Most professionals would agree that the most important pieces of kit for getting a great mix are your speakers and the room that they're placed in. But let's face it: many computer musicians are using low-end monitors in rooms that were never designed for studio use, often with limited scope for installing acoustic treatment products like bass traps and foam panels.
Enter IK Multimedia's ARC System - that's Advanced Room Correction System - which claims to compensate for the frequency and phase distortions caused by your monitors and room. The idea is to shift the sound of your setup towards a flat/neutral one, which is desirable for accurate mixing.
"Improvements in v2 are evident from the off, with fewer mic measurements needed"
The package consists of a calibrated mic, measurement software and a plug-in. You hook the mic up to your audio interface, run the measurement software, and place the mic in a series of positions while test 'chirps' are blasted through your speakers.
You can now place the ARC plug-in on your master channel - it will do its best to compensate for your system's bumpy frequency response, allowing you to hear what's going on in your mixes with greater accuracy.
Improvements in v2 are evident from the off, with fewer mic measurements needed. IK claims sonic improvements for v2 too, and compared to v1, we experienced bass that was tighter and more consistent - especially audible with gliding bass and deep dance kicks - as well as clearer midrange/treble. This global improvement to absolutely everything coming out of your speakers is worth the upgrade fee alone.
But what if, for example, you've gotten so used to your speakers/room being overly bassy that you just can't get used to ARC's (technically more accurate) flattened response? With the new custom profile feature, you can create four 'target' EQ curves, so you could use this to dial some of that bottom end back in, for comfort. This addition is practical and most welcome, so long as you understand its specific purpose.
"New Virtual Monitoring profiles ably mimic a diverse range of speakers"
Also new are Virtual Monitoring profiles that ably mimic a diverse range of speakers, such as 80's White (Yamaha NS10), Boom Box, Car Stereo, Laptop Speakers, etc. It's always a great idea to try your mixes out on different systems, and this is an ultra-convenient way of doing so.
A new Combined L/R Correction option gives a tad more definition in the centre pan position (and less at the edges of the stereo field). We found it useful whenever we wanted to focus on the central elements in the mix, like the drums.
Gain staging is simpler due to separate Trim and overall Volume knobs. The latter is housed in the new Monitor section, where you also have Dim/Mute switches and a mid/side solo'in. These controls can be mapped via MIDI learn.
On the downside, there's still no option for automatic bypass during mixdown, so you have to disable ARC System every time. You can't MIDI map the Correction On/Off button either, which could've at least made it easy to switch off via a MIDI controller.
Speaking of MIDI control, it's a shame you can't use it to switch between Virtual Monitoring profiles, to achieve the gratifyingly instant button-punching speaker-switching of a hardware monitor controller.
Grumbles aside, ARC System 2 lives up to IK's hype: it improves the sound of a studio setup - in some cases radically - and so helps you to create better mixes more easily. ARC doesn't make acoustic treatment or better monitors unnecessary - and it doesn't claim to - but it should be considered along with them as a potent sonic upgrade.