Get in the Hatchback: The Ford Mobile Studio Unveiled

Ford has built a mobile recording studio into a 2012 Focus with the help of legendary producer Don Was, engineer Krish Sharma, and car customizer “Mad” Mike Martin.

At the LA unveiling, I got to see the studio in action: recording a band and playing back the mix. As an added bonus I got to talk to Was and Sharma about how dynamic range compression/limiting is ruining modern music.

The car itself is largely stock, or at least it starts that way. Mike Martin and his team at Galpin Auto Sports integrated an analog mixing console, ADC, a laptop running ProTools, and all the other bits necessary for a modern recording studio.

The idea was all Was, thinking that for round two of the Gimme the Gig band search, they’d drive the car to the cities of the winning bands, and record them on their home turf.

To demo the car/studio, local band Magnolia Memoir played part of a track, which was recorded into ProTools, then played back for us. The car’s stock stereo system is used, a conscious choice as cost was clearly no object. This says something about the quality of the Focus’s in car audio. Mike estimated the total cost of the car and build to be around $150,000.

For more on the event, check out the attached gallery.

Compression/Limiting in Modern Music

One of the great evils of modern recordings is excessive compression and limiting of the dynamic range. This is the difference in volume between the quietest section of the music, and the loudest. Think a soft flute solo, followed by a bombastic hit from the entire orchestra. In a concert hall, one would be quiet, the other LOUD. Recorded and mixed today, the flute would be the same volume as the orchestra hit. This is a big deal, as those of us with decent headphones, and/or a decent home audio system, are paying a severe acoustic penalty. Complex soundscapes get compressed to mush. I go into more detail in my Compression is killing your music article, and Steve Guttenberg explains the difference between dynamic-range and data compression.

As the event was winding down, I spotted Was and Sharma standing together off to the side. I walked the dinosaur over and pounced with audiophile-nerd enthusiasm.

I asked about the increasing use of compression and limiting in music, and both seemed quite familiar with the topic. I asked if it was now just standard procedure to compress the music to such a degree, or if producers and engineers could limit the limiting, so to speak. Don Was chuckled, and said they [the producers] could do whatever they wanted, but getting it by the label was another story.

Sharma picked up from there, saying that when you’re listening with poorly fitted ear buds, or in a car, the range between inaudible and loud was very narrow. While this is certainly an explanation, his tone didn’t imply he was excusing the practice. He called out Muse, whose recent album he found a particularly egregious case of dynamic range compression. He was disappointed, as their previous album wasn’t as compressed, and had a lot more punch.

As we wound down the talk of compression, Don Was also mentioned a recent ride in Neil Young’s car playing high-rez 24-bit/192 kHz music. Apparently, Young has an iPad setup where he can click between different encodings of the same song, from uncompressed 24/192 all the way down to lowly MP3. Was seemed enthusiastic about high-rez music, even wondering about Blu-ray’s potential for it. Me too, Don. Me too.

It was quite a thrill being able to chat with two legends of the music industry, especially two so technologically knowledgeable.

Now if we can just get them to give us two mixes (one for us without heavy compression, and another for the masses).