How to Choose the Right Reference Track

Learn why using reference tracks is a must and how you can find the best one for your mix.

How to Choose the Right Reference Track

Every experienced music engineer knows that mixing in isolation is dangerous. Reference tracks are the backbone of successful mix creation. They help musicians listen carefully and critically, get a feel for unfamiliar environments and gear, pinpoint specific techniques used in songs of other artists and translate them into their own tracks. In this guide you will learn all about reference mixes and how to find the best ones for your production process.

What is a Reference Track

Reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered recording with a desired sonic features that musicians use to evaluate the track they are working on. It’s a tool for measuring the mix against and ensuring that it’s up to commercial standards.

Reference tracks also function as a roadmap to guide the song arrangement. Juxtaposing the arrangement of the mix-in-progress with that of a professional one eliminates the guesswork and helps structuring the song. Basically, using reference tracks is like comparing your homework to the homework of the classmate you look up to.

How to Choose a Reference Track

The go-to is a track that demonstrates the best qualities production and engineering-wise, the ones you would want in you own mix. By listening critically, you will be able to understand what your sonic preferences are. The following points will help you pick the most suitable references.

  • Similar genre and instrumentation. Choose a reference track that’s in the same ballpark as your mix. Avoid tracks from completely different music genres and styles, it will mislead your decision making. Go for similar sound and instrumentation, otherwise drawing comparisons is going to be a challenge.
  • Well-executed mix features. Professional sounding mixes with great top end and stereo imaging will do you good. Just because a track is at the top of charts, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically a great reference. Pick the tracks you know, love and can hear how great they were mixed. Point out the technical decisions you’d like to borrow.
  • Standout instruments. You don’t necessarily need to reference specific tracks in their entirety. Several tracks may offer different individual parts you’d want to incorporate into your mix – awesome sounding vocals, drums and other instruments.
  • High quality. It really does matter. You won’t achieve good results comparing your mix to MP3 and other compressed formats. Match your tracks only with the highest quality material.

It’s important to note that reference tracks also need to translate to any speaker system and sound great in different listening environments. Such approach will help you mix with more accuracy regardless of where you’re doing it, at home or some unfamiliar studio.

How to Use Reference Tracks

Reference tracks guide you mix decisions. Don’t just blatantly copy the reference, it will do more harm than good. Instead, use multiple tracks, get a general idea of what you like about each of them, and start comparing to your mix. Below are some examples to look (or rather listen) for.

Loudness – How loud the overall level of your mix in comparison to the reference.

Width – How wide the overall mix is in the stereo field, where particular elements are panned.

Depth – Pay attention to the front-to-back placement of the elements. Those that are louder, brighter or with less reverb will sound closer and more upfront. Quieter elements that have more low-end or reverb applied, will sound farther away.

Balance – How loud various elements in comparison to one another. Listen to the overall tonal balance. Check if there is too much low-end or frequency masking.

There are tons of other ways to utilize reference tracks when you’re mixing. First build a collection of references, listen to the front to back several times on different systems and in different environments, then compare the technical details and/or arrangements of songs to those that you’re making, depending on your goals.

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