Crafting a mix that sounds great in your studio is hard enough.
But that’s only half the battle. The true test is how well it will hold up in the outside world. For many, getting a mix to translate well on other speakers is most frustrating part of the mixing process.
Sonarworks Reference 3 is a plugin that claims to help combat this problem. Does it live up to that claim? Let’s find out…
How Sonarworks Reference 3 Works
Reference 3 uses a microphone to measure the frequency response of your room. It then builds a complementary EQ curve that corrects any tonal imbalances. You listen through this curve while mixing and hopefully hear a more accurate representation of your mix. This will ideally lead to better mixing decisions, and a track that sounds great on a variety of different speakers.
Measuring Your Room
I was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of Reference 3’s measurement process. Compared to other room correction plugins, it’s a breeze.
You’ll need an omnidirectional condenser microphone, an audio interface with an XLR input, and a mic cable with plenty of slack. The Reference 3 standalone app walks you through the entire process, which takes less than 10 minutes. While Sonarworks says you can use any omnidirectional condenser microphone, I got much better results when using their mic.
During the measurement process, Reference 3 instructs you to move the mic around your sweet spot while playing a series of odd noises. The software tracks the mic’s position using echolocation, and automatically starts taking the next measurement when you move it into the right spot. This is by far the coolest part of the process!
After measuring your room, Reference 3 exports a calibration file that you import into the plugin portion of the software (this is what you’ll place on your mix bus). You can save several different calibration files, which is useful if you want to correct other speakers or listening locations. This feature makes Reference 3 more flexible than platforms that only store a limited number of measurements (like KRK’s ERGO).
After completing the measurement process, the rest is easy. Just load up your DAW, add Reference 3 to your mix bus, and import the calibration file. You’re now ready to mix!
Reference 3 features a number of options for fine-tuning its correction algorithm. You can add a slight bass or treble tilt to its EQ curve. You can also emulate the frequency response of a variety of popular speakers, including NS-10’s and a few consumer models. A wet/dry knob and calibration limit controls allow you to vary the intensity of correction that’s applied.
I found myself ignoring most of these additional features, as the default settings worked quite well. I also opted to route my DAW’s output into Apple’s AU Lab app and insert Reference 3 there instead. This way, I could listen through it while using other applications.
While I’ve spent thousands on acoustic treatment, my home studio is far from perfect. Though my speakers (Focal Solo6 Be) extend down to 40 Hz, there’s a big dip in my room at 60 Hz that sucks out a significant portion of the low end. There’s also a noticeable buildup in the lower midrange, which gives my speakers a slightly boxy quality.
Though I’m well aware of these problems, it’s still difficult to know what a correct tonal balance sounds like in my room. Prior to Reference 3, this made mixing the low end particularly challenging. I was often so afraid of adding too much bass that my mixes ended up bass-light! While headphones were helpful, they didn’t alleviate this problem completely.
With Reference 3 engaged, my speakers sound noticeably different. There is a significant extension in the low end; the speakers seem to reproduce sound further down the frequency spectrum. The lower-midrange boxiness disappears. These changes are not subtle. In fact, after spending a few hours listening through Reference 3, bypassing it can be quite a shock!
Since every room is different, your mileage may vary. But the real question is, will Sonarworks Reference 3 help you craft better mixes?
After spending several months mixing through this plugin, I believe the answer is a resounding YES. My mixes translate better than ever before, and I spend less time checking them on other sets of speakers. I’ve noticed that mastering engineers are applying less EQ to my mixes. In fact, many of them come back nearly flat. And since I trust what I’m hearing much more, I second-guess mixing decisions less. This makes mixing faster, easier, and more fun.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Reference 3 is that I often forget it’s there. This is the first room correction plugin I’ve felt comfortable using on every mix. It really is a set-it-and-forget it kind of thing! (Just remember to bypass it when you switch to headphones!)
With Reference 3 engaged, I feel confident that what I’m hearing will translate to the outside world. The peace of mind it gives me is priceless.
I believe Sonarworks Reference 3 is the best room correction plugin on the market. But it isn’t a magic bullet.
There’s no substitute for proper speaker and sweet spot placement, as well as acoustic treatment. And it’s worth mentioning that the merits of room correction software have been hotly debated. Acousticians like Ethan Winer advise against using EQ to try to correct acoustic problems, whereas others, like Bob Hodas, sing its praises.
While room correction software can flatten the frequency response of a listening environment, it can’t correct acoustic problems like modal ringing (where certain frequencies ring out longer than others). In addition, the software can only correct a small sweet spot, and will often make other areas in a room sound worse.
With that being said, I still use Reference 3 every day, on every mix. To put it simply, my mixes sound better with it than without it. I can’t argue with those results.