August 1996 - IASCAs rules have changed significantly since I wrote this article. Please refer to the current IASCA rule book for details. Wayne.
Auto sound fever hit me in 1984 like the shock wave from a 30-inch subwoofer. That was the year I built my first "ground pounder" -- a 1980 Buick Regal with the unlikely name "ERUPTION". Designed primarily to attract the attention of feminous curvaceous (hot babes), the system consisted of a conglomeration of car audio and home audio products. Some of the more notable pieces included several Rockford Fosgate amplifiers, a couple of Sony head units, two JBL 15 inch subwoofers, 2 JBL 12 inch mid-bass drivers, Electro-voice horn midranges and tweeters, two batteries, and a LesTech Hi-Output alternator.
This system, which was capable of knocking beer bottles off the sunroof with relative ease, soon garnished ERUPTION a local reputation worthy of the Van Halen song it was christened after. Being the modest fellow I am, it is not entirely impossible that some rather boastful statements were made pertaining to having the "best system in town." This was an elusive claim to stake, however. Sound-off contests were rare six years ago, and, much to the irritation of local authorities, system status was usually determined by "out-cranking" everyone else at intersections, parking lots, or fast-food drive-throughs.
Things have changed a lot since then. Today, sound-offs are an entity unto themselves. The evolution of sophisticated auto sound systems has sparked change in the judging mentality. Volume or SPL--once the category offering the highest scoring potential--now takes a back seat to sound quality and installation prowess. Foremost among the proponents of this shift in philosophy is the International Auto Sound Challenge Association (IASCA).
Beginning as a national organization in 1987, IASCA was born out of a meeting of manufacturers who agreed that an independent body was needed to foster the growth in, and guide the development of, mobile electronics competitions. Since its inception, IASCA has worked to insure fair, consistent, and unbiased judging standards.
IASCA-sanctioned events feature two judging categories: amateur and professional. To qualify for the amateur division, you cannot be employed in the audio industry and your equipment must have been purchased from a legitimate auto sound dealer. Contestants unable to meet these requirements must enter as professionals.
To insure a level playing field, each judging category is further broken down into power classes and, in addition, several judges review each vehicle to prevent biases from creeping into the scoring. Power class is determined by the systems total output power (in watts). There are six power classes for the amateur division and five for pro. They are as follows:
1001 and up
1001 and up
What to Expect at a Sound-off
Before I reveal my secret recipe for winning contests, lets review the layout of a typical IASCA-sanctioned sound-off (see figure 1). The first thing you do is register your vehicle. Dont waste time doing so--especially at larger events--because the number of contestants allowed to enter will most likely be limited by the amount of judging time available. Pick up a Contestant Registration Form and fill it out completely--and honestly. Stretching the truth is guaranteed to greatly increase the risk of disqualification. Once the paperwork is done, you pay an entry fee, which will vary from $5 to $25. The receipt is your only proof of entry, so keep it in a safe place.
Once youre officially registered, you move your vehicle to whats known as the "pre-staging area," which is often located in a parking lot or another specially designated area near the judging lanes. Soon after you enter this area, an official inspects your vehicle to verify that the information you gave on the registration form is correct. If all is well, youre assigned a contestant number and power classification code.
As judging time draws near, you will be directed to the appropriate judging lane in the "staging area." Larger contests usually have a separate staging area for each power category. Smaller contests may have a single area for all power classes. The staging area is designed to facilitate a consistent flow of vehicles into the judging lanes.
Sound-pressure level (SPL) is measured at the first test station. When you pull up to this station, a judge will give you a brief explanation of the testing procedure, hand you the official program material (CD or cassette), and some form of hearing protection. Meanwhile, another judge will stick a microphone on the front seat of your car. The mic is connected to a very precise electronic instrument known as an SPL meter that records (in decibels) how loud your system can play. You get 1 point per dB, up to a maximum score of 140 points.
After you load up the program material and put on the ear protectors, a judge will give you a visual cue to begin. Once signaled, you have exactly 30 seconds to try and squeeze the highest SPL out of your system. Remember, SPLs above 140 dB are not only hard on your hearing, but frivolous as well, since theyll only be recorded as the maximum 140 points.
At the second test station, frequency response is measured using a one-third octave real-time spectrum analyzer (RTA). Like SPL, this is an objective measurement that requires the placement of a microphone on your front seat. Youll be instructed to play the "pink noise" track on the supplied program disc or tape. (Pink noise sounds like the noise you hear between channels on your radio or TV.) The RTA will then print out a frequency response curve, so the judges can "see" the quantity of low, mid, and high-frequency energy produced by your system.
The judges will award points based on how smooth the curve is. A curve with poor band-to-band transitions (figure 2) will score lower than one with smooth transitions. Extremely smooth curves, such as the one shown in figure 3, are likely to be awarded something very close to the maximum score of 40 points, if not the maximum.
Subjectivity enters the picture at the third test station, where judges evaluate how well your system really sounds. Points are awarded in each of five categories:
Staging 0 - 40 points
Stereo Imaging 0 - 40 points
Frequency Range 0 - 40 points
Sound Linearity 0 - 40 points
Absence of noise 0 - 40 points
Maximum Score 200 points
Staging refers to the musical point of origination (front/rear placement) and how closely it approximates that of an ideal concert-hall environment, according to IASCAs Official Competitors Judging Handbook. Deviation from this approximation result in lower scores.
Stereo imaging is defined as the illusion of lateral and vertical placement of instruments across a stage. Systems that have a spatial quality in which the sound seems to float in mid-air score high in this area.
Frequency range scoring is determined by listening to how well each frequency segment is reproduced, rather than focusing on the entire audio band. High scores are awarded to systems that sound natural, and add to the illusion of a live performance.
Sound linearity judging zeros in on how evenly music is reproduced throughout the frequency bandwidth. Flat-sounding systems that do not emphasize or de-emphasize one frequency segment over another do well here. On the other hand, a system with excessive bass, for instance, will generally be penalized.
Noise refers to anything that does not exist in the original program material, and is created by the vehicles electronics or the audio system. Points are deducted depending on type and quantity of noise thats present.
At the fourth test station, your installation abilities are put to the test in a big way. With a possible 215 points, this segment of the competition is by far the largest contributor to your overall score. Points are awarded on the following basis:
Electrical 0 - 55 points
Components 0 - 50 points
Ergonomics 0 - 20 points
Creativity 0 - 40 points
Attention to detail 0 - 30 points
Maximum Score 215 points
Wiring and component hookup is scrutinized under the "electrical" portion. Systems with neat, clean wiring and proper fusing score highest. Judges look for wire-loom on all exposed power wires and grommets where wire passes through sheet-metal. Bundles or "rats nests" of wire crammed in or around system components are guaranteed to cost you points.
Under "components," judges carefully examine every component in your system--from source unit to speakers--to see how well they are installed. High scoring installs sport components that are securely mounted and complement the vehicles decor.
If youre system is easy to operate and the controls are laid out logically, you should do well in the "ergonomics" segment. However, if you have to put your stick-shift in reverse every time you want to adjust the volume or put in a tape, you wont score so well here.
The "creativity" segment rewards contestants who have gone the extra mile. Originality weighs heavily in this category.
"Attention to detail" pertains to the vehicle itself. To rack up points in this area, wash and wax you car, vacuum the interior, and clean the engine compartment and trunk. Theres absolutely no reason to not get a near perfect score here.
Once the installation judging is over, you get to go back to the pre-staging area. Now is the time to kick back and "show-off" your system. If luck is with you that day, youll be part of the awards ceremony that follows.
The Harris Strategy
My winning strategy is the culmination of years of competing in and judging sound-off contests.
Since every auto sound system and installation is different, its practically impossible to outline a "defacto-standard" method for winning. But I can offer some concrete suggestions that will help you to maximize your scoring potential.
In preparing for the Big Event, learn the ropes--that is, familiarize yourself with every facet of sound-off competition. Remember the saying, "You cant win if you dont know how to play the game" Well, it goes double for sound-offs. Memorize the score sheet (figure 4) and study the rules. The idea is to put yourself in the position to give the judges exactly what they want. Write for a copy of IASCAs "Official Competitors Judging Handbook" (IASCA, Box 7403, Riverside, CA 92513-7403, $7.50) and study it. Having this book is like having the answers to a quiz before taking it.
As in most disciplines, organization is a key ingredient to success. So allocate your prep time according to the point-distribution chart shown in figure 5. Concentrate your efforts in areas where theres a big payoff--like installation. If the wiring in your electronics compartment is the least bit messy, take the time to straighten it out, and replace ratty-looking cables.
Since a single error can cost you the contest, proceed with care--you cant afford to make mistakes. Try writing a step-by-step, station-by-station syllabus. Ive learned (the hard way) that this helps to keep your thoughts on track at a time when the distractions can be many.
As mentioned earlier, register immediately when you arrive at the event. This will increase your chances of being a contestant and, besides, itll be one less thing to worry about.
Park in the shade, if at all possible. Youll be spending most of the day in this area, so you might as well be comfortable. Refrain from playing your system. This will conserve your battery and prevent damage to your components prior to judging. (Hopes of winning are shattered all the time in the hours before judging!) Plus, youre system will be able to kick out higher SPLs when the speaker voice coils are cool.
Scope out the competition to see how your installation stacks up, and use this information when deciding whether to go first or last in your competition class. Also spend some time observing each judging station. Knowing what the judges expect will help you improve your score. Besides, youll be more at ease if you know what is coming up.
Try to be first in line if you feel your system is only average compared to the other competitors. On the whole, judges tend to be more generous in awarding points initially. After evaluating a dozen or so vehicles, each judge begins to formulate personal "standards" based on the caliber of the systems hes seen.
Attempt to go last if you think your system is better than most. Truly outstanding installs are obvious to judges; the closer you are to the end of the line, the better your chances of receiving a near perfect score.
Keep those voice coils cool. Except for a quick system check, dont play your system until the judging actually begins. As a speakers voice coil heats up, its impedance can rise by as much as 40 percent. Such an increase will cause your amplifiers to deliver 40 percent less power, which translates into a 2.2 dB reduction in SPL.
Keep your batteries fully charged, and run your engine at a moderate idle for about 15 minutes prior to SPL testing. This will insure a fully charged battery which will, in turn, improve your SPL reading.
Prior to the contest, carefully review the official program material. And practice, practice, practice. The challenge here is to determine which portion of the designated song will produce the highest SPL on your system.
Nine out of ten times, your first shot is the one that will deliver the highest SPL. Extensive research (by myself) has shown that subsequent attempts to register a higher SPL usually fail due to the rising voice-coil impedance and a draining battery. To obtain the highest possible SPL reading, keep your volume at a very low level until the appointed passage comes along; then, put the pedal to the metal and "Crank it up!"
The key to a good frequency response score is smooth band-to-band transitions, not the actual shape of the curve. (Remember figures 2 and 3?) Smoothing out the band-to-band transitions is extremely difficult to achieve without the aid of an RTA. (If you dont have access to an RTA, contact your local auto sound installer. In most cases, he will be more than happy to analyze your system for a nominal fee.) To optimize your systems response, use the following procedure.
Set all of the equalizers controls to flat.
Play pink noise over the system and monitor the output on a RTA.
Adjust the controls on the electronic crossover until a relatively smooth response curve is obtained. This will take some practice so dont be afraid to experiment.
Adjust the input sensitivity controls on the amplifiers to further improve the smoothness of the curve. For example, if there is too much bass, turn down the gain on the woofer amplifier(s).
Use the equalizer to fine tune the response curve by boosting or cutting individual frequencies. Remember, an equalizer is not a crutch! If you use up all of your equalization adjustment to compensate for a poorly functioning system, you wont have any left for tailoring its sound to your personal taste.
Regarding equalization setting. In most cases, setting your equalizer for maximum smoothness will not result in maximum SPL. Conversely, adjusting your equalizer for maximum SPL will definitely not result in a smooth frequency response. ALWAYS adjust your equalizer for maximum smoothness. This will only affect your SPL score by a couple of points. Adjusting it for maximum SPL, on the other hand, could result in a loss of up to 200 points.
Note: There are basically two types of equalizers in general use. These are the standard multi-band (octave, 1/3 octave) type and the parametric variety. Multi-band equalizers have a specified center frequency that can be boost or cut. Parametric equalizers also allow you to boost or cut a frequency band but allow you to adjust the center frequency as well. In both cases, the more bands available, the better the results will be.
Since evaluating sound quality is a subjective process, scores for a given system will likely vary slightly from judge to judge and contest to contest. Consistently high scores are possible, providing you take the time to concentrate on fulfilling all of the requirements on the judging sheet. Based on my experience, winning systems generally have the following in common ...
Primary tweeters mounted in the dash. These tweeters are usually of the soft-dome variety.
Primary midranges mounted in the doors or kick-panels.
Secondary tweeters and midranges located in the rear of the vehicle.
Woofers mounted in the rear deck or behind the seat.
The frequency response curve will show a slight dip between 80 and 500 Hz and will have smooth band to band transitions across the entire audio spectrum.
The system will be fadable. This will allow the listener to adjust just the right amount of front stage/rear fill.
Heres another useful tidbit: If your vehicle is not among the first dozen or so to be judged, boost your equalizer settings above 2 KHz by about 3 dB. This will compensate for the temporary loss of sensitivity (threshold shift) the judges ears will experience after several hours of listening.
And another: If its hot outside, run your air-conditioner prior to sound-quality judging. The judges will enjoy cooling off and will probably spend some additional time listening to your system. It never hurts to make the judges happy, you know.
Dont be bashful. Show the judges how great your installation is by pointing out everything special. Radiate excitement. Dont wait for the judges to ask because they probably wont. You have only two or so minutes to help put your masterpiece in the best possible light, so make sure you practice your spiel.
An entire book could be written on installation. Suffice it to say, I cant cover all of the bases here. However, having been a judge, I can tell some common things they look for:
Amplifier fusing at the battery. This is a must. If you fail to fuse your system at the battery, youre going to lose some MAJOR points.
Proper wire size. Make sure your power cable is sufficient to handle the current demands of your system. (see Wire Service column)
Exposed wiring. Exposed wiring is another area that will cost you points. If it is impossible to conceal a wire, protecting it with wire-loom will usually prevent points from being deducted from your score.
Grommets. This one is also a must. ALWAYS use grommets when passing a wire through sheetmetal.
Neat, sensible wiring. Power wires should run alongside one side of the vehicle and signal cables the other. Tie wraps should be used whenever necessary to keep wire bundles nice and neat.
Securely mounted components. While the judges arent going to try and yank your system components out, they will verify that every piece is mounted securely. Nothing should move when pressed on.
A source unit thats easy to reach. This means that the driver should be able to operate the source unit while driving with a minimal amount of effort.
A vehicle thats clean inside and out. A dirty vehicle will detract from the hard work you have invested in your installation. Also, the judges probably wont spend a lot of time in your vehicle if it smells like dirty diapers and hot beer.
The Final Touch
At many events, the first and second place winners are separated by as little as 1 or 2 points. In situations like this, small things--like documentation--go a long away. Put together a notebook containing a clean, legible flowchart (see figure 6) that shows the system layout. "Before and after" photos also will help impress the judges by showing the extent of your hard work.
Winning a sound-off contest takes a lot more than blowing the windows out of the car next to you at an intersection. It takes dedication, motivation, money, and experience. Since I cant give you the dedication and motivation, and I dont have the money, youll have to settle for my experience--which I hope will help you to win. Good luck!