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:.]