How to Use a Reference Track to Improve your Mixing
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.]
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.
How can you recreate the things you hear from your reference mix in your own mix?
Loudness – Listen to ‘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.
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