Getting the Most out of Your Reference Tracks

– “Reference tracks, huh? What are they?”

– “Oh reference tracks, c’mon this is old news.”

– “I already know what reference tracks are and have been using them for ages.”

Above are some of the questions I expect people to ask in their head when reading the title of this post. Fortunately, I’ve written it for everyone, so you should benefit regardless of whether you’re just starting out, or have been in the scene for a while.

In this article I’ll be discussing the power of mix referencing, why it’s so awesome, how it can benefit you, and also a few tips/things to keep in mind when using reference tracks. If you’re new to the idea of mix referencing, or don’t currently use reference tracks; then read on!

Why Use Reference Tracks?

Many new producers are hesitant about using reference tracks because it can be quite demotivating listening to professionally mixed songs compared to theirs. Understandable, but it’s one of the quickest paths to achieving consistent, great-sounding mixdowns.

If you’re not sure what mix referencing is, it’s basically the process of using tracks that are already very well mixed, and referring to them (hence the name), while mixing down your own song.

Unless you’ve been doing this kind of thing for a while, you probably don’t have the best idea of how a great mixdown sounds.

I mean sure, you know when the bass is too loud – and you also know that your lead sound needs high-passed to make room for the bass. But, reaching into the specifics you’ll find that you come across situations where you’re not sure if you should keep your bass hitting at -14dB to keep the impact, or lower it by a couple to make the mix seem a little more balanced.

Regardless of whether you mix down your track in a high-end studio plastered with acoustic treatment and a wide selection of monitors, or something as simple as hi-fi speakers – using reference tracks WILL benefit you.

In fact, I would say using reference tracks is one of the most powerful mix monitoring techniques available to mankind.

To summarize, here are three reasons why you should use reference tracks:

  1. They’ll be running through the same mixing environment, and you can make adjustments to your mix accordingly.
  2. They’re a great way to get a good foundation for your mix, as well as final adjustments
  3. They help promote creativity – new mix ideas, new techniques, etc.

There are a lot more reasons, but for the sake of your time I’ll leave it at that. Here’s a question to ponder, though.

Why wouldn’t you use reference tracks? Why wouldn’t you take a professionally mixed and mastered song, and use it as a reference point for your mix?

Picking Reference Tracks

There are too many people who use reference tracks without unleashing their full potential. Reference tracks are a lot more than something to ‘double-check’ with. You see, most people think of reference tracks as something to just chuck in the DAW near the end and make a few adjustments. Oh, don’t forget to turn the volume down to match your mix…

Before anything, you have to sort out the reference material itself. Instead of just grabbing any old track from your music library, you actually have to spend a good amount of time looking for reference tracks.

The Importance of Quality Reference Material

Having your reference tracks sound similar is one thing (I mean, you’re not going to use a Knife Party track when mixing an uplifting trance song), but what’s vitally important is that they’re well mixed.

Often, people will pick their favourite songs to use as reference tracks. I mean, why wouldn’t you, right? You’ve got to work towards something that you really like, surely?

Well, yes… and no. On one hand, it’s important to enjoy your work, and if you’re producing a whole track – then you should actually enjoy the content you’re making. But, if you want your mix to sound professional, then you must choose quality reference material.

“Don’t let your ears trick you by perceiving one song as better mixed than the next, just because it’s preferable from a musical standpoint.”

Using MP3 Files, Yes or No?

Though any reference track is probably better than no reference track – I’d recommend using the highest quality possible. At a stretch, you can use a 320kbps MP3; it might be rather difficult for people new to audio production to gauge the difference between a top-tier MP3 and a WAV file, anyway.

But if you’re aware of the difference, I’d strongly advise that you use high-quality formats for your reference tracks. WAVs will do just fine.

There are various reasons for using high bitrate audio files, but the defying factor is that if you’re using low audio quality reference material – you’re going to be working towards a lower medium, it’s as simple as that.

How to Work with Reference Tracks

So we’ve covered a few things so far, including why you should use reference tracks, what they are, and also the importance of spending time selecting the right material. By now, you should be ready to go ahead and start mixing like a pro!

Hold on, hold on. There are a few things you might want to know about before you dive in the deep end.

Speed, the Defining Factor

The way our brain processes audio can cause us to compensate for differences between two different songs very fact. Because of this, it’s important that you’re able to switch between your mix and a reference mix FAST.

Most DAWs will allow you to do this pretty quickly and easily, but in any case, it may help to render a draft mixdown of your current song so you can simply solo each of tracks including your mix.

Ableton Tip: You can put your whole mix under a group; this makes it much easier to solo/mute everything at once.

One other benefit from bouncing down a draft mix is that it allows you to be more productive. Instead of constantly making small tweaks, you can just write things down in a notepad while listening along.

Loudness Matching and the Pitfall of Mastering

Often when people use reference tracks, they place it in their DAW and turn the volume down to ‘roughly’ the same level as their mix.

I’m sorry, but ‘roughly’ just isn’t going to cut it.

There’s a big problem with this which is that very small differences in volume can cause a massive difference in perception on the receiving end. It’s very natural for us as humans to think that things that are louder sound better.

When using reference tracks, make sure they’re as close to your mix level as possible. You can get them pretty similar by using a meter plugin or just looking at your DAW’s mixer track levels.

The reverse of this would also work – mixing up towards the volume of the reference track (though I wouldn’t recommend keeping it at 0dB).

Good Luck Finding an Unmastered Reference Track

The main downside to reference tracks is that 99% of the time, you’re going to be using mastered material which, in electronic dance music, is normally slammed pretty hard. Turning it down to the same relative level as your mix helps, however; you might find that your mix just doesn’t have the same impact.

Fortunately there’s ways to work around this. One of them is to have a mastering chain set-up on your mix bus, so you can gain an idea of how it would sound mastered.

Note: unless you’re someone who’s very experienced when it comes to mixing into a mastering chain, then I’d advise against keeping the mastering chain on for the majority of the mixdown session. And of course, if you’re sending your song off to get mastered – then take it off at the end!

Knowing Your Reference Material

I really can’t stress this one enough.

Knowing your reference material is probably the most important thing you can do. In fact I’d even say that it’s more beneficial to have 2-3 reference tracks that you ALWAYS use and listen to compared to 25 that you’ve listened to a couple of times here and there.

Two reasons for this:

  1. You know the ins and outs of the track, how it sounds on your speakers, why it’s a good mix, etc.
  2. It helps you discern problems in the mix when using other monitoring systems

Let’s talk about that second point there for a sec.

Having a few select reference tracks that you know extremely well are great tools for becoming accustomed to new monitoring devices. For example: you want to break in some new headphones and see how they sound – using a few reference tracks that you know the ins and outs of will help you hear the details, e.g., The bass seems to be a little loud on these headphones, but the highs sit very well.

You get the idea.

All in all, reference tracks are a very helpful tool when it comes to mixing, especially if you use them properly and pick the right ones!

Have any tips on using reference tracks? Leave a comment below.

Comments 10

  1. Hey,
    Great article.

    So if we are among the mortals that cannot afford top-notch mastering plugins like Fab Filter and Izotope, and we know the tracks we are referencing used these plugins to get their loud & wide sounds, do we take this into account and guesstimate that it’s not going to sound quite the same and just try to match the levels?

    Also, selective clipping or poor limiting?


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      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for the great response.

      I would say you’d have to be extremely confident and skilled to think that your track will live up to the same quality as the reference. Matching the levels is primarily the most important thing, and yes – I’d take it into account. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and get it to sound like the reference track.

      If you’re unsatisfied with the sound of your mixdown, don’t simply think, “Oh well, they used analogue mastering gear so it’s always going to sound better.” By doing this you’ll compromise your ability to mix.

      Selective clipping for me. I think it’s somewhat of a preference thing, but selective clipping doesn’t sound as bad as poor limiting.

      Thanks again!

  2. Hi Sam, first time i hear about selective clipping, can you tell me how to try this or if i need a vst ? maybe a distortion one ?

    thanks !

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      Hi Carlos, selective clipping is basically just pushing up the audio signal until it starts to distort. If you were working with analog audio then clipping is a big no-no, but we can sort of get away with it in the digital realm.

      Basically, it can sometimes sound better to leave a little bit of clipping in your song compared to bad limiting.

  3. Hi Sam, I have always seen mastering as a way of fixing any flaws in a mix/sound design.
    Yes I know that sentence should make you cringe, but hear me out.

    Technically, proper sound design + mixing should be all you need, am I right? If you have the perfect sound design and the perfect mixing, you would end up with the perfect sound, which means mastering would not be needed. At least that’s the way I like to think about it, so I rely on mastering as little as possible.

    What are your thoughts on this? Do you think it is possible?

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      Hi Simon,

      Cheers for the comment.

      I’m not sure I quite understand your comment. You say that you see mastering as a way of fixing and flaws in mixing/sound design (which I personally disagree with), and then you go onto say that if you have decent sound design and mixing then mastering isn’t really needed. It seems a little self-contradictory! Maybe I’m misunderstanding.

      My opinion is that mastering is the absolute final stage of producing a track. It really doesn’t fix much at all. If the bass is too loud in your mix you shouldn’t just tell yourself that you’ll ‘fix it’ in the mastering stage, because of course, you can turn down the low-end, but it’s a lot better practice to turn down the bass elements in your mix beforehand. I see mastering as icing on the cake and something that should be done to ‘enhance’ the mix, not fix it.

      Hope that makes sense!

  4. Building an excellent track is like building a car.

    Constructing and assembling the parts, and arranging them in a concordant and overall appealing manner. If you take the time to select the highest quality components, fine-tuned to perfection, and make a super sleek design, you end up with a Ferrari. Fresh off the line, a Ferrari can drive, perform and look and sound beautiful just as it is. But give that baby a fresh coat of paint and shine the rims, and *damn* she’s hot. Likewise, if you have a mass produced 1985 Yugo with a rusting engine block, all the paint and polish in the world couldn’t bring it back to life.

    Just like any song you make, if the components are all there, and it is a full functional fine-tuned machine, mastering it will only make it pop even more. But a dull track, with certain parts not working or out of place, can nary be resurrected.

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  5. hey sam…i’ve noticed that even if i get my RMS levels after mastering upto a commercial level and the waveform of my master also resembles that of a commercial track, my tracks still don’t sound as loud as those tracks…i’ve read a lot about using white noise, distortion/saturation, layering etc during mixing to fatten up sounds….do you think commercial loudness is due to these fattening techniques used in mixing…or is this loudness achieved only during mastering using stuff like multiband limiters, clippers etc…please let me know the best way to ensure that nobody has to turn up the volume to listen to my tracks when they are played against commercial tracks…

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