Sonarworks in Education  /  Will Pirkle

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
Lighthouse Point, Florida