Most home producers are ignorant of how using reference tracks can help get better mix. Using a reference track while mixing is an important technique that even famous sound engineers still use at the peak of their careers. It is one of the secret practices that helped them to become so good during their formative years, and they still use it when a mix calls for it. I can personally testify to how effective it is because my mixes got better and started translating well on other sound systems when I adopted the method.
Come to think of it. You are aiming to make your music sound as best as possible right? Hence you wish you have the skills, or wish you are as good as whichever sound engineers whose works you admire as top notch. So you should be aiming to make your music sound as good theirs, shouldn’t you? Yeah right! That is why you should try to match their sounds or even surpass it when you mix. This brings us to the next step, which is selecting the appropriate reference tracks.
How to select the right reference tracks for your music
In order to choose the right reference track for your music, the first obvious point to consider is to choose from similar genre. Are you doing Rock, reggae, Pop, R and B, hip-hop, e.t.c ? You have to choose a high quality commercial song with same genre and similar “vibe” to the song you are about to mix. By vibe I mean they should have almost similar arrangement, tempo, groove and instrumentals texture. These are what you will be aiming to match. For example; the beefiness and tightness of the bass, the width and sparkle of the guitars or synths, and the clarity and lushness of the vocals. Just make sure it is a model of the sound you are aiming for with your music.
Next thing to consider is the audio quality of the reference track. You will need a pristine sound quality to work with. The common standard quality in professional audio is the .WAV format, though there are other high quality formats like FLAC and OGG. It is the format in which most commercial songs are released. Hence, if it is not illegal in your local jurisdiction, you can rip the track off a CD for this purpose. However, the most common music format nowadays is MP3, because music is mostly being shared digitally in the format both online and offline. You can as well use mp3s as reference tracks if that is all you could lay your hands on. The truth is, ninety percent of the people cannot hear the perceived quality difference between WAVs and MP3s. Just make sure the MP3 is of high quality like 320kbps.
The third factor to consider while selecting a reference track is to observe if the song utilizes similar effects you will love to achieve in your song. For example; reverb and delay application, risers and buildups, special effects such as modulations, creative filters, and stutter effects.
What and how to reference
Dissect the reference track in your mind. Picturize how the original mix engineer achieved the great sound by figuring out the process used. After figuring things out, the next move is to recreate these processes in your own mix while comparing the sound with the reference all along. You might have to experiment severally till you hit the spot. Your mix does not have to sound hundred percent similar to the reference because the timbres and textures of the components of the two songs cannot be exactly same. Just match the sound as much as possible. If you have very good spectrum analyzer/visualizers like the great free Voxengo SPAN, you can do some waveform comparisons too. You can download SPAN in this link for free.
The most important thing to note while referencing is that the reference track must have been mastered already. Thus the volume level would have been maximized to the highest possible. It is always good to end up with a mix with average loudness and lots of headroom reserved for the mastering stage. So while referencing, you should level match the reference track to a normal mix volume level you want your mix to end up at. Aiming for your overall mix to peak at around -6db will be a good goal. Just turn down the reference track to an average volume level for reasonable comparison. For a proper tutorial on how to do this, read up on how to set up reference tracks in your DAW for easy A-B comparison. Also read how you can make make use of mixer routing and auxiliary sends in mixing. That is it music folks. With proper referencing skills, you are on your way to making amazingly great mixes like the pros. Happy music making.