You know the feeling…

You pop in your latest mix to play it for a friend.

And as SOON as the mix starts playing, you want to crawl into a hole and disappear. “I swear this sounded better in my studio,” you tell yourself.

You start making excuses, trying to figure out why this mix you were so proud of 60 seconds ago is now embarrassing the crap out of you.

We’ve all been there.

Heck, I still go there occasionally. πŸ™‚

And sadly there’s no magic pill to prevent it from happening, but there IS one technique that works, although it’s kinda boring.

What is it?

Use a reference track while mixing.

See? I told you it was boring. But stick with me…

(If you’re unfamiliar with this, I’m referring to comparing your mix to a professional mix WHILE you’re mixing.)

This is probably the single greatest tool for snapping yourself out of the clouds of “I’m the best mix engineer to ever grace this planet” to “Oh, crap, this mix needs some serious work.”

Why? Because it IMMEDIATELY lets you compare your precious mix with a professional mix, one that you KNOW sounds good.

Pick a song that you love, one that has a similar sound to the one you’re working on, and make it a habit to constantly flip back and forth between your mix and the reference track.

This can save you hours of working in the wrong direction, and it can help you get better mixes.

All you have to do is make your mix sound like the reference mix. Easy, right? πŸ™‚

No, it’s definitely not. But without a reference mix, you’re simply mixing based on what you THINK sounds good at the time. The reference track gives you a direct line back to reality. It keeps you grounded.

There are a bunch of ways to pull this off. Here’s how I do it. I loop a song in iTunes, then run it to a stereo channel on my mixer. Then I run the output of my DAW to another stereo track.

Then I just use the mute buttons to instantly flip back and forth between the reference and the mix.

Like I said, it’s not exciting, and it’s something I tend to forget to do, but it ALWAYS pays off when I remember.

The problem? Making your mix sound like the reference track isn’t easy, and it’s dang near impossible if you don’t know how to use the tools you have available to you.

Tools like EQ.

Master the use of EQ, and you’ll be well on your way to mixes that, rather than embarrassing you, will make you proud.

More here:

Joe Gilder

17 Responses to “A Boring (But Effective) Way to Avoid Embarrassing Mixes”

  1. Craig

    I’ve done this also. One thing to set up is volume matching. If you’re referencing a mastered track, it’ll have a much higher level (most of the time) and also have some sparkle and shine from the mastering process.

    If you match the output level of the reference track to your unmastered mix it’ll be a lot easier to A/B. Then, listed for the relationships between instruments/tracks/effects, knowing that the mastering process will add a bit of the punch you might hear in the reference track.

    • Joe Gilder

      Absolutely. You need to match volumes as best you can. The mastered mix will obviously sound mastered, but it’s still a great way to check that you’re not going off in a completely wrong direction.

  2. Sean

    I yielded instand results when I did this. I felt the song was sounding good, but I played a commercial release right along side and noticed some big eq differences. After the fact I was surprised how much better it sounded. Good post Joe. Cheers!

  3. Andrew


    That’s my trump card for making my mixes sound as close to professional as possible. In addition to that, it also helps me learn how bias my headphones/monitors are.

    I use a lot of references for each project (I think usually 4 or 5 references for each project).

    there is a DANGER ZONE If you use inappropriate material for comparison, for one can still put their mix next to lower grade reference material and still compromise the quality of it (Which defeats the purpose LOL).

  4. Roberto

    One thing that helped me considerably is doing a project for a client where he wanted some karaoke-like backing tracks mixed with some original songs on his CD. I found this to be a great test of my mixing and mastering techniques since the backing tracks were obviously professionally done.

    After having done this over the course of 5 or 6 albums, I’ve really learned my system and plugins and people are really impressed with how their music sounds in my studio and in their own cars.

  5. Eric Jean

    Joe, are you talking about sending your mix and the reference mix to a hardware mixer?

    • Joe Gilder

      Yeah, that’s what I do. But you can set it up any number of ways, even inside of your DAW. Just have the reference mix on a stereo track and solo it occasionally to compare.

      • Eric Jean

        Any reason you prefer to route the mixes through a hardware mixer instead of listening inside of Pro Tools?

        • Joe Gilder

          Because all I have to do is literally hit play in iTunes and have the song looping at all times through my mixer, and just leave it muted. Plus I mix using the Presonus StudioLive console as my interface, so PT is already running through a channel on the mixer anyway.


Leave a Reply

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