I’m not talking about just picking any song you like and listening to it while you work. No, no… Much more than that! I’m talking about a series of steps that (while simple to implement) will help take your mixing skills to another level. Let’s break it down.
Selecting a Reference Track
The first step may seem obvious, but let me elaborate a bit. In today’s music culture, we have access to a TON of songs. With streaming options like Apple Music and YouTube leading the way, consumers can build playlists that go from a modern pop track to a hip-hop single on to a country hit and then take things back for something classic, all in one sitting. It’s a beautiful time to be a fan of music.
Why is that important to know? Because your mix (regardless of the genre), will likely end up being played alongside songs from other genres and you may want to consider being competitive with things like the sonics, loudness, width, etc. of other types of mixes.
*Keep in mind this is art we’re talking about and these are just thoughts for consideration. 😉
I know, I know… Get to the point, right? Haha. Well, my point is that you should consider selecting multiple songs across many genres to reference while you’re mixing (I use Sample Magic’s Magic AB to simplify this process). Want to see an in-depth look at my mixing process? Click here to learn more…
My last point for selecting reference tracks is that you’ll also want to find something that has similar sounds (drums, bass, guitars, etc) to what you’re going to be mixing. By selecting a like-sounding reference you’ll be able to closely mimic the sonics (assuming you want to).
*I always ask my clients to provide me with a reference. I can’t recommend this enough. It could save your life! Well, not really… But seriously… Ask them! 😉
You have your references… What’s next?
Great question! Here’s a list breaking down how I like to use references.
1. Levels and Overall Balance
After you’ve pushed up a rough mix, click over to your reference tracks and pay attention to the level of the kick drum vs the bass vs the lead vocal. You’ll have your own taste and preferences for these things, but it doesn’t hurt to see how yours will compare. By referencing levels and balance you can keep yourself in check against an industry release.
2. Analyzing the Sonics
I’ve talked about this a ton in various tutorial videos so I’ll link you to one below. However, this step basically consists of adding an EQ to the end of your stereobuss or master fader (make sure that the EQ is placed after the routing of your references).
I begin by adding a high-cut and taking it alllll the way down to around 30-40 hz or so. I listen to my sub frequencies and then I click over to my reference track. Listen to determine if the bass is sustaining down low or if the kick is pulsing. Reference back and forth and take mental notes of what you’re hearing between the two. Next, open the high-cut (low-pass) to around 50 hz. Repeat and continue opening up the filter until you get to around 100 hz or so. Now, instantiate a low-cut (high-pass) filter and place it around 150 hz. How does your 100-150 hz compare to the reference? Do you hear anything in the vocal in this range? How about the guitars or keys? Study this. I’ve learned and grown by using this technique against many references over the years. Basically, I repeat this process until I’m satisfied with what I’m learning between my mix and the reference track(s). Fun stuff, eh?
3. Vocalist’s S Sounds… S’s
A key thing for me to check when referencing is the sound of the singer’s s’s. Esses? Anyways… I think you get it. How do yours sound compared to the reference track? Loud and harsh? Unintelligible? If they seem harsh, they probably are and this can be a HUGE distraction for listeners. Time to de-ess! (I’m currently rocking the Fab Filter De-esser for light cases, but sometimes I have to refrain from being lazy in which I’ll then use clip gain inside of Pro Tools).
4. EQ Matching
This is one of my favorite things to do when mixing. I don’t claim to have “golden ears” and so I enjoy relying on the advancements in plugin technology to help me evaluate the overall sonics of my mixes. I personally prefer the iZotope Ozone Advanced Matching EQ. How does it work? First, you capture a snapshot of your reference, then a snapshot of your mix and the matching EQ does it’s job to show the visual of the differences. You can then blend to taste and leave the plugin on OR you may choose to reverse engineer what you see and bypass the plugin.
THIS IS IMPORTANT! Sometimes I use the EQ match to help me reverse engineer what’s going on between my mix and the reference. Subs way off? I may go back to my kick and bass and spend more time massaging their relationship. Other times, I have been known to leave the matching EQ on and commit to what it gives me. Either way, matching EQ is a tool and you can choose how you prefer to use it. 🙂
So there you have it! Some insight into the world of mixing with reference tracks. I hope you’ve found this useful. If you use referencing in your process, please share with us your process in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
Lastly, here are the videos I mentioned in the post:
EQ Filter on the Stereobuss (and a lot more)
Vocal Mixing Masterclass (shows de-essing and a lot more)
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