How to choose good reference tracks

How to choose good reference tracks
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#1

I’m reading Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior right now. There’s a section on reference tracks, and while I’ve kinda-sorta used reference tracks while mixing before, I don’t have a collection of go-to reference tracks that I use frequently. I can see benefits to this.

It seems to me like there are 2 main categories of reference tracks.

  1. I love how this bit of this song sounds and I want to use it as a guide.
  2. I’d never want to have more than this. (Such as sibilance, bass, vocal volume, whatever.)

Does that sound right?

So… listening skills. I signed up for the pro version of SoundGym. To be honest, I kind of suck at most of the games! The EQ ones are probably my best right now, (maybe from having used TrainYourEars,) but yeah lots of room for improvement. On the flip side, listening to music more critically over the past year or so has brought me noticeable improvement in my ability to hear things in music that I didn’t before. Still, I have a long way to go.

Which brings me to choosing reference tracks. I am not sure I can trust myself to do this well! However, I do think that I must take the responsibility for myself. I started thinking about this yesterday. Let’s assume I pick reference tracks that aren’t ideal. What I imagine would happen is that I’ll hear a song sometime that sounds better than a reference track of mine, and just replace it. And that this can happen until they stabilize. I think that what is most important is that I listen for myself, and that I pick mixes that I truly like. Not that other people tell me are good. I have already had the experience of checking out a song that I love and realizing that I don’t like the mix, so I didn’t choose it.

I’m aiming for about 5-10 songs with elements in them that I really like, and want to emulate.

Does this seem like a fruitful approach? Any tips?


#2

This is an area I’ve really grown in over the last year. This is a bit lengthy, but I’ll give you some insight into how reference mixing has really helped me grow both in my perspective and confidence.

When I get booked to mix something, at my price point, its usually because someone tried it somewhere else and wasn’t happy with what they got handed. Or people that try to mix something themselves are a variation of this scenario. Others send me stuff because they ran out of cash at a major studio and never got past the rough. In many cases, I immediately load the rough as a reference to make sure I’m staying ahead of it at all times. I take real careful notes on what they tell me they do and don’t like about the rough.

Its been a long time since I’ve done this, but if I’m mixing for a competition I comb through the other entries, find the best ones out of the batch leading up to the deadline and mix against them because if there isn’t a clear flaw I feel I can exploit in what I’m seeing in other peoples feedback critiques, I usually back out. If I just want to challenge myself, I wait until the final mix is published, drop it in my DAW and figure out what I can do better.

Regarding external references…the stuff I pull in as a reference is usually something the artist and I both agree on that resembles levels. Next I try to get a track in there that resembles approximate vocal brightness. I make it very very clear to the artist that I’m gonna mix what they gave me, and if they want a producer, they need to go hire one. I used to work with rappers. I don’t anymore. But as soon as they asked to make the sound like someone else (other than T-pain which is doable) I realized I needed to start communicating that they WILL NOT sound like Kanye. The WILL NOT sound like Rich Homie Quan. They’re gonna sound exactly like what they sound like now (plus some Melodyne) and nothing more, and if they can’t deal with that, then I don’t want their business. My point is that you don’t pull in a reference to copy it (unless your specific job is recreate a clone of that actual track).

Over the last year or so my references have started being different for each song or each movie. So like…a country album I’m working on, I used Remind Me (Brad Paisley/Carry Underwood) for one a reference then You Name the Kids, I’ll Name the Dogs (Blake Shelton) but for different reasons. I’m concurrently mixing a black gospel EP right now, the producer had me pull a song called African Melody by Ty Tribett specifically for the blend of the choir, but if I’d tried to use that on the country record it would have been completely worthless.

Here’s a heads up on something. I used to do this and I’ll tell you why I don’t anymore. It hurt me more than helped me to pick overall mixes without identifying specific things within the reference mix that specifically related to what I was trying to accomplish in the mix I’m working on. So for me, it was better to work backwards. Start with the end of MY mix in mind then pick stuff to guide it there. Not starting with 10 of someone else mix in mind, and hope mine measures up at the end of the day.

I don’t know if I agree with that. I would pick mixes that are truly related to whatever you’re mixing, first before I picked mixes that I truly like :slight_smile:

Some mix guys do this, but I can’t make it work.

Good. Google definition: having qualities that fulfill a particular roll. In both situations (a mix you like vs a mix someone else tells you is good), there is a chance that neither is ‘good’ for a particular batch of songs.

Sorry to write a freakin book here…hope that helps a little.


#3

Ha, no worries, and thanks for sharing your experiences. I think I see where you’re coming from. Maybe I’m thinking that I can get away with not picking new reference mixes for each song is because the customer is always the same. (Me.)

I guess I’m trying something new here because in the past I’ve found it almost impossible to pick reference mixes for my songs. Nothing I listen to sounds enough like what I’m going for to use it as a reference. It’s been almost zero help to me. And now I think it’s because I need to be more specific about what I’m listening for. Like you said about using a particular song as a reference just for the blend of the choir.

I’ll think about it some more… if I pick new references for each song though, I’ll never get to know any of them really well. But maybe that’s only helpful if you’re trying to acclimate to a new mixing environment. Although having a somewhat consistent sound from song to song can be useful too. I thought if I collected a small set of reference tracks that I used again and again, it might help my music to have more of a signature sound, which is something that I want to work towards.


#4

Thinking more specifically about your material (or at least what you’ve published to date)…the only other thing I can do is imagine what I’d do if I was mixing one of your tracks.

This ultimately comes down to down to what you’re looking to use the reference for. What is it you want the thing to do for you? There’s no correct or incorrect answer to that imo.

If I were you (or a mix guy working with you) I’d probably pull a reference that had a vocal sitting a certain way in the mix. And I’d use it along with another one to gauge the amount of effects on the processing. I’d probably also try to find one in which the guitars were balanced against the vocal in a particular way. I remember your comment about being handed a mix that had so much compression it hurt your ears. I would try and find a track that you liked how forward guitars were without them feeling over compressed. I would try and find a track where drums felt organic and had room to breathe.

I mean…again they’re a reference. Not a standard you’re trying to achieve…right? When I was working to prefect a Steak Au Poivre/Steak Diane (french) dish, Gordon Ramsay, Emeril, Martha Stewart, Alton Brown…all those guys have a version of it, and I used different ideas from all of them as my ‘reference’. That’s really a bad example because you can’t taste them, but when I quit trying to use Gordon Ramsay’s as a golden standard and merely used it as a reference, I quit stressing out about things he would probably yell at me for and call me a ‘stupid donkey’ over and just kind of let it be my own lol.


#5

I’ll also weigh in here. I read the same book (which I love), and I actually made a whole set of reference tracks. They sit on my hard drive, ready for action!

One of the things I did was to go through my entire collection of music (yes really) and start picking out songs that represented a style or sound that I wanted to emulate possibly. I worked hard not to choose my favourite songs, but rather songs that stood out for some kind of production value.

As an example, I don’t normally play piano in music (because I can’t play piano!), but if I want to mix a song with a piano part, my reference song would be Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is. I know that it’s not the best piano part ever played, or even a great sounding Piano, but in that song, in the context of a pop song it’s fabulous. Depending on the song, I would pull up John Legend’s Ordinary People. Stunning sound, simple piano and vocals.

Sometimes I take the reference song as a whole - where are all the elements. Sometimes I take just a section of a song, or sometimes listen to only one instrument and figure out what is happening in the song to make it sound the way it does.

As another example I wrote and recorded an electronic style dance track, but with a lot of live guitar parts. The guitar parts for me were really easy to mix. I had them panned, EQ’d and reverbed relatively quickly. As there were no vocals I had that stuff dialled in pretty quickly. On the other hand, I had to deal with drum loops and a live bass part that needed to sound more EDM than Rush. This is where I just fell apart. EQ’ing the kick drum, and then the bass guitar, something just was not right. Taking my mix to the car I realised I had mixed the bass in the style of a rock song. I’d EQ’d the low end out, and given it that little mid range “thud”. With the drum loops I had used, I was basically missing most of that low end that makes dance music so good to listen to.

So I took my track back to my studio, and pulled up my reference track of Daft Punk’s Lose Yourself to Dance. And there it was, all the rich bass below 100Hz that I had removed! Now I won’t for one second claim that I Daft Punked my song and it’s on the same level, but the amount I learned from that reference song’s bass sound was phenomenal.


#6

2007-08… Love Song, Sara Bareilles …simple but pop top of chart…

Lead vocal-
vintage Neumann U87, which I ran through an API 3124M mic pre or my Audio Upgrades Class A custom-built stereo mic pre, a GML 8200 EQ, and a Teletronix LA2A compressor, straight into Pro Tools.

Chorus/VoxDLb-
‘xVoxDbl’ is a lead vocal that Sara sung again, and it also was only used in the choruses. I added some short, small–room DP4 reverb to it. The ‘Amc77’ is a plug-in called Purple Audio Limiting Amplifier, which is supposed to mimic the sound of an 1176 compressor. The Focusrite D2 is set to a low-end roll-off at about 200Hz and a slight boost at 12k. I also ran the lead vocal double through a Sansamp distortion pedal and then re-recorded it, and that comes up as ‘VoxDbl-Dst’. I used a small amount of that in conjunction with the double vocal to add some more texture.

clips of Eric Rosse interview SOS.

He mentions the approach of drums and vocals the main foundation and the build up based on that.

The lead vox is a perfect example of a LA2A kicking ass.

The Lead chorus you can just lightly hear the 1176/ sans-amp/dist adds the climax hook Title…

great lead vocal reference track imo.


#7

I’ve always had major issues trying to find relevant reference tracks… I’ve used parts of tracks just to clarify issues like volume and instrumental clarity but essentially I’m usually too bloody-minded to want to sound at all like anyone else… :nerd_face:
Having said that… the more I do this stuff, the more obsessive I seem to become about editing and capturing that elusive concept of sound that I’m translating from some place in my head… sigh…


#8

I haven’t picked up “Small Studio” yet, but here’s an article with more input on the subject that I have bookmarked and the best of intentions to frequently reference. :wink:


#9

I’ve heard that from friends too! I think it’s a perception that referencing is imitating. So very rarely would I think of a track (let’s take Peg by Steely Dan). Aside from the fact that there’s no heavenly way I’m going to achieve that sound in my lifetime, it would serve no purpose for me to write a song that just sounded like Peg. But the sound of the guitar solo is something I would happily imitate to throw into one of my songs. Therefore I wouldn’t feel bad about trying dial in the distortion, reverb and delay of that solo. Of course, in the context of my own song it would end up sounding like a completely different guitar, but I would have no problem in trying to get that sound for myself. I’ve actually done that happily using the guitar sounds of Brian May, or Slash. Playing like them is another matter altogether…


#10

doing a cover version of a persons fav reference track could be a very challenging way to find their own weakness.


#11

miked that short list is to the point.
i never thought of reference track as “copying” but I get it now why it could be seen as non-creative and copycat like…

but I think reference track as that list states is why its a good thing.
it was a paradigm shift for me to take a song i liked and really put it under the microscope and make my own cover version of it in my 4track cassette studio…and I wasnt thinking about it as copying but more so matching the eq, and by playing all the parts of the recording it was eye openning for a very beginner dude to see how different it was as compared to the garage band style I was used to…(where everyones banging all the time)… it was a big thing, a wow moment to learn the guitar parts come in and out and are not present at all in some places! unlike a garage band of banging constantly guitar strings…the recording of this track, was my own cover version but it was fun in learning vocal placement and maybe the loudness of the v track or the bass placement and volume…

at the same time this is more engineering function than art, i never heard a cover version that had the same vibe as a original and as for creativity cover versions/reference tracks probably dont do much there…but thats a higher level imo. right? Reference Tracks are for learning and getting basics down etc… maybe a Sophmore level of recording.

I hear people who record a vocal and acoustic guitar, very common. They dont sound good at times. Theres a lot of internet info thats great.
Then I think, they could take a Reference Track of vocal and guitar only, like Blackbird- White Album…Reference that, get the overall basic volume and eq to toy with, maybe a little reverb…smoke some weed.