I needed to use my studio on the road. I needed power, portability and translation — the triumvirate of the modern producer / mixer. Power and portability are self-explanatory, translation means: am I confident that I am hearing an accurate representation of my project? And is what I am hearing going to translate to other sound systems? Ultimate Ears UE PRO nailed it.
Recently, I was forced to do the lion’s share of my audio production in a open-plan office which meant that I had to work in headphones most of the time. While it had some disadvantages, it forced me to think about how to construct the ideal portable production rig. Working in headphones had many pit falls — from the sonic curves to a different stereo field that one would experience with near or middle field monitors.
The first few month of this work was grueling. I encountered a lot of bumps in the road. Problems from ear fatigue to poor mix translations were common stumbling blocks. But when I started using the UE Reference Monitors, everything changed.
Before the UE-RM’s, I was using a well-known set that was very high-end “audiophile / Studio Quality” grade. Despite all assurances that I would be able to produce without a worry about sound translations and that these headphones were designed for production work, they weren’t and my mixes proved it. I did my best to mix to the sound of my headphones. Incredibly, when I listened to my projects in other listening environments my mixes actually sounded just like the headphones. That was a bad thing; my mixes were boxy and lifeless.
When I moved on to using the UE-RM’s, my mixes, to my amazement, continued to sound like the phones I was working in — but now this was a VERY good thing.
The RM’s sound translated incredibly well to every playback system I tried.
My ears suffered much less fatigued than before and my clients were very happy. But this got me thinking, how could this party get even better? I started to realize that my elusive dream of a truly accurate mobile production stadium — as I was mostly looking at creating an editing / mixing set up — was within reach.
I needed to sort out the interface question. There are a lot of portable audio interfaces out there. But most of the time for mixing / editing I don’t need multiple outputs or any inputs. I just need accurate sound. All I really needed was a stereo mix. It turns out that the DAC is also really key.
A good digital-to-analog converter (or DAC) can make all the difference when listening to music, especially through headphones. The DAC is what converts the Zeros and Ones of digital audio into sounds you can hear. They can be found everywhere from your phone to your laptop. It’s also the driving force behind your sound card. Most DAC are get the job done for sure. What makes the AK 120 special is that it’s powered by dual Wolfson 8740 DAC. The dual-mono set up completely separates and isolates the left and right audio channels. The the AK120 delivers a exceptional dynamic range and wider soundstage. This means you can a more accurate representation of your producton, making translation much less of a challenge.
The interface conundrum continued to elude me until I eventually tried the Astell & Kern AK120 for a different project as a playback device. I used it as a DAC for my computer. It never occurred to me to try that. When you attach the AK120 to the usb port of your computer it allows you to bypass the internal DAC on your computer and use the 120’s instead. The sound difference is remarkable and it totally eliminated the need to carry a more bulky interface.
When I started using the AK120 like this my workflow improved dramatically. The soundstage was impeccable and I loved the clarity of the individual mix elements. I felt I was getting better sounds then I did in most of the rooms I was trying to mix in — and of course, the rooms were never specially constructed for that purpose. It was revelatory. Now was I not only listening to incredibly accurate sonic representations of my work, but talk about portable! The AK120 is smaller than my phone.
The UE-RM’s and AK120 are my mobile production weapons of choice.
Next week I’ll talk about how they are becoming my creative weapons of choice as well.
Kenn is an accomplished musician, DJ, producer, music consultant and audio engineer with more than twenty years of experience. Recently he has worked creating compelling audio ads for music-based audiences and pioneering new technologies including 3D Audio. He has also worked as an audio engineer for leading studios in New York and the UK, recording and remixing dozens of artists including Razorlight, The Dandy Warhols, The Rapture and The Charlatans. A musician in his own right, Kenn has recorded albums for Elektra Records and Mute Records as both a solo artist and with the band Research.