How to Use a Reference Track to Improve your Mixing

how to use a reference mix

You might have heard the advice that it’s always a good idea to check your mix against a reference track.

But what does that mean? What kind of reference mix? How do you go about doing that?

A reference mix is a track that you know really well, translates(sounds the same) on different systems and has a great sound.

To use a reference mix, simply import the song into your DAW, on a new track. Make sure you don’t have any compressors or mastering plug-ins on the master fader, because they will interfere with your imported track. Lastly, make sure that the song is level matched against yours. That is, your reference needs to be at the same level as your mix.

Use a Proper Reference

Make sure from the start that you’re actually using a good reference mix. If you think your mix is bad, it won’t do you any good to compare it to another shitty sounding song.

No Mp3s – It’s not enough to just listen to one of your favorite songs and compare. You need a quality version of your song. No mp3s, AACs, or any other compressed audio format.

Only lossless WAV/AIFF or better is good enough. Usually, the CD master is the last stage of the professional production, so only use quality audio for a proper comparison.

Know Your Reference Mix – Make sure you know the reference song well. You need to be familiar with the song and know how it sounds on your system and others. Pick something you’re comfortable and familiar with.

If you’re lacking ideas on what constitutes a great mix, Ian over at Production Advice has a great post on his favorite albums.

[Edit: As Ian said in his comment below, make sure that your mix is not a "Loudness War Casualty." That is, make sure that it's not squashed to death by compression. If it has no dynamic range, it does not sound good. Even though a split second might sound great in your headphones, tracks that are devoid of dynamics just sound awful. Aim for your reference to be somewhere between -12 and -8 dB RMS. Check out another one of Ian's posts on How to Avoid Over-Compressing Your Mix if you're still confused.]

Listen

You need to actually listen to your reference mix.

What do you hear? How is the mix layered? What stands out?

Analyze your reference mix and make critical listening observations.

Think Tall. Wide. And Deep.

How can you recreate the things you hear from your reference mix in your own mix?

Loudness – Listen to the levels of the instruments. Are some louder or quieter than you expected? Do you need to balance the levels in your own mix to get the same balance as in your reference? How is each instrument EQ‘d? Are they clear, or muddy?

Width –  How wide is the mix? Are the drums panned hard left and hard right, or does the kit sound narrow? Does each instrument have a specific spot in the stereo spectrum, or are they panned to many of the same places? Does the mix have a lot of stereo effects spreading the instruments all over? Is the kick, snare and bass steady in the center, or is there some creativity used in panning?

Depth – How wet is the overall mix? Are the drums in your face, or are they pushed back with reverb? Did the mixing engineer use reverb on the vocal, delay, or a combination of the two? Does the song sound like a band recording in the same room, or is it full of artificial synths with separate reverbs and delays? How is modulation used?

Once you’ve made these observations, you can go back and try to recreate them in your own mix. Take what you like from your reference mix and remix your own mix accordingly. Jump back and forth between your mix and the reference to see if you’re making process.

Recreating the Master EQ

One of the hardest things to recreate from a reference mix is the overall EQ. For example, say your reference sounds punchy in the low-end and clean and clear in the high end, but your mix sounds muddy and flat.

The proper way to fix your mix is to go back to each instrument and see where the problem lies. Find out where the muddiness is, cut out the boxiness and troubleshoot by using your reference mix as a guide.

Another, simpler way to do this is to use Match EQs. The Match EQ plug-in in Logic listens to your reference mix and allows you to apply that EQ curve to the master fader of your own mix. It’s great in a pinch, especially for mastering purposes when your individual instruments sound great but the master needs some EQ’ing.

Ryan Leach wrote a tutorial about Logic’s Match EQ a while back. I highly recommend it for an in-depth view of the plug-in.

A Different Perspective

Using a reference track gives you a different perspective on your own mix. It helps you find out what’s lacking from your mix and reveals inconsistencies that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.

Image by: salehigal

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  • Uni-VERSE

    Great post!!!

    I have a number of reference mixes that i use. To check the overall balance and engineering of my mix, i use up to 4 reference songs. Some songs have great vocals, some songs have great drums, or bottom-end,and some are very balanced. I check my mix/master against these to see if im doing a good job (in general) or not.

    What really helps are my T-Racks plug-ins. They have this UV meter plug-in that visually displays the frequency spectrum. I import my reference song, insert this bad boy and watch the levels and the overall loudness of all my reference songs. this way i can also see what my ears are telling me. This plug-in actually helped me learn how to ‘shape’ my mixes.

    Another thing i learned in crafting a mix is loudness. This same plug-in shows you RMS vs ‘perceived loudness’; meaning, i can see when i have too much RMS (which is usually low/bass energy) and too little loudness to my mix/master. Its a cool way to know (visually) if you are on the right track. Since i starting employing this plug-in my mixes/masters translate better over different mediums and dont just sound good in studio

  • http://twitter.com/prodAdvice Production Advice

    Good post, and thanks for the link !

    • http://audio-issues.com Björgvin Benediktsson

      Ah! Of course. Don’t use Death Magnetic, and preferably use something with a dynamic range of -12 to -8 RMS. Thanks for the links Ian.

  • Navarre

    I like to use Ableton’s Spectrum analyzer in combination with an EQ (and of course my ears) to scan where everything sits. I’ll just jot down frequency ranges where different parts/instruments are sitting, as well as their max and min dB range. Using the side and mid EQ options in Ableton’s EQ also helps me figure out how different parts, reverbs, delays, vocals might be sitting.

    • http://audio-issues.com Björgvin Benediktsson

      Good one. That’s an interesting approach. 

  • Lenny Hadaway

    Thank you so much, I do enjoy your post and lean a lot.

    Many Kind Regards
    L. Hadaway

  • Marcin M.

    I think you can use some DR14 recordings such as Here Comes Trouble by Scatterbrain (original 1990 press)

    And I think you shouldn’t stick only with AIFF (guess you’re an Apple fanboy :) ). I personally use FLAC. It’s most portable and works with almost everything (apart from iPod :) ) – it works even on my Nokia N900. APE and WV are also ok.

    • http://audio-issues.com Björgvin Benediktsson

      Yeah, I don’t usually use FLAC. Normal lossless WAV/AIFF is good enough for me :) As to Apple fanboyism, maybe…

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  • Norbert Olszewski

    Thanks.
    What I find quite interesting is that various ‘professional’ records sound sometimes very different. There is the standard but there is no standard too. Panning, sound of instruments, reverbs, EQ, proportions, may vary.
    I have a few songs on my reference list (Depeche Mode, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Bryan Adams, Iron Maiden)) and I use possibly all of them to find what is common- to find what I would call ‘studio standard’ but also look for differences, which shows me how much I am ‘allowed’ to mess around. Also, it gives idea of how to find your own character, sound, by finding the one I  like most and which is the most achievable at the same time.
    Then, I would focus on the one chosen record to follow my mixes, but ocassionaly I would still compare it to others, to not to be too restricted.

  • http://www.masteringmastering.co.uk/onlinemastering.html online mastering

    I recently suggested this in a guest post, I recommend level matching the reference to your existing mix session. It is largely helpful towards achieving comparable instrumental mix balance and tone. 

    • http://audio-issues.com Björgvin Benediktsson

      Yeah, I should add that to the post. Make sure that the reference mix is at the same level because if it’s louder it will always sound better somehow ;)

  • http://www.legasyssongs.com/ Jose Diaz

    Great resource for all things audio! Thanks!

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