Sonarworks HD Reference Review: Sonarworks have delivered a superb package that will transform the sound of your speakers, removing the guesswork involved with mixing audio that will translate well to other systems. A game changer.
A relatively new name on the scene, Sonarworks were formed in 2011. Based in Latvia, the outfit specialise in what they call ‘accurate sound’. Through their expertise in psychoacoustics and digital signal processing, the team engineer high-
Sonarworks claim their speaker calibration software delivers ‘accurate sound in 15 minutes’ for any room. Naturally, this is a hugely attractive proposition when one considers the cost, expense, and space requirements for physically treating a room -
The software approach is ostensibly a simple one -
We are being overly simplistic here of course, but in essence -
The Sonarwarks system comprises two parts -
There are two separate versions of the software -
In the package you get a single licence of the room measurement software, and two licences of the plugin (which comes in AU, AAX Native, RTAS and VST flavours).
System requirements are either Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8 -
Additional requirements for operation are a measurement microphone with a flat frequency response (included in the Sonarworks bundles or available separately) and, importantly, any audio interface with phantom power (for XLR microphones).
Calibration begins with the measurement software that is provided on a USB stick. At the time of shipping the software provided is up to date, however the developers do seem very active with new releases and it is therefore recommended you ignore the version supplied and instead head straight to the Sonarworks website to download the latest version.
Installation is simple, and the package weighs in at just under 90Mb. Once installed the activation is carried out either online (through the entry of your email address and activation key), or offline (through a supplied licence file).
At this point I feel it is worth mentioning the test environment used for the review. The effective space is a typical small ‘box room’ project studio that measures 2m wide, and 2.4m long. The main monitors that will be calibrated are Adam F5s and a pair of M-
Firing up the software, the first thing you need to do is select your audio input/output (I/O) options, your ‘latency detection mode’, and microphone type. Because of the nature of how the measuring process works, accurate knowledge of the latency in the system is crucial. The reason for this is that Sonarworks use a number of proprietary technologies to make calculations that determine the measurement area size automatically, and crucially where in the room that the measurement microphone is placed. Dubbed the ‘Automatic Microphone Positioning System’ (AMPS) this is all very clever stuff and operates through the playback of various short noise impulses and brief frequency sweeps to pinpoint exactly where in the room the microphone is. Whilst the basic method of latency detection requires no additional configuration, if your interface is capable of sending the same audio to another output simultaneously, or you have a good quality Y-
Choosing the microphone type is a critical step -
The early stages of the measurement process involve checks of your microphone level, speaker level and, if you are using loopback, the frequency response of your audio interface is analysed and then factored into the measurement process.
Once the preliminary measurements are completed you then move on to the first room measurement which is taken from the sweet spot between your speakers. The software then produces an initial Amplitude Frequency Response (AFR) for your room which shows the various peaks and dips across the frequency spectrum. As you can see in the diagram below, the 10dB peak above 100Hz in this particular room is typical, and quite an eye, or should that be ear?, opener! If it turns out that the room is amplifying the lower frequencies produced by your monitors you’ll know that any mixes that you have previously completed will not translate well. Another interesting thing to note from the adjacent diagram is the ‘dip’ at around 18KHz on the left channel, with a corresponding (smaller) ‘peak’ on the right channel. It turns out that the room being measured unfortunately has a number of shiny reflective surfaces on the right hand wall which is probably the contributor to why the right side of the room is appearing brighter as higher frequencies are being reflected by them.
Following on from the above, the next stage involves an analysis of your ‘listening spot’ (i.e. where you will sit when listening which may not necessarily be in the sweet spot). This presents interesting possibilities in the HD version in that the listening spot can be changed on the fly and, if there is more than one person in the room, the sound can be tailored to work for their individual location.
Once the ‘listening spot’ has been analysed we can move on to the final measurements, which involves moving around the room holding the mic and pointing it at the phantom centre of your stereo image in order to allow the system to take several acoustic snapshots. During this process the speakers first emit a series of clicks to determine the microphone location, and then a series of frequency sweeps are emitted at various volumes. The more snapshots, the more accurate the model -
As the system knows where you are for each measurement (via the AMPS system), a detailed analysis of the AFR at several points in the room, along with an understanding of where exactly each analysis point is within the room feeds into the calibration engine to provide an enormously detailed model of the acoustic characteristics of the space.
The diagram shows the finished measurement overview with the locations of each analysis point. Once the process is complete, it is time to export your calibration curve ready for import into the plugin.
The plugin should be placed as the last processor in the signal path -
At its highest quality setting the plugin introduces a fair bit of latency -
Another welcome touch is the dry/wet rotary knob, which graduates between original sound and an ‘accurate’ sound. This is an excellent feature for slowly adjusting to the new reference sound over time, especially if you have become accustomed to the issues in your room and previously relied on a ‘sixth sense’ to compensate your final mixes.
If we move over to the ‘custom’ section now, this allows for you to custom craft the frequency tilting, which can add a slight bass or treble boost (as required). If you are one of the people that prefers to mix with a slight boost/reduction at the high or low ends, this is very welcome feature. Alongside this, the ‘simulate’ section further pushes the flexibility of the software to mimic other speaker types through your own monitors (including those famous white-
Finally, the plugin sports a handy mono monitoring switch (which removes the need for a separate plugin in my case), a listening spot selector, and a bypass button (that maintains levels when both active/inactive -
There are so many advantages to using this system -
In the case of my project studio, and my main nearfields (Adam F5s), the system has worked wonders. I was quite aware the room had issues, but over time had adapted to working around them (for example the understanding that there was an appreciable peak in the 100 Hz to 200 Hz range, that would need to be compensated for in the mix). Mixes, when they had to be completed in the room, would need to be checked on multiple systems to see how they translated. (I’m sure I’m not the only one with a mountain of scribbled on CD-
And the sound now? One word -
The ability to simulate other speakers is a welcome bonus -
Downsides? Besides a couple of teething issues with configuring loopback correctly, and wishing there was more in the way of help files and video tutorials, my only grievance is that the sound is so good it is a pain to have to disable it when tracking and writing parts! However, this could soon be addressed with Sonarworks making mention of a forthcoming ‘zero latency’ version which would mean the plugin could have a permanent home on the mix bus from tracking, right through to mastering.
If you are in any way reliant on hearing reference sound from your speakers, and are even slightly unsure that you are getting the best possible sound from your room -
The idea behind what we have here is in itself, not new, but the technologies Sonarworks have developed to model, measure and calibrate the space are in a different league to anything that has gone before -
Now that I have measured my project studio room and calibrated it with this software, I can’t imagine ever working without it. An incredibly vivid, detailed soundstage is now present, stereo imaging is excellent, and every aspect of the sound is delivered with wonderful focus and clarity. Once the sound of the room is effectively ‘removed’, mixing and mastering audio that translates well to other systems is a breeze.