I find that it's very common for mixing and mastering engineers to use a reference track in the final stage of their project to make sure that they're on track with what's going on in the rest of the music world. I believe that we might be bringing the reference tracks in a little bit too late and there's something to be said about using a reference earlier on in the music production process.
What Is A Reference Track?
A reference track is essentially a song that you compare the song that you’re working on to make sure it sounds right. Usually, a mixing engineer will use a song that is in a similar style to the song that they're working on to make sure it sounds good in comparison.
This is a very important step in mixing. As mixing engineers, we spend a lot of our time listening to the same song for hours on end. Our ears have an amazing ability to adapt to situations that we’re in. If you are in a very bright situation, your ears will EQ themselves over time to level out the frequencies so that they sound normal to you. If you are in a loud situation, your ears will compress the sound and it will only be when you hear a quieter sound that you realise how loud it actually was. You may notice when you’re at a gig, a new band might get on and you’ll think “dayum, that is a harsh guitar sound”, but after a few minutes of hearing the same sound, it starts to sound normal.
The same thing happens when you're mixing a track. You are listening to one sound for many hours on end. You will find that if you spend hours mixing one track without listening to anything else, you'll run it off and put it next to another track and the whole vibe of the mix will be completely off. This is where the reference track comes in. If you A/B the reference track next to your mix, you will hear what the differences are between your track and a track that is commercially ready. From there you can make steps to “fix” your mix to get it to a commercial standard.
Bring It In Earlier
The thing that I’ve noticed is that many mixing engineers will bring in the reference track towards the end of their mix. They’ll spend hours and hours getting the mix to a point where it sounds exactly how they want it while their ears adjust to the sound of their song, as well as their room and their speakers. Then, once happy with it, they’ll play their reference track and realise how far off they are from what they had in their head. This is where, usually, extra plugins are added, huge EQ sweeps are made and half of the hard work is undone in order to make these two, completely different sounding mixes to sound the same. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, doesn't it?
So what if we bring in the mix at the very start of the mix? If we pull our very first, most basic version of the mix while referencing a track that we know sounds great. Then, as we make any adjustments to our mix, we check with our reference track to see if it's still on track. There’d be a huge change in how we mix, the amount of plugins we use and the amount of time we spend mixing. If we mix towards a sound that we believe to be good, our biggest mixing decisions will be geared towards getting our mix to sound good and many of the tedious, arbitrary decisions will be left behind and the song will usually end up sounding better quicker.
One of the problems with this technique is that, in the mastering process, big limiters are used to boost up the volume of a track. If you try to mix your track that loud, your plugins will not be running optimally and you’ll be introducing a lot of digital distortion. I find that it's best to mix quieter, with plenty of headroom and let the mastering engineer (even if that's you) bump it up later. Start by bringing up your kick sound so that it’s sitting at about -20dB on the master track level. Then start A/Bing the reference track and then bring down the reference track fader until the kick on the reference track is the same level as yours. From there you have set the level of what your track should be and try not to go much louder or quieter than that. If there's no drums, you can use the lead vocal or any other pivotal sound that is present in both tracks.
Bring It In Even Earlier
So, we agree that it's better to have a reference earlier in the mixing stage to avoid the “fixing” syndrome. Then what happens if you bring in the reference track even earlier. What if we use a reference track during the recording phase? When you set up the microphones around the drum kit at the very start of the session, check it against the reference track and see if it's in the ball park. Is the kick beefy enough? Are the overheads well balanced? Are the toms too dull? These questions will all be easier to assess with a reference track at hand and you'll be setting yourself up for a great final mix from the start.
I find that biggest difference to be made by using a reference track is in the guitar and bass tracks. Many times I've gotten to a mix, listened to the guitars and found that they're too dull, too fizzy, too driven, or not driven enough. Then I have to go through the process of trying to fix these guitar tracks using EQs, compressors, distortion, exciters etc. in order to get the guitar to sound the way that it should have been recorded with. If, in the recording phase, you put the guitar sound that you're recording against a reference that has a guitar sound that you really like, then you know that when you get to the mixing phase, the sound will require very little “fix mixing”.
Finally, using a reference track will determine if your song is actually finished at the end of the recording phase. How many times during the mix have you tried to fill out a dull sound will reverb, EQ or samples? You should know by the end of the recording phase if your track is finished or not. If you check against a reference track and your chorus sounds a bit dull, you'll have a much clearer idea of what you need to brighten it up: a shaker track, a guitar lead, harmonies etc.
Picking Your Reference Track
There's only 2 things that you should consider when picking a reference track to mix to. First, is it similar in style to the track that you're writing? There's no point in referencing a black metal track when mixing a country ballad. Try to keep the instrumentation similar and reference sounds that you want to use in your track. It's common to use more than one reference track but it’s best not to go too extreme, otherwise you spend half your time flicking between tracks. Secondly, do you like the track? It sounds logical, but make sure that you're referencing a production sound that you really like.
Using reference tracks from the start of your recording process makes sense. It's like a map to your final destination that you can check frequently as you go. Using a reference at the end of the mix is like driving in the vague direction of where you're going and, when you think you might be close, checking the map to see how far off you were and then taking whatever back roads you can find to get back to where you were.
What do you think about using reference tracks? What’s your process? Did this article help you? Let me know in the comments below.