The last few weeks I’ve been writing about mixing. Yesterday I spent a few hours mixing a song for my upcoming album.

In thinking through this album, it’s so easy for me to get all caught up in what I want it to sound like and how I’m planning on mixing each song. All this is great, but what I’ve forgotten to give much thought to is using a reference track.

What is a Reference Track?

You may have heard this advice before, but whenever you mix or master a song, you should have some sort of reference track for comparison purposes.

A reference track is simply a professionally mixed and/or mastered song that you use as a standard to measure your mix against.

We are all painfully aware that while a mix may sound amazing to us in our studios, it’s not uncommon for that mix to sound bad in another system. That’s why we listen to our mixes on as many systems as we can in an effort to create a mix that translates consistently from system to system, from studio to car, from earbuds to home theater systems.

However, just because a mix translates doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. But how can you tell?

The problem is our perception. Do you ever watch American Idol? There are people who audition for the show who genuinely think they are very talented. Then they sing, and it’s painfully obvious that they are mistaken…very mistaken.

The same thing can happen with our mixes. We can become so inwardly focused, so caught up in our own mixes, that we forget to compare them to other, successful mixes to see how they measure up. What you think is a great mix might actually have the vocals way too hot.

Thousands of others have gone before you, and they’ve mixed some great-sounding music. Use this to your advantage. Don’t be an island. Listen to other people’s mixes and try to make yours sound like theirs.

This isn’t selling out or being a copy-cat. You’re simply learning from someone who has done it well.

Selecting a Reference Track

When you go to pick a reference track for your song, you obviously want to get something that has a similar vibe and is in the same genre. I don’t know how beneficial it would be to listen to a hip-hop track while mixing a country song.

First and foremost, the song you pick should be one you respect, one that you think sounds good. And it really should be something with a good bit of mainstream popularity. Don’t use your best friend’s song that he just mixed in his basement as your reference track. Use something with a bit of “street cred.”

No two songs are going to sound the same. I get that. But try to find something with a lot of similar elements, something with a similar instrumentation.

What to Listen For

If you’re like me, you want things to be cut and dry. You don’t want there to be any room for misinterpretation. Well, that’s just not gonna happen with a reference track.

Two songs may be very similar, but there are still all sorts of differences between two mixes. They obviously could never sound exactly the same, and you may be at a loss for what to actually listen for. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Panning – Where is everything panned in the mix?
  • Balance – How loud are the vocals compared to the rhythm guitars? How loud are the drums compared to the rest of the instruments?
  • Depth – How much reverb is there on the track? Are the vocals “dry”?
  • Bass – How much bass do you hear? Chances are there’s less bass in a professional track than you realize.

How to A/B the Reference Track

Your reference track may be an actual CD in a CD player. If so, you’ll need some sort of monitor management box (like a PreSonus Monitor Station) to let you switch between listening to your track and the CD reference track.

Obviously, you want to listen to both mixes through the same monitors/headphones. Otherwise, you won’t really be able to compare them very accurately.

If you don’t want to use an actual CD, you can just bring the mix INTO your session. That’s what I do. I create a stereo track in my session and import my reference track. I then mute the track and un-mute it when I want to hear it.

I challenge both you and myself to start using reference tracks more in our mixes. I think it’ll make a difference. What do you think?

[Photo by .:elNico:.]

  • Hiya, this article is great! Thanks so much for writing this. I wanted to ask is it the same thing if I use a reference track from youtube or does the reference track definitely have to be imported into the session you are mixing?

    • You can certainly use YouTube, but the audio quality could be not that great, but as a reference, sure!

  • Sam

    That’s really a good Idea.

  • T

    I recently found this blog and everyting around this, and now I’m reading and listening all your tips. Thanks! I have also a tip to share: I have a whole project, or session or what you call it, loaded full of refererence tracks. You can compare different kind of songs in own genre. It’s always open in the background. There are also different colors for sections where you hear isolated instruments like drum solos or something special. It’s useful. I even have a reference songs that show me what I don’t like. In the master bus there’s all the level meters and Visualisations you might need to compare levels.

    T.

  • BluMondie

    Great post Joe.. Referencing is the way to go! Thanx.. 🙂

  • I try to use references, but i always find it hard to pick the track. Does anyone know of any software that can help..? Maybe something like Genius in iTunes, that can analyse a rough mix of your song and find a similar track in your music collection. I’ve sometimes spent hours going through the tens of thousands of songs in my library trying to pick a track???

  • Lukas

    Great post, Joe!
    It would be ideal to compare our mixes to commercial ones before they got mastered. Mastering obviously changes tonal qualities and our perception of depth and width. Bringing the level of commercially mastered track down by few dB while mixing your own track might definitely help, but isn’t the perfect way to go. There’s never a perfect way to go anyway…
    @Sparqee – TT Dynamic Range is still free.

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  • Hwangman

    I dig this. Great idea to keep things a little more focused. Plus, this gives me a good reason/excuse to plunder my cd's for “research.”

  • Randall

    Whether you like the group or not, Radiohead’s O.K. Computer is an excellent reference CD for anything in the rock genre. I love that it has a lot of contrasting textures. It has hard parts, soft passages, melodic parts, chaotic parts, stereo lushness, etc.; plus, it was mastered before everyone got this nasty habit of making CDs as loud as possible, yet, is mastered in a modern way.

    I may be bias though, I love Radiohead.

  • Adam

    great article… i will try this tonight! Thank You!
    -Adam

  • marcelokato

    Joe,
    I'm curious… which song are you using as a reference for treading water?
    Kato

    • Hmm…probably an Brandy Carlisle tune.

  • Neil

    Great explanation! I've had this experience, where I'll spend a solid couple hours mixing something, then listen to the bounce the next day (along with the unmixed version), and realize how much I screwed it up. I think it's easy to 'wander' while mixing: you just keep tweaking and tweaking, and gradually get further away from both the original and what might sound good. A reference track sounds like just the sort of grounding that might keep me from doing this next time!

    I read this interview with an engineer (i can't remember who or where I read it), where he talked about a pretty interesting mixing process. He and a partner would take turns, spending 15 minutes at the console while the other left the room, and bouncing down before each switch (but leaving the faders in place for the next guy). After two hours, they'd have 8 mixes, and go through each one, figuring out which one they liked best.

  • Agree with comments below. Don't fall into the amplitude trap when using this very useful comparison method. You should be most concerned about panning, spectrum, and ambience.

  • robbiecanuck

    Great advice, but I'd strongly recommend level-matching the reference track in your session. A professionally mastered track is going to be extremely hot compared to your mix unless you're working with a CD from the '80s.

    Turning down the reference track 6-9 db would be a start. A better method is to keep an eye on the RMS levels of your mix and turn down the reference track to be in the same ballpark.

    – Rob

    • Excellent point!

    • Sparqee

      The issue of dynamic range is just as important as overall volume. If your reference track is hard limited and has a tiny dynamic range you're going to perceive a certain “tonal quality” that will be hard to match unless you're limiting your mix as well. Perhaps “density” is a better term than “tonal quality”. <shrug> I've been using the free TT Dynamic Range meter to check both my own mixes as well as commercial references tracks. It's a great tool. I'm not sure if it's free anymore or not. Perhaps you just have to sign up at the http://www.dynamicrange.de/ site.

  • Great point Joe. The reference track is so crucial as an anchor to come back to while mixing…especially for those mixing in a home studio!