How To Use Reference Tracks To Improve Your Mixes


Hey, this is Jason from BehindTheSpeakers.com, and today you’re gonna learn how to get the most out of your reference tracks while mixing, so you can craft mixes that sound like the pros’.

So, before we dive in, if you’re curious what reference tracks I use and recommend, I put together a free playlist of 12 of my favorite reference tracks. These are tracks I use every day while I’m mixing, and they help me stay in the right lane while I’m working. So, if you wanna download this free playlist, you can click the link in the description below, or in the video, and you’ll get free instant access.

So, first of all, what are reference tracks? Well, reference tracks are tracks you can find on iTunes, Spotify, commercial music that you haven’t worked on personally. The tracks have usually already been mastered. And the idea is that you compare your mix in progress to these reference tracks while you’re working on it.

So, there are a couple of benefits to using reference tracks while you’re mixing. The first is that it will give you instant perspective. So, right away, when you flip over to that reference track, you’re gonna know whether or not you’re in the right place, what changes you might need to make. It just gives you this context, and so it’s much easier to figure out, you know, where you need to go if you have that perspective while you’re mixing.

The second benefit to referencing is that it will help you stay on the right track. So many times while we’re mixing, we end up going down the wrong path, right? Maybe we start adding reverb to everything, and suddenly our whole mix is drowning in a mess of reverb, and so the benefit to referencing is that, with that perspective, it’s easier to catch yourself before you go down the wrong path. And this way, you can kind of veer back on track and stay in the right lane while you’re working.

And the third benefit to referencing is it keeps your ego in check. Whenever we’re working on a mix, it’s so easy to start feeling like, I’m the best mixer in the world, and this track sounds incredible, and nobody can touch me, but when you have these references, it gives you this perspective that kind of, you know, forces you to listen to what else is out there and go, “Well, I thought my mix sounded kinda good, but really, it’s not that great,” or “Really, this other track sounds way better.”

And at first, this can be kinda demoralizing, and it’s easy to avoid referencing because, especially when you’re first starting out, it can feel like such a drag, right? You listen to these references and you’re like, “I’m not even close,” right? But, what I would say is that referencing allows you to set this bar for yourself, and ultimately, by setting a higher standard, you’re gonna challenge yourself to push further, right? To really try to make your mixes sound exceptional. And over time, by setting this bar for yourself, and maybe being a little bit disappointed, but striving to meet that standard, ultimately the sound of your mixes is going to improve.

So, I have three tips for making the most of the referencing process. The first is you wanna choose your references really carefully. Now, this sounds obvious, but most people don’t do this. They’ll go out, you know, on the iTunes Top 40, or just choose whatever hot song of the moment is on the radio, or whatever, and they’ll pull that into their session and use that as a reference. The problem with this is that, often times, those top 40 songs aren’t the best sounding mixes, so you wanna challenge yourself to really choose the absolute best-sounding tracks, because remember, these are gonna become the standard by which all your mixes are judged. So really go out there, you know, pour through back catalogs, go through deep cuts, and really try to find the absolute best-sounding mixes. And often times, these aren’t the most popular songs. Sometimes, you know, there can be a kind of B-side on a record that just sounds incredible, and you wanna make sure to find this stuff. So, you know, challenge yourself to really find the best-sounding mixes you can.

Now again, if you wanna know which references I recommend, I put together that free playlist, so you can get it by clicking the link in the description below, or in the video.

The third tip is, when you’re listening to your reference tracks, you wanna listen broadly. So, you don’t wanna zero in on any individual element within the reference track. So, don’t start, you know, listening to what the kick drum sounds like, or the third guitar in the pre-chorus. You don’t wanna copy your references, because every mix is different, and the choices that were made in that reference track aren’t gonna hold up on an individual basis with the mix that you’re working on. The idea is you wanna listen more broadly. So, you’re trying to get an overall sense of, you know, what are the balances like? Where is the vocal sitting? What is the overall tonal balance of the mix? But you’re not focusing too much on any individual element within the reference. And this way you’re gonna avoid copying, and you’re gonna get the most out of the reference tracks without kind of painting yourself into a corner.

So next I wanna jump into my DAW and show you exactly how I incorporate reference tracks into my mixing workflow.

So, I have a song here called “Joshua” by artist Leah Capelle, and I wanna use it to show you how I approach the referencing process when I’m working on a mix.

Now, the first thing is, I always like to have my references directly in the session that I’m work on. So, I don’t wanna have to pull open another application like iTunes or Spotify when I wanna listen to something. I just wanna have a handful of references ready to go, right in the session, so I can quickly and easily listen to them when I need to.

So, there are a couple different ways that you can do this, but I wanna show you first the easiest way to do it, which is just to create another track in your mix, and drag your references directly onto that track. So you can see, we have three references on this track here. I have this track set up with input monitoring so I can very quickly and easily, with one button, just flip back and forth between my mix and these references. Let me show you how that works.

Let me turn on input monitoring first, so now we’re gonna listen to my mix, and then I’ll flip it in and out, and you can see just how easy it is to flip between references in the mix.

So you can see, just with one button, we can flip back and forth, and that makes it really easy.

Now, the second thing I want you to note is that there’s no difference in level when we flip over to our references. So, I’ve gone ahead and turned each of these reference tracks down by 11, 11, 12 dB. And so, I wanted to make sure that there was no difference in level when I flipped over to these references. And this is so massively important. I can’t hark on this enough. You gotta make sure that you’re level-matching your references to your mix. If there’s a massive increase in level when you flip over to your references, because remember, these tracks are already mastered, and most of the time they’re gonna be much louder than the mix that you’re working on, you can’t make any judgements or decisions. It’s just not a great way to work. So make sure that you’re always level-matching your references to the mix that you’re working on.

Now, I also wanted to show you another way that you can use references while you’re mixing, and that’s by using a plugin like Magic AB. Now, this is a plugin that sits on your mix bus, and it makes it very easy to compare your mix with references while you’re working. So basically, it allows you to import references directly into this plugin. So you can see, I have all my references loaded here. And then through this A/B section here, you can very easily compare your mix to these references while you’re working. So, most of the time you’re gonna leave this on A, and that will allow you to basically listen directly to your mix. But if you wanna listen to one of your references, you just open this plugin, flip over to B, and then click one of these buttons here, and you can basically listen to whatever references you have loaded.

Now, the cool thing is that you have this level control here on both the references as a whole, and also each individual reference, so it makes it really easy to do level matching. You can also control the level of your mix here, you can loop different sections. I mean, there’s just a lot of functionality within this plugin. So, if you’re looking for a tool that will make referencing simple, I think this is one of the best plugins out there for that, and I definitely recommend that you check it out.

So, I hope you enjoyed this video, and if you wanna know which reference tracks I recommend, again, I put together that free playlist with 12 of my favorite reference tracks. You can download it by clicking the link in the description below, or in the video. And again, it’s totally free.

Anyways, check out more mixing tips at BehindTheSpeakers.com. Thanks so much for watching, and take care.

Video features music by Leah Capelle.