How to LOVE Sonarworks
I finally got around to trying some speaker/headphone correction software. Namely Sonarworks Reference 4 Studio. Instantly loved what it did to my headphones (Sennheiser HD6XX), but when I measured my monitors (and sub), I truly hated what it did to them and thought “yep, this is snake oil”. Except… not snake oil. Because while trying to figure out exactly why the correction could sound so good in my headphones but not in my room, I stumbled upon an article that opened my eyes. And when I applied what I learned in that article to the default correction curve in Sonarworks, I suddenly fell in love with what Sonarworks could do to my monitors and sub.
So what was the magic thing I applied to Sonarworks? A user-preference Bass Boost and Tilt adjustment to the measured correction curve. Look at the screenshot above. See the shape of the red line that is doing a shelving boost of about +4.5 dB to the bass/sub region, and which is incurring an overall downward tilt centered at 1 Khz? That one adjustment turned Sonarworks’ effect on my monitors from snake oil to pure magic. Let me explain why this works.
I had dragged my heels on trying out Sonarworks for nearly a full year. I do a lot of research before buying something that pricey ($299 for the full package plus a calibrated measurement mic). And my research kept turning up reviews that loved Sonarworks, but an equal number of reviews that hated Sonarworks. Nearly everyone seems to like what it does for headphones, but I wasn’t alone in my intense dislike for what it did to my monitors and sub.
But I was finally in a position to take a risk and see for myself how Sonarworks would work for me. And felt instant remorse when I first fired up the measured speaker correction. But it nagged at me as to why they nailed my headphone correction so perfectly but could be so far off on the monitor correction. So back into the Google fray one more time, and I came upon this article.
At first, the article seemed to only confirm my belief that Sonarworks was snake oil. I already knew something about the issues described in the article. But I never consciously thought about the point made in the 2nd half about how every listener (and sound engineer) has a very personal “preferred tonal balance”. In a nutshell, there is a certain spectral balance that each of us comes to expect from a lifetime of listening to music. Some of us prefer more bass and sub than others. Some of us prefer slightly brighter or darker highs. Some of us prefer mids to be more “forward” or not. And so on.
This personal preference is why you always see mixed reviews on every pro monitor out there. Some people hate brand X, while others think brand X sounds great. Because no two people—and no two engineers/producers—have the same personal taste in how a great reference track should actually sound.
And therefore, this is why you need to produce and mix and master in an environment that “just sounds GOOD” to yourself. If you like to really hear and feel the bass/sub region, you better be mixing in an environment that “sounds good” down there, or you’re going to push the bottom end too much in your mix and it’s going to come across as “too heavy and too muddy” on other systems. If you mix in an environment where the speakers are feeling a bit too harsh or too bright all the time, even on your best reference tracks, then you’re going to overcompensate in your mix and the final result will come across as “too dull” on other systems and to other listeners.
So armed with this new insight, I asked myself why that Bass Boost and Tilt section was prominently featured in the Sonarworks interface. That had seemed odd to me in a piece of software whose claim to fame was making your room response at your listening position “perfectly flat”. So I reached for that section and A-B bypassed the Sonarworks correction on and off while using the tilt and bass boost to dial in what I liked about my HS8 monitors and my KRK-10s sub. Basically, I looked for bass boost and tilt settings that made Sonarworks feel essentially the same when it was enabled vs not enabled.
Then when I achieved that, I spent time listening to my better reference tracks and constantly toggling back and forth between Sonarworks correction on/off. And sure enough, I could hear the subtle differences that the correction curve was doing. The detail and balance in my bass and sub region was absolutely better. Much more definition and less mud. It was absolutely correcting for the comb filter in that region caused by the “floor bounce”. And it definitely opened up the mids and reduced some masking in certain places, probably caused by some slight comb-filtering from my “desk bounce”.
So my advice is that Sonarworks Reference 4 Studio is a “must-have” when you can find the budget for it. But be aware that you will ALSO need to tweak the Bass Boost and Tilt section to match your personal “preferred tonal balance” before you’ll hear what Sonarworks can actually do for you.