Avantone MixCubes: The Little Speakers with the Awful Sound That Are a Must for Your Home Studio
I’ve written extensively about home music recording since 2002, and have witnessed the technology available to those recording at home to rapidly grow to allow for pro-quality sound. Provided your computer has sufficient RAM, programs such as Avid’s Pro Tools and Cakewalk’s Sonar allow for near unlimited audio tracks – imagine going back in a time machine and telling the Beatles that when they were ganging together two and sometimes three four track recorders to produce Sgt. Pepper in 1967.
A decade later after that landmark album, 24 track analog recorders would be the norm in professional studios, but as the Beatles' producer George Martin wrote 32 years ago, “A note of caution regarding the way we listen to a multitrack recording: the effect of 24 tracks in a good control room can be pretty impressive but one must never forget that, eventually, it has to be boiled down to two simple tracks, and will be heard in a wide variety of listening conditions.”
And at this point that many home recordists fall down on the job. They produce mixes that might sound fine on their computers, but don’t translate to the variety of systems we all listen to music on: headphones, computer speakers, ghetto blasters, car radios, and even clock radios.
In the control rooms of virtually every pro studio in the 1970s, overhead would be a pair of giant monitors designed to blast the sound at thunderous levels to knock out those planning to rent the studio, and to record company executives who wanted to hear how the label’s money was being spent. But when it came time to do some serious mixing, invariably, the mixes were checked – sometimes the entire album was mixed – on a humble pair of single cone speakers from a company called Auratone.
Are They “Horrortones” or “the Truth Speakers?” Yes!
Though mix engineers frequently sneer at these speakers as the “Horrortones,” Bruce Swedien, who engineered Michael Jackson’s massive hit Thriller for Quincy Jones, has said, “You know what Quincy calls them? The Truth Speakers! There's no hype with an Auratone.... Probably 80 percent of the mix is done on Auratones, and then I'll have a final listen or two on the big speakers."
That quote is from the excellent book Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, written by Mike Senior of England’s Sound On Sound magazine. Senior adds that Saturday Night Fever was also mixed on these speakers. And in the 1980s, another smash hit, Dire Straits’ multi-platinum Brothers In Arms, was mixed on Auratones. And loads of other hit albums and singles were as well over the decades. As Grammy-winning producer Charles Dye once wrote, “One of the ironies of mixing is that the more successful your work, the lousier the speakers on which it will be listened to.” And if you want your mixes to translate into systems beyond your home studio (whether that home studio is in your basement or on your laptop or iPad), it’s necessary to plan for that.
Several years ago, Auratone stopped producing their namesake speakers. Today, the company is located in Nashville (coincidentally yet another business that has migrated from California) and has reintroduced their classic Auratone 5C. But during the period in which Auratones were only available on eBay and from other sources of used merchandise, several replacement manufacturers stepped up in their place, including those making self-powered Auratone clones for use with PC-based monitoring systems. One such manufacturer was Avantone Pro, and late last year, I purchased a pair of Avantone Active Mix Cubes from the national music retailer Sweetwater Sound. These are also available at Amazon, in both a glossy piano black case, and for those who want a retro 1970s look, a sort of cream-yellow.
I went with the piano black finish. I only wanted the speakers to sound cheesy.
And that’s what they sound like – there’s very little bass, and not a whole lot of treble; it’s all midrange. But in Mixing Secrets, Senior emphasizes that’s where the bulk of what the listener will hear, no matter how expensive his system:
[The Auratone’s] restricted ability to reproduce both high and low frequencies focuses your attention on the midrange of your mix, which is the frequency region our ears are most sensitive to and which tends to carry the most important musical information. “The real perspective lives in that range,” says Jack Joseph Puig. “It doesn't live in the highs, it doesn't live in the lows. That's what really speaks to the heart.” Bob Katz concurs: “The midrange is the key. If you lose the midrange, you lose it all.” The midrange is also crucial because it's the frequency region of your mix that is most likely to survive the journey to your target listener's ears.
Switching back and forth between the Avantone MixCubes and my M-Audio BX5-D2 monitor speakers, it was obvious that the BX5s make everything sound great; but as a result, their mixes often don’t translate out in the real world. And the MixCubes almost force the person mixing to choose one lead element and concentrate on that, rather than diving into the thick swirling musical soup of the BX5 sound. There’s a reason why vocals are usually the loudest element in a hit record, and indeed, listening to hit songs on the MixCubes can be a fascinating experience. Certain songs just pop right out of them, and others seem denser and muddier. I remember the first time I played Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” on the Avantones, and it just popped right out the speakers as if to proudly say, “Hi, Mr. Clapton – I’ll be putting lots of money into your wallet for decades to come!”
When your mixes similarly pop like that on the Avantones, you’ll know you’ve got something.
The MixCubes are also useful for checking a mix in mono; my RME Fireface UCX FireWire recording interface has a mono button on its virtual mixing board; flipping it on and off is a very useful test to ensure a mix doesn’t collapse when played in mono, which it could well be on some low-end systems such as clock radios and the like.
One surprising element of the powered version of the Avantone MixCubes is the comparatively hefty size of their power supplies, as Senior notes in his 2010 review of the speakers at Sound on Sound:
The Active MixCube has all its connections at the rear, next to a big pink heat-sink. Audio arrives via a balanced combi/jack/XLR socket, while mains (30V DC) comes in on a six‑pin locking connector from an almost comically hefty 2kg line‑lump power supply — the speaker itself only weighs 3.5kg! A small switch allows you to separate signal and mains earths if you're getting earth-loop problems.
Read the rest of his review for some further thoughts on why these are an excellent choice for a home studio. I wouldn’t want to rely solely on the Avantone MixCubes as my only home studio monitors. But for cross-checking a mix, and as part of a system that includes full-range monitor speakers, and the ability to play a CD or WAV file through car and home stereo system and a pair of earbuds or other commercial systems, they could be an invaluable addition to your home recording studio.