Sonarworks in Education

Sonarworks is being used as a teaching tool in the classroom for demonstrating the critical importance of frequency response and room interference.

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Educators already using Sonarworks

Find out more about educators that are using Sonarworks in their teaching.

Will Pirkle

Assistant Professor of Music Engineering Technology at University of Miami, Frost School of Music

I can say without hesitation that this is a product worth checking out and I can not wait until I get my students up and running with it.  With Sonarworks, I believe that we may finally have a solution to get consistently even results across the spectrum of gear, from our multi-million dollar studios to the student’s dorm room setups and everything between. What a fantastic pairing of education and technology this makes!
 

Will Pirkle

Assistant Professor of Music Engineering Technology at University of Miami, Frost School of Music

Will Pirkle
Program Director: Music Engineering Technology
Frost School of Music
University of Miami

In the 1990’s I skeptically allowed a well-known acoustician and associated monitor company analyze, and then EQ our Studio A mains in the brand new Weeks Recording Center at the University of Miami. Coming from a background of “don’t do anything that will make your monitors lie to you” I didn't put much faith in the process, but to my amazement, over the next few months I found that the mixes *were* sounding better as a result, and since we could disable the EQ programmatically, we could experiment with the resulting mixes in our courses. By the mid-2000s, hand-held spectrum analyzers and even iOS applications could generate pink noise and indicate issues with modes in a room, but I was never able to get even close to the same results as that original tuning/EQ-ing in my own home studio, and that was with professional treatments, bass traps, and some expensive EQs as well.


So, when I first got my Sonarworks kit I found myself back to the same doubtful-but-hopeful frame of mind. Before using the product in my own studio with three sets of high-end monitors, I decided to try a worst-case scenario: the small, powered speakers in my computer lab at home. The room is carpeted but otherwise acoustically untreated. And the monitors are the standard “$99/pair” 2-way variety — not horrible but certainly nothing I would consider mixing a tune with. The wall behind my computer desk is only 4.5 feet back and covered in prints while the left and right sides of the room are drastically different insofar as the wall materials and bookshelves go. The calibration was simple and when I turned on the final product, there was indeed a remarkable difference in the quality of the audio; it went from crappy and low-budget to a reasonably good sounding pair of speakers.

However, creating a good EQ for a pair of speakers is not the final end-game here so I ran some more tests: I downloaded a set of stems from Mike Senior’s website of an unfamiliar tune in a genre I rarely mix for — 11 tracks of UK punk-rock goodness. I imported the stems into my DAW and set panning only and saved the raw session. Then, I added a single graphic EQ plugin to 7 of the 11 tracks. I left the two vocal tracks unprocessed as well as the two rack-tom tracks that were barely used. I then mixed the tune using only the single, identical EQ on those tracks without the Sonarworks plugin activated. After finishing a hardware project and having lunch, I came back with fresh ears and mixed the entire tune again, this time with the Sonarworks EQ active and after re-setting all the EQs to flat. I then bounced everything down to a pair 2-mix versions without touching any controls. There was no automation or other processing; in fact, I simply left the room while the 2-mixes were being generated.


I then burned the two versions to a CD and went for a drive in my pickup truck, listening to the two versions over my 2008 Panasonic automotive CD player using its internal amps. Though I did expect some difference, I was shocked by the drastic differences that appeared: the non-Sonarworks version had screaming loud vocals and a snare drum that had the “blanket thrown over it” problem — the bass guitar part, which had been well recorded with the standard DI plus mic-ed tracks, had vanished and the bottom end of the guitars was muddy; this was after rolling off most of the guitar low-end as well. Flipping to the Sonarworks version, the vocals gelled into the mix and while still out front and in your face, they weren’t overwhelming. The snare drum popped out in its own frequency band and the bass and guitars sat together nicely. I can honestly say that I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that I was listening to a reasonably good mix that had been made on speakers that most professionals would laugh at, myself included. The most recent mix from my home studio was for a commercial release of an all-acoustic bluegrass band that has been released for some time. Right now, I am trying to find the master hard drive with the raw tracks so I can go back and remix the entire product — just for my own edification.

With these tests done, I can say without hesitation that this is a product worth checking out and I can not wait until I get my students up and running with it. Our main studio has a 128 channel virtual patch-bay so that our students may plug in their laptops and record through our consoles, outboard gear and preamps directly into their DAWs. Many of them will make multiple rough mixes later at home, then come back and compare with their mixes on our expensive monitors. With Sonarworks, I believe that we may finally have a solution to get consistently even results across the spectrum of gear, from our multi-million dollar studios to the student’s dorm room setups and everything between. What a fantastic pairing of education and technology this makes!


In addition, we are a technically advanced program, and we always look for ways to incorporate new advances in technology into our curriculum; these include patent studies, reverse engineering or completely re-designing our own hardware and software products and graduate case studies and thesis projects. I can see the Sonarworks products being used for active demonstrations and listening in our architectural acoustics course, while our more advanced graduate classes in psychoacoustics and audio signal processing could benefit from analyzing and modeling the Sonarworks process. Kudos to Sonarworks for producing a high-quality product at a very reasonable price point. I can’t wait to see what new products Sonarworks produces next!


Will Pirkle
11-13-19
Lighthouse Point, Florida

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Bill Crabtree

Assistant Professor, Coordinator Production & Technology at Middle Tennessee State University

Today, with most students having their own workstation at home, they do a lot of mixing and editing work in an environment that we (faculty) have no control over. Sonarworks allows us to create some consistency between our on-campus studios and the student’s home systems. Every system is different, but Sonarworks Reference 4 does allow students to trust their home systems to a much greater degree.

Bill Crabtree

Assistant Professor, Coordinator Production & Technology at Middle Tennessee State University

One of the biggest challenges I see with students is in them gaining a clear understanding of what a recording should sound like versus how their playback system is changing their impressions. Sometimes it’s hard to know what is really there! Just a few years ago, students would do the vast majority of their work in a controlled studio environment. Today, with most students having their own workstation at home, they do a lot of mixing and editing work in an environment that we (faculty) have no control over. Sonarworks allows us to create some consistency between our on-campus studios and the student’s home systems. Every system is different, but Sonarworks Reference 4 does allow students to trust their home systems to a much greater degree. 

Sonarworks is also a good teaching tool for demonstrating the issues related to system optimization. With the Reference 4 software, I can take students through the measurement process while discussing the variables involved. Students can easily compare what the software is doing to what it would be like without it; which is often a real eye-opener for them. We can set up systems in a variety of environments and shoot multiple profiles pretty quickly to see the impact of different speakers and different positions in different spaces. It definitely raises student’s awareness of system optimization and the importance of an accurate playback environment.

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Gillian Desmarais

K-8 Fine Arts Director and Music Teacher at Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Massachusetts

I am incredibly impressed. This was a wonderful tool and resource for my 8th-grade students. Incorporated as part of a STEM lesson, Sonarworks provided them a better visual for understanding sound and ways of enhancing its quality in an un-ideal environment.

Gillian Desmarais

K-8 Fine Arts Director and Music Teacher at Pioneer Charter School of Science in Everett, Massachusetts

I am incredibly impressed with the capability of Sonarworks calibrations. As my eighth-grade students are aware of how sine waves function in mathematics, it was easiest for them to make the association between frequencies on the piano and the frequency portion of the graph. Using the drop-down menu for selecting “stimulated after” or “target” was the most effective tool for demonstrating how the software was capable of calibrating the ideal response curve. This included all the bypassing features, which students were able to manipulate in real-time, as well as hearing the difference in audio quality from each change. 
 
Afterward, students were able to pull up their Soundtrap projects on my computer and listen to the difference in sound. They immediately recognized how the quality of the low end was evened out and how visually that was being depicted on the graph. A great teaching moment! Manipulating audio effects in Soundtrap was much easier for them to understand after this demonstration. 

A student actually was interested in why a safe headroom was not reflected as a change in DB on the graph and only in the output. Obviously, the actual calibration of the curve isn’t changed when manipulating the output, but I sensed the fact that they wanted to see that change on the graph too. Distortion is another point of topic for us to cover. 
 
I am incredibly impressed. This was a wonderful tool and resource for my 8th-grade students. Incorporated as part of a STEM lesson, Sonarworks provided them a better visual for understanding sound and ways of enhancing its quality in an un-ideal environment.
 

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Craig Anderton

Author and Educator at CraigAnderton.org

Once you start mixing with Sonarworks, you don’t want to mix without it.

Craig Anderton

Author and Educator at CraigAnderton.org

It sounds too good to be true – flatten the response of your monitor speakers and headphones.

No matter how good our software is, or our musical chops, ultimately we have to mix (and listen through) speakers or headphones. They are the weakest link in our audio chain, because speakers form a partnership with your room’s acoustics. So even if your speakers were perfect—which they’re not—the room will make them imperfect.

We need a flat frequency response for mixing and mastering to minimize timbral differences when your mixes end up in a consumer playback system. If you mix with a flat response, then everything will sound a little bit wrong on systems that don’t have a flat response. But if you mix in a room that, for example, emphasizes the bass, then you’ll mix the bass way lower than you should—and this doesn’t even take into account frequency response issues within the speakers themselves.

Headphones aren’t perfect, either. Many of them hype the high and/or low ends. Sure…if you have $400, go get a set of Sennheiser HD 650 headphones, which have a pretty close to flat frequency response. But overall, attaining a flat frequency response for mixing and mastering is hellishly difficult.

Or at least, it used to be…

SNAKE OIL OR SALVATION?

I’d known of Sonarworks for a while, but I’d used room tuning software before, with varying degrees of success. JBL’s MSC 1 and IK’s ARC 2 definitely made a difference, and they helped, but any room tuning system always had a bit of a band-aid feel. I figured one band-aid is probably the same as any other band-aid.

However, Sonarworks is also about headphone tuning, not just room tuning. As someone who often needs to mix on headphones while traveling, that piqued my interest. At a recent Summer NAMM, I had a chance to hear the headphone system in action. It was impressive, to say the least, although I still was skeptical. I wanted to test it in my studio environment.

Sonarworks has measured a ton of headphones, and produced compensating curves. It’s a simple idea, but it works. If your headphones boost the bass, have a deficient midrange, and excessive brightness, you call up your headphone’s profile to cut the bass, fix the midrange, and tame the excessive brightness with a complementary response curve. (Note that these curves are averages, and headphones can vary quite a bit; also, not all headphones in the world have profiles. However, Sonarworks has a service that does custom headphone profiles for $149, and also sells headphones that have been profiled.) Fig. 1 shows the curve for AKG’s K702, and Fig. 2, for KRK’s KNS 8400.

Frequency response curve of an AKG K207 set of headphones, which reveals a significant boost in  the treble region.
Figure 1: Sonarworks provides a compensation EQ curve that’s equal and opposite to the headphone’s characteristic curve (shown in blue).
Frequency response curve of a KRK KNS 8400 set of headphones. There's a significant low-frequency boost.
Figure 2: KRK KNS 8400 headphones average response. Note the low-end boost, and midrange dips.

The Reference 4 Headphone Edition software is available for around $100, while the Reference 4 Studio Edition, which lists for around $300, includes a calibrated microphone so you can calibrate your speakers to your room. An upgrade path is available from the Headphone Edition to the Studio Edition, and you can buy the calibrated microphone separately. There’s also a Premium Edition, which includes the Reference 4 Studio Edition, a set of Sennheiser HD 650 headphones, and a custom calibration curve for the headphones. If you have $700, it’s the Sonarworks’ top of the line.

I’ll get into how the process works later, but let’s start with the conclusions. I have quite a few headphones with Sonarworks profiles, so I figured the toughest test would be to apply the curves to all of them, and see if they sounded the same.

Wow.

Sonarworks passed with flying colors. Now, understand it can’t compensate for something like one headphone having more distortion or a different “character,” but for frequency response, the results were incredibly uniform—and this was without custom profiles, just the average profiles included with the program.

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE

I was so impressed I thought I’d give the speaker calibration a try. Basically, you take about three dozen samples of test signals, at various distances and locations on- and off-center compared to your monitors, with the included calibrated microphone. The feature image shows the process about to reach a conclusion. The process takes about 20 minutes, and you’re guided clearly through each step.

Again being skeptical (I can’t help it), I repeated the test several times to see the if results would differ. They were extremely close. If it was a political poll, it would be referred to as being “within the margin of error.” Here’s the response of my Les Paul 6” monitors in the room (Fig. 3). If nothing else, it shows that I really need to use an 8” speaker to get that bottom octave nailed down! Overall, the combined speaker/room response was better than I expected, but of course, it’s not ideal.

Frequency response curve of Gibson's Les Paul 6 inch monitors in my studio's control room.
Figure 3: Here’s what I was getting from my monitors before adding Sonarworks.

After profiling, the monitors never sounded so good. But there was still an important test to run: would the sound through the speakers, and the sound through the headphones, be the same?

Wow #2. That sealed the deal for me: this thing works. What a fantastic solution.

THE PLUG-IN

The way Sonarworks affects your system is by inserting the compensating filter curve as a master bus plug-in (MacOS 10.12/Windows 7 or higher, 32-bit or 64-bit, VST2/VST3/AU/AAX). You leave the plug-in enabled while mixing or mastering so you can work with flat response, and then bypass it when the time comes to render your finished audio. At first, hearing truly flat response is a bit shocking. After a while, though, it becomes the norm—and you can really hear how different headphones or speakers hype the sound when you bypass the plug-in.

I have no concerns about being so enthusiastic about this, because you can download a 21-day free trial of the Headphone Edition, and there’s a 14-day, money-back guarantee on the Studio Edition. If you don’t like the concept (or all you want is the Headphone Edition, and your headphones aren’t profiled), you haven’t risked anything. But I think the company can probably get away with these generous terms for a very simple reason: Once you start mixing with Sonarworks, you don’t want to mix without it.

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Sonarworks is invaluable to students

Sonarworks Reference 4 ensures that whatever environment students are mixing in, they all use a common flat frequency response.

Mobility

by Craig Van ReMoortel, Drexel University

At Drexel University, we have great studios that I can work in, but each of them is different, and that makes moving projects between them a bit challenging. Also, my headphones are somewhat colored, which makes it harder for me to work from home. Sonarworks makes all of these environments sound the same, and now I can move between locations with ease. I can even mix on the train.

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Learning Tool

by Fernanda Herrara Lendechy, SAE Mexico City

Sonarworks lets me visualize the frequency response of each room I work in. It really gives me a good feel of how the speaker placement affects my home studio. I’ve got a much better sense of how the room is affecting the timbre of the instruments I am mixing. I love this software.

This photo is for illustrative purpose

Improved Mixing Results

by Kaela Dunlap, Shenandoah Conservatory

When I started working on the Sonarworks monitoring target, it was much easier than I initially thought. The drums, for example, sounded much more spot-on in my latest assignment, which my professor also appreciated and complimented. I’m a lot more confident that my mixes will translate. Very happy.

This photo is for illustrative purpose

Collaboration

by Chris Mallamaci, Emerson College

I like working on music with my talented friend from high school. Even though we are thousands of miles apart, we can still find some consistency in our mixes because we both use the same flat frequency curve. This tool rocks!

This photo is for illustrative purpose

Do It All on a Student Budget

by Rory Higginson, Northeastern University

I'm still working on the same monitors I’ve had since high school. I'm used to them and I don’t really want to buy expensive monitors until I can afford something great. With Reference 4, I can get great results without trying to spend money that I don’t have. 

This photo is for illustrative purpose

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