Author Sarah Jones graciously contributed the following Roon review/interview for Gearspace. the No. 1 website for Pro Audio. It is reposted here with permission from the author & Gearspace.
If you’re a serious audiophile, chances are you know all about Roon, a music management system that brings your digital library and streaming content together in a rich, immersive experience. A subscription-based service, Roon provides super high-bitrate audio streaming capabilities and detailed information about credited performers, labels, genres, sub-genres, tracks, and albums. It brings networked audio playback to a huge range of devices, from Roon Servers and “Roon Ready” network players to Chromecast, AirPlay, and Sonos-connected devices, to remote systems via the Roon ARC app.
Roon’s hi-fi benefits are obvious, but pros might be surprised to learn that Roon offers a host of features that they can use to their advantage. That’s not unexpected given Roon’s creators’ deep roots in music and pro audio technology: Founding CEO Enno Vandermeer left the Music Production and Engineering program at Berklee College of Music to take a production deal at New York’s Power Station Studios in 1992. (He built H3000 emulators for the Eventide DSP4000 as one of his side jobs.) Then, the internet called and he left that behind, but not before launching a label, Conscience Records, which signed Powerman 5000 and released their debut album, The Blood Splat Rating System.
Rob Darling, Roon Labs’ Director of Partnerships, also has a long career in pro audio, beginning in the early 1990s in New York. “I left Hit Factory for the indie world in 1996 … Nas, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and the Space Jam soundtrack were the last projects I worked on,” he says. “This was a time when technology was about to change. You couldn’t even mix in Pro Tools yet.
“I caught the last years of large-format production just as all the tools we use today were coming online,” he adds. “I was comfortable with digital since it was used a ton at Hit Factory. I had seen the approaches great engineers used to make the best of it: using different mics in different placements, and gain staging to get all the bits you could. So I was ready when the world started to change.
“This was an exciting time,” Darling continues. “The new tools exponentially shrank the distance between having an idea and hearing it come out as a recording; technology was getting out of the way. I think that really influences how we think about Roon.”
We sat down with Darling to learn about the ways audio and music pros can tap Roon’s powerful metadata, DSP, and file-organization features to work faster and smarter.
1. Sharpen your sonic detective work with robust metadata
“Every other music browser, for files or streams, basically inherits the iTunes-style album/artist/track file structure idea as an organizational baseline,” says Darling. “That model is kind of broken because it ignores the fundamental structure of how music is made. Roon starts at the composition. A composition has a composer, and a composition can have lots of different performances. Then, each performance can have lots of different credited performers. Then, each performance can have a review and a performer can have a bio. Within the review and the bio, we can tease out any mentioned composers or performers or performances and turn them into links you can then go chase down. That deeply linked metadata structure gives you lots of opportunities that you simply don’t get within any other browsing environment.”
2. Have more meaningful conversations with clients
For a producer, being able to explore approaches to arranging a song is useful. Roon gives you the tools to have more constructive conversations about music and sound.
“Say I’m a producer and someone says, ‘I want it to sound like this,” says Darling. “Talking about music is not always helpful, but hearing music is. For example, a shaker is often great to add in rock records, but bands certainly don’t play them every day, so things can get weird quickly when they try. But a quick trip around the works of Lenny Castro will give everyone new ideas and insights into approaching a shaker.”
He shares a story of how a trip to Roon helped soothe a messy situation. “I was working with a young band, a trio, whose songwriting was really starting to mature. The bass player and singer/guitarist understood the new kinds of parts that they needed to be playing, since they were doing the writing. But the drummer was not part of the composition process and they were all getting frustrated as he tried to work it out. In trying to play more simply, he was just playing stiff.”
“So I said, ‘Let’s try a cover instead of doing surgery on your own baby, and let’s find a drummer we want to learn from. The drummer was a heavy hitter, so I suggested Charley Drayton … he is amazing at hitting it hard on simple patterns but making those small changes in how he hits that keep it interesting.”
3. Leverage metadata as a learning tool
Roon’s rich metadata brings a lot of learning opportunities. Take, for example, mastering that elusive guitar solo. “Every weekend warrior guitar player in the world should have Roon,” says Darling. “They should be able to find 20 versions of that song they’ve been learning the solo to and learn 20 different approaches to the solo. That’s very hard to do with anything else, but Roon can do that right away.”
Arranging students can explore interpretations of a composition. “If I’m a music student and I am trying to understand different arrangement approaches to a composition, Roon can give me 100 versions of a composition in a way that nothing else can,” says Darling.
Producers get to explore new genres and styles in ways other apps can’t match. Want to learn Afro-Cuban Jazz? Hard bop? Roon will lead you to new connections.
Darling shares an example of how Roon can connect musical dots. “Keith Forsey is one of my favorite producers. He produced Billy Idol’s records, but he also produced ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ and ‘Flashdance…What a Feeling,’ that kind of stuff,” Darling explains. “I thought, ‘How did he get there?’ I knew he had been Giorgio Moroder’s drummer and assumed that’s how he’d gotten into things like drum machines and movie soundtracks. But Billy Idol did not make sense in relation to Giorgio Moroder.
“I did the research here in Roon,” Darling continues. “I could quickly see all the bands he played in and listen to them, streaming from the TIDAL integration… and it turned out that he’d been a drummer on a bunch of stuff in the late ’60s and early ’70s; it went from psychedelic pop to kind of heavy and sludgy proto-metal, and then early Krautrock. He was really experimental, but in the middle he was always hard, solid, just as tight as a drummer could be back then. I thought, ‘Oh, that would make sense that he would end up being Giorgio Moroder’s drummer,’ because he was always the tightest drummer and was already cozy with synths, and he was in Germany. But it would also make sense that he would work with Billy Idol when he was eight days out of Generation X, given his deep comfort with mixing things up. With all that context, his trajectory gelled and I had a whole new understanding of Keith. An hour later, I had learned a whole lot of music history I hadn’t been exposed to before.”
4. Dive deeper in your digital crate digging
Roon is a powerful tool for DJs who want to curate more distinctive sets. “A common DJ problem is knowing there’s an obvious next track to play in a set, but knowing you need to find a cooler track.” says Darling. “You know that thing: You walked into a club, the DJ’s playing, you think, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard any of these songs, but they are all perfect.’ You pull out the Shazam app and see the track has been IDed only 26 times but it’s from 1996. This DJ is good at what he does. That’s your goal as a DJ: You want the right thing, but you don’t always want the obvious thing. Roon’s Focus tool is unrivaled for that.
“For electronic producers looking for samples, it’s like, ‘I love the sound of this bass drum, but this is used to death since everyone has the same apps,’” says Darling. “Sure, you can sit there forever scrolling through sound libraries trying to find the right bass drum. But what if there’s one on a record that you’ve heard and you love it? How do you chase down what made it sound that way and find variations: What else did the drummer play on, what else did the engineer mix? It’s possible to explore those things with Roon.”
Darling says that for electronic music producers, Roon’s rich discovery features are an ideal companion to AI-powered track-isolation tools. “Stem separation is one of the coolest tools that producers have today. Roon takes it to a new level since it will help you find things you didn’t know existed two minutes ago and then use your AI tools to tug out the samples you want: ‘That hook is so good on that guitar. Let’s pull that thing out, then let’s try to bend it.’’
5. Play any file format, at any sample rate, to any hardware
Sometimes the most obvious features are the most useful. Roon’s ability to play audio files in any format is a powerful tool for engineers—particularly mastering engineers: “Nothing deals with files anymore,” says Darling. “Roon can play any file format. Roon doesn’t care if you’ve got an Ogg Vorbis file someone sent you, or whatever weird stuff happens.
“Say you want to use Qobuz for streaming because you think it would be great to have the highest quality versions of anything you play coming through, but now with every file you play the sample rate might change depending on what rate is available over at Qobuz,” he adds. “With Roon, everything coming into the session would just get re-sampled to the rate of your hardware, so you don’t have to worry about that jumping around.”
Roon’s ability to adapt to sample rates removes a lot of headaches in the studio. “The worst thing is trying to change sample rates during a session,” says Darling. “If I’m running my session at 48k and I’ve got a comp track that’s 96k, how am I going to play that? You would have to go out analog and re-sample the whole file to get it to come in, or fiddle with the system mixer and its sound degradation. Whereas you can use the DSP in Roon to re-sample all content on the fly to match your session sample rate, and then you can play out of the interface without having that issue where your interface is constantly handshaking and changing sample rates. In Roon you can say, ‘Only play out to the hardware sample rate,’ and if your hardware sample rate is set at 48k, you can say, ‘resample everything to 48.’ Then you never have to worry about it.”
6. Streamline networked file management
Hands up if you’ve ever lost track of the path to a critical file: “A lot of people end up with files in a bunch of different places—it’s on their laptop. It’s on their studio machine. It’s on that other computer in the house that you used to check email the other day,” says Darling. “Some people still keep a separation of church and state between their studio rig and the system they use for email and things like that. Say somebody emailed you a file. How do you get it over to your studio rig to play it back? Roon doesn’t care where things are. You could make that computer that handles your email your Roon server, and it could watch a ‘My Mixes’ folder over on your studio machine, as well as any folders with mixes on your laptop. They all appear in one interface, regardless of location.”
7. Audition mixes on more playback systems
Because Roon can play on such a wide range of devices, it offers opportunities to listen to mixes in different contexts, says Darling. “Say you’re in your studio. You’ve got that weird speaker that your roommate left behind 10 years ago that sounds great in the bathroom and it’s on AirPlay. You can play out to that speaker, browsing from any computer, phone, or tablet.” Users can play material on a Chromecast TV or a Sonos device for a mass-market reference, along with more than 1,000 “Roon Ready” devices that integrate the Roon streaming SDK, for high-performance, full-quality networked playback. “Any iOS or Android device can become an output for Roon, so you can hand over a tablet with the pair of headphones a client trusts and let them drive.”
8. Pull up content anytime, anywhere with Roon ARC
It always seems like the moment you don’t have a file with you is the moment you have a client in front of you who should hear it right now. This can get trickier with older files. That’s where Roon ARC comes in. This robust companion app has all of Roon’s UI streaming features and also lets users access content from their home systems, anywhere. “Say you’re out at a coffee shop talking to a potential client and you realize, ‘Oh, man. What this person needs to hear is that mix I did seven years ago.’ Seven years later, what is the chance that file is anywhere but your mixes folder at home? Part of ARC’s initial configuration is learning how to tunnel into your system from anywhere. If you’re out and about somewhere, if it’s in one of the folders that Roon is watching, you can just pull up ARC and play it.”
9. Put Roon’s pro-grade EQ to work for you
Roon’s powerful built-in DSP has useful pro applications, Darling explains. “We’ve got really fantastic EQs. Say you’re someplace that doesn’t have a great monitoring system, and you want to showcase what you’re doing for somebody. But when you press Play, you think, ‘That’s really bassy and really boomy,’ or, ‘it sounds really thin.’ Well, let’s dial in a good sound. Roon’s EQ is not the jacked-up, weird EQ that you’re getting from most music players, with settings for ‘jazz,’ ‘rock,’ or ‘classical.’ They are what you would expect from Izotope or Fabfilter. Our resamplers are also very high quality, which is important as session rates move around relative to the rates of files you want to play.”
10. Use Crossfeed to make headphones feel like speakers
For engineers who prefer to listen to mixes on speakers, Roon’s Crossfeed feature can help them recreate that experience with headphones. “I think a lot of studio folks, since they live on speakers, don’t really like or trust headphones and don’t like that deep separation thing,” says Darling. “Both in the studio and out and about with ARC, users can take advantage of our very cool Crossfeed feature: Pick a crossover frequency and it starts to blend everything below that to mono. This makes the headphones feel more like you’re listening on speakers in the room. It’s not a real studio tool, but it’s a pleasure when you’re walking around listening to mixes.”
“If you want to put the best face on a mix that you’re playing for somebody somewhere and you’re not in an optimal situation, you can take headphones and say, ‘Okay, let’s get it sounding good,’ and turn on Crossfeed, add a little bit of EQ to make it pop, and then say, ‘Okay, check this out,’ knowing it is going to sound the best it can.”
11. Tap into the value of a subscription model
So, why is Roon a subscription service? Because Roon is constantly working for you, Darling explains. “Every day, Roon is taking all of your files, all of the files in TIDAL and Qobuz, and analyzing the relationships between all of them and building all of the indexes that link them all together.
“Say a new U2 record comes out,” he offers. “On the day that the new U2 record comes out, the U2 page has to change. And if Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite are all on that record, all of their information changes, too. Every day, there are new records being released, and every day, all that metadata gets updated and all those relationships get updated.
“For what we do, I think that a subscription is the most honest relationship to have with our customers,” Darling concludes. “Otherwise, my job is to break your system somehow, or make it irrelevant, and get you to pay me again. My job as a person charging you a subscription is to keep providing value, or else you might leave.”
Sign up for a free Roon trial at roon.app.