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Using Reference Tracks While Mixing and Mastering

10 Apr 2017

Interview kind: text · Reading time: 8 minutes

The question you’re probably asking yourself is: what’s the point using a reference track while mixing original music?
Every production is unique, starting from the songwriting process, the arrangement, the performers, the studio gear, the various producers and engineers behind it and so on.
There are certain songs that have defined a particular genre and sound that can be used as a reference for the work you’re doing.
Don’t get me wrong, this process doesn’t mean copying someone else’s work, but it’s more about getting the general tone and vibe closer to something similar in that genre.
This is a really underestimated hack that can really save your mix at the end of the day, so the real question you should ask yourself is: how will my mix hold up to something similar?
Keeping a mastered track as a reference helps you hear and understand what’s missing or what’s not working in your mix. If this process is done correctly, you’ll be able to hear and correct the flaws of your monitoring system (loudspeakers or headphones), the flaws of your room’s acoustics together with the flaws of the mix itself.
Taking inspiration and learning from the best mixing and mastering engineers is not a sign of weakness, but it simply means making your song “sound” similar to other famous songs of that genre.
Even if you’re working in a professional environment, it’s still a stressful job and the more you listen to something and the more you’ll get use to it. You’ll come to a point in which your ears can’t really figure out what’s good and what’s really not working.
That’s why you need a well mixed and mastered song to listen every now and then, just to keep a fresh reference and to remind you where you’re aiming at.
Choosing the right reference
The first thing to do, of course, is to pick the right track to use as reference. It has be of a similar genre, with a similar instrumentation and with a similar overall tone and vibe.
It’s simple as this: if you want your track to sound like a Foo Fighters record, pick a Foo Fighter’s song that sums up what you’re aiming at.
Make sure you have clear ideas regarding the music scene your song will have to be part of: there’s no use in keeping a Foo Fighters reference track if you’re mixing a blues record (or maybe it does, who knows).
The track’s format should be at least a high quality MP3 file (320 kbps); WAV files that match your session’s sample and bit rate would be perfect. High quality reference tracks are going to push the quality of your mix even further.
The best thing to do would be importing them directly in your DAW on a separate stereo track. This will allow you to rapidly switch between your mix and the reference.
Remember to match the volume of your mix with the reference: being a mastered song it’s surely going to sound louder than yours. 
Adjust the clip gain or pull down the fader of the reference track and keep switching between the two until you’re sure they’re both playing at the same volume. It’s important you listen rather than focusing on the meters.
The iZotope Insight plugin is a great tool for loudness matching between the tracks, and it’s also useful for its spectrum analyzer, the sound field and the spectrogram (and many other features).
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It’s a matter of balance
By switching between the two songs you should be able to recognize how the single elements “sit in the mix”. The main features you should look out for (and maybe listen to) are: panning, equalization, dynamics and effects. 
Listen to every detail and compare it to your work. It doesn’t take much for your ears to get tired and stressed: after a while, you could have the impression that your mix sounds awesome even if some things aren’t working properly.
Even if it translates well on other devices (alternative monitors, ear buds and laptop speakers), this doesn’t mean it actually sound as good as other mixes of that genre. That’s why it’s important you figure out how the different elements of the mix have been treated.
For example, bass levels are one of the most difficult areas to deal with because they mainly depend on the precision of your monitoring system and on the room’s acoustic treatment.
Maybe your mix is already sounding great, but once you start comparing it to a reference, you’ll start noticing some differences: are the vocals too high? Are the guitars crunchy enough? Is the kick working together with the bass? Is the mix sounding too compressed?
Mastering reference
Being mastering the final step of the production process, reference tracks will give you an insight on how a finished track should sound. It's hard to master a bad mix, but reference mixes can help you figure out what can really catch the listener's ear.
Just like for mixing, you should match the track's loudness with your mastering session so that you don't get a faked perception of the processing behind it. This is usefull to work on corrective and creative eq, compression and soundfield processing.
You'll have to eventually increase the overall volume when it comes to the limiting stage. 
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.
A simple hack to do this is to use Match EQs. These plug-ins listen to your reference mix and analyze the whole spectrum, drawing an EQ curve.
You can then apply that EQ curve to the master fader of your own mix. Fabfilter makes some awesome sounding EQs that feature this tool (make sure you check out the Match EQ plug-in in Logic too). 
It’s great for mastering purposes when your individual instruments sound great but the master needs some EQ’ing.
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