Sonarworks

23 FEBRUARY 2021

written by Mike

Small Podcast Studio & Sonarworks Reference 4

Recently I’ve moved to a new house, and the big difference was – that this time it’s ours!

(A bank technically owns the house, but we got a mortgage and moved in November 2020.)

I migrated to the UK in 2006 and always rented. Renting is excellent because it offers flexibility and freedom, but it is a pain if a person wants to set up a sound production room.

There are always issues with the landlord, moving the stuff around amongst other hassles.

This time is different!

We got a lovely, three-bedroom house, and I could get one (albeit the smallest) room for my studio and set it up the way I wanted.

As I said, the room is small. It is a one bed/office space, with more weight on the office function as it would be a tiny bedroom. From the get-go, I understood that with that size comes a lot of problems.

Small rooms are notorious for bad acoustics. Sound waves (especially low frequencies) don’t have space to develop. They are bouncing around the walls; we get phase cancellations and that sort of thing.

Before ordering acoustics, I wanted to know what sound issues I’m facing, and I needed a special measurement microphone. I used to have a Behringer ECM8000 in the past and was inclined to get the same mic, but I also looked at other options online.

And that’s how I stumbled upon Sonarwoks XREF 20.

The microphone costs £50, and it came with a trial version of Reference 4 software. It looks like a standard measurement microphone, and it came without a clip mic. I was a bit disappointed – at first!

The way that measurement works are – you hold the microphone and move around the room with it. 

I’ve done some studio measurements and how you did it back then was to set up the microphone on a stand, in the listening position and run the sine waves. Sonarworks is a bit different and very smart, which took me by surprise. That’s why there is no clip in the box – you don’t need it for the measurements!

I measured the room, and as predicted, the space had many issues, mainly in the low-end area. Not only that – the low-end frequencies were also masking higher frequencies making the room impossible to work in.

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I knew I had to treat the space, and after going back and forth with GIK Acoustics – I made the order.

After setting up side panels, ceiling panes and corner bass traps, I measured the room again with Sonarworks XREF 20.

You could see (and hear) the difference. Acoustic panels tamed some of the omnipresent low frequencies but not enough to have a good neutral mixing room.

That’s the problem with small spaces – I’ve run out of room to put up more panels!

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And here where we start talking about Sonarworks Reference 4. Like I mentioned before, the microphone came with a trial version of the software.

It helped measure the room; however, that’s only a small fraction of what the plugin can do.

After the measurement is complete, Sonarworks software takes the frequency curve and flattens it with EQ so that your system’s output is entirely neutral.

At first, I couldn’t get used to it – especially on headphones. I was so accustomed to my cans and how they sound that Sonarworks processing sounded weird.

I gave it a couple of days, and now I can’t imagine working without it!

But first things first.

Reference 4 comes in different flavours – Headphone and Studio.

The headphone version is cheaper and offers help to headphone users only, and there are a few ways Sonarworks presents here.

You can find your pair of headphones in the long list of their presets called ‘average‘ for starters. 

What they did is they took a few pairs of the same headphones, measured their frequency curve and come up with an average image from all of them. It’s not a perfect measurement; however, I find it useful enough for my work.

Second, you can buy calibrated headphones from Sonarworks that will come with a custom profile.

And the third option is to send them your headphones for calibration.

These two options will cost you extra.

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Studio edition will also work on your studio monitors – and that’s where you ideally need the microphone from Sonarworks (that comes with a personal profile) and measure your room.

Within the software itself, you do have some options.

Of course, the main one is bypassing the processing; we also have a frequency response curve and various additional displays available. You can use a bass boost, predefined curve and some latency settings. You can also check how the sound is in mono.

The more critical functions are dry/wet, which will allow you to get used to the new flat sound and the safe headroom option.

Safe headroom locks the gain fader. Because the software will boost some frequencies, it will have to adjust the gain accordingly. Safe headroom makes it impossible to go above the gain reduction – unless you switch it off.

It is also worth noting that bypassing the processing won’t change the gain, and it will always match.

This is important as you won’t get hit by a few extra decibels of sound each time you bypass the Sonarworks plugins – only if you completely switch it off.

Sonarworks Reference 4 also comes as two plugins – systemwide and standard DAW plugin. Systemwide works outside of your audio sequencer, meaning that any audio going out of your system will be processed.

DAW plugin version is only for use in your software, but they are precisely the same. When you run your audio software, the systemwide version is automatically inactive.

However, the most helpful thing is the Sonarworks prompts you when you are bouncing your session with the plugin still on!

The plugin needs to sit on your master at the very end; however, when you are bouncing the audio down – you don’t want Reference 4 to flatten your mix!

You only use it for listening, and thankfully people at Sonarworks thought of warning you when you forget to bypass, which I do all the time.

As far as the pricing goes – there are plenty of deals around. You can also lookup Educational discount for students and teachers. It is not the cheapest plugin, but it is definitely worth its price – I’m kicking myself for not discovering it earlier!

Would I recommend it for podcast producers?

If you are starting, more than likely, you will be working on headphones. In that case, I recommend getting a nice pair and trying out the Sonarworks headphones edition.

Even if you want to get studio monitors, it will be tough to mix on them if your room is not acoustically treated.

I also wouldn’t use Sonarworks Studio in an untreated room and hope for the best. It’s not a solution for lousy acoustics. It is another tool to help you get the acoustics to improve them, not fix them.

However, if you are producing on excellent studio monitors, you have a treated room, but you reckon it could be improved, then absolutely try Sonarworks Studio; it’s a no brainer.

I am glad that I can now improve this room, far from perfect even though it is comfortable and mine!

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