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I was in the process of rebuilding my studio desk when it occurred to me that the slight change in height would affect the acoustics of the room.

“Well,” I thought. That means remeasuring everything. And an excuse to get a new measurement microphone.

I looked about and basically by accident stumbled across Sonarworks. They’re known for making headphone calibration software, and have recently begun a foray into monitor calibration. One of their packages was a demo, which came with a rather decent measurement mic, for a whopping $40.

What the heck -a cheap, decent measurement mic, and I can demo the software and see what it has to say about my room. Worst case, I end up with a measurement mic.

Okay, it ended up being a little less cheap than I expected, since the microphone shipped Fedex from freaking Latvia, so shipping charges were a bit much, but I was still ahead of the game. The mic arrived a few days later and I put it through its paces with Fuzzmeasure and REQWizard. Got some decent readings, noted a few trouble spots that I’ve always had near my crossover points and along a hard-to-trap z-axial node/null. I made a few adjustments to my subwoofer crossover point and levels, and got some improvement.

I’ve always been skeptical of room-correction/speaker-correction software. No matter how much fancy math one does, the cold hard translation to physical reality often gets in the way of idealized imrpovements.

But that didn’t stop me from firing up their “Reference” software demo.  Just to try it.

I am impressed.

Not without caveats, of course – I can imagine this working best in a treated environment and with rather good speakers, since it has to do a lot fewer crazy adjustments if we’re only talking about a few dBs here or there.  No speaker adjustment is going to adequately compensate for poor RT60 or flutter echo. Oh, and the documentation could be better.

The sampling process is pretty straightforward. You run the wizard, it chirps and sweeps from the speakers, and it makes adjuestments based on where the mic is at various points. It’s…distrubingly good at it, too. It guessed my monitor separation as being 3’11 inches. “That can’t be, I put my stands 4′ 6″ away from each other!” I got out my tape measure and…3′ 11″. Apparently all my turning and toeing and adjusting had cut 3″ from the distance on either side. So that was impressive. It also was able to quantify something I had noticed but couldn’t put my finger on – that one of my monitors was balanced slightly (1.5decibels) louder than the other. I went back and adjusted my monitor trim and a lot of stuff evened out sort of magically.

I re-measured, re-sampled, and then fired up the compensation plugin on a remix I’d been working on. The differences were subtle, but notable. My soundstage was deeper, my “sweet spot” was wider, and the detail on my recording was clearer. It’s easy to attribute this to some sort of crazy magic, but it seems like a pretty simple compensation – if my low-mid is too loud at certain points, that mud is going to obscure a lot. If I have a null at 140hz, I’m losing out on frequencies I should be hearing. Same with any phase adjustments affecting my stereo imaging – poor phasing can cancel out stereo information.

It is, however, fussy. I was moving some cables around and knocked a speaker out of place. I put it back without resampling/recalibrating, went back into my mix, and there were audible phase problems. I ran a re-calibration and everything went back to working fine. So it’s something I’ll have to be aware of. There are also strong level differences between calibrated and uncalibrated signals, even with the trim engaged and turned up the calibrated was still quieter than the raw signal. It’s not much of a problem, it just means I need to re-adjust my output levels for K-metering (and get better at using the plugin’s internal bypass instead of the DAW master bypass). Latency is also an issue in higher quality modes, and as is often the problem when using linear phase modes, there can be pre-ringing in low frequencies.

So, the big question is, though…does it help? I would assert that yes, it does. On the few mixes I’ve done with the demo, my first-pass output has been cleaner and more translate-able than those mixes I’ve done without it. Taking mixes to do the “car test” has been dramatic – usually I find myself going back and doing endless fiddling with the low end to try and get it to sit right in the mix, but both times everything came back clean on the first try. I’d love to ascribe the improvement to my mixing skills levelling up in some way, but I didn’t do anything different than usual, so it’s much more likely that being able to hear better was simply the ticket.

This is by no means comprehensive. I will continue to see how this works (I’m more than willing to pull the trigger on a purchase when my demo expires) and perhaps try multiple calibration tests to see if the results are similar each time. This really doesn’t speak to any of the other room correction applications on the market (IK ARC2, KRK ERGO, etc), merely a single instance of SonarWorks reference in a reasonably stable, treated environment. So mileage may vary, naturally. But dang, it seems to work much better than I expected.


Me vs. LANDR

(originally published at the Null Device Blog)

LANDR, an online automatic mastering service, just announced a major upgrade to their service.  Their claim is that it provides “more focus, color and dynamics” and “rivals professional engineers.”

That’s a bold claim.  A claim that cannot go unchallenged.

Brian Hazard of Resonance Mastering already did a pretty in-depth comparison of their early version.  I thought it might be interesting to try it with this new version and see what’s improved.

My tests aren’t scientific, were pretty roughly tossed-off in a short amount of time, and have a pretty small sample size, so I can’t call them definitive in any way.  But since LANDR gives any new signup two free “low resolution” downloads of mastered tracks, that seemed to be enough for a quick check of their claims.

The tl;dr version: pro mastering engineers don’t have to start worrying yet. It’s a definite improvement, and better than bad mastering, but it’s not exactly good mastering either.

I tossed our track “Wardrobe” at LANDR to see what would happen.  It’s a track with a fair amount of dynamic range, a fairly open mix, and it has a bit of nuance that I thought might better display what LANDR does and does not do – a banging EDM track would probably sound fine no matter what, since those tend to be low on subtle dynamic shifts.

I have presented it with two versions – one with my usual array of 2bus post-processing (a SSL-style compressor and a tape sim), and one with no bus processing whatsoever.  I also bounced one that I quickly mastered myself. To make it a fair comparison I exported mine as a 192kbps mp3 like theirs. Everything sourced form 24bit/44.1khz wavs.  I used their guidelines for 6db of headroom.

LANDR gives you choices for “intensity”, which as far as I can tell means “how hard it hits the final stage limiter/clipper.”  I selected “medium” intensity for the song, since it seemed a good fit.  I previewed both low and high intensity as well, and while low I think gave better results (high was awfully overcompressed) it was also barely distinguishable from the original unmastered version.

On the plus side, it handled my bus-processed and unprocessed versions fairly identically. You can hear a bit of the missing saturation and some of the glue that the buscomp brings in, but the output is pretty consistent. I was interested primarily in seeing if mixing with a buscomp (as many engineers do) would mess up its algorithms. It does not appear to have trouble there.

In the end it turns out I pushed my own master slightly harder than LANDR did theirs.  This is evident in some of the analysis I did.

Some things worked pretty much as expected.  Both LANDR versions came in around -11/-12 LUFS (EBU R128+18), and both were hovering around a mean RMS of +4db (K-14).  Unsurprisingly, the version without the bus processing had the highest crest factor and dynamic range of the three, while the bus processed versions (mine and LANDR’s) came in pretty closely – mine was about 1.5db less, but I also pushed the whole thing into the limiter about 2db harder while trying to match the loudness of LANDR’s preview.

The lower bitrate mp3 does it no favors. But aside from that, there are a few issues. There’s a definite harshness to the upper midrange. It did provide “focus” to the vocals, but almost too much – it feels like it added a big presence bump to the thing around 1500hz or so. Snares and cymbals get similarly “esh”-y.  It’s less of a problem on the one without any bus processing, but it’s still noticeable. There feels like an overall bias to the midrange in general; I suspect the “genre detection” identified this as “pop” and gave it a radio-friendly curve with little bass boost or upper enhancement.

More worryingly, even with the >6db of headroom I gave the tracks, true-peak metering clearly showed some intersample overages (one as high as .7db), and a hard limit right up to 0db.  While there wasn’t any audible distortion, that’s a pretty sketchy line for a professional service to walk.  It might be an artifact of the low-res mp3 conversion process, but even that’s easily avoided.

Overall, it did a passable job, but it lacked some of the smoothness and balance I would normally expect from a pro master, and certainly didn’t do the same job of identifying “trouble spots” in the mix that I would normally manually compensate for (or send back to be re-mixed). Mastering engineers probably don’t have much to worry about yet. I can’t see this cutting into their business – the kind of person who would pay $4.99 to master a track probably wouldn’t have gone to even a $20ish/track mastering engineer to start with.  The intensity setting seems to give some control, but it seems that neither high nor low are particularly useful.  I suppose “high” is aimed at the “slamming EDM” crowd, but it doesn’t feel especially useful outside that genre.

Given more time and a willingness to spend some money on this (not quite to that point yet) I’d like to try this on a difficult track, one with mix problems or stereo width issues, or even possibly phase problems, and see if it’s capable of fixing/compensating for them.  My guess is probably not.

I didn’t have enough of a sample size to try it, but given the original purpose of mastering is to prepare everything for a final media, I wonder how well it would do on a whole album? The trickiest bit of mastering, in my experience, is balancing multiple disparate tracks from disparate styles across and entire album. I can’t predict how well LANDR would handle that – but certainly I wouldn’t want it treating my ballads the same way it does my dance tracks and vice versa.

A double-blind test would really be the way to go with this, but I’m not quite to that point yet.

Interesting, at any rate.

Version 1 (bus processed, LANDR-ized)

Version 2 (no bus processing, LANDR-ized)

Version 3 (bus processing, my master)


Referral Discounts

Because of the end of the “Mixed By Dan” discount (due to the end of mixes by Dan), we’ve decided to try something new.

Are you a Submersible client? Did you like our work? Refer a friend to us and they’ll get 10% off of their job…and so will you, the next time you work with us.

It’s simple, basically. Tell your friends, and if they use us too, everyone involved gets a discount.


And if you’re not a referred customer, mention you saw this promotion and I’ll still knock, oh, let’s say $10 off the whole thing, (provided it’s more than a $20 job).