Reference tracks are an important tool for every mix and mastering engineer; from beginners through to seasoned pros. But what should you look for in a reference track and how should you integrate the reference listening process into your workflow? We answer these questions below.
This may seem obvious, but tracks of different genres can have wide variations in soundstage and tonal balance. Bass will be foregrounded in hip hop in a way that it rarely is in country for example. Pick a track that closely resembles your own in terms of its genre as this will ensure that you are making the right sorts of mixing decisions.
OK, so you are going to be looking for very different things in a punk mix and a big room house mix, but the reference track you choose should be an example of the mixing pinnacle in your chosen genre. There are a few things you should look for. First, look for excellent tonal balance and clarity; you should be able to hear each individual musical element clearly. Second, look for a good soundstage – the instruments should be well balanced across the stereo field. Lastly, try and find tracks where the mix is truly in harmony with the musical content of the song – the mix should work on an artistic level as much as anything else.
You should have a reference track that you use specifically for checking your low-end content when you are mixing a bass-heavy track. Bass is the trickiest part of a track to mix well, especially on home studio systems, so pick a track that mixes heavy bass in a clean, defined way that translates well to small systems too. Try and emulate what the track does well. Below are a couple of examples of tracks that handle bass expertly, from Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé.
It is not a good idea to try and match the sound of a low quality mp3. Once you've settled on the reference track or tracks you want to use, invest in high quality versions (WAVs, AIFFs or FLACs for example) – it really will make a difference.
Once you have decided on your reference tracks there are numerous points of comparison you can check for. Are your kick and snare at a similar level to reference? Are you vocals at the same level and are they as intelligible? Is your bass as tightly controlled? How does the stereo spread compare – is your track as wide as the reference? You might also want to check how the reference uses effects such as reverb and delay, and it is always a good idea take a look at it using a frequency analyser plugin and see how it compares to your own mix.
Audio Ear Training for Music Producers and Sound Engineers