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At the risk of sounding trite, the point of music is to make sounds that make people happy. I don’t think a more basic definition of music is possible- beyond that, all bets are off. Regardless of the way you’re making music, and how you’re trying to sound good, we can agree on one thing: music is about creating and controlling sound.
But that’s where different things start to diverge and you have musicians who focus on mastering your instrument and others who master the production side of things which includes perfectly setting up a room for production.
That includes everything from reducing echo to selecting the right microphone and everything in between. And somewhere along that spectrum is the technique of EQ’ing the room via pink noise which can be a great technique for fixing a long list of issues including reverb and frequency response.
But how do you tune or EQ a room with pink noise?
Advanced producers can use their ear alone by analyzing how the sound changes as they move around the room. You can also use a reference microphone (along with the right software), DAW, or spectrum analysis for more precise tuning. Usually, some combination of these methods is going to be the best option.
That’s the quick answer but we’ll take a closer look at everything you need to know below.
The Importance of Acoustics
The often-forgotten element in this process is acoustics. Whether we are discussing a practice space, live venue, recording room, or critical listening room for mixing and producing, acoustics make a huge difference. What’s the point of trying to express yourself sonically, if your message is going to be sabotaged by bad acoustics? A musician should always be aware of the acoustics of their space.
The tricky part is that the human mind adjusts for acoustics, just as it does for light. So if you are producing music in a room with bad acoustics, you might not even realize that you are subconsciously compensating for poor acoustics.
But you may create music that only sounds good in your room without realizing it. Other people will play the music in cars, phones, computers, good speakers, etc, and your mix could have major problems that you overlooked. If you are putting on a live show, you might not be paying attention to the acoustics of your room. But audience members who have heard better acoustics will walk away unimpressed.
Fixing Room Acoustics
Of course, depending on what you are trying to do, there are different processes involved to fine-tune the acoustics of your room. But no matter what you are trying to accomplish, there are some basic principles that always apply. Room sound problems tend to fall into two categories: frequency problems and reverb problems.
For most acoustic treatments, we want to minimize the natural reverberation of space, so that the music’s own reverb can be heard and the sound doesn’t become muddy. The main exception to this is concert halls and churches for classical and acoustic performances- these are usually intentionally reverberant to amplify the performers.
Reverb is important to all music types but it is particularly hard to get right when it comes to acoustic performances.
Frequency Response Issues
On the other hand, a room with frequency problems will unnaturally amplify or mute certain frequencies in music. Ideally, any performance, rehearsal, recording, or listening space will have as “flat” a response as possible. That way, the music can speak for itself, and be heard the way it was meant to be heard.
If your room is not treated, and the frequency response is uneven, you have a few paths to take. You can tune the room itself with audio treatment- usually blocks, panels of foam, and changes to the flooring. And you can tune your speakers or PA by adjusting their EQ. There’s no substitute for fixing a room with physical audio treatment.
But it can be expensive and involves installing physical treatment in the room- not always an option. Tuning a room with EQ is more of a band-aid. It can make an improvement, but it can’t fix all problems. Still, to tune any room you have to know what problems you’re trying to fix in the first place. Pink noise and programs like SMAART can be an excellent starting point here.
The Power Of Pink Noise
You have probably heard of white noise, but you might not know that it actually has a scientific definition. White noise sounds like random distorted static, but it’s actually a sound that has equal power at every frequency across the audible spectrum (approximately 20Hz – 20,000 Hz). Pink noise is a variation of white noise, that has a similar frequency, but is specifically designed for music-related applications.
Pink noise sounds similar to white noise- blank static. But pink noise has a different technical definition. In pink noise, each octave has an equal amount of energy. In other words, the power spectral energy is inversely proportional to the frequency. This is not necessary to understand in order to use it. All you need to know is that when you are tuning a room, use pink noise.
4 Methods Of Using Pink Noise To Tune a Room
There’s not just one way to eq a room using pink noise so let’s quickly look at the 4 options to consider. Also, if you don’t already have a source of pink noise you can pick any of several videos on YouTube but this is the one I use.
1. By Ear
You can start by using your ears. After all, at the end of the day, music is subjective, and our perceptions of it matter. The longer you are aware of acoustics, the more trained your ear will become, and the more you can rely on your ear in lieu of fancy technical processing. Try a website or app such as Quiztones to train your ears’ precision.
Try playing pink noise on your speaker or PA system, and use your ears. Walk around, and observe any changes you detect in the character of the sound at different points of the room. For example, bass frequencies build up and amplify in corners. You should notice the bass frequencies of the pink noise become stronger if you put your head where the wall meets the floor, or where two walls meet. Rooms also have certain “resonances” which refers to signals that either amplify or cancel themselves out due to the size and shape of the room. You may be able to hear these by ear as well.
While you are at it, try playing pink noise through just one channel, and then the other (for example, Left and then Right.) You might notice differences between the two!
2. Using a Reference Microphone
Honestly, you should not rely on just your ear until it is very precise, and you are very experienced- in which case, you’re probably not reading this page anyway. You can use a laptop and a reference microphone, in conjunction with pink noise. This way, you can make scientific observations that will almost certainly go beyond what your ear is telling you.
Several software options are available for tuning a room. SMAART is the (expensive) industry standard, capable of tuning huge venues for touring acts, dive bars, places of worship, and everything in between. Many pros take courses specifically to train to use SMAART. On the other hand, Room Equalization Wizard is a bit obtuse but free and powerful.
I am a full-time freelance producer and songwriter, and I personally have had great experience using Room Equalization Wizard to tune my recording and listening rooms. This video does a good explaining how to use it and you can also just skim it to see if this is a route you want to go:
A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is a host program that can record and process audio- it takes the place of tape machines, and VSTs take the place of effects units. Audacity is not beautiful, but it’s a free open-source DAW. Reaper (my personal favorite) is extremely powerful, has a free trial, and a bizarrely inexpensive one-time price of $60 to own. (Pro Tools, the industry standard, costs $599 by comparison.)
The exact process of tuning the room via pink noise will vary greatly between different software so it’s hard to compile everything here but a quick search of YouTube should pull up a video that is specific to your DAW of choice.
4. Spectrum Analyzer
A spectrum analyzer is an audio processor that shows a graph representing a sound’s frequency profile. The graph shows pink noise’s profile. Recording pink noise in a room and comparing its frequency profile to the picture can reveal room frequency issues. This blog post links to a handful of free spectrum analyzer VSTs- take your pick!
What Gear Do You Need?
Remember, you can do some down and dirty tuning with just your ear and a pink noise video on YouTube. But if you really want to get things right, you’re going need some more gear.
First of all, specialized microphones exist specifically for measuring rooms. These “reference mics” are usually small-diaphragm omni-directional condenser mics. I usually encourage people to buy better-than-bottom-shelf mics for recording, but for tuning a room, they’ll be fine are just fine. That means you can get the job done with something like a Dayton Audio EMM-6 which you can see on Amazon here.
But honestly, there are a ton of budget mics that work for this including options from Behringer, RTA, or dbx.
If you don’t have one, you will need an audio interface too. The Focusrite Scarlett is an eternally popular choice for all kinds of new musicians and producers, and it’s a great choice at that. It’s hard to go wrong with the Focusrite but I’ve actually written pretty extensively about the alternative options here if you’re looking for something different. Finally, you will need an XLR cable to connect the mic to the interface.
If you are tuning a room for critical listening (such as mixing or production) place the microphone where your head will be when in the listening position. If you are tuning a room for live performance, try taking measurements at different places throughout the audience’s space. Which software you are using to analyze your results, and whether you intend to use EQ and/or physical treatment to fix your room, will determine what to do with your measurements.
Creating perfect acoustics in a space is impossible.
But improving a room’s acoustics is very possible, and the average person can learn to do it. But it’s also a specialized skill that can take years to truly master. Still, I hope this guide is a useful starting point to use pink noise to inform room corrections. You will be shocked by the difference in how music sounds in your space once you have started to tame its acoustics. Keep on working, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.