Subwoofers are some of the most commonly found devices in recording studios – big and small. After the computer, interface & speakers, a subwoofer is often the next hardware purchase for producers that work primarily in the box. But what is a subwoofer and why bother with them?
There are plenty of arguments on both sides making statements about why you should or should not add a subwoofer to your setup. Both of them have merit; the truth is that you need to figure it out for yourself and make an independent decision. You should never add a piece of gear just because someone else is using it – always think about how it’s going to change your sound or workflow for the better.
With that said, I think it’s important to understand the fundamentals about what a subwoofer is, how it works, what it adds to your studio (for better or for worse), and most importantly – what it means for your mixes at the end of the day.
What Is A Subwoofer?
A subwoofer really isn’t all that complicated. At its core, a subwoofer is a bass-focused loudspeaker not too different than the studio monitors you’ve likely already got. Often the materials used for a subwoofer’s construction are identical to your monitors, but configured in a way that pushes low-end frequencies (sub frequencies) harder for a louder, more defined bass mix.
At least that’s what it’s intended to do.
Subwoofers In Action
In reality, many subwoofers don’t get installed correctly and may not have any place whatsoever in a smaller studio. What I mean by this is that the louder bass only works to enhance your mix when the bass frequencies have the space and configuration to fully develop. Low frequencies have longer waveforms and if you don’t have enough room for them to spread, you end up with low-end build up and bass muddiness.
When integrated properly, a subwoofer should act to supplement and extend the range of your studio monitors. Their non-directionality means you can place them wherever is most convenient in the room without the hassle of trying to “point” the speaker at your listening position. If everything is configured correctly, you shouldn’t even notice your subwoofer at all – they’re just enhancing the bass you’re already hearing from your monitors.
Setting Up A Subwoofer
Assuming you do have the space for the waveforms to fully develop, you’ll need to take calibration into account as well. The primary focus when adding a subwoofer to your setup should be wholly focused on the crossover frequency. Similar to setting a frequency on an EQ, your subwoofer’s crossover frequency should be where your monitors stop playing back audio and you subwoofer picks up everything below it.
Usually, a subwoofer’s crossover frequency should be set somewhere between 40 to 80 Hz – try to match your crossover frequency as closely as possible to the lower limit of your monitors’ frequency ranges. If your monitors come with a high-pass filter, use it to match the crossover frequency and eliminate duplicating frequencies in a way that might result in an inaccurate bass image.
Why Else Might You Need A Subwoofer?
While your low-end mixing might improve with the right space and setup, subwoofers often won’t live up to the task you’re asking of them in small studios. Even still, engineers and producers are purchasing them in waves for smaller spaces like bedroom setups.
Even if your mixing can’t be improved with a subwoofer, I know several professionals using subwoofers in non-traditional ways. For many, it’s much more about setting a vibe for their clients than improving their mix environment.
Subwoofers can be extremely effective when working with bass instruments in the studio, even if it’s not the most accurate representation of the sound. A bassist that’s used to standing in front of a 400W live rig might be used to feeling their bass. When they go into the studio and track with a virtual bass rig like Bassforge Rex Brown, they need that same feeling to get energy in their performance. A subwoofer can add just that.
Similarly, you may have heard certain speakers referred to as “client pleasers”. These are usually over-hyped and aren’t exactly the best speakers to be mixing on, but clients love them because they add a “shine” to their mix that makes everything sound great. Tons of small studios add this same pseudo-quality to their bass range with subwoofers, especially in hip hop and pop genres where an 808 shaking the room is a good thing.
Most engineers and producers that use their subwoofers in this way will only enable the subwoofer as needed. If they’re using them during mixing at all, it’s to check how the mix might sound on a consumer system with an “extra” subwoofer thrown in – think cars with add-on subs or budget home theater systems that don’t have the same calibration you get with a pro system.
Subwoofers can do a lot for your mixes – good or bad depending on the time you take to research your particular needs and the time spent calibrating everything. Even still, a good subwoofer setup only helps you monitor more accurately. It won’t do anything to improve your mix.
If you’re serious about mastering your low-end and taking control of bass frequencies in your mixes, come check out all that JST VIP has to offer. We’ve got resources for working with bass guitar, subharmonic synths, kick drums & extended range guitars – all curated for you to quickly and easily find what you need.