Subwoofers & Music

I have a really terrific playback system in my studio. In fact, I have a couple of them and they both include the TMH “Profunder” subwoofer. There’s the main 5.1 surround music system that has 5 B&W 801 Series III speakers on anchor stands and another THX and Dolby certified theatrical setup of JBL speakers in the front and on the walls for our film mixing. They are driven by either a Bryston 7B or independent Crown amps. But the “Profunder” has got it’s own Bryston 4B pumping 250 watts into the 18″ driver in that cabinet.

Of course, I need the subwoofer for the LFE (Low Frequency Enhancement) channel when mixing for film but the question is do we really need the subwoofer when listening to music? I remember when I first started producing HD 5.1 surround mixes for our DVD-Audio projects back in the early 2000s. I received a phone call from an early adopter of the DVD-Audio format and he asked me, “Do your DVDs use the subwoofer?” I answered him that indeed we do employ send the “boom” channel or LFE to the subwoofer speaker. I also asked why he was interested. Apparently, he had purchased the Beethoven Symphonies conducted by Daniel Barenboim on Warner Brothers Records and was disappointed that his subwoofer wasn’t getting any signals when he played the symphonies. He felt that if he had purchased a nice home theater surround system that is was expected that a surround music mix should take advantage of the .1 speaker.

Some mixers don’t feel that using a channel that was really developed for motion picture soundtracks shouldn’t be used when mixing music. After all, the main speakers in a good music system can handle the low frequency information, right? Well maybe. The 12″ woofers in the B&W 801 Series III are very good drivers and extend to around 32 Hz. But I find that sending the lowest frequencies in the music I’m mixing to the “boom” output on my digital console to the “Profunder” adds to the overall impact of the low end. Without the very low bump that the TMH Labs cabinet delivers there’s just something missing.

But there are problems with using the sub for music reproduction as well. It’s usually the one speaker in the room that has its own amplification. And that means that the user can set the level to anything they want. Hardly the best solution in a well calibrated listening space. I once did a mastering and DVD job for Blue Oyster Cult in 5.1 surround. The producer got the test DVDs and complained that the low end was too loud. After several rounds of phone calls and emails, I discovered that his subwoofer was 10 dB too high! No wonder the sound was unbalanced.

So take your pick. If your main left and right speakers can handle the extreme low end then you may not need a sub for your music. But if you have a good sounding home theater and it includes a subwoofer, then I say calibrate it and deliver the .1 channel from your surround music to it.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *