Living Room Correction: Test-Driving ARC
A lot of music is being made these days in bedrooms, living rooms, and garages. The sound quality you can achieve with minimal equipment is amazing, but the neutrality of your studio monitors is anything but. Treating a room properly for accurate monitoring isn't easy, but IK Multimedia's ARC promises to remedy this issue. I gave the ARC a test drive in my home studio, and was really surprised at how deeply flawed my system was, and how deeply afraid my cat became.
Professional recording studios put a lot of effort into designing their control rooms so they sound as flat and accurate as possible. I use the word "flat" because, ideally, you need an equal representation of all of the frequencies. If the bass sounds are resonating from the walls and surfaces around the speaker, those frequencies will be louder in the room than they are in the recording. Your ears will be hearing a skewed representation of the material, and therefore you'll risk making misinformed sonic decisions when you work.
My home studio is tucked into the corner of my living room. If this room were to be tuned properly to get the most accurate response from my Genelec studio monitors, my desk would likely end up diagonally in the center of the room. My 8030A powered monitors would be sitting beside my desk on speaker stands, and to be honest, I'm not sure where I would place my 7050B powered subwoofer. If I rearranged the furniture to suit my ideal sonic needs, I'd be giving up the comfortable feeling of my home, and severely impacting on my relationship with my girlfriend.
Studio monitors react very differently, depending on where they're placed, and what physical boundaries surround them. I'm aware that placing my near field monitors in the corners beside two walls is not a good idea, but in my situation it's the only spot in which they can be permanently placed. When I do a serious mix at home, I'll move my speakers a couple of feet away from the walls and adjust my desk and chair a bit to be in the new sweet spot. But most of the time my monitors are tucked back in their more visually aesthetic places.
Given my poor monitoring environment, I'm an ideal candidate for IK Multimedia's ARC. This system consists of a decent-quality measurement microphone, measurement software, and a unique room correction plug-in that gets fully customized for your specific setup. The software is Mac and Windows compatible, and it loaded without hassle into my MacBook Pro.
There are several requirements that you must fulfill in order to use the ARC. You must have an audio interface that can operate at 48 kHz. You also must have a microphone preamp that can supply 48V of phantom power to the mic (using the built-in preamp on an audio interface is usually fine). You also need a microphone stand with a boom arm, a standard XLR cable, and (obviously) monitor speakers.
Most people have the urge to unpack a new piece of gear and start using it right away without reading a word of the manual. But that is a seriously bad idea for a product like this. With the ARC you will be conducting a scientific analysis of the acoustic space in which you work. It's a situation in which reading the manual in its entirety is a must. Ultimately the ARC software is very easy to use, but if you place and position the microphone improperly during the measurements, you're doing yourself—and your music—a great disservice.
I read the most of the manual, and I wish the material were more to the point. It often drifted off into marketing hype when all I wanted to do was find out how to test my room acoustics. That said, I did find a number of interesting tips. IK does not recommend using tube-driven microphone preamps. Their warm tone artificially influences the response of the room. If you use the "direct monitoring" function on an audio interface, you need to make a point of turning it off. When you use the ARC plug-in, it should always be the last device in the Master channel, and you always need to make a point of turning it off when you do your final mix-down. IK also claims that the included omnidirectional microphone does a good job of capturing instrument sounds—a nice little perk.
Once I got the idea in my head of how to optimize everything for testing my room, I got to work. First, the software recognizes your audio interface and automatically sets the inputs and outputs and resolution. You attach the included measurement mic, put it on a boom stand pointing at the ceiling, and place it in the sweet spot where you most often work. When you start testing, the software sends a pulsing sound through the speakers. The manual describes the sound as a "chirp," but to me it sounded more like the firing of a laser gun. My cat apparently thought it sounded like impending doom.
As in a normal recording session, you have to kill all of the ambient noise when you conduct your test. My air conditioner needed to be turned off, and when an airplane flew by, I had to wait for it to pass. The software works in cycles. You put the mic in a spot, press test and it fires off six chirps, one set through the left speaker and another through the right. When it's done you move the mic to a new spot that is symmetrical to the last spot you tested. So if you placed the mic a few feet back from your desk to the right, you would conduct the next test in the same spot a few feet back, only to the left. You're required to make a minimum of 12 tests for the system to work, but more tests are encouraged. I ended up doing 24 tests in my room.
I named the resulting plug-in (you can save several tests and call them up instantly) and tried it out in my favorite music software. The manual suggests listening to the songs you know very well when you're testing the plug-in. When I started playing songs back, I was surprised at the result. I would listen to the plug-in turned on for a minute or two, then turn it off mid-song. The difference in the sound was eye opening. As soon as I turned off the ARC plug-in, my nice studio with its RME Fireface UC interface and Genelec monitoring system sounded like a thick pile of mud.
I was a little worried that the ARC plug-in would sound unnatural, like a heavy EQ preset that takes the life out of the sound. It did turn out to sound somewhat unnatural. The normal airy highs of my Genelecs sounded more synthetic and filtered. But what I gained in the correction of my mids and lows convinced me that owning the ARC system would be money well spent. The bottom half of the mix was so much worse sounding with ARC turned off that it was clear my monitoring situation was deeply in need of help.
One convenient feature of the ARC is that it comes with a compact hard shell travel case. The idea is that you bring it with you where ever you need to do critical monitoring. Any time you move your monitors around, or introduce a new piece of furniture into your studio, you can make new measurement tests and get your monitoring response as flat as possible. This is a tool that you can use over and over again, one which you can quickly and easily turn on and off to obtain a different perspective of your mix. The loud laser beam chirping may scare your cat away for a few minutes when you're testing, but when you're finished, you can instantly hear how the ARC will help you craft stronger mixes.