We all have a list of favorite albums and songs that we think sound amazing. We always imagine that that's how we'd like our own music to sound, and a lot of times even think "How the heck did they do that?"
Don't dream about it anymore. You can get your songs to sound that good by using those exact songs as reference tracks for mixing. What I mean is, you'll have your target song on a track that you can easily solo on and off to make quick comparisons.
Before we get too far into it, let me explain exactly what these are, what they're for and how to use them, and then give you some good examples of my own and others that mixing engineers like in the industry.
What is a Reference Track?
A reference track is a professionally created song used as a comparison during mixing and mastering that is representative of how you'd like your own work to sound when completed. When treated as a standard to achieve, it gives you a consistent and trustworthy goal to reach.
The three main concerns when comparing your own work against the reference are:
- Volumes, Panning, & Effects
- Dynamic Range (Compression)
- Frequency Allocation (especially bass)
If you can recreate the characteristics of those three items within your own mix, you'll have a satisfactory end result that not only pleases you, but your client and their listeners as well. You may be your own client in this case, which makes this an even more exciting proposition.
Think of it like using a scratch track during recording. It's a time saver, a frame of reference, and keeps you sane and grounded while you build out your perfect final mix.
Why Use a Reference Track at All?
There's a lot of problems that arise during mixing. The first is that we can quickly lose perspective after hearing the same tracks and composition over and over. We can also suffer from ear fatigue and not realize it, causing us to make bad decisions.
Another problem is that we tend to be stuck listening to one set of speaker monitors and one set of headphones in what may not be the greatest acoustic environment possible. What happens is you create a mix you think is perfect and then it doesn't translate accurately to other speakers, the car, the club, etc.
So by actively comparing our work to a recording we know sounds perfect no matter the sound system or listening environment, we'll have a final mix that we can trust. You're not cheating or being a copy cat. You're taking your entirely different song and mix into the same target zones that you know are good.
Pro-Tip: Study your reference material regularly. You should know the mix of these songs very intimately. You should not be learning about them as you try to perform your own work. That means taking the time to critically listen and study. It's important that this happens in the same listening environment with the same speakers and headphones you use when mixing.
How to Use a Reference Track for Mixing
There's a couple things you need to set up for several reasons before you start mixing.
Match the Playback Levels
What I recommend doing is reserving the first track on your multitrack in the digital audio workstation (DAW) for your reference song. Remember that it's been mastered, so drop the volume a solid 10 decibels or more to match the playback volumes so you don't have to use mix bus compression or a limiter on your own mix.
Speed of Comparison - A/B Switch Fast
From here you can mute the track and then do A/B comparisons quickly by pressing the solo button on that track. It will mute all of the other tracks that your own song is comprised of and play the reference instead. When you press solo again, it will become muted and your own song will play again.
You need to be able to do this pretty much instantaneously for your ears and brain to continue latching onto the reference as you make decisions on your own tracks. Otherwise, they acclimate very quickly and you won't be able to keep the goal in your short term memory.
When Should I Start the Comparisons?
A question people ask is whether they should use a reference track from the beginning of their mix or should they wait to introduce it later. I recommend starting with one. If you don't, then at least apply the pink noise mixing trick so you get in the right ballpark in terms of volume.
The Order of Mixing Operations
The particular items you want to listen for are listed above, but I want to dig into each one here so you have some guidance. This is the order you should work in, in my opinion.
1) Volumes & Panning - Start here. You can nail your panning from the beginning, but you'll only get close on the volumes needed for each individual instrument or group of instruments. That's because you'll need to apply compression in the next step, and then return to volumes. But you can get close.
2) Dynamic Range Compression - Now listen for the right amount of compression. What you normally do is likely very close in terms of limiting the range of amplitudes, but pay extra attention to the attack and release of each group of instruments. Once done here, go back to adjust your volumes again.
3) Frequency Allocation - This is your typical equalization work. For the mid-range and upper frequencies you're probably already doing fine. You'll want to adjust the mid-range and upper bass to get the right amount of warmth, fullness, and get rid of mud.
Then focus on the bass and kick drum. You want their relative volumes and frequency ranges locked in, and then you can route them to an auxiliary bus and balance their volumes as a group. Doing bass guitar EQ (or any kind of bass) takes special care. That article has tons of methods and tricks you can use.
4) Time-Based Effects - Finally, you can go back and analyze what they're doing with effects like reverb and delay. How much are they using? When are they using it? Is it equalized on a bus or ducking out of the way of certain instruments? Listen closely and decide if it's appropriate for your mix.
Pro-Tip: You can apply a high shelf or low shelf EQ to the reference in order to isolate frequency bands. For instance, when you begin to work on the bass and kick drum of your own song, you can EQ out everything but the bass and sub-bass on the reference song so you can hear it more clearly.
That's it. If you do the above, you'll get real close to a perfect mix with great tonality, and then have to finish it off with your own touches since your own song is going to be different. Don't stop making your own decisions. The reference is nothing more than a guide, not a rule or blueprint.
Best Reference Tracks for Mixing
I have to say up front that there's no best reference tracks. It changes depending on the style of mix you're aiming for, the density of the arrangement, and the orchestration (which instruments are being used). It also changes per genre and what's currently trending in modern music.
You need to create your own list of references you enjoy for various densities, genres, and styles of music. But a lot of mixing engineers have gone before you and have lists online, but they're so long that they become worthless to you. You have to compile your own list.
A great place to start to understand what you're looking for is my list of best mixed albums. I list perfectly mixed albums with the two most impressive songs on each album. The thing is, unless you really like the music yourself, are you going to study them inside and out like I did?
Anyways, you should always be listening for them as you go throughout life. For instance, every time I hear Party in the USA by Miley Cyrus, I think about how great the mix is. That clues me in that it'd make good reference material.
That's All There is to Know About Reference Tracks
My recommendation is to start by cleaning up your recordings, then setting initial volumes using the pink noise mixing trick mentioned above. That's when you should bring in your reference and start hitting the ideal volumes, panning, and compression levels.
You already have a list of references in your head. You may need to roll through your favorite albums to remind you exactly which they are, but they already exist. The best ones are the songs you listen to and go "wow." Those are the best reference tracks.