Ethereality News & Weblog

July 9, 2010

IK Multimedia ARC System review

It’s been many months since I last updated Kitty Cat Diary, but here it is–the latest entry:

Some of you have seen photos of my studio and know that it has extensive acoustic treatment, and my reference monitors are Klein + Hummel O300D‘s. I always knew that despite having built my studio from the ground up and having read books on studio design/construction, consulted experts, and really working at achieving the most accurate and neutral sound in my studio, it still had peaks and nulls. So after researching for a while, I finally decided to get the IK Multimedia ARC System, and I’m happy to say it met my expectations. My studio now sounds about as accurate and neutral as I could possibly make it. The awesome thing is that the ARC can be used in any kind of room, and will dramatically improve the sound quality, even if you don’t already have any acoustic treatments in place. It won’t correct any severe time-domain issues your room might have, but in terms of frequency response and stereo imaging, it really helps, and is especially a blessing for those that can’t use acoustic treatment for whatever reasons (spouse approval, limited space, budget). You might think your speakers and your room sounds fine, but until you put it to the test, you’re likely wrong (and it always seemed strange that audiophiles spend all that money on gear, but the room is totally untreated and the gears never sound like their real potential). ARC will show you just how skewed your room and speakers actually are and then correct them.

There are other products that do similar things like the KRK Ergo, JBL MSC1, dbx DriverRack, Samson D-1500/D250…etc. I chose the ARC because it’s not tied to hardware and it also tests your room in a manner I find most useful. The only caveat is that it is a software plugin, and if you are not running a computer-based audio rig, then you will not be able to use it (unless you want to use a hardware plugin host like the Muse Recpetor or other similar hardware products). For those of you with computer audio rigs, you can host VST plugins in J River Media center (version 14 and up), Media Monkey, Winamp…etc.

So anyway, onto my experience with the ARC.

My initial experience with it sucked–the damn thing kept crashing when I tried to save the preset on computer #1. On computer #2, the test tone would just stop making sound for no reason, and I could never get through the whole testing process without it becoming silent at some point. I tried to download updates from IK’s website (after registering the product and signing in to my account), and it gave me nothing. I looked in the user’s area in downloads, nothing. The download page won’t even load. Looked in support area, nothing. And I kept trying until I got fed up and just downloaded a cracked version, and you know what–it worked. I hated having to do that, but often I had heard that cracked versions fixed problems with the legit versions, and in this case it was true. Anyway, I paid for my copy so I feel no guilt about this. (And no, you can’t just download a cracked version and use it, since it has to use the dedicated testing mic that comes with it, as the software is calibrated to the mic’s specific properties.)

So off I went and did some tests. The first couple of presets I saved didn’t sound right to me–it was kind of limp and the bass was powerless. I was really disappointed. Then the next day, I did a couple more tests restricting the listening area to just normal head movements my body makes while I’m mixing/monitoring–that means, I didn’t tests spots all around the damn chair and where the keyboard and mouse are and just concentrate on the area about the width of my shoulders and about the same front and back of where my head would be. I also adjusted the settings on my monitors (K+H O300D’s) to get closer to the test results the ARC showed. This time, it worked really well–the result sounded very neutral and flat.

I had thought my room was already very well treated as I built my studio from the ground up and researched hard on the acoustics, design, treatment, consulted experts, read books…etc. Those of you that have seen photos of my studio know how extensive the treatment is, with superchunk basstraps up the wazoo, all the important reflection points taken care of, good room dimensions, ideal listening position, and so on. But what ARC revealed (and what I had already kind of known when I did my own tests with a sound pressure meter) was that there were spikes and dips and the two speakers did not sound the same (probably due to furniture placement and other factors). I had spikes at 45Hz, 75Hz, 400Hz, and dips at 125Hz and 1.5KHz, which resulted in a bottom heavy but visceral and punchy sound. The problem is, it colored all the material that way, even material that wasn’t supposed to sound that way. I also had a dip at 2Khz, and the treble/upper-mids were hyped, which resulted in a fatiguing and bright sound.

Here’s ARC’s testing results and correction:
ARC curves

After I applied the correction, the bass spike was tamed and the mids filled in and the treble wasn’t so hot anymore. I used to think t maybe the “neutral” sound of the O300D’s were a bit hotter than what’s comfortable to me–that my ears aren’t used to hearing really flat frequency range around the area that caused fatigue, but now I know–it was the room making things sound that way, and what I heard wasn’t neutral at all. With the correction, all the excessive brightness went away, and everything just sounded smooth and natural. The bass was still authoritative and punchy on material that was mixed that way, and it was smooth and soft on material that was mixed to be smooth and soft. I think that’s a sign that a sound device is neutral and flat–it reproduced the material faithfully, instead of coloring everything with a similar sonic footprint.

Prior to the correction, I also knew that the phantom center was a bit off due to the way I have the furniture and one side of the wall having a window behind the broadband absorbers. Now with the correction, the center was dead on and the stereo imaging was very clean and even between the two sides. ARC allows you to turn on time-delay correction and when I tried it, it moved the phantom center almost all the way to the left, so that wasn’t going to work. But when I turn it off, everything’s just fine.

I spend a lot of time later doing comparisons of correction on and off, and I even used the before/after curve ARC provided to further tweak some very minor spikes and dips that ARC couldn’t completely smooth out in the bass region, and the extra EQ made the K+H’s sound even smoother and tighter controlled (I used Easy-Q, a free high quality EQ for that, but you can use any high quality EQ–preferably a linear phase EQ such as FabFilter Pro-Q, Voxengo CurveEQ, Redline EQ…etc for minimum phasing and distortion). I think I’m finally hearing how the K+H’s are supposed to really sound, after owning them for three years and using them in three different home studios.

For a few hundred bucks, I really think the ARC is worth it. It has confirmed my suspicions about the deficiencies of my already well-treated room, and it has redefined for me what neutral and flat and smooth really means. It even changed my opinion about my headphone collection. I used to use the K+H’s as some kind of benchmark for accuracy to judge my various headphones, but now I realize I had been unfair to some of them when they were actually much more neutral and accurate than I thought they were (such as the Sennheiser HD650)., and certain ones are actually more skewed than I thought they were (such as the Denon D7000).

I also did a preset for my smaller multimedia speakers/sub, which I often use when I’m not doing critical work–like just watching a movie or something, and it worked really well. All the muddiness was gone, and the sound opened up and become much more clear.

So there you have it. I spent the money and I was ready to be disappointed, since I can be a skeptic just like everyone else about these types of products, and I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed. If you have tried it and didn’t like the result, I highly recommend you do the test again but don’t follow the diagrams in the manual. Limit the testing spots to just the area within your body’s width and a head front/back of your listening position, because when you are doing critical monitoring, that’s the area you’ll be restricting yourself to when you’re doing critical work anyway–that sweet spot. Don’t test a large area all over your big console mixer or the width of a sofa, since the result would be a compromise and won’t be very good.

After all these years of never being able to stick to an exercise routine, I think I finally found the answer–martial arts. I had done a little bit of karate as a kid, but nothing serious. Our family is a tennis family, so I grew up playing tennis since about age 11, was on the school’s tennis team, and then as I got serious about creative passions, I started playing less and less. By the time I was an adult, I stopped playing altogether. For many years I didn’t exercise at all–I didn’t even have enough time to try to master drawing, painting, music composition/arrangement, various musical instruments, writing, directing, design, photography…etc. In my late-twenties I played airsoft for a while but it wasn’t something you could do whenever you wanted since you needed other people and a suitable location for a decent game. Although airsoft can be physically demanding when things heat up, it can also have long stretches of minimum physical activity, such as when you are executing an ambush, just laying there in the leaves, waiting for the other teams to walk into your trap. After I met Elena, I tried to occasionally use indoor exercise machines, and we went through a few of them, but it was never consistent and barely did any good. We still have a nice exercise machine at home, but I rarely ever use it, even if I can watch DVD’s while using it–I just can’t stand repetitive and mindless exercise for the sake of the exercise itself–I need fun, excitement, strategy…etc. Perhaps I should’ve kept up with sports since most sports fit that profile, but I really don’t like the idea of having to rely on other people to get anything done, or not being able to do what I want whenever I feel like it (I guess that’s why I quite my 9 to 5 job as studio art director and chose to work at home for myself instead). So in my latest attempt to get a regular exercise routine going, I bought a freestanding punching bag:
punching bag


I chose fingerless gloves because, well, what happens if my nose itches and I need to scratch it, or the phone rings? Ahhh, pretty smart, eh? The knuckles are all well padded and protected, but it won’t stop me from twisting my wrist if I throw a bad punch.

I’m having a lot more fun exercising now, working on my kicks, punches, instead of something repetitive and boring run on a treadmill or rowing machine. I wish I had a partner to spar with though. Maybe I’ll join a local dojo next.

I’ve picked up Dragon Age: Origins recently, and since last time I didn’t get too far, I decided to go with a different character instead–a mage (last one was a human noble). I find that playing a mage is a lot more fun, since spells in general are a lot more interesting than just bashing away with a melee weapon or shooting arrows. As a mage you get to drain life and add to your own, which is one of my favorite types of spell.

The story thus far has been more interesting than I had expected. I tend to get bored of fantasy stories easily unless they are very intriguing. Most fantasy stories are like tired variants of the Lord of the Ring series and it’s ridiculous how unimaginative they are, especially considering fantasy is supposed to be all about imagining the wildest things that can’t ever be explained by science or history. So what do we get usually? The same fucking dragons, elves, dwarfs, orcs, and the same crap about kings and their thrones, uprisings, and the impending invasion of some demonic army. That is really sad, isn’t it? When I was younger, I used to prefer fantasy more since I loved anything to do with the possibilities of magic, but as I got older, I realized on the average, science-fiction is usually a lot more imaginative and compelling, and the most fantasy are just mindless and derivative. I’m hoping Dragon Age won’t end up telling some variant of the fantasy story we are already too familiar with. I enjoyed Mass Effect a lot, and I hope Dragon Age will be just as interesting.

I finally installed Crysis on my PC and have played it for a while. I suspect I’m about halfway through the game. It’s visually stunning, and it’s hard to believe how much the graphics has improved since Far Cry. I think of Crysis as the real spiritual sequel to Far Cry, since Far Cry 2 was nothing like the first one, while Crysis is practically the same environment and gameplay. I expect things to get even more fun once I start fighting the aliens. The Nano Suit is integral to the gameplay, and it’s on the verge of being frustrating since energy drains too quickly–to the point of being barely able to keep you alive in many situations.

I finally tried S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl too, and it was such a disappointment. With today’s games being so polished, this game was like a build that was at least six months away from the beta milestone. It felt so dated and clunky that I just couldn’t stomach it. Maybe we are spoiled by all these big budget AAA titles made by teams of hundreds, but that’s just how it is.

I finished Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and I forced myself to only because I wanted to play Uncharted 2. It wasn’t as good as I had hoped, with predictable patterns of AI routine, repetitive gunfights, and the intrigue of supernatural elements didn’t start until too late in the game, and it was by far the most interesting aspect of the game. The final boss’s A.I. routine was so bad that I couldn’t believe it–he would take three blindly fired shots from behind cover, and one pop up and take one aimed shot–all in the exact same spot. This pattern repeated over and over and over, and every time you kill all his backup, he would run to the next set piece and do the same routine all over again. Seriously, that kind of lazy A.I. programming is so outdated that you really can’t get away with it in the 21st century. It just looks stupid. I also hated some of the enemy dialogues–cheesy gems like “You’re mine, punk!” or “You’re dead!” or “Blast him!” This is one thing that videos games are really, really bad at. Why can’t the writers actually write believable dialogues for the enemies during firefights? What about simple and logical ones like “Cover me!” or “Reloading!” or “Flank him!” or “I’m out of ammo!” or something with a bit more personality like “C’mon! He’s just one guy! We can take him!” The last game I played that had really idiotic enemy dialogues was The Darkness, where all the enemies–hundreds of them, knew you by name, yelled out insults to you like you have a history with every single one of them, and hated you with seething passion as if you raped all of their daughters. It was so bad that I was dumbfounded. But as I mentioned, I only played Drake’s Fortune so I could play the sequel, which won a lot of awards and was highly regarded. I wouldn’t say Drake’s Fortune is bad at all–it was quite good in some ways, but the lasting impression is that it could’ve been a lot more exciting and fun.

So now that I’ve played a little of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I can say that it’s definitely an improvement over Drake’s Fortune, but it’s got its own issues, such as the “stealth” sneaking around while knocking out the museum guards one by one. I know they can’t exactly do a very realistic take on it, since it would probably change the tone of the game into something much more serious, but how they handled it was just so ludicrous that I can’t help but think there must be a better way to make the gameplay more believable. Guards were standing no more than a couple of meters away from each other and they can’t hear you punching living daylights out of their fellow guards? What, are they all listening to iPods? Also, you could practically run around as long as you are not in the direct straight-line sight of the guards. Did these guards somehow lose their peripheral vision when they took the job? Also, all the noise created from raising and lowering the gate and no guards noticed?

Maybe it’s just me, but I really dislike the so-called “stealth” in most games. They are about as logical or realistic as enemies who can take entire clips from a gun and not go down. I’ll continue to play Among Thieves just to see if the story is any good, and I hope it at least improves upon all the weaknesses of Drake’s Fortune.

Noticed I didn’t mention about the visuals, audio, or writing, and I think it’s because when there are glaring gameplay issues, it overrides everything else for me. Both are AAA titles so obviously they excel in graphics and audio. The writing is pretty good–typical pulpy movie type of writing. It’s good enough to be entertaining, and I think that’s all it’s meant to be.

Quickie movie/TV reviews

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (season one) – My brother Dennis recommended this one. It reminds me a bit of Seinfeld, where all the characters are selfish, immoral, and the humor is all based on political incorrectness. But then again, it seems that’s what all comedies are based on these days.

Mad Men (Season Three) – Another excellent season of one of the most intelligent TV series every created. My brother Michael is the director of accounts at a large international ad agency, and his co-workers told him he must watch the show. Strangely enough, he said he didn’t really get it or enjoy it. I don’t understand why–he’s certainly intelligent enough. I guess he just doesn’t see it the way I do–that it’s a fascinating portrait study of an era in American history, or how the characters are complex and vivid, playing out their roles in a society that was fast losing its willful innocence. Don Draper is one of the most complex and mysterious characters I’ve seen in any TV show, and I can’t wait to find out what happens to all the characters in season four.

Sons of Anarchy (season one) – Another show my brother Dennis recommended, and it’s pretty good. By the end of season one, you realize you’re watching a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but with motorcycle gangs. I enjoyed it enough to want to see how it plays out, but I don’t have high expectations for it like I do some of my favorite shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Office, Entourage, The Wire…etc.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – This film had such rave reviews and I could see why, although I think this type of film appeals to a very specific audience–namely the arthouse fans. It reminded me a lot of Rosetta and L’Enfant in its very realistic and almost real-time depiction of a mundane event in the lives of very average people. While I can appreciate these types of films, in general it’s not the kind of execution I prefer, since so many of the wonderful cinematic language and devices we have invented are off-limits in this kind of filmmaking.

The Crazies – I’ve never seen George Romero’s original version, but I enjoyed this remake. It was well-executed, and although I mistakenly expected pulse-pounding thrills in the form of an entire town of infected zombies, I wasn’t disappointed.

Green Zone – One of the most tense and thrilling movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s basically like having Jason Bourne as a Chief Warrant Officer in Iraq tasked with finding WMD’s, and then follow him as he uncovers the ugly lies behind it all. Well, except that there’s no super human assassin bad-assness–just gritty realism of war.

Shutter Island – I really hate the fact that as someone who writes, I often can see a plot twist coming from 10 miles away, and it always ruins the surprise and the fun. I knew the plot twist to this film as soon as DiCaprio stepped onto the island. There was a quick shot of the armed guards reacting to him arriving, and it was so obvious to me how the movie would end right there and then. I don’t know why Scorsese was so heavy-handed with that particular shot–it doesn’t seem like something he would do. I was also a bit surprised by the lighting in a scene where he’s lighting matches in order to see in the dark. It was just a badly thought-out lighting situation where the ambient light was way too bright to look like a match-lit scene. I’ve seen these kinds of scenes lit very convincingly before, and I was disappointed to see a badly lit one in a film by a master. Overall I enjoyed the film and I think it’s one of his more accessible films in a long time, along with The Departed.

Book of Eli – If you don’t take the story too seriously and just enjoy the ride, it’s quite entertaining. Definitely make sure your suspension of disbelief is activated, especially for the ending.

She’s Out of My League – This movie felt a little schizophrenic to me. On one hand, it’s a sincere romantic comedy with a lot of heart, and on the other hand, the bromance and excessive juvenile aspects often felt like the creators were trying too hard to mimic the current trend, despite that the tone didn’t mix well with the rest of the film.

Bodyguards and Assassins (十月圍城) – My brother Michael recommended this film, and after watching it I wondered what the hell he was smoking. It was a terrible film that squandered an awesome premise, and it’s hard to forgive the filmmakers for it because it really is a very unique premise. It’s basically about when Sun Yat-sen went to Hong Kong to rally support for the revolution to overthrow the Chin Dynasty and bring about a new, modern China. The officials planned to assassinate Sun and use him as an example to discourage further dissenting activities. The underground resistance fighters make plans to escort and protect Sun during his one-hour talk with supporting representatives from the thirteen regions of China, and they must keep him alive and allow him that one hour to convince the representatives to support the cause, as it would change the course of history. That in of itself would’ve been an amazingly tense political thriller, but the idiots behind the film somehow decided to turn the entire second half of the film into laughably clichéd wire-fu martial arts brawl-fest. They completely cheapened the historical significance of the premise and went for all-out action entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator–the kind of shallow audience who couldn’t sit through a movie without explosions and fist fights. Obviously, the historical event had no wire-fu fights.

There were other sloppy filmmaking and bad decisions, such as when they showed a man chasing after a horse-cart for blocks, running at top speed, and then when he stops to look at his daughter (for the first time), his breathing was perfectly normal. Who makes that kind of idiotic mistake anymore? Then there’s the use of rock electric guitars in the film score. I can’t stand that–when period films use very modern music styles and instruments. And there’s also people beating the crap out of each other with bare knuckles but their hands are perfectly fine and normal looking afterwards. I think in general, most Chinese filmmakers are still far behind the curve in terms of cinematic sensibility compared to the west. This film, plus the recent failed attempts to emulate Lord of the Rings type of fantasy epic (every single one of them was completely idiotic and horrible), really shows how limited of a range the Chinese filmmakers have. They excel in the oppressive and depressing dramas, but not much else really. There are only a tiny handful of Chinese directors who are worth watching–the rest are just wasting celluloid.

Taking Woodstock – I watch anything Ang Lee directs, since I find him to be a sensitive and versatile director. I was a little surprised by his choice of material this time around, since it’s been a very long time since he did a comedy. I enjoyed the film for the story and the character relationships, even if that era was way before my time and I have no emotional attachments to it.

Hot Tub Time Machine – I was happy to see John Cusack returning to his comedic roots. It feels a bit like jumping on the “bromance comedy with lots of foul language and juvenile humor” wagon overall, but that’s the trend for comedies these days I guess. I was entertained, laughed at a few jokes, and in general had a good time.

Youth In Revolt – I was mostly surprised by how safe and monotonous this film was. I guess my expectations were much higher. It reminds me a bit of being like an inferior Wes Anderson comedy. Michael Cera’s played out that sweet but awkward nerdy character by now, and if he doesn’t reinvent himself as an actor soon, people are going to lose interest in whatever he’s going to do next.

Law Abiding Citizen – While it’s easy to side with the vigilante mentality because we readily identify with a man who had to watch his wife and children murdered in front of his eyes, but as the movie went on, the entire premise and moral stance just loses resonance as things got more and more ridiculous and the bodies start piling up, including those who are totally innocent. If this movie had a moral message, it was so muddied and convoluted by the end of the film that you just can’t buy into the way the message was conveyed.

July 5, 2010

August workshop enrollment now open

Filed under: Art & CG,News — Rob Chang @ 4:40 pm

The August run of my workshop, Becoming a Better Artist: Critical Knowledge and Techniques For Today’s Artists, is now open for enrollment.

Due to personal reasons, I’m moving the next run of the workshop up to early August. I was hoping to take some time off after this current run, but it looks like I have to make room for some family stuff this fall and maybe winter, and I really wanted to do one more run this year since many people were disappointed they couldn’t make this current run due to how fast it filled up or timing issues. If you think you can make the August run of the workshop, then act fast because the last workshop filled up very quickly and CGSociety had to put people on the waiting list.

I don’t know if there’s going to be additional runs this year after the August workshop, but if there will be, it would likely be December at the earliest, otherwise, it’s probably going to have to be early next year. You can ask questions about the workshop or read other people’s comments about it in this dedicated thread.

Powered by WordPress