Using reference tracks when mixing or making music is something that I wish I knew in the early days of my music career.
Reference songs can help you improve the quality of your music at a much faster rate.
When you are more advanced you'll be able to get quality songs that will sound amazing on all speakers (even outside your studio).
To put it simply, you'll be able to have a clear destination that you want to reach, then use the tools that you have to get closer or get your songs exactly how you want them to sound.
For all those who are making music at home, it's often wise to have a reference and roadmap of how the music should sound sonically, the arrangement, feel, etc.
How to Use Reference Songs When Mixing
So, I'll get into how reference tracks work later on.
Let's cover the basics first because the foundation is important or else the building won't be strong enough to withstand high winds.
What is a Reference Track
In the music-making process, a reference track can either be a rough song that the producer makes with the musicians to put the vision of the song into a stereo track.
This is what the mixing engineer will use as a reference to mix the multitracks to capture the vision of the artist(s).
The mixing engineer can also choose to use other popular songs or choose to go for some of their favorite songs to utilize as a reference to finish the mix faster and avoid a lot of guesswork when using plugins (or hardware).
References can also be used in the mastering stage as well.
Some mastering engineers do use reference content, especially when they are not familiar with the genre.
Refs can be used during recording, sound design, production, arrangement, mixing, and mastering as well.
A ref gives you a clear vision of the final results.
When you know what you're going for it becomes much simpler to achieve the best results as compared to just winging it.
So use references to improve the quality of your mixes and speed up your music creation process.
Choosing the wrong reference track can lead you to mess up a really great song.
Even though everyone's approach is different there are still a few guidelines that you can follow to maximize your chances of success.
Here are a few guidelines that you can use to choose the perfect reference songs for your projects.
- Key: choosing a ref that is in the same key as your song will help you with making good decisions when dealing with EQ. If the song is in a different key you might be tempted to boost 50Hz, for instance, only to find out that your mix could be better if you boosted 65Hz. If you can't find songs that are in the same key then make sure that you don't follow the frequency response of the ref to exactly, use it as a guideline.
- Tempo: using a song with a similar or same tempo can help when it comes to applying time-based effects such as reverb and delay. Slow tempo music often has enough space for long reverbs but using long reverbs or delays on a fast tempo track can ruin a great song.
- Vocal Tone: a mix that has a female vocal is usually balanced differently compared to a male vocal song. Even the instrumentation can differ in order to get the music working well with the voice. Therefore, choose a reference track that has a similar vocal tone.
- Multiple Refs: having multiple references is normally a good idea because you can listen to various songs to determine how different engineers mix a certain sound (guitar for example) then choose one approach that will fit perfectly with your song. Using 1 or 2 references will limit your options, you might end up making the guitar sound thick only to find out that it doesn't work on the mix you're working on.
So, be careful when choosing your reference songs because they can either help you get a great sounding mix or ruin a beautiful song.
How Do Reference Tracks Work?
There are different ways mixing engineers use reference tracks. Some simply upload the songs inside their mix projects.
For me, this approach is not a good one if you're going to be using multiple references.
If you're going to be using more than 3 songs then I would recommend using a reference plugin.
There are great companies that make the process of using reference tracks a lot easier.
With these plugins, you can compare stereo width, level, frequency response, loop, set cues, and more.
The ones I recommend are REFERENCE by Mastering The Mix and ADPTR from Plugin Alliance.
These plugins come with some great features that you wouldn't be able to do if you import the songs straight into your DAW.
Although using reference tracks can sound like a brilliant idea, the only catch is that you might find yourself battling with a song to get it to sound like the ref then end up ruining a beautiful song.
If we all recorded in the same room and used the same microphone, mic placement, pre-amps, compressor(s), etc. then it would make sense to copy the reference exactly.
But that's not realistic, right?
So, the key thing is to never get caught up trying to get your mix to sound EXACTLY like the reference songs.
Use them as a guideline because every song is different in terms of feel and sonics.
I trust that this guide helps you achieve the best sound possible and if anything is confusing then leave a comment below and I'll get back to you as soon as time allows.