How to set up reference tracks in DAWs for easy A-B comparison

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In this article I will be showing you how to set up reference tracks for easy A/B comparisons right inside your DAW’s mixer. By right inside, I mean directly without the use of reference mix plugins. If you are reading this article, it means you already learnt about how using reference tracks can help get better music mixes and how to select the best. So let us proceed to to quickly show you how to set up reference track for easy A-B comparison. The first crucial point to note is that no matter which DAW you use, whether Pro Tools, REAPER, FL Studio, Logic, Cubase, e.t.c, each mixer channel is routed to output through the master channel. Did you get that? Let me explain further. When we playback sounds through our DAWs, we can hear them on whichever hardware output devices (speakers, headphones) we are listening on.Before they reach these devices, they go through the master channel’s outputs. This is why muting the master channel during playback leads to no sound at all. However, while still leaving the master channel muted, if you minimize your DAW and click play on any audio, you still hear the sound. This is because it is accessing the hardware output drivers outside the DAW.

How to set up reference tracks in a DAW’s mixer

Now let’s see how this principle can help us in our quest to set up reference tracks in DAWs for quick A-B comparisons. Note that this method works best if your DAW’s mixer channels have mute and solo as separate buttons.

  1. After setting up your tracks in your tracks in your mixer ready to mix, import your reference track making sure it is solely assigned to a channel with no other sound on it.
  2. Next step is to disconnect the channel with the reference track from the master channel’s output. Various DAWs have different interfaces, so how to do this will differ according to your DAW’s approach. In FL Studio – select the reference track mixer channel, then disconnect the virtual wire running to the master channel. In Cockos REAPER – click the I/O routing button and untick master/parent send. Other DAWs users should figure out how to do this in their respective DAWs. After disconnecting, press play to make sure the reference track is not audible.REAPER hardware output settings
  3. Now we have bypassed the master channel, we are going to connect the reference track channel directly to our hardware outputs. In FL Studio, go to the bottom of the channel’s effect rack. Click where it says “none” and select the desired output. In REAPER, select the I/O button, and select add new hardware output. Other DAW users, find the output settings section of your mixer channel and select direct output. FL studio hardware output settings
  4. The fourth step is to mute the reference track simply by activating the mute button on the mixer channel.
  5. With the reference track channel muted and directly connected to the hardware output, all you have to do to seamlessly A-B your mix with the reference track is to toggle the solo/unsolo button. As for FL Studio and other DAWs that do not have separate solo and mute buttons, you will have to mute by yourself after unsolo.

Gain staging the reference track

One vital point you should mind is that, you do not have to aim for the loudness of the reference track while comparing. Remember, the reference track is a commercial release that would have already been mastered to sound loud. So, whenever you are referencing, you should lower the volume of the reference track by a considerable amount to get it at the level of a good mix. Targeting the average of -6db peak or lower while mixing is a good practice. So pull the reference track volume down to achieve a final mix level with enough headroom for the mastering stage. With this properly set up, referencing your mix with a pro mix will be a breeze. You just might be on your way to making your best mix ever. Read how to import samples packs into into Fl Studio browser to learn how to import reference tracks. You should also read up on how to mix vocals that sit well in a song for broad and clear vocals. Happy mixing.

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