Most producers are familiar with the problem: the track that sounded so great in your home studio sounds badly mixed and EQed when you play it at a friend’s studio or (worse) in a club. What’s going on and how can you fix it? Dubspot’s John von Seggern takes a look at room correction technology and how it can help you make better mixes…
The main cause of this very common (and frustrating) problem is that you aren’t hearing the music accurately in your studio while you’re working, and so you’re making adjustments that won’t sound good on other sound systems or in other environments.
For example, you may think the bass is too loud in a track when you hear it in your studio, so you turn it down–but then when you play the track out on a proper club system or even in your car, the bass sounds weak.
To fix this problem and make your mixes sound better, you need to improve the overall listening environment in your home studio. A lot of us are just using computer + gear + monitors on a tabletop in an empty room, not exactly ideal from an acoustical standpoint:
Making improvements in your studio listening environment is probably the most important thing you can do to make your finished mixes sound better, but most electronic producers are more interested in spending money on new synths or software than room improvements.
There are a few obvious things you can do to improve the situation. You can get better speakers, and this can certainly help. It’s also a good idea to frequently compare the sound of the track you’re working on with a commercially-released track in a similar vein, as a reference for the overall balance of frequencies in the mix. You should also take your final mixes and listen to them on a variety of different sound systems (car, earbuds, club system, laptop speakers, friend’s studio, TV, etc.).
This is all good advice, but this kind of advice has always been frustrating to me as well–it all makes me wonder, what does the music really sound like?
Ultimately you need to be able to clearly hear what you’re working on to make your music sound the way you want. Accurate monitoring depends mainly on your speaker system and the space they’re set up in, and here’s the problem: decent speakers are available for a reasonable price, but what if (like most of us) you have a less-than-ideal space to set them up in? Mixing on expensive speakers in an echoey concrete basement or in a cramped space under a stairwell is not likely to produce good results, but what can you do about it short of moving to a new place?
This is where acoustic treatment and room correction come in. These are both ways to improve the overall listening environment so that the mixes you make sound consistent and translate better through different sound systems and in other spaces.
Acoustic treatment simply means to use bass traps, sound absorbers, sound diffusors and other such devices to absorb unwanted sounds, and this should be the first step in treating your studio. Most commonly you want to use some bass traps in the corners of the room to absorb the extra bass reflections that build up in a small room. You may also need to install some wall-mounted diffusors or absorbers as well to stop too much of the sound from your speakers reflecting back to your ears from the walls around you.
If you could really afford to set up your room properly with bass traps and diffusors, it might end up looking something like this:
Realistically though, most of us aren’t going to go that far. As a music producer you owe it to yourself to learn something about studio acoustics and acoustic treatment, and almost any small studio will benefit from a few well-placed bass traps and diffusors, but you should also realize that you won’t be able to get perfect sound in a small room that wasn’t designed with acoustics in mind. This is where room correction can help, but in most cases you will benefit most by adding some acoustic treatment and then adding room correction.
Acoustic treatment is a science in itself but this article from the Feb 2006 issue of UK audio magazine Sound on Sound is a good place to start learning. This diagram from the article shows some suggestions about where to place acoustic treatment in a typical small studio:
Sound on Sound also has a long-running regular feature “Studio SoS” where they go on location to a reader’s studio and do a proper acoustic treatment, detailing some of the unique problems they encountered along the way and the solutions they found, for example…
Room correction takes an opposite approach to acoustic treatment, and in fact the two approaches are complementary and can (should) be used together. Instead of trying to absorb unwanted frequencies by adding foam traps, absorber panels, etc., with a room correction system you analyze the frequency response in your room using a microphone and test tones, and then the system introduces some kind of filter to give you a flatter, “truer” frequency response. By using room correction while working on your tracks, you should be able to come up with final mixes that will sound more consistent on different sound systems.
Although there are differences between manufacturers, they generally follow the same process:
1. Measure the frequency response of the room over a spread of different locations using a reference microphone and audio test tones.
2. Analyze the frequency response of the room and create a correction filter to compensate and bring the final output closer to a flat response.
3. Apply the correction filter to the playback signal while mixing.
You can see that in step one, you will need to make audio measurements at a number of different locations. This is because the frequency response you hear in any room is dramatically affected simply by moving a small distance in any direction. (You probably already know that the bass sounds a lot louder in some parts of your room than others, this is what we’re talking about here.)
For a home/project studio, generally you want to optimize the sound at the sweet spot between the speakers where you sit while you mix, and you’ll do your measurements around this spot in some kind of pattern. The manual for IK Multimedia’s ARC software includes a diagram showing where you should make your measurements. The circled number 1 indicates your ideal listening position, you measure this first and then proceed in a symmetrical pattern around it:
What You Can Correct…And What You Can’t
The term “room correction” sounds kind of magical to me, like it will correct all your audio problems and make everything right! In reality though, there are several different types of acoustical issues going on in a typical project studio, and room correction can only fix some of them.
Generally speaking, room correction products work by fixing frequency problems in the room. If you are hearing too much bass at 150Hz in your studio, a room correction system may subtract some at that frequency to balance out.
However, it is also true that many of the acoustical issues in small studio rooms are not frequency problems but what are called time domain issues, issues with when different parts of the sound reach the ear, and these cannot be fixed except through studio design and acoustic treatment; examples here include early reflections and reverberation. For example, if your studio is set up in an echoey concrete basement, no amount of room correction is going to make it sound good, you need to put in carpeting and install some soundproofing/damping first!
Having said that though, room correction can help a lot in the typical project studio. Most significantly, a properly setup room correction system can give you a better idea of the true bass level in a track. This always seems to be one of the hardest things to get right in dance music, because it is difficult to hear the long low frequency bass waves accurately in a small studio room. This is really a frustrating problem with bass-heavy styles like drum’n'bass and dubstep, where you generally want the bass to be as powerful as it can be but without drowning out everything else; it is hard to find this balance when you can’t hear the music clearly in your studio and room correction can help a lot with this.
Acoustic Treatment + Room Correction = Sonic Bliss?
While there does seem to be some controversy among audiophiles about whether acoustic treatment or room correction is a better way to go, it seems the consensus is that the best approach is to do some basic acoustic treatment of your room first, and then use room correction to further fine-tune what you’re hearing. So assuming that you’ve already installed some bass traps and diffusors as needed, let’s look at the main room correction systems out there and how they stack up…
Which One Should I Get?
There are room correction systems on the market from a number of different manufacturers, but some of these are intended for audiophile hi-fi music playback systems or home theater setups and wouldn’t easily fit into a typical project studio. At the moment there are basically only two companies making room correction solutions for small studios: IK Multimedia and JBL. IK’s product, ARC, is software-only while JBL’s MSC1 is a hardware piece, and each have their pros and cons. These two are comparatively priced as well (both were around $300 on Sweetwater.com and other sites I checked when I was working on this post), so if you are interested in adding room correction to your studio I recommend checking out both of them and decide which would fit better in your studio.
Software Room Correction: IK Multimedia’s ARC 2.0
IK Multimedia’s ARC software, first released in 2008 and updated with a 2.0 version in 2012, allows you to apply room correction in your studio with just a software plug-in, without requiring any hardware. ARC=Automatic Room Correction, get it? This is the system I’m currently using in my studio, let’s look at how to set it up.
To use ARC, you first run a setup program and run through a series of audio measurements as the software plays a series of test tones through your monitors.
Then, when you’re working on a music project in your DAW, you just run the ARC VST plug-in on your master output as the very last effect in the chain. When you go to render your final mix, you turn the ARC plug-in off so that the room correction filter does not affect the sound, resulting in a mix that should translate well anywhere.
Opening the ARC plug-in, the interface looks like this:
On the left under Measurement is a drop-down where I can pick various measurement profiles, of different rooms measured at different times and so on.
On the right under Target Curve, you can see that I’ve selected Flat. Normally you want to keep it on this setting, and ARC will do its best to play you your “true” mix, uncolored by the response of the room you’re sitting in. However there are other choices here that will simulate the sound of a car stereo, laptop speakers and other playback systems, letting you hear what your mix will sound like on different types of speakers without even leaving your room…
In the graphs below the drop-down menus, the brown BEFORE line represents the measured frequency response in my studio from when I did the audio test. The grey AFTER line represents the frequency response I should be hearing after the correction has been applied, and in the background the green TARGET line represents the perfectly flat frequency response of a completely transparent listening environment.
Because of the imperfections in my room and the limitations of what room correction software can do, the final corrected frequency curve will never be perfectly flat, but this grey curve represents the best it can do in my room.
There are both advantages and disadvantages of using a software solution for room correction. On the plus side, you can take advantage of the latest updates to the technology without having to buy a new hardware piece, and in fact most reviewers found that last year’s ARC 2.0 release was a substantial step up in quality from the first generation of the product.
The downside to a software-only solution lies in the fact that to really take advantage of a room correction system you should be running it all the time, whether you’re doing sound design, arranging, mixing or just listening to some of the latest tracks you bought. To do this with ARC, you need to have some other piece of software such as Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack Pro that allows you to run audio plug-ins on your main system audio output, and you need to remember to run this whenever you are listening to music in your studio. This is a minor inconvenience, but no big deal really; this is the way I do it and it’s never caused me any other issues.
Hardware Room Correction: JBL’s MSC1
JBL’s MSC1 is a desktop hardware unit that you run your final audio output through before it reaches your speakers, also providing you with multiple stereo ins and outs so you can use it with several different audio sources and/or speaker sets without reconnecting anything:
The accompanying software that comes with the MSC1 walks you through the setup process using the included reference microphone (following a similar procedure as ARC), and then you can use the MSC1 to apply a corrective filter to your audio at the press of a button:
The MSC1 was released in 2009, but JBL has also been incorporating their RMC (Room Mode Correction) technology into some of their studio monitors for awhile. You can get the same functionality as the MSC1 built into the company’s LSR4326P or LSR4328P monitors for example, both of which are also highly recommended, but the MSC1 lets you use JBL’s room correction with the speakers you already have.
Honorable Mention: The KRK Ergo
KRK has had a solid entrant in the room correction field for some years with their Ergo device, but it seems to have reached the end of its lifecycle now and been discontinued fairly recently. The Ergo is a small hardware box comparable in size to the MSC1, but it is able to function as a Firewire audio interface for your computer as well as a standalone room correction device:
I know a number of satisfied users of the Ergo system and I’ve heard good things about it, but at this point KRK isn’t selling it any more and it’s not really the sort of thing you want to buy secondhand. It needs to be able to connect to your computer so you can set it up and get it working, and without updated drivers and software from the manufacturer this may not work right, at least not for much longer.
Dubspot blog editor John von Seggern has played techno at massive underground parties in China, remixed Western pop artists for the Indian music market (and vice versa), designed orchestral electronic sounds and effects for the Pixar film Wall-E, and presented his anthropological research on music technology at ethnomusicology conferences. He has authored two instructional books about computer music production and performance as well as the manual for Native Instruments’ popular software synthesizer Massive.
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