The importance of using reference tracks while mixing and how to use them.
One of the first things I do when I schedule a time to record a band is asking them what albums, and songs they like the sound quality. I ask so I get a good idea of what they might be *subconsciously* looking for in a mix or master. Then I will ask, “What would you like your reference track for the mixing process to be?” I ask these in two separate questions because what you like and what’s right for a mix of a particular song can be two different things. I want to have options, so when I go to pick a reference track- I am picking one that’s right for the song, and that the band will like too.
Reference tracks are essential because often while mixing, your ears can lose perspective. A reference track is helpful to have this happens; you can play the track and compare it to where your mix. Once you’ve done that you can hone in on anything that isn’t where it needs to be in your mix- and with a specific goal in mind you can get it where it needs to be because of the reference track.
Now, to utilize this correctly, you have to do it right. You don’t want to just download your reference track from Youtube and upload that wav file into Pro-Tools. You also don’t want to use an MP3. When using a reference track, you want to get the rawest and uncompressed version of the track you can find (WAV file). Another thing, you need to know how your reference track translates onto different sound systems. Listen to the track in your car, at your house, on your laptop, on your headphones, in your parents car…you get the point. Then do the same for YOUR mix. Listen to it everywhere you can, so you know exactly what to fix when you sit back down at your computer to do revisions.
You can use plug-ins to help you compare the track to your mix. Magic AB is my favorite. It’s straightforward to use. You upload both tracks, one is A, and one is B. Then you level the two songs out, so your ears aren’t being tricked because one mix is louder than the other (Hello, Fletcher Munson), and then you just click between A and B to compare your reference track to your mix! Easy as that!
I hope this helps your mixes grow as it helped mine when I discovered how to use reference tracks! As always, you can send me examples of your mixes, or even email me just to chat about how you noticed a difference in the process after you started using reference tracks at email@example.com.
Virginia Haladyna is a musician, songwriter, performer, and freelance recording engineer based out of Austin, Texas. Upon graduating from The Recording Conservatory of Austin, she went on to intern and worked out of the world-class Orb Recording Studios. She has recorded two full-length albums, EPs, and multiple singles for local Austin bands. As well as recording other artists, Virginia records and mixes her band Happy, Hollow. She’s assisted sessions alongside established musicians, producers, and engineers the last four years and plans to continue honing her craft for many more.