For a lot of audiophiles, adding a subwoofer to their car or home theater system is a must-have. As an audio professional, your goals aren’t the same.
If you’re involved with recording, producing, mixing or mastering your focus should be on accuracy. That’s not to say you can’t have a great sounding room - but a flat, consistent room is going to go much further than an overhyped frequency spectrum.
And while a lot of us get caught up in the thirst for more gear, subwoofers are one of the worst investments you can make in a small studio.
Subwoofers Need Space
Subwoofers focus on the very bottom of the frequency spectrum, sometimes extending just a bit further into sub-harmonics. If you’re in a small space, there’s a chance you’re not going to be hearing them (or feeling them) accurately.
Looking at the chart below, you’ll see that low frequencies need a ton of space to complete a full cycle. Under 100 Hz, you’ll need at least 12’ of space for the waves to cycle. In a stadium, this isn’t a problem. In your bedroom, it can be catastrophic.
Depending on your room you’ll encounter some common issues:
If you’re unlucky enough to be working in a room that cuts off your bass frequencies in the middle of their cycle, there’s a chance you won’t hear a change in your room at all. Square rooms are the absolute worst, which is why you’ll rarely see large control rooms with parallel walls.
There are plenty of other issues to combat in smaller, rectangular/square rooms without involving a subwoofer. Don’t make things worse.
In almost the opposite scenario, you could end up with way too much bass in a room as soon as you introduce a subwoofer. Certain frequencies will build up and resonate with your room, and bass content is no exception.
With so many other ways to reinforce your bass that will translate well across all listening environments, there’s no need to get a subwoofer to do it for you in a room that very few people will hear the song played back in.
The most common issue for a lot of engineers and producers will be muddiness. Muddiness because there’s no room for the sound waves to grow and fully develop. Muddiness because their monitors are already capable of reproducing most of those frequencies.
When issues like this occur, they make our task of creating clarity in a mix that much harder. As an engineer, you’ll be fighting frequencies and problems that don’t really exist, and wasting effort that could be better spent on other elements of your mix.
The Right Way
If you’re looking to add definition to your low end – consider looking a bit higher.
A lot of the definition in your bass and kick drum comes from the mid-range frequencies on their attack. It’s where a beefy bass guitar gets its bite and where your kick cuts through the mix.
Find ways to boost these for clarity without overpowering other elements of your mix, and you’ll become less reliant on thinking you need massive amounts of low frequencies coming from a subwoofer to make your mix sound good.
And if you still think they could use a boost? Try using a bass synth like Sub Destroyer to solidify your low end.
If You Still Think You Need a Subwoofer
If you do have a large enough room to justify a subwoofer, you’ll need to be ready for some serious calibration. Calibration doesn’t actually start with matching your sub to your room, but with matching the subwoofer to your speakers.
Take a look at the technical specs of your speakers before you consider adding a subwoofer to your setup. Some speakers limit the control you have over their frequency range, but a lot of them will let you adjust the crossover (or at least a high-pass filter).
When integrating a subwoofer, you’ll want to make sure you set the high-pass to a frequency that minimizes overlap between the speakers and the sub. Using your ears is a good starting point, but to really nail it, you’ll want to calibrate with a noise generation, microphone & spectrum analyzer.
There are many standards that you can tune your setup to, but starting with pink noise and setting a comfortable volume level are both good starting points for beginners.
Where Do You Stand On Subwoofers?
Have you realized that they’re just one more piece of overpriced gear? Do you have a setup that’s been calibrated, and you just can’t mix without one now?
For me – the big question is always “how can I put my money to use that’s going to make the biggest impact on my workflow?”
As a producer, I can name a handful of plug-ins I’d take before ever considering a subwoofer (even in a large studio).
Join the discussion on subwoofers with us over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum – we’re always open for some debate!