Sonarworks Reference 4 Review – Confidence In Your Sound

How confident are you that your mixes are accurately translating outside of your studio? What kind of feedback are you getting from clients or mastering engineers? Are you getting consistent and predictable results regardless of genre?

ANR got a hold of Sonarworks new version of their flagship studio calibration and frequency tuning software, Reference 4. I ran it through its paces at a couple of studios – my smaller project studio, where I do most of my day to day writing, mixing and mastering. I also gave it to a mate who’s setting up a brand new studio space in Bushwick, to see how it would help him as he fine-tuned the space.

First off, it’s important to understand Reference 4 consists of 3 “modules” which work together to measure your room acoustics, then apply calibration based on those measurements to both your system audio output and DAW output.

The process begins by using the first module to take measurements of your monitor setup. This was surprisingly easy – the software walks you step by step through how and where to hold the microphone, while calibrating tones are played and measured by the software.

If you buy the studio version of Reference 4 you get a calibrated reference microphone sent your way. You can download a specific calibration file for your microphone by typing in the serial number in the downloads section on the sonar works website. If you don’t get the microphone, you can upload calibration information from whatever mic you have (condenser).

It took 24 mic-position samples; it measured to within a couple centimeters how far apart the speakers were, and how far away my listening position was from the speakers. Incredible technology here, using sound to get an accurate idea of the specs of the room.

The process took about 10 minutes, at which point you could save your own sonic reference profile as a bespoke file. It saves all the frequency response, phase and volume information at your listening position.

From there, the other 2 modules are for utilizing your new frequency profile to adjust the freq/phase and volume response of your monitor output, in theory giving you a flatter, more accurate and less colored sound for your listening position in the studio. One module is system-wide, so you can set it up to load when you log in to your computer, and any sound that comes out of your system is treated through the software. It’s total set and forget!

It comes in a clean-looking single window, with a total of 8 line graphs that you can pull up to give you visual feedback of what’s going on with the frequencies and phase.


The above picture shows the systemwide window. If you squint, you can see the graph lines of the original signal ( 2 blue ) and the correction ( 2 green ).

There are quite a few very useful options to tweak both modules to taste and usefulness. You don’t have to stick to your profile There is a ‘simulate’ button, that changes the frequency response to emulate, among others, those famous white-coned monitors that are renowned for their difficulty in getting a good mix from, hence becoming massively popular in studios. If you can get a good mix on these, it’ll sound good anywhere, and so having some virtual ones represented in the Reference software is fantastic.

Sometimes you don’t want to listen to the cold hard truth, and you want your ears to relax, or you want to wow clients with a beautiful sound. There’s a lovely custom option for popular audiophile Hifi gear, with the requisite smile curve, giving you the silky sound you want. You can go further, and customise your own profile with an EQ curve, carving the sound you want depending on the situation.

The other module is a DAW-based plugin that you set on the master channel while mixing, not forgetting to remove it when you’re rendering audio. This plugin is super efficient on the CPU – you will not notice it at all power-wise. Usefully, the software recognises if you load up the plugin when the system-wide software is on, and will automatically turn it off until you’ve finished with the plugin.

HEADPHONES

As well as sweetening up the reference monitors, there are also profiles for pretty much every industry standard monitoring headphones available in the software. You can add the profile for any headphones you have, and both playback modules remember what profiles you’ve loaded, and enable quick switching between them if you’re referring to headphones while mixing, for example. Extremely useful. If you want to get even more accurate, you can purchase 3rd party headphones direct from Sonarworks, with profiles SPECIFICALLY calibrated to THOSE particular headphones. That is pretty damn cool.

So how did the two studios fare with the software?

Jake is currently in the process of finishing out treatment at SuperLegal studio space that he moved into at the end of last year.


Tracking Stephane and his band at Superlegal studios

“As is common, I have the least confidence in the accuracy of the low end. Accurate measurement of my room helps me identify and address problem frequencies as I experiment with monitor placement and treatment. Calibration provides me with the confidence to know I’m making accurate choices while tracking and mixing despite any anomalies my room may have. This software offers both, so I was eager to try it out.

Splice Sounds

I was fascinated with how the software told me exactly where to stand and position the mic during the measurement using their patented “AMPS” technology. Reference 4 is easy on the eyes, and the walk-thru process of getting set up and situated couldn’t be any more straightforward.

The most striking initial impression is made when engaging the calibration for the first time, and hearing what it’s like to have your output adjusted to compensate for your room. I started with the flat reference curve, and immediately noticed everything simply sounded tighter and more focused. Any flub and mud in the low end was gone, and there was a crispness in the high end/air frequencies. The sweet spot felt to suck in a little tighter and felt more balanced while listening.

After hearing the difference in system playback, I moved onto auditioning the plug-in in the mix-buss on my DAW. The results on my mix were just as impressive as system playback- massive improvements in overall focus and clarity. I heard a much more direct transfer into the bounces I brought home and to headphones that night. I also felt much more free to listen for artistic and aesthetic choices instead of just working to “fix what was wrong.” I also got some great feedback from a mastering engineer I’ve used numerous times before.

Now that I’ve spent a bit of time with Reference 4, I can honestly say that no other single piece of gear or plugin has so quickly altered my approach and perception to making music in my studio. Once I heard the difference in calibration for myself on my own system, it was difficult and more than a little unnerving to go back to non-calibrated audio. Reference 4 gives me the piece of mind that I can still produce accurate mixes while continuing to experiment with treatment options in my monitoring space.”

Andy

“For myself, in my project studio – I’ve used studio tuning software before, with mixed results, to be honest. I’m still looking for software that I can trust, that gives real-world results, and that isn’t a hassle to use. Or I was. I think I found it! I found the calibration software to be more involved, while still remaining easy to set up. Although disclaimer – It did take me a while at one point to realise that the software was monitoring exactly where the mic was in the room, and I had to move it within a specific area (my movements being reflected on-screen). I sat there for a lemon for a good while before realising that I needed to move the mic more than I had.

I absolutely LOVE the set and forget element of the software. Your entire system can be treated, without you having to think about it. One slight issue I found was that it does tend to chew up CPU. I have a powerful computer, and it was using 15% of the power. Doesn’t sound like much, but when I’ve got a big project going, I need to squeeze every little byte out of my cores, and that 15% can be better used elsewhere. Hence the plugin! Brilliant. The GUI is clean, and the options are perfect.

I loved the ability to switch quickly between profiles, if I went to my headphones. Also a single button press for MONO listening, and virtual NS10’s.

My initial nervousness about this software was assuaged once I ran the test several times, and came back with the same results each time. The frequency measurements also matched other software I tried alongside it. I’d spent a long time when setting up the studio trying to get as flat a response as possible considering it wasn’t a tuned room. I used Fuzzmeasure (an excellent frequency measurement tool) to position monitors, and treatment. I’d managed to remove dips and bumps over 6DB across the range, which I thought was fairly good, considering. Adding Reference 4 to this just took it to another level. As with Jake, the main effect I heard was the stereo image getting tighter and cleaner. I could place sounds more accurately. I’m now much more confident in EQ’ing tracks, and sending the final product off to clients knowing I’ve heard it accurately. That’s worth the cost of admission right there.”

CONCLUSION

Sonarworks Ref 4 is fantastic software. It’s well designed, and it builds confidence in the sound that you get out of the space you’re in. This is reflected in the high-level endorsements, and amount of awards it’s received. Highly recommended!! Get the full-featured free trial, and I challenge you not to be impressed! Or if you don’t want to be that proactive – listen for yourself here

There are several versions available:

The studio edition is EUR249; EUR299 with calibrated Microphone. If you want a premium bundle with some amazing personally calibrated Sennheiser Headphones, that’ll be EUR699.

For more info, visit the Sonarworks website.

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