Most factory-installed car stereos are mediocre, and mine is no exception. I was contemplating a major upgrade, but didn’t feel like spending all that money. Instead I decided to adjust the music to compensate for the limitations
of the stereo. By boosting the low end and the high end while lowering the shrill frequencies around 2kHz, I could make it sound considerably better.
Since this required more precision than was allowed by the simple bass and treble controls built into the stereo, I thought about installing a graphic equalizer — but those available for cars are limited by space constraints. My ultimate answer was to preprocess the sound at home, then burn CDs optimized for the car listening experience.
1. Make Audio Files
I made audio files from my CDs. Countless utilities will do this, but I like Express Rip (nch.com.au/rip), a piece of Australian freeware that offers more options than Windows Media Player and claims to be faster. After you install it and launch it, choose .wav as your output format for this project, to avoid losing quality through compression. Click the Encoder Settings button and select 44100Hz, 16 bits stereo, which is the same format used on music CDs. Insert a disc, click the Rip CD button, and the software works in the background while you use your computer for other things such as checking email.
2. Download and Install Audio Editor
To edit your files you can use Wavosaur, a powerful but free virtual-studio program from wavosaur.com. It doesn’t include a graphic equalizer, because it expects you to use plugins from third-party vendors. You can install any that conform with the audio standard known as VST (Virtual Studio Technology), and there are thousands online.
In my very first search I found 32 free graphic equalizers! The one I liked best is Electri-Q by Aixcoustic, available free from aixcoustic.com. Download and run the installer, and it places an instruction manual and a .dll file in a folder named C:Program FilesAixcousticElectri-Q. Locate that folder with Windows Explorer and drag a copy of the .dll file to your Wavosaur folder to make it more easily accessible.
3. Launch Editor and Equalizer
Launch Wavosaur and open one of your .wav music files. Now activate your graphic equalizer. Choose Tools ⇒ VST ⇒ VST Rack from the menu bar, and in the VST Rack window that opens, click the Load VST button, and find the Electri-Q plugin in your Wavosaur folder. Still in the VST Rack window, click the View button to display the equalizer. You can now close the VST Rack window.
4. Apply EQ
You’re ready to apply EQ to your sound. In Wavosaur click the Play button and the little Processing checkbox just under the main menu bar. You hear the music while processing it through the equalizer, which lets you boost or cut any frequencies, in a wide or narrow range. Finally, use Tools ⇒ VST ⇒ Apply VST to apply the EQ to the whole file. You can also use Tools ⇒ VST ⇒ Batch Processor to apply the same EQ to all the files in one folder — a very convenient and powerful feature.
5. Burn a CD
Burn your adjusted sound onto the CD-R that you’ll play in your car stereo. I used Express Burn (nch.com.au/burn), another free program from the same source as Express Rip.
Try out your new sound. You may have to go back to your computer and tweak it a couple more times, but once you have your ideal EQ settings, you can apply them to all the music in your collection to make “car listening versions.”
The Audio Take-Home Message
The VST concept has been almost as significant for audio as the PostScript language was for graphic arts. You can put together an entire rack of audio processing modules to apply reverb, repeat echo, flanger, vocal remover, acoustic space modeling, tape hiss suppression — any effect you can imagine.
VST isn’t so popular on the Mac, but Apple offers an equivalent system known as Audio Units. Whichever system you use, it will enable effects that used to entail power-hungry hardware costing thousands of dollars.