Sonarworks Reference 4 – Review

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Sonarworks released Reference 4 in October 2017, their latest update to Reference, a studio monitor and headphone calibration software that runs as AU, AAX Native, RTAS and VST plug-in as well as system wide software that plugs into the operating systems Windows and MacOS.

My mix sounds muddy/ thin, poor, weak, you name it

Lets start from where most people usually suffer when it comes to mixing and mastering. In a typical situation you want to create music or other audio-content that plays back in different locations with different speakers without sounding dramatically different from what you have heard in your mixing environment. Weather this is a professional studio, a home or project studio or a bedroom. To improve the sound, the fist thing people tend to do is to good (expensive) studio monitors. Unfortunately most people will be not really satisfied once the brand-new monitors did arrive and are mounted in the mixing room. Why? Because every room sounds different and there several factors that influence the sound in a very drastic way. For example parallel walls, windows or other reflective furniture, resonances, the distance from the speaker to the walls, the height of the room and so on and so forth. Then the next step is to acoustically treat the room by installing absorbers, diffusers, bass traps etc. Without experience and knowledge in room acoustics this task can be come ultra challenging, time consuming and even make the situation worse. Despite the fact that some room treatments can't easily be done or that some people just don't want to install acoustic elements in their bedroom/ studio, another option to improve the sound of monitors, it to measure and EQ them. Here comes Sonarworks Reference 4 in handy.

What Reference 4 does

The aim of Reference is to take care about the last point from above - measuring and calibrating studio speakers. A core component is a high-precision convolution-based equalizer system. Reference 4 is available in 4 different versions: Reference 4 Premium Bundle (€699.00) / Reference 4 Studio Edition with Mic (€299.00) / Reference 4 Studio Edition (€249.00) / Reference 4 Headphone Edition (€99.00). The Premium Bundle includes a PRE-CALIBRATED SENNHEISER HD 650 HEADPHONE and the XREF20 measurement mic. Studio Edition comes with the XREF20 measurement mic and the Headphone Edition is a more affordable solution that only supports Headphones. Premium and Studio Bundle do install 3 more or less individual software components. The "Reference 4 Plugin", the standalne software "Reference 4 Systemwide" and the measuring software "Reference 4 Measure".

Sonarworks even offers a service where individual headphones can be send in and the specialists from Sonarworks will return a calibration profile to increase accuracy. If this service is not used several pre-meassured correction profiles for different headphone models can be selected. There are quite some manufacturers and models available e.g. AKG, Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, Beats, Bose, Sennheiser, Pioneer etc. For a detailed list visit: https://www.sonarworks.com/reference/headphones

The measurement

Before man can use Reference 4 Systemwide or the Reference 4 Plugin with studio monitors, the monitors need to be measured. Therefore the Reference 4 Measure software is used. Every step is described and well documented that even unexperienced users can follow the procedure and properly measure the system. A very clever idea is that every XREF 20 microphone comes with its unique calibration profile. These profiles where created beforehand in the Sonarworks labs. Its a very simple process, you just need to enter the special code that tells Reference 4 which calibration profile was created for the specific mic. The file can also be downloaded separately and used in other scenarios if needed. Before the real measurements will be taken, the software will measure the distance between the speakers, signal to noise ratio, the listening spot and other very useful values. After that is done the room/speaker measurement and calibration process will be done. Usually this process takes about 20 minutes and finally the results can be reviewed and a calibration file can be saved. This process can be re-done as many times as one likes. Even other monitors, different listening positions or acustic treatments can be measured and compared. This can lead to a better understanding in the room acoustics and uncover problematic areas in the studio. If there are bigger issues, the software will show the problems and there is a inbuilt option to directly report the issues to the Sonarworks support-team.
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Correction mode on

After the measurement is finally done, the proper monitor correction profile can be load and enabled in Reference 4 Systemwide or Reference 4 Plugin. There you can also switch to other speakers that simulate the sound of the Yamaha NS-10 or some Hifi Speakers. Of course the main usage will be the correction of the main monitors that where manually measured. The reference curve can be adjusted to personal liking, for example the bass and highs can be in- or decreased. There plugin version is almost equal to the stand-alone software except of the latency settings. In Reference 4 Systemwide are the 3 latency options: zero latency, optimum or linear phase available. The linear phase option was created to have accurate phases without any phase shift. This option also increases the CPU load and is not available on the plugin.
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Conclusion

The idea of "eq'ing the room" is not new, but Sonarworks did create a fantastic and very affordable piece of software that fits to almost every producer and mixing engineer especially if you are on a budget.
In general it should be mentioned that a "room-eq" is only one small piece of a longer list of optimizations that are usually done to create satisfying studio listening experience. Don't expect wonders, if a room is acoustically bad, there wont be any software that can solve these issues and problems should be eliminated with prober acoustic treatments. Once this is done or the room is already very good, Sonarworks Reference 4 can be extremely helpful to optimize the listening experience further. The setup and the measurement is very easy and the software tools do guide the user in a very intuitive way. There is no limit on how many measurements can be done and on a laptop for example, every individual room or listening position can be measured. The additional headphone option is also very useful and the results are stunning. I highly recommend to checkout Sonarworks to give it a try.

Sonarworks Reference 4 is directly available for EUR 249€ at: Sonarworks

Sonarworks Reference 4 - Review
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Summary

The idea of "eq'ing the room" is not new, but Sonarworks did create a fantastic and very affordable piece of software that fits to almost every producer and mixing engineer especially if you are on a budget.

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