One of the biggest challenges that professional audio engineers have to deal with today is the actual work environment.
Newly-available technology and shrinking budgets mean that records are often made on the fly and in less than ideal conditions. However, artists and labels still demand no less than absolutely professional results.
Even when we are lucky enough to work on gear we know intimately, it’s often in spaces that we don’t. And what good are your favorite monitors if the room you are listening in is lying to you?
Sonarworks aims to resolve, or at least minimize these issues with the Reference 3 Suite, their newly updated speaker and headphone calibration system. It is a system designed to compensate for acoustic anomalies inherent in your mix environment. Let’s see how it works.
The full Sonarworks Reference 3 system comes in a surprisingly spartan package. The box includes only a measurement microphone, a license number card and instructions for the software download.
Downloading and installing the software is quick and easy, and in an ingenious step, the included measurement mic comes with its own a frequency response chart, which can also be downloaded and then fed into the software. This helps to ensure that the mic functions as close as it can to a truly flat measurement device while allowing the company to keep the costs of the package reasonable.
If you already have your own measurement mic, that can be used in conjunction with the package as well, allowing you to save a bit more money on a software-only package. There are also several packages offered in terms of features and pricing, from a headphone-only option up through Sonarworks Reference HD (available for PC, coming soon for Mac).
The one surprising omission here was an users’s manual, which is intentionally not included or made available online. More on that in a minute.
Measure 24 times, Cut Once
The Sonarworks room correction system consists of two separate programs. First is the Sonarworks Reference Software. This is the standalone app that will calibrate and store all of the measurements you take with the included measurement microphone.
Running the application is straightforward and simple. Load in your mic’s unique calibration curve, select an input on your interface, and then follow the step-by-step guide. Top-Down graphics of a the mic and monitors instruct you where to move the mic in relation to your speakers and listening position. The software even guides you through level adjustment to ensure proper calibration through the 24 different measurement positions in and around the listening position.
Warning: This process is fairly loud. The software plays a great series of test sweeps and bleeps at significant level. While these tones are scientifically designed to help measure, locate and adjust for frequency imbalances in your room, they are also zero fun to listen to. If you share a space with others, be smarter than me and wait until they are gone to run these tests.
I ran the test on three separate occasions and got fairly consistent results each time. The resulting curves were generally the same within +/- 1.5 dB at the most. Aberrations could easily be attributed to running at different gain structures within the preamp, or to differing amounts of ambient noise in the background. The tests also illuminated something I had suspected for a while, but could never back up until now: One of my monitors has developed a minor and intermittent problem in the high frequencies.
Months ago, I had sent this monitor in for testing and repair and they reported all was within spec. (I had assumed that perhaps my ears or room was off, even though both are pretty symmetrical). These tests also take measurements to account for differences based on listening position, and the software makes adjustments to even out the stereo image based on this.
You can measure and store room specs as many times as you’d like—a fantastic feature if you frequent multiple locations or often find yourself in unfamiliar listening environments. I ended up using my third and final test as it seemed most accurate and pleasing to listen to.
The Second piece of software is the Sonarworks Plugin. Designed to be placed last in the chain (how many plugins make this demand?), this plugin actually applies the selected EQ curve to your monitor path. If you bounce or record your stereo mix, be sure to bypass the software before as you do!
Because I recommend recording your mix to a 2-track in your DAW, placing this plugin on an aux that follows this stereo “record” track may be your best option. This is effectively identical to the way one would would mix from a tape multi-track down to a tape 2-track, monitoring the output of the final mix like an external source. The end result with this approach is that your monitor path passes through the software, but does not effect the mix itself.
This plugin has a simple, straightforward and slick UI. You can easily switch between measurement curves, and see charts for independent left and right measurements, before & after measurements, and the correction curve itself.
You can use your correction curve as-is (“Flat”), apply an adjustable high and low-shelf eq, and even load in emulation curves for famous studio monitors and home hi-fi speakers. Headphones mixes can be improved as generic calibration curves are included for a wide variety of popular studio and consumer headphones.
If you’re after the ultimate in flat and accurate headphone response, you can even send in your own headphones and apply custom measurement and EQ correction curves, or purchase a brand new, pre-measured pair directly from Sonarworks.
Many popular studio models are offered here. While I did not test a custom measurement for my own cans, the generic response worked pretty well on my AKG-240s and Beyerdynamic DT-770s.
The Sonarworks plugin has controls for listening position offset, an attenuation control to help avoid clipping, a mono button, a wet/dry blend knob, and meters for peak and RMS input and output. Advanced setting allow you to alter the filter phase type (allowing you to minimize latency or maximize accuracy) and “calibration limit” controls, which allow you to constrain the amount of correction being done. The software is highly tweakable and you should expect a small learning curve and adjustment phase to really dial in your room.
Lifting the Veil
What really matters is whether this software actually improves your room, your listening experience, and ultimately, your mixes.
I’m happy to report in that aspect, Sonarworks is a wonderful success.
Like many audio pros, I often have to work out of my home studio, and an NYC apartment is almost always acoustically…challenging, to say the least. (Though for this much rent, I sometimes feel like my apartment should come with at least a 24-hour assistant and maintenance engineer on call.)
I have been working in this room for a couple of years now, and have gotten to know it pretty well. There is a solid bump just below 80 Hz and a few other problem areas that I just work around. Listening to reference mixes and on my little mono Avantone have helped quite a bit with that in the past. In this context, firing up Sonarworks and engaging the plugin is a revelatory experience, especially when bypassing it and really hearing what is being fixed.