Anyone who has tirelessly toiled in the studio on their own music or someone else’s can tell you that one of the worst feelings in the entire universe can befall you upon first listen to your mixes outside of the studio they were created in. You’re excited. You pop in the CD or Mp3 and turn the volume up. A couple of seconds roll endlessly by, as you wait to hear your music coming through your favorite listening environment, the one you base all of your musical preferences and decisions on—your analytical happy place. Finally, its opening strains begin to pour out and wash over you like…tepid snot. This is definitely not the sound you were expecting, much less wanted. In essence, it sounds like crap. Maybe there’s waaaay too much bass, or excessively harsh sibilance around 5k, or the whole mix just sounds like someone pulled a thick wool sock down over it.
For many of us, the answer to this malady has long been to seek out the input, advice, and listening environments of studio professionals, which can be inconvenient or even costly. Certainly the ears, tools and skills of an excellent mastering engineer are well worth the time and money when it comes time to ready your music for release, but presenting to them something that at least sounds close to what you want is a primary goal.
The problem in getting to that point is that every single space sounds unique, regardless of the strictest adherence to technical and acoustical standards. The physical differences between plaster and drywall, wood floors or carpet, standing waves and ricocheting reflections, as well as the varying shapes and sizes of the rooms themselves are a Pandora’s box of sonic unpredictability. This is why many of the world’s most coveted recording studios and mastering suites were designed specifically for those tasks by acoustical engineers.
Let’s not forget the myriad speaker and headphone choices available, along with the infinite variance of contours, proportions, volumes, resultant frequency curves, and other idiosyncrasies. It’s a lot. In the end, we just do our best with what we have and go about the business of making music, with open hearts and fingers crossed.
An easy and excellent solution to this colossal cluster of complications comes from Latvia, in the form of a program called Reference 4 from Sonarworks (www.sonarworks.com).
Reference 4 is made available in a number of iterations, like upgrades from earlier versions for $49, all the way up to a premium bundle that includes a specially calibrated set of Sennheiser HD 650 headphones and a measurement microphone for $699. I asked to review the Reference 4 Studio Edition with Measurement Microphone, priced at $299, because I believed this would be the most preferred and affordable package for most users, due to the fact that it measures your studio’s speakers using an included individually calibrated reference microphone and your headphones via a continually updated set of over 300 headphone manufacturer and model profiles. You can use your own reference microphone to take measurements with, provided they have a profile for it. If not, you can send them your preferred mic and/or headphones and Sonarworks will provide you with its personalized sonic profile for a nominal fee. For those who only use headphones in their space, there’s a $99 version just for you.
What all of this means in the end is that you can use their software to measure the acoustic properties of your personal recording space, which it will subsequently correct so that your mixes and masters will sound consistent across a variety of playback scenarios, be they car audio, hi-fi stereo systems or personal audio devices.
Considering the technical complexity that “tuning” a room can involve, setup is made to be a fairly easy and straight-forward process, thanks to a very friendly and intuitive step-by-step tutorial.
After initiating the Reference 4 Measure software, you load a mic profile and set the mic up at ear level from your optimal listening position. You connect the mic to your audio interface and set the sample rate to 44.1k with no throughput so as not to interfere with the signal the mic is receiving from the speakers. The software assists you in adjusting the gain to a nominal volume and you’re on your way!
Once you’ve measured and entered the distance between your speakers, the software sends a series of tones and pulses from your system’s speakers to the microphone and determines the distance from the speakers to the mic. I subsequently measured this and it was perfectly dead on. From that point, there are a couple dozen different locations that the software instructs you to move the mic to, so that it can build a comprehensive picture of the audio characteristics unique to your space. When you have completed this approximately 16-minute process, you save the results as a preset profile.
The preset correction algorithm is employed in a couple of different ways. Sonarworks Reference 4 Systemwide is a program that applies the measured frequency response curves to your computer’s audio output, so that everything you here is custom corrected to sound optimal.
Sonarworks is aware that those of us who work with digital audio workstations are often sending our audio to different outputs though, so they smartly have included Reference 4 in plugin form, so that we can strap it across our main outputs and hear the corrected audio as we make critical EQ adjustments. Just remember to remove or disable it prior to rendering mixes or masters!
I calibrated my system two different times using Reference 4 and got excellent, consistent and great sounding results. I can’t recommend this simple, elegant audio solution highly enough and believe it will not only improve my own mixes, but will also help my mastering clients to present work that is much closer to what they were looking (and listening) for from the start.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning producer, singer/songwriter and mastering engineer. KitschandSync@hotmail.com