Review: Sonarworks Reference 3 Calibration Software

The core of this $345 system is the software (Mac-only, AU/VST/RTAS/AAX) using a series of audio tones, impulses and sweeps to measure studio monitor placement, locate the environment’s “sweet spot,” measure phase relationships and analyze each speaker’s amplitude and frequency response.
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Many engineers earn a living in rooms that were not purposefully designed and/or built with audio production in mind, thus the need for Sonarworks’ Reference 3 software bundle is clear. Seldom do acoustic treatment products provide complete solutions. Sonarworks appears to have created an affordable level of analysis and control that can help diminish such acoustic problems—even when walls and ceilings can’t be knocked out, raised, etc.

The core of this $345 system is the software (Mac-only, AU/VST/RTAS/AAX) using a series of audio tones, impulses and sweeps to measure studio monitor placement, locate the environment’s “sweet spot,” measure phase relationships and analyze each speaker’s amplitude and frequency response. [There are reports of Windows compatibility, a 5.1 version and an HD version with five times more resolution on the horizon. Not to mention, Sonarworks can do this for headphones too.—Ed.] Once analyzed, Reference 3’s results are namable and savable for later recall.

Next, users improve their room’s response utilizing the Sonarworks plug-in, instantiating the plug-in on a DAW’s monitoring buss then recalling the saved response curve. The software now processes stereo signal with presumably inverse EQ changes to achieve flatter response.

What ultimately makes Reference 3 a “bundle” is its included reference microphone: a mini-condenser with a neutral response that measures test tones with accuracy. The mic is indeed useful for other tasks and, yes—other reference mics are usable in its stead if you obtain and load the Sonarworks response curve. For further details, see, noting such advanced options of filter type, target curves, feature defeats, wet/dry mix and headphone compatibility.

To use, connect the reference mic to a high-headroom, neutral character mic preamp and play back Reference 3’s female announcer at conversational levels, increasing gain until the software indicates proper signal strength is achieved. Here I made the mistake of choosing different converters for system I/O; upon selecting my Apogee Symphony converter for both input and output, I received the phase accurate response that Reference 3 requires for operation.

A quick series of blips allows Reference 3 to measure the distance between monitors, which then finds the exact equilateral triangle placement of the “sweet spot.” Now the hard work begins: Reference 3 runs a series of impulses that allow measurements both directly in the sweet spot and all around—approximately within a five foot “bubble.” Reference 3 indicates when the mic is adequately inside each one of the 20-plus small zones around a user’s normal seating area (while I have a chair-free/standing control room, the concept still applies). Once completed, results are saved via a detailed naming system; users will ultimately have several sets of results for comparison.

Next it’s time to apply the correction and this is much simpler than the analysis. Once the right correction-curve is selected substantial improvement is possible, assuming the room needs help. Indeed, overall frequency response is likely to seem wider as Reference 3 cleans up response on the far extremes, but it’s the little midrange adjustments that are particularly useful. To my ears, the results include better vocal intelligibility, improved imaging, a sense of more air and space within the soundstage, more detail in the lower registers and greater confidence for setting mix levels and executing moves.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Unless your room is proper, you are likely to find response irregularities that will turn your stomach. I’ve used monitors with room analysis before and always found a low-mid hump, but I’d never seen some of my room’s issues: response dips adjacent to peaks, some phase irregularities and a steep peak around 80 Hz. I forced myself through a series of experiments in furniture placement, monitor isolators, absorbent panels, stands and bass traps until I had done all I could with the room itself. I finally settled with this: a new (tunable) subwoofer, Primacoustic IsoPads (which I enthusiastically endorse), jettisoned free-standing speaker stands (which, oddly enough, made things worse) and repositioned bass traps.

Although Reference 3 can’t completely fix a horrific room, it can certainly help out a decent one and surely make great headway in today’s all-too-common converted bedroom or basement. There are limits to be expected with the system: excessive reverb and time-domain issues can’t be tamed; phase error cannot be affected (although it’s arguable that frequency-specific phase errors have only minimal psycho-acoustic effect); there’s substantial benefit at the sweet spot and not as much elsewhere; and usage has other complications.

For example, if you mix out-of-the-box, implementing the plug-in can require creating a specific monitoring buss and the plug-in may have to attenuate output level to accommodate its creation of corrective response peaks (throwing off levels). Mixing in-the-box requires bypassing Reference 3 prior to bouncing-to-disc, or at least an elaborate routing scheme to avoid switching.

The truth is that room analysis and correction this powerful and detailed is not going to be without some effort and inconvenience. I have a decent room for a residential studio and Reference 3 did good things for my response, clarity and confidence, paired with other aforementioned corrective measures. And that’s the point: if a room is average (or worse) and if acoustic treatment has corrected all that it can, then Sonarworks’ Reference 3 Bundle can make a truly major difference, benefiting productions more than any other single mic, processor, plug-in or digital device ever could.