files down for reprocessing and playback. Sad that we have to do it this way, but it is how we listen to music nowadays.
Besides, when was the last time you plunked a cassette into your audio system – in your car or at home?
Your driving experience should be a way to escape the humdrum of life and the stress of today’s divided pandemic world. Your vehicle’s audio system should be a part of that escape from reality. Put on your favorite track and hear how it can enhance your driving experience.
Photo by Randy Stern