Great reference tracks are like bumpers at a bowling alley.
Except there’s no shame in using them! They’ll help you strike stronger balances, combat poor room acoustics, and ultimately, craft better mixes.
Over the past few years, reference tracks have become an essential part of my mixing workflow. When I first started referencing while working, my mixes improved significantly.
There are a few areas where I find referencing particularly useful:
- Establishing overall tonality – This is a great way to find out if your mix is too dark or bright. For this reason, I often lean on references early in the mixing process.
- Determining general balances – Are your vocals loud enough? Are your drums too quiet? Check out the balances in your references!
- Setting effect levels – Never drown a mix in reverb again!
Though reference tracks can be invaluable, they can also derail you if not used properly. Here are some potential pitfalls to avoid:
Pitfall #1: Copying the reference
Your references are not blueprints! If you try to match them exactly, you’ll paint yourself into a corner. Your mix will (and should) sound different. Use your references to make broad judgements (how bright is this mix…how loud is this vocal?), versus hyper-specific ones (does that snare drum have more 2K than mine?).
Pitfall #2: Not matching playback volume
You should always compare your mix and the reference at equal volumes. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to glean any useful insights from the process. Most of the time, your reference tracks will need to be turned down significantly (as you’ll likely be using tracks that have already been mastered).
The Magic AB plugin (by Sample Magic) is a lifesaver here! Insert it on your master bus and use it to switch back and forth between your mix and up to 9 references. You can control the volume of each individual reference and compare it to your mix. It’s much easier than manually importing references into your sessions!
Pitfall #3: Not choosing the right references
Choose your references meticulously, as they’ll become the gold standard by which all of your work is judged. Take time to search for the best-sounding tracks (hint: they are often not the biggest hits).
Pitfall #4: Only using one reference
Having a host of reference tracks will help you avoid copying (see pitfall #1), and will give you a broader perspective on what a great mix should sound like.
With that being said, here are my 5 favorite reference tracks:
1. Silhouettes by Colony House
My go-to rock reference mix. Great for judging balance and overall tonality. Helps me place drums in a rock mix.
2. The Way – Meshell Ndegeocello
Incredible mix by Bob Power. This is my benchmark for clarity, separation, and punch.
3. Want To Want Me – Jason Derulo
Tight, punchy, drum-forward mix. Great for judging amount of low end.
4. Ignition (Remix) – R. Kelly
My go-to pop/R&B reference. Punchy drums, and clear, present vocals. Great for judging how much delay to use on a vocal.
5. I Care – Frances, Pomo
If my vocals are brighter than this, I know I’ve gone too far.