Toning Your Sound System

No this is NOT a typo. I did not mean to write “Tuning your sound system” because that is entirely a different subject. So what is the difference between toning and tuning?

 Here is a simple example from the muscial side: This is my son Simon. He has a guitar effects pedal that has exactly the TONE of Eddie Van Halen. One small thing though: he can’t TUNE his guitar.

A legend in his own mind


Sound systems also have a similar contrast between these two concepts. Tuning  a sound system (in my estimation) is where you adjust the system so that it has uniform response over the listening area, with minimal distortion, maximum intelligibility and best available sonic imaging. Tuning is about making the far seats similar to the near seats. An objectively verifiable – but verifiably unattainable goal of same level, same frequency response, same intelligilbility throughout the room. Making the underbalcony as similar as possible to the mix position (which hopefully is NOT under the balcony). It is about making sure every driver is wired correctly, still alive, aimed at the right place and cleanly crossed over to the next one. It is about making it so the mix engineer can mix with confidence that theirs is a SHARED experience. Because it an objective pursuit, the use of prediction tools, analysis tools and our ears all play important roles in the process.  It does NOT, however mean that it sounds GOOD. “Good” is subjective.

Toning, on the other hand, can’t be done wrong. It is entirely subjective. Toning a system is the setting of a bank of global equalization filters at the output of the mix console that drives the sound system. If you want to set it by ear fine. If you want to set it by 10,000 hours of acoustical analysis containing mean/spline/root squared/Boolean averaging then go for it. If I am the mixer and I don’t like it, I will change it. Too bad. I like MY tone better. Deal with it. I don’t like flat. Deal with it. I like flat. Deal with it. There is nothing at stake here. Nothing to argue about. And no need to bring objectivity, or an analyzer to the table. The global equalizer is just an extension of the mix console eq. In the end the mixer will choose what they want to eq on a channel by channel  basis and what they want to eq globally. But also in the end there is no wrong answer, because it is entirely subjective. I have worked shows where, in my opinion the mix sounded like a cat in heat. That’s my opinion, and therefore not relevant, unless asked for. I asked the mixer “Are you happy with that?” They say “Yes”.  As long as I have ensured the cat in heat is transmitted equally to everybody in the room (i.e. TUNING the sound system), my work is done.

Good toning enhnaces the musical quaility, or natural quality of transmitted sound. Good tuning ensures that the good (or bad) toning makes it beyond the mix position.

 Piano Tuning…. and Toning

One does not have to know how to play a piano to be a competent piano tuner. It is an objective pursuit. Numbers. It can be done with an analyzer and/or a trained ear. The toning of a piano, a subjective paramater, cannot be wrong. John Cage opens up the piano and scatters nuts and bolts on top of the strings. This “tones” the piano. Is it wrong? Of course not. But before John Cage plays the “prepared” , i.e. toned piano, do you think he has it TUNED?  You bet.

John Cage Prepared Piano - a subjectively "toned" piano

 Below is another example of a “toned” piano.

I always wanted to find a way to work a deer head into my music

 Below are the tools for TUNING a piano. Similar to the ones we find our artistic auto mechanics using to TUNE up our car.

Tuning Forks

Hmmm..... Digital calipers: Objective or subjective?

Strobe tuner: otherwise known as a frequency analyzer


Just semantics or more?

So why do I make this distinction?  Because I have recently experienced several cases where people are confusing these concepts. In one case a guy wrote an article about how much better systems sound if they don’t have a flat response. Better to have peaks and dips. He notes that people that tune sound systems with analyzers do the clients a disservice by making thr system “flat”. Who am I to argue with this. He doesn’t like flat. OK. However, in the course of putting down acoustic analyzers for global equalization, the article never mentions the OTHER things that we use analyzers for: checking polarity, aiming the speakers, adjusting splay angles, adjusting relative level between speakers, setting crossovers, phase alignment, intelligibility analysis, treating reflections or most importantly: working to make it sound uniform throughout the room. The article compares equalizing your church sound system to your home hi-fi, which is to say TONING the system.  Maybe this guy’s approach is great for toning the system, but it is useless for tuning the sound system. The article “The fallacy of a flat system” can be found here


Then I received a question from one of my recent students from Asia:

Dear Bob:

Last week I join the BRAND X SPEAKER COMPANY seminar, they use another method to alignment the line-array system.

1) the whole line-array should be same EQ & same level.

2) they use room capture software to alignment the line-array system. They capture about 15 trace at difference mic position in the venue but not on axis speaker position and finally they sum average of the trace to 1 result then EQ it. What do you think?


This was my reply:

1) the whole line-array should be same EQ & same level. 

I cannot find any good reason for this. The lower area is covered by the lower boxes, the upper area by the upper boxes. They are in very different acoustic environments, they are very much at different distances. Why lock yourself into a solution with no flexibility? If the end result is a perfect match… then great. If not…what can you do besides make excuses?

2) they use room capture software to alignment the line-array system. They capture about 15 trace at difference mic position in the venue but not on axis speaker position and finally they sum average of the trace to 1 result then EQ it. What do you think?

This solves NOTHING. The end result is the same eq to all speakers. If it was an average of 2 positions or 20,000 positions the average is still just ONE set of parameters. If it sounds different in the front than the back before you average then it will sound exactly the same amount different AFTER the average. Why bother to take samples all around the room if you are not going to do anything about the DIFFERENCES around the room? It is just a waste of time.

The only reason to use an analyzer is to get objective answers such as: is it the same or different?  Not for subjective ones such as – does it sound good?

Example: Let’s say you average 20,000 seats and put that in as the eq for all speakers. Then the mixer hears it and wants a boost at 2 kHz.  What are you going to do? You are going to boost 2 kHz or get fired. Who cares about the average now?



In this case a manufacturer is using toning techniques without dealing with the tuning part. BOTH must be applied if we are going to bring the tonal experience to the people that pay to hear our sound systems.


Keep an eye on both sides of the issue, but bring the right tool for the job:

Recommended system tuning attire

System toning outfit (Women only PLEASE!)


Toning apparel for men


  1. The discussion is often an uphill battle. Constantly defending an objective measurement process. I blame software. Remember when the wide distribution of Protools amongst home recording studios caused people to blame the software for sound quality, when it most often had nothing to do with the medium itself, but the user? When SMAART first came out people would use it to watch the graph and play with their master EQ, then call it tuned or good. Because of those kinds of experiences, lots of technicians have horror stories of their system being SMAARTed or SIMed and how terrible it would be and about how they would have to fix everything after the analyst had left to make sound good again.

    Maybe it’s the lack of accreditation in the field, but piano tuners don’t have to explain themselves. Ever heard this?
    Tuner: “Hi, I’m a piano tuner.”
    User: “Oh really, I had my piano professionally tuned once. Then it sounded terrible and it took me a long time to get it back to sounding good.”

    • We tried accreditation for years, giving people exams on the last day of SIM school. But in the end people that are going to do good work do good work and people that aren’t, don’t. Test or no test. “Badges? We don’t need no steenking badges!’

  2. Great Article! Love the point of this article which to me is, toning your instruments should be very subjective. It all depends on your style and sound that you are looking for. Wonderful picture of your son with his guitar and Eddie Van Halen Effects pedal. Priceless!!


  1. […] McCarthy has a great blog post called Toning Your Sound System. It really resonated with me. One of the things that attracted me to sound system optimization was […]

  2. […] 2. System Toning see Tuning vs. Toning article by Bob McCarthy […]

  3. […] System Toning see Tuning vs. Toning article by Bob McCarthy […]

  4. […] In reality, system technician and mix engineer are separate jobs. Although both use their ears and are often performed by the same person, they require different skills and goals. Let’s stop trying to combine the two jobs into one and get to work. In this post I would like to share some of the information from Bob McCarthy’s original article, Toning Your Sound System. […]

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