An experienced engineer can track, mix, and master records with very little—a few plug-ins, good converters, and yes, even a pair of headphones. Listen to an episode of The Mastering Show featuring Glenn Schick, an engineer who mastered J Cole’s KOD on a pair of headphones and a mobile rig.
But there is also the sense of wanting more gear, and to this I can attest: in recent years, I’ve expanded my mastering practice, working on projects for artists like Leland Sundries, Morphous, Pete Mancini, and others. Before I made the choice to get a sub, it was always more of a guessing game when it came to low-end. Relentless checks on cars, headphones, the consumer hi-fi, and more were required before sending out the final product.
Which led me to the question of the day: do you need a subwoofer?
After all, many great, inexpensive monitors extend to the lower frequencies. Focal, Avantone, and others have models that go down to 35 Hz and below. Headphones from Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Audeze easily reach down that low—some go even lower.
So what can a subwoofer get you that headphones cannot?
Something in the air
The answer resounds not in the sound, but in the air—in experiencing lows as they resonate within your listening environment. Headphones provide their own, valid representation of low end, but to date, they don’t match the experience of feeling the bass as you work. In a properly calibrated system, feeling the bass can help you intuit that glorious sweet spot, where the lows vibrate your body, but don’t swallow the headroom or character of the mix. If you’ve been to a concert, or bumped well-mixed music through a great sound system, you know the sensation I’m talking about.
A great pair of headphones can give you a good sense of these impactful frequencies, but to date, they do not reproduce that full-body feeling. You might find yourself in the same situation I did; once you have the opportunity to experience your mix physically, you might be surprised at how your mix translates. Something might be off. Something might be emphasized that you didn’t anticipate—that you couldn’t anticipate until you found yourself here, feeling your music.
Still, a seasoned engineer can learn to anticipate what an EQ move on nearfields will elicit out of a full-range system. This requires much in the way of diligence and experience, but it is possible.
With all this information, I’d like to reframe the question. It’s not “do you need a subwoofer,” but “will a subwoofer benefit your practice?”
The answer, of course, depends.
1. What’s your room like—and where can you put your sub?
Covering this topic in depth will take us beyond the room we have here, but I’ll say this: if you’re stuck in an untreated or sub-par room, a subwoofer might not help. It may actually hurt, thanks to standing waves in the room and unexpected phase cancellation.
Likewise, if space and budget disallow proper placement or time-alignment, you’re similarly out of luck. For a deep, deep dive into subwoofer management and placement, I invite you to read this article; for sorting out the acoustical issues of a project studio, I’ll point you here.
But don’t be mad if you fall into this category of user. You can still get great bass tones—it’ll take more work, because you’ll be playing a game of averages between headphones, consumer hi-fis, cars, nearfields, and everything else you have for listening. Still, this exercise will lend something to your sonic education.
2. Do you record full bands or smaller fare?
If recording is your primary game, but your setup is limited to vocals and the occasional guitar, skip the sub for now. Concentrate, instead, on perfecting the room, rounding out the mic locker, or going wherever else your insatiable gear-lust takes you. I’m not sure your voice-over clients would benefit from hearing frequencies they largely can’t produce, in other words.
Now, if you’re recording full bands—putting a subkick on the bass drum and taking a DI of a five-string Stingray—then yes, a sub will be of use in ensuring the best, complementary tones.
3. Are you a producer of electronic music?
If the answer is yes, a subwoofer can absolutely benefit your practice, but it may not be essential. A subwoofer can help with sound-design choices, arrangement decisions, the always-coveted drop, and other factors that move crowds to dance.
But remember that as a producer, your work might see several stages before it reaches the masses. You may opt to have it mixed, mastered, or both, depending on your role in the project. If this is the case, I’d wager you could get away with playing the game of averages for just a while longer; ideally, professional engineers would help you shape the low end for the right medium of delivery.
4. Are you a post production sound designer?
Post production sound designers have good reason to work with a subwoofer (discounting 5.1 engineers, who need one—that’s the “.1” in “5.1”). I still remember the bitter phone call after one of my first post gigs: a distraught director told me the bass rung too loud in the theater, and I was mortified. It wound up serving an impactful lesson; I was quite conservative with the low end thereafter.
You must remember that people often watch movies through systems with consumer-grade subwoofers, so your mixes must translate to these systems. Not having a subwoofer could cause you to crank bass that would distort these subs (that is, if you weren’t conservative with your low end).
5. Are you mixing out of a project studio?
Of course, a sub can help results in this scenario. But so many project studios operate out of residential domiciles, and with that comes another consideration:
6. Do you have neighbors?
Nothing annoys the neighbors like a subwoofer. I have a downstairs neighbor who’s only complained about two things in six years. One was the subwoofer. The other was a flood. Subwoofers are apparently so annoying that only water damage compares.
If you’re in a project studio that operates out of a residence, you have to be conscientious with your monitoring, or else you might get kicked out.
…Unless, of course, you’re familiar with the sound laws in your zoning area. Having had less-than-scrupulous landlords in the past, I always familiarize myself with the legalities of my surroundings, including what decibel levels are tolerable during working hours. I always keep my setup within these guidelines, even with a sub.
7. Do you plan on mastering?
Here the answer is a bit tricky, for you need the most accurate representation of full-range sonic intel that you can get out. But a debate ranges: Some sing the praises of full range monitors; others emphatically rely on subwoofers. Lots of mastering engineers actually use two subwoofers for increased headroom (two subs don’t have to work as hard for the same output) and better stereo imaging (there is some research, as Bob Katz has noted, to indicate that the lowest frequencies do exhibit some stereo directionality).
Making matters more opaque are engineers like Glenn Schick—engineers who’ve jettisoned monitors altogether for headphones!
What does this means for you? That’s the tricky part: One goal of mastering is to achieve the best possible sound over the greatest number of sonic platforms. The tools to achieve this goal vary from person to person—in other words, who am I to tell Glenn Schick he needs full range monitors and a quiet room to master music?
All I can say is that I procured a subwoofer for system, and that subwoofer has helped me leave the game of averages behind. It’s become less essential to test my masters on so many outside systems. The sub has spirited me further away from the guessing game and closer to making the right choice from the outset. But that’s me—it may not be you.
Conclusion: If you can’t have a sub, how do you refine the low end?
If you’ve decided to stave off the subwoofer, you do have options. Some of them are dedicated purchases, such as the SUBPAC, which lets you feel the vibration of the low end through your chair. Other choices included relatively inexpensive full range monitors to supplement your main, trusted nearfields—and room correction software like Sonarworks to help balance everything out. And yes, there’s always the game of averages. It doesn’t hurt to have a friend close by with a loud, full, enjoyable sound system.
The common denominator is experience: the quickest way to understand how low end operates in your space is to pick a constant monitoring system and keep working with it. Keep striving to see how your low end translates to other scenarios.
Lastly—and perhaps this is the most important takeaway—keep listening to music; keep experiencing it in clubs, in cars, over your trusty monitoring setup. Always pay attention to the low end when you can.
Experimentation, constant evaluation, determination, and ruthless vigilance will help you learn the setup you have. Ultimately, whether you want to add a sub to it is entirely up to you.