One of the most repeated bits of mixing advice you’ll find online is to use references when you mix. This is great advice as your objectivity is a scarce resource and it is so easy to lose perspective when producing and mixing, and maybe even mastering your own material. A long time ago Julian wrote a piece for Pro Tools Expert called Staying In The Goldilocks Mix Zone, the article was about how your objectivity is a finite resource and how important it is to spend long enough on your mix to get it as good as you can, but not so long that you can no longer trust your decisions.
In this video trailer for his tutorial series, Fab Dupont shares some thoughts about reference tracks that we can all learn from…
“In general, our ears can be extremely impressionable from day to day. Some days we’ll hear a piece of music and think it is dark. The next day, we may feel it’s bright. All of this can cause havoc when trying to mix. Sure, we think we know our speakers and our rooms, but even then it’s easy to forget things like “how bright should this be?” “Do I have enough low end in my mix?” Enter reference mixes. Reference mixes can serve as the roadmap to a great mix, and they can help answer questions when you find your ears feeling confused.”
Keep Perspective When Mixing
So what can you do to keep your ears, and your mix decisions, objective? One way is to work fast. You hear this a lot from pro mixers, they work fast so they can get the job finished and get paid, but also because a fast mix is often a good mix - because of objectivity.
Another way is to take a rest, if you master your own material then you’ve probably experienced the benefit of leaving a few days between mixing and mastering. It helps your ears reset.
Another way is to use references. It’s not the same, but it definitely helps refresh the ears and it’s certainly popular. Dedicated referencing plug-ins like the excellent Metric AB or MasterCheck from Nugen Audio help with the process both in terms of loudness matching and linking playback but even with tools like this you still need to choose a suitable reference. What should you use?
In this free video tutorial, with the support of our friends at Nugen Audio, Production Expert team member Peter Barter demonstrates how to use the MasterCheck Pro plug-in to quickly A/B loudness and dynamics levels between your own tracks and trusted reference sources.
Many references are chosen because they match the style and direction wanted for a specific song but most of us have regular references we use as exemplars of a “good” mix. We use these to get to know a new set of monitors or an unfamiliar room. Focusing on these we asked the Production Expert Team for a couple of favourite references and why they use them.
I try to avoid music I love as I tend to hear my references too often and this can spoil music which is special to me, in the same way as using your favourite song as your alarm on your phone if you’re not careful you’ll grow to hate it…
Everybody Here Wants You - Jeff Buckley
This is a fantastic reference track as it is beautifully recorded and opens on a huge kick with a simple snare and hat pattern with a long reverb: Bass, midrange and top end, all together and nicely separated. Then the electric guitars and a nice natural vocal to really expose any midrange nasties. A fantastic tune to audition monitors and the room the monitors are in.
No-One Knows - Queens Of The Stone Age
Almost the exact opposite of the Jeff Buckley tune, this is bone dry and all about midrange, and midrange is the difficult bit isn’t it? If your track doesn’t sound scooped in the mids compared to this you’re probably doing OK
In reality most of my work in in post production and the need for reference tracks doesn’t really apply. But on the occasions I am in a strange studio then I turn to tracks that I know well and those tend to be tracks I have recorded and mixed myself and so know intimately.
Your Love Is Amazing - Wellspring
This is nearly always my go-to track as it has all the things I want to hear in a reference track. The the lead vocal is also my wife Sally so again it is a sound I know well after 33 years of marriage and the track is one we produced together.
Gabriel's Oboe (theme from The Mission) - Wellspring
If I want a classical track then I would turn to this track which again is one I recorded, mixed and produced myself and is a stunning performance of the classic theme song from the film The Mission
I don’t rely on reference tracks all that often in a mix. Instead I tend to reference back to my own mixes a lot when working on new client material. Many of my returning clients expect a certain sound from me, in order for me to meet those expectations I reference tracks that we’ve collaborated on in the past as a starting point. I don’t reference my work in the progress of a mix with commercially available music, I know many people that do mix this way, it’s just not a technique that works for me.
The only time I use reference tracks in anger is when I need to learn the sound of a new set of monitors, headphones or critical listening environment. The two songs I trust for this are:
Earth Song - Michael Jackson
I don’t consider this to be one of the best mixes in the world as to my ears many of the key components sound over compressed. The quality of this mix that makes it a good monitoring reference track in my ears is in the low end. The relationship between the kick and bass guitar in this production have been beautifully sculpted. A poor monitoring environment doesn’t alway reproduce this low end register very well. A good system and a good room make this register sit just right.
An Unnamed Song Produced By Myself
There are one or two songs that I’ve produced that my ears know really well. I know their flaws, I know their qualities, I know how these should sound as I was the one who birthed these songs from concepts to masters. It’s great to trust commercial music produced by other people when referencing, but it’s also worth trusting your own material, especially if you know it intimately.
When I used to gig a lot I had about 3 tracks which I could play through our rig (or the rig we were provided with for that event) which would indicate to me if we were going to have a good gig (acoustically speaking) or not. I have kept at least 2 of these for my mix references.
My Love Is On Fire - Stevie Wonder
To my ears this track has it all. Super sweet high end and a bass line make you wish you had 15” subs in your living room. The kick drum should reach out and grab you and demand that you get your groove on. Some might say the bass is a little over powering but if you are aiming for something modern and R&B sounding then I only wish I could get close to this track.
Sledgehammer - Peter Gabriel
I love this track and every time I listen to it, I mean really listen to it I hear something I didn’t know was there. It’s often the first track I listen to when I walk in the studio as a moment of inspiration. It’s dynamic, it’s driving, the bass is incredible, the top end of bright yet not harsh and the vocal sit in the track perfectly. If a reference track is supposed to inspire and help with a great mix, Sledgehammer does it for me.
An honorable mention should also go to Don’t Cry - It’s Only The Rhythm from Slave To The Rhythm by Grace Jones. If you really want to check your stereo imaging then take a listen. Also check out the amazing flutter echo effect about 2:05 in. On a well set up system it sounds amazing.
What references I use depend on the genre of music I am working on, and the nature of the instrumentation. I’m not sure how widely known my first two will be, given that K.D.Lang is a Canadian artist.
First up is Constant Craving from her Ingénue album. This song was recorded in 1992, so is not mastered at modern levels. And that’s a good thing! I like the way the drums and bass blend in this mix. The snare is a little loud for my taste, but it helps propel the groove. But the tightness of the low end is a great reference to check that I am not hyping my lows too much. I love K.D. Lang’s voice, and it is always so pure and clean and unaffected sounding. The compression is invisible on it, and the reverb blends perfectly. There are also lovely backup vocals in this mix that are crystal clear. They stand out perfectly on their own when necessary, and blend with her lead perfectly when they are together. So, if I’m working on a mix with some backups that play a prominent role in the arrangement, and I’m not sure how far to push them in the overall blend, a listen to this mix always helps set me straight.
Next up is another song from the same album. Miss Chatelaine. One of my all-time favourite pop songs in terms of writing, arranging, and mix. I find this useful as a reference when I am working on mixes with dense accompaniments but need the vocals to cut through. Miss Chatelaine is a busier arrangement, yet the vocals sit on top nicely no matter what is going on underneath. This reference is most useful to me in terms of blending a busy accompaniment with a dominant lead vocal.
I love all the early Nora Jones recording and mixes. They are so pure and unaffected. They’re like a lesson in back to basics mixing techniques. Any tune from Come Away With Me or Feels Like Home is a lesson in how to treat each instrument and get them just right in the overall blend. The arrangements are sparse, and you can pick out the qualities of each instrument. The vocal is so pure; you don’t notice any reverb or EQ - although it is there, of course. If I am unsure about my de-essing, her tunes are a great reference in that regard. And if I am unsure if my vocal is too wet and maybe getting obscured by the reverb, these mixes are always a wake-up call that usually confirms that I have been using too much. That is if “natural sounding” is what I am after; which, of course, isn’t always the case.
Lastly, I find the 1982 Donald Fagen album Nightlfly a fantastic reference when I am working on mixes with strong grooves and heavily focused on the rhythm section instruments. Here again, every element seems to blend perfectly. Performance and arrangement have as much to do with this as the mixing. But the tunes all have a driving feel. If my mixes aren’t grooving as hard, I’ll check the relative blend and qualities of the rhythm section instruments to see if I can focus any aspects of them better in my mix. The overall mixes are relatively bright for that period. But not too bright. If I am not sure how much to excite the top end of the drums or guitars or even the whole mix; this is a great reality check, especially if I am working with exciters or harmonic enhancers on the master bus.
I want to divide my answer between checking a system and a reference track, what I mean by this is that I have trusted tracks I use to check audio quality on speakers, headphones or in rooms I’ve not been in before. For this I have a TIDAL playlist that is as eclectic as one could imagine but gives me a good range of music that helps me to ascertain what I’m hearing. You can check it out here.
I also have a go-to album which is ‘A Few Small Repairs’ by Shawn Colvin, which I regard as one of my favourite albums of all time, both for songs and production.
However, when it comes to reference tracks that decision is based on what I’m mixing and in that case I’ll ask a client to tell me what they would like the track to sound like. For those new to mixing you’ll be surprised how different genres have signature sounds, for example an R&B track will have a very different sonic footprint than that of a rock track. With that said, I tend to avoid mixing genres I have little experience in as I think it’s wise to stick with what you are good and/or experienced in, and mixing someone’s tracks is no time to try and learn how to do it.
What Do You Use As A Reference?
You can probably see there’s not much consensus among the team. Do you use references when you mix? if so what do you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below.