Coined as the ‘Truth Speakers’ or ‘Horror Tones’ these unique mini studio monitor cubes have been an industry goto reference for decades. Based on the late 1950s Auratone 5Cs, the Avantone monitors deliver a heavy mid presence with few low and high frequencies. But what makes these little speakers so unique?
What does the Avantone frequency response look like, and how can it help with mixing? The Avantones confine sound reproduction to midrange frequencies only and have a non-ported, no crossover circuit design, allowing the midrange to be faithfully reproduced in almost any mounting position.
Many home studio mixers find it challenging to judge and set levels for their tracks, so a little help is always welcome. The cubes can be a valuable addition to your studio set up and a powerful tool when you know how and when to use them.
About 80% of the music that we listen to, or indeed mix, lives between 400Hz and 5Khz. Therefore, one of the reasons the Avantones are so popular is that they allow a mix to be heard in a very revealing way, in the midrange.
Because of the limited frequency response, music mixed well on the cubes, will translate well to other sound systems, like your car, kitchen radio, or boombox - do people still have boomboxes?
Take a look at Figure 1 and the numbered items below:
Figure 1: Simplified Avantone Frequency Response Graph
Don’t overthink the spikes or dips in the curve, rest assured that your own home studio has a similar spikey behavior! Just focus on the fact that the Avantones filter low and high frequencies, with very few side effects.
Be sure that you are correctly folding down your stereo mix with either an outboard piece of gear, a DAW plugin, or by panning the two stereo channels to center, and dropping the level by 3dB.
As the sound on the Avantones is ‘smaller’ compared to your main monitors, your ears will be less fatigued. Playing your mixes at very gentle volumes can also be helpful in many cases.
A benefit of working with just one monitor is that the speaker represents a folded mono version of your mix which is useful for identifying issues with playback on cell phones, old radios, in the mall or in an elevator. Okay, these seem unlikely scenarios apart from the cell phone, but you get the idea.
The single driver design in the Avantone avoids phase problems at frequency crossover points seen on monitors with 2 or 3 crossover circuits. The Avantones are not ported either, so there are no artificial bass reflex frequencies added to the sound. This design also helps us to hear transients in a more transparent and defined way.
An Avantone mono cube setup is perfect for balancing instruments in your mix. And because there is little in the way of low-frequency output the cubes will help avoid the problems in small home studios with monitor proximity to walls (see the WSS article here for more on that).
Due to the unique design, the cubes can be placed almost anywhere in a small home studio and still perform more than adequately. This is a significant advantage for home studio owners with smaller sized rooms. Furthermore, using the cubes in mono will undoubtedly help to identify masking problems.
I use a single Avantone Cube, in mono, at the beginning and end of all my mixes.
At the beginning to:
And again at the end, as a quality and mono playback check.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Auratones were a big hit (literally!) with music industry giants like Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien on much of the music of the big stars of the time. Michael Jackson's Thriller album was famously mixed on a pair of Jones's ‘Truth Speakers’.
Just be a little wary of too much hype from the time as Quincy Jones was being paid by Aurotone to advertise their products. Quincy Jones can be seen in the famous advert from the 80s “Quincy Jones knows quality …” - sporting a red sweatsuit and announcing a new lineup of “The Five Little Aurotones …”
Figure 2: Quincy Jones knows quality …
Get hold of Michael Jackson's 1979 multi-platinum Thriller album and play it through your own home studio monitors. It’s a humbling experience to hear how amazing songs like ‘Wanna be Starting Something’, ‘Billy Jean’, and ‘Human Nature’ still sound today - sit back and imagine Michael, Quincy, and Bruce working on this masterpiece.
After reading the above, you would have realized the benefits of a single monitor. Doubling the number of monitors will not necessarily give you double the advantages, but could be a useful addition for a second or third stereo monitoring option. I would recommend starting with one cube and take it from there.
You can undoubtedly make a cheap fake by applying a filter to the output track in your DAW. Insert an EQ that rolls off the low end from 900Hz to 20Hz, bump the frequency at 1kHz and roll off the highs from around 10Khz. Insert a second EQ with the same settings to ‘over-hear’ the effect – toggle it on off to reveal what the filtering is doing.
Figure 3: Cheap Fake Horror Tone EQ
But … don’t forget, the reason the Avantones are so unique is mainly because of their physical design – non-ported, no crossover – and the ability to not be affected by wall and corner proximity effects. So, if you do make a cheap fake, just bear in mind that it won’t be a successful copy of the real Avantone’s mysterious powers!
Is there an Avantone alternative? The Aurotones which the Avantones are based on stopped producing for a few years but are manufacturing these days again. As an alternative, consider a pair of Yamaha HS5s - good budget speakers that have an excellent mid-range response. Other options include the Fostex 6301N Active who boast clean reproduction of mid-range and vocals. If you are on a budget and can manage some DIY or assembly, there are few kits and plans available online - just do a Google search.
What is a ported (bass reflex) loudspeaker? A loudspeaker or monitor with a pipe-like vent in the front or back is known as a ported design. The ported pipe behaves much like a bottle resonating when blowing air across the opening. The air, in this case, being provided by the movement of the cone inside the monitor housing. The design of the port is tuned to provide additional low-end frequencies synchronized (well almost!) with the bass frequencies produced by the speaker midrange cone.
What is a crossover circuit? Many Hi-Fi and home studio monitors have at least 2 speaker cones - the tweeters for high frequencies and the midrange for mids and low. In turn, the tweeter and midrange need speaker drivers - the magnets and coil windings that turn the amplified electrical audio signals into real mechanical movement. As there are two outputs in the design (tweeter and midrange) of a monitor and only one input signal, the audio is split in two. One signal path feeds high frequencies to the tweeter driver and the other, mids and lows to the midrange driver. The circuit that splits the audio signal is called the crossover.