Why Using a Reference Track Will Transform Your Recordings

What is a Reference Track?

A reference track is a track that you use repeatedly across your projects to compare your mix. There are a number of benefits to this:

  • If you choose an extremely well-mixed recording to compare your mixes against, you will greatly increase the likelihood of ending up with a “professional-sounding” recording
  • It will serve as a “reset of your ears.” After you’ve been hearing a song over and over throughout your mix, your reference track will refresh your ears, allowing you to hear any problems in your mix.
  • By using the same track over and over, you will create uniformity in your mixes and be more likely to get the sound that you are going for.

This is not a home recording hack.  This is a practice employed by the best engineers in the world that you should be using.  Check out this article outlining some of the reference tracks used by pro audio engineers.

Using a Reference Track Will Make a Bigger Difference in Your Mix than any New Plugin or Outboard Gear

This practice has been the most valuable technique that I’ve ever learned.

After years of using different reference tracks for different projects, I’ve learned a ton of different mixing techniques and their resulting effects.

I equate it to a guitarist that learns the techniques and sounds of a number of great guitarists.  Once you are able to reproduce the results of a number of different sound engineers, you’ll be able to create your own style.

Additionally, it will always keep you on your toes.  Just when you think your mix is sounding great, you’ll switch over to your reference track and you’ll realize how far from ready your mix is.

First, How to Pick a Reference Track

It is very important that you choose the right track.  Think of your reference track as a compass; pick the wrong compass and you’re going to end up in the wrong place.

Don’t Use an MP3

Naturally, don’t use an mp3. Get the highest quality file that you can possibly get.  If you use a file that has suffered degradation of quality due to data compression, your mix will end up sounding that way before it even gets compressed.  Don’t use an mp3.

Pick a Genre-appropriate Reference Track

This should go without saying, but I don’t want to there to be any doubts about this.  If you’re mixing a country album, don’t use a Radiohead track as a reference.

Take Some Time to Pick Your Reference Tracks

Start with at least 5 tracks from a relevant genre and import them into your DAW.   Really listen to them against one another and focus on the mix, not the performance, arrangement, or song.  One or two of them should really stand out and you want to choose one to serve as your reference.

Pay particular attention to how the sound engineer mixed the different elements of the track.  Are the guitars up and in your face or are they pushed back in the mix?  What about the snare and kick? How is the bass mixed?

You are going to use this track to sculpt the eq of the instruments that make up your mix, so be sure that you’re not choosing a reference that buries the vocals when your project has a phenomenal singer whose vocals need to be front and center.

You also want to stay aware of the panning of the instruments.  If you are not keen on any of the panning decisions, you should should pass on using a track as your reference.

You should check the song in mono as well, especially if you’re going to be mixing for EDM and other genres that are likely to be played in a club.  These genres have to work well in both stereo and mono because of the risk of having an instrument inaudible in an entire section of a club.  If you pick a reference that has this flaw, your mixes will have the same problem.

Save Your References in a Readily-Accessible Folder On Your Hard Drive

This is more of a workflow-related piece of advice.  You’re going to be importing this file into lots of projects and you don’t want it to go missing, so be sure to keep it in an easily-accessible folder on your hard drive.

How to Use Your Reference Track

Import Your Reference and Create a Bus

First, you’ll need to import the track into your project.  Once it’s there, create a second bus and route the channel with your reference track through that bus.  The reason that you’re doing this is that you’ll need to quickly mute your entire mix and solo your reference track repeatedly so that you can easily compare the two.

Start Your Mix

At this point, you should simply start working on your mix, referring to the reference track sparingly.  If you are an experienced sound engineer, you should have a number of set starting points for volume, eq, compression, and other effects. Once you’ve gotten your mix started, this is when you can start “grading yourself” against your reference and adjust setting accordingly.

If you are an inexperienced sound engineer, you can start off by trying to get your individual instruments to sound as close to the reference track as your can.  Typical best practices in mixing apply here: start with drums and vocals, add in the bass and other instruments, add in reverb and panning to create space, and constantly check your reference to refresh your ears.


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