How to Use a Reference Mix to Skyrocket the Quality of Your Mixes
You might have heard the advice that it’s always a good idea to check your mix against a reference mix.
But what does that mean? What kind of reference mix? How do you go about doing that?
What is a Reference Mix?
A reference mix is a commercial quality mix that’s usually been mixed and released in the same genre or style that you’re mixing in.
It’s a mix that you know well, that translates well on different systems (especially when you’re testing P.As in live sound), or just something you think sounds great.
It’s a mix you select based partly on your tastes but also on the quality of the mix. Although “quality of mix” can also be subjective, the translation, separation and overall characteristics of the mix aren’t that subjective.
Using a reference track gives you a different perspective on your mix. It helps you find out what’s lacking from your mix and reveals inconsistencies that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.
How Do You Choose Your Reference Mix?
You find your ideal reference mixes by listening to music and making notes of which songs sound great to you. It’s as simple as that.
Granted, it can be quite daunting to go through every possible song. But as long as you can narrow down a few good songs in the genres you work in, you should at the very least have a few good references to start from.
Honestly, I have problems with references. I’m lazy when it comes to referencing my mixes, something that I’ve tried to be better about at this point in my career. But I also think choosing references should be a personal journey. It’s fun to hunt for great sounding music.
A couple of Rules for Using a Proper Reference
Make sure from the start that you’re 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 high-quality 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 lack 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.]
The best part is that you can indulge in all your guilty pleasures in the name of “work” or “research.”
“Sweetie….I have to listen to Purple Rain 15 times a day. I need to get this glassy guitar sound right…”
“Honey….I’m sorry you don’t like the Crash Test Dummies but Tom Lord-Alge has a snare sound you can’t beat!”
And so on and so forth…
You can also get a reference mix from the band or musician you are mixing. Ask the band what kind of music they like, and if there’s a specific record they want their songs to sound like. That narrows the selection process immediately.
A Word of Warning
Don’t confuse a commercial song with a great mix. They don’t always go hand in hand. I’ve heard great records that don’t really sound that good. But the songs are cool, so I like the album.
I would never use them as reference mixes though.
So to use a reference mix effectively, you have to select a great sounding mix.
Preferably one that’s almost unattainable because it’ll challenge you to get better. Your mixing skills will improve much faster if your goal is harder to reach. If you’re using a subpar mix as a reference, it’ll be too easy for you. You might feel good about yourself for a minute, but your skills won’t improve.
So the three rules to picking reference mixes that make your mixing skills better are:
- Pick an actual great sounding record.
- Pick the best sounding song on that record. Even though the single might be your favorite song, it is rarely the best sounding song on the record.
- Make sure the record you pick sounds so good it’s almost unattainable to reach it. It pushes you harder and makes you a better mixer.
Once you’ve found a reference mix you like the sound of that sounds like the music that you’re currently working on, here’s what you do next:
Import Your Reference Mix
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.
Then you listen and compare.
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.
Tall – Frequencies
With your eyes closed, what needs to be taller in your mix compared to the reference mix? Which elements need more high frequencies and which need more low frequencies?
Which instruments can you trim the top off of and place in the low end? Which instruments can you filter out the fat of and make shine in the high end? What needs to be in the middle?
Compare the frequency spectrum of both mixes and see if anything stands out. Use an analyzer to help you spot problematic areas. The analyzer will help you see where your mix differs when it comes to EQ.
Wide – Panning and Stereo Width
Compare the width of both mixes. How wide is each 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? Are the kick, snare, and bass steady in the center, or is there some creativity used in panning?
Think about pushing each part into its proper place. You need to fill out the stereo spectrum, so pan your instruments around your canvas. Artists are supposed to fill out their canvases and don’t just paint in the middle.
The same goes for you. Don’t place everything in the middle; instead, spread it out and find a good spot for each instrument to match the reference mix you like.
Deep – Effects and Reverb
How wet is the overall mix? Are the drums in your face, or are they pushed back with reverb? Did the mixing engineer of the reference mix 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?
Push the instruments back, pull them forward, move them closer, or push them away. Think of the mix like a 3D image when you try to match your mix up with the reference.
With volume, reverb, and effects you can place anything anywhere in the room. For instance, if you want the drums by the rear wall, add some reverb and lower the volume. Push back with reverb and effects; pull forward with more volume and short delays.
Once you’ve placed all the elements in both highs and lows, left and right, and front and back, you have a better idea of where you’re going and what you need to do.
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 mix. It’s great in a pinch, especially for mastering purposes when your instruments sound great but the master needs some EQ’ing.
However, using a matching EQ is a bit like cheating. I’d prefer that you learned to understand the frequency spectrum so that you instinctively know where to boost and cut to match your mix to the reference you’re trying to achieve. That’s why I recommend you check out EQ Strategies – Your Ultimate Guide to EQ.
It’ll help you understand how you can sculpt the frequency spectrum of your mix to sound closer to the commercial reference mix you’re using.
End Up With a Better Mix
As you’re making all these observations in the reference, 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. As you go through this process, I wouldn’t be surprised if your mix improved considerably in quality as you do small tweaks here and there to get closer to the professional track you’re referencing.
However, if you’re struggling to recreate the sounds you hear in the reference mix, don’t worry.
Chances are, all those mix moves were just a combination of EQ, compression, reverb, delay, and saturation. For more on mastering those five processors, check out my best-selling eBook, Step By Step Mixing.
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