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Innovations: Sonarworks Reference 4

By Martins Popelis. One of the biggest challenges we faced when building Reference was the simple fact that if you measure the frequency response of a room with a microphone, and then move it around even by a fraction of an inch, the measurement changes. So if you take 100 readings in the room, there will be 100 different measurements.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Pro Sound News. Innovations is a monthly column in which different pro audio manufacturers are invited to discuss the thought process behind creating their products of note.

Sonarworks’ introduction of the Reference series back in 2012 began with a stark realization of a problem that is pervasive in our industry: all recording studios and headphones used in the monitoring process ultimately sound different. This has presented an enormous obstacle for music creators that can typically only be overcome with acoustic treatment or expert room tuning—which can be expensive and time-consuming.

At Sonarworks, we saw an opportunity to develop software that could capture state-of-the-art knowledge in the world of acoustics—and apply this to a simple tool enabling anyone to make their rooms or headphones sound as close to reference as possible. For us, the market need was clear: Too many people are monitoring in rooms with inferior acoustics, and even in “world class” studios with great acoustics, the room response is always changing. New equipment is introduced, furniture is moved, or new speakers are brought in. These days, nobody has the budget to keep fixing their rooms, yet they all have at least one or two things that could be improved.

One of the biggest challenges we faced when building Reference was the simple fact that if you measure the frequency response of a room with a microphone, and then move it around even by a fraction of an inch, the measurement changes. So if you take 100 readings in the room, there will be 100 different measurements—and the difference can be dramatic, since the acoustics of the room are not even. So the critical question becomes, How can we translate an “uneven reality” into a measurement that is consistent no matter who does the measuring?

One of our original founders had a clever idea that we should measure many points across an area where we would want optimization to be done, then work out a “smart average” of these measurements so they would match. After all, as human beings, our brains are already making “smart averages” anytime we hear something. So we had the idea that if we could mimic the way a human actually hears things in a room, while working with averages around the area where an individual usually sits, we could figure out how to match this average to the way an individual hears sounds.

Sonic Accuracy

Reference 4 is the latest version of Sonarworks’ pro audio software program that helps music creators remove unwanted coloration from studio speakers and headphones. The Windows/Mac product consists of three modules: First, a DAW plug-in that delivers “reference sound” and zero-latency processing for loudspeakers, as well as calibration profiles and filter modes for more than 120 headphone models. Second, a “system-wide” app that works at the OS level and calibrates all outgoing audio, and third, room measurement software and a microphone that creates a streamlined and easy process to measure and correct room acoustics. A deluxe version of the product includes a measurement microphone.

With this idea in mind, we started an initial prototype of Reference and did some early critical listening tests with a small group of experts, who came back with very positive feedback. This encouraged us to work further, and conduct more tests in studio environments. Our tests were met again with very encouraging feedback and results. Once we finished prototyping it and gained similar feedback, we decided to build a company around it.

One major milestone during our development was the realization that we can also measure headphones. Headphones experience similar challenges that room measurements face: For instance, if you measure a single headphone 100 different ways, you will get 100 different results. So the question becomes, Which is the right way to measure a headphone? We figured out the answer using proprietary tools, software and methodologies, and ultimately realized that we can make headphones sound the same as calibrated speakers sound in a well-tuned room. So we introduced headphone calibration in Version 3.

Another milestone was figuring out how to apply calibration profiles to the signal path—correcting frequency responses that needed to be corrected, but without introducing any other audible artifacts in the signal chain. This meant working out nuances in our filter algorithm and optimizing our DSP engine so that it sounds clean and transparent to our experts and critical listeners.

A third milestone in our development was making our software accessible and easy to use for everybody—so that it would not be limited for use by experts or trained professionals. We spent a lot of time perfecting and fine-tuning our user interface so that it is as easy to use as possible. I think we’ve done a good job with it, but we are constantly trying to make it better and even easier to use.

Related: Review: Sonarworks Reference 3 Calibration Software, by Rob Tavaglione, Pro Sound News, Feb. 23, 2016

In Reference 4, our latest edition, we’ve done three more things: first, we introduced zero latency with the filter engine. This has opened up our software for use in live tracking and monitoring environments, where zero latency is required. Second, we simplified the product offering, reducing it to two versions: the Headphone Edition and the Studio Edition. Lastly, we refined the user interface even further.

Very soon we will be introducing a common reference standard for the entire music creation community so that music creators can share the same reference sound across different rooms or headphones they are working on. This reference standard will be location-agnostic, so users will no longer need to be concerned if they are working in different rooms or monitoring on different devices. Once we introduce this, music creators will finally have the assurance that they are working with a single reference standard, hearing “apples to apples” every time.

Related: Sonarworks Demonstrates Its Reference 4 Studio Monitor and Headphone Calibration Software at NAMM 2018, Pro Sound News, Jan. 25, 2018

Finally, in a much broader context, we are bringing this same reference sound to consumers—so when a piece of music is created in the studio, listeners are finally able to hear exactly what the artist intended, instead of another sonically colored version of the song. Our mission as a company is to ensure that music creators and listeners never have to worry about sonic translation ever again—so they can get on with creating and listening to music.

Martins Popelis is VP of Professional Products, Sonarworks.

Sonarworks •