THE SOUND OF SUMMERS

Breaking the sound barrier in car audio

By Roy Nakano


Just when you think the state of mobile audio has reached a plateau, along comes someone with an approach that forces us to bring out a word that hasn’t been used in a while: Breakthrough. That someone is Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Gary Summers, and he calls his approach “Aural Vision”. The name may sound a bit hocus-pocus, but the approach is steeped in long-established, conventional acoustic principles:

• Multi-channel, discrete recordings should be reproduced in multi-channel, discrete channels
• Stereo recordings should be reproduced in stereo
• Phase anomalies should be minimized
• All speakers should be properly time aligned and level matched
• Sound should emanate as much as possible at ear level
• Room reverberations—particularly near the ears—should be minimized
• The sound system should have ample headroom to avoid distortion on loud peaks

While many audiophiles may take such principles for granted, it’s a rare system that takes all of these factors to heart. In the realm of mobile audio, I know of no system that addresses all these principles—until now. Having heard the results, I can say that Summers’ Aural Vision achieves a level of sonic accuracy that rises to unchartered heights. In order to reach this level, however, Summers has taken measures that will make some automotive interior designers gasp in horror. Which brings us to another word that comes to mind when describing this system:

Uncompromising.

The most visible example of the uncompromising nature of Summers’ system is what he did to bring as much of the sound as possible at ear level. Most high-end car audio systems have tweeters mounted at ear level, but midrange drivers are typically relegated to the doors. In order to bring the midrange to ear level, Summers modified the A-pillars and dash to accommodate the mid-range and high-frequency drivers. You can’t miss them. There they sit, midrange drivers alongside the (time-aligned) tweeters.

Summers didn’t stop there. In order to maximize the coherent sound, he positioned the 6.5-inch mid-bass woofers in the front doors in sealed fiberglass enclosures, built to the exact requirements of the speakers. The two 10-inch subwoofers are mounted on the rear deck, but through the use of the DSP the bass image is deep in the front dash and is rock solid. All the speakers in the front stage are time-aligned to arrive at the driver head position. This means that the sound is optimized for the driver. Since most of our driving is done in single occupancy, should it matter? Of course, digital signal processing can optimize the delay for any position in the cabin. The result is that the music is now reproduced with a sense of coherence that is missing in virtually all automotive factory sound systems. The sound stage image is at eye level, out beyond the dash and windshield line, and extends out to the mirrors on the left and right.

But wait, there’s more.

To keep ambient noises to a minimum, the cabin is reinforced with sound deadening materials. Closing the doors reminds one of a bank vault. Even the dashboard is treated to reduce the reflections from the windshield. To minimize reflecting sonic aberrations from the seat belt apparatus next to the ears, it gets the sound deadening treatment as well.

And then there’s the issue of headroom. Many systems rely on compression to mitigate the problems accompanying the occasional loud passages in music. Summers relies on prodigious reserves of power for each driver. In this age of Class D amplifiers, power has become relatively cheap. As a result, you won’t notice the usual distortion that musical peaks often produce in more conventional car sound systems.

But is Aural Vision that good?

MECA—the Mobile Electronics Competition Association—is best known for its Sound Quality League (SQL) and Sound Pressure League (SPL) competitions. What better way to test one’s system than to have it compete against the best? Summers entered his Aural Vision system as a rookie in the California MECA Sound Quality League state competition in 2010. With no sponsorship, his Aural Vision-equipped C-Class Mercedes Benz was placed in the modified extreme class —and won. This qualified him to enter MECA’s world championship. Summers actually drove his car 2,000 miles, from California to Tennessee, to compete in the world championship. There, he competed against sponsored teams in the modified extreme class, and won as an unsponsored individual.

And after taking the MECA Sound Quality League World Championship, Summers drove his car 2,000 miles back to California.

So who is Gary Summers?

It turns out that he knows a thing or two about the subject at hand. His career in sound began when he was employed by Lucasfilm Ltd. as a sound recordist to work on “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”. His abilities as a re-recording mixer were first used in “Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi”. He’s received 10 Academy Award nominations for Best Achievement in Sound, winning the award four times—for his work on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, “Jurassic Park”, “Titanic” and “Saving Private Ryan”. Summers has also been nominated for the British Academy Award six times, capturing the award twice—for “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Saving Private Ryan”. Summers has also received two Emmy Award nominations, winning one for his work on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” television series.

The Cinema Audio Society, the Motion Picture Sound Editors Association, and the TEC (Technical Excellence and Creativity) Awards have recognized Summers for his work in the sound field. His film credits also include,” Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, “Backdraft”, “Toy Story 1 and 2”, “Monster’s Inc.”, ”Jurassic Park: The Lost World”,” A Bug’s Life” and “K-19: The Widowmaker”. Summers has worked in the large screen IMAX motion picture formats, and has 21 large screen credits to his name. His talents have also been used in eight theme park attractions for the Walt Disney Company, including “Star Tours”, “Honey I Shrunk the Audience” and “Muppetvision 3D”.

After working for the big studios for so long, Gary ultimately went out on his own and formed Summers Sound Services Inc. He’s pursued an independent mixing career working on such films as “Finding Nemo”, “Cars”, “Warrior”, “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King”, “The Bourne Ultimatum”, “The Bourne Legacy”, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon”, “Avatar”, “Monsters University”, and “The Hobbit”.

Gary Summers' hand appears on US Postal Service stamps honoring the filmmaking industry.

What Does Summers Want?

While Summers has spent years perfecting his Aural Vision automotive sound system, he’s really not all that interested in selling it on the retail market. Says Summers, “What I’d like is for an auto manufacturer to turn to me to help them build the Aural Vision system for its vehicles” And therein lies the rub: Is there a car company out there willing to build such an uncompromising system? Summers says this is similar to what happened in the motion picture industry with the creation of the THX system. It was revolutionary in design, and took a major commitment on the part of the theater owners. They had to shut down their flagship cinemas, for months, to rebuild them to the THX specification. The end result though was increased revenue through higher ticket sales as “the audience was listening”. The auto manufacturer will have to commit to rethink the design of the interior of the vehicle. The result however could yield an unprecedented sonic experience in the vehicle.

With all the time we spend in cars, Summers thinks a truly extraordinary sound system can sell a car. “In recent years, automobile manufacturers have focused on delivering complete vehicle ‘infotainment’ systems with navigation, phone interface, voice activation, and Bluetooth. While these functions have been accepted as the norm in today’s automobile, the audio performance is still lacking,” concludes Summers.

In the meantime, Summers is happily pursuing his day job in the motion picture sound recording industry. Aural Vision continues to go through an ongoing process of fine-tuning. Whether an automotive manufacturer picks up on it remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.




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