Using a Reference Track

This thread is meant as a reference (see what I did there?) for anyone who hasn’t used reference tracks before, so please keep contributions clear and concise.

The basic principle is simple: if you want your mixes to sound as good as the pros, copy the pros.

Having said that, there are many different ways of doing it, this is my version:

For reference tracks to be powerful, for me, there must be an A/B comparison between your own mix and the chosen reference track. The human hearing system is very good at switching between sound sources and detecting differences.

So first, pick a great-sounding commercial mix that you like a lot and that is reasonably close to the genre of your own track.

Import it into your DAW, and route it so that it is NOT playing back through your master bus (otherwise it will receive all your master bus processing). Now work out a way of using the solo/mute buttons in your DAW so that you can switch back and forth between the reference track and your own project instantaneously. NO pauses in between switching, it MUST be instantaneous.

Now all you have to do is analyse the differences and try to match your track’s elements to the reference track’s elements. Certainly try to match up the actual sounds, using EQ, reverb, delay etc., but far more important are the levels. How loud is the snare? Match yours up. Same for vocals, kick drum, bass etc.

Also important is the spectrum. Give the reference track it’s own spectrum analyser VST (e.g. Voxengo SPAN) and match it up to the one you have for your project on the master bus. If you don’t have one on the master bus, put one on, and use it frequently. If your project’s spectrum doesn’t match the reference track’s spectrum (approximately), try to find out why, and make the appropriate adjustments. For example if your spectrum has more mids, what could be causing that? Guitars or keyboards too high in the mix perhaps? Or not EQ’d to match the reference track?

Keep going - this the best way I know to learn quickly and get your mix at least in the ball park.


Thanks for this thread @AJ113 I can do this. For clarity[quote=“AJ113, post:1, topic:1726”]
Import it into your DAW, and route it so that it is NOT playing back through your master bus (otherwise it will receive all your master bus processing).

Do I route the reference track directly to the stereo out channel? (Cubase) or should this be done differently?
The way I am set up - all vocal tracks (effects included) go to a vocal group track - same for guitars - all guitar tracks + their effects are bused to a guitar group track, Group tracks are routed to the stereo out. To date I have not used processing in the stereo out channel - but I will set up a spectrum analyser there.
Your Thoughts?

As it happens, I just picked up a new plugin a few days ago called REFERENCE by Mastering the Mix. It was on sale for a little under fifty bucks at Audiodeluxe and seems really useful. You can add in a bunch of ref tracks for a/b’ing so that you can compare sections of a tune to sections (or the whole) of the ref tracks. There is also a five-band analysis tool allowing you to compare your mix in a specific, editable band to that same freq range in any of the ref mixes. Also includes LUFS, peak, and gain meters. It analyzes stereo spread, balance, and “punch” (basically transient analysis), all of which can be compared either in whole-track or freq-band modes. I have only just installed it and haven’t even loaded it yet, but will definitely be putting it to use…

You can check it out here:

Edit: Been playing around with this for a bit on my latest tune, and it is pretty damned cool. The only problem is that it’s a massive resource hog, consuming almost 70% of system resources while it’s analyzing and running. I have never seen anything ever use more than 20 or 25% of my system before…! But it is really handy to be able to very quickly see a comparison between a ref track and a mix via these parameters. I’m sold.

I realize I’m in the minority among the home recording/mixing crowd, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that a reference track has to be of the same genre as the track you’re working on.
Some of my very best mixes have come from utilizing reference songs that inspire ideas for the project at hand. Most of the time, they have come from completely difference genres of music. Often, I’ll even utilize a few differenct reference tracks on one song.
I totally understand the concept of using a similar song as a reference, particularly for beginners, but at this point in the game, I guess I’ve learned what to listen for in reference songs. I also understand that I’m a bit of a weirdo.
That’s my 2 cents on the topic.

As I said in the OP, everybody has their own way of doing this, but certainly at the onset I think it is best to use a similar genre. You’re not going to learn much about your punk track by referencing it to an Olivier Messiaen organ recital.

The “stereo out” is commonly known as the master bus. While you are not using any effects on the master bus it is fine for the reference track to be routed through it, but sooner or later you will have VSTs inserted, that’s why you need the reference track to be routed away from it. I don’t know how Cubase works, but there will be some way of doing it.

It would be nice if users of the various DAWs could post how to do it here. I’ll start with Mixcraft.

  1. Insert an output track.
  2. In the mixer view, from the ‘Output’ drop-down box, select the output track you have just chosen.
  3. Mute the output track, then uses its solo button as the A/B switch.

Here is a 12-min walkthrough of the REFERENCE plugin by its maker. Shows how much info you can get super quickly from comparisons between your mix and up to five different ref tracks at once, or sub-sections thereof, all fully customizable. For me, it radically cuts down on the trial-and-error guesswork of identifying just which aspects need attention.

One can also use a different mix or master of your mix as one of the ref tracks, which again makes it possible to quickly make many detailed comparisons. Really important when wrestling with a bunch of options for improving one’s mixes. I’m excited about using this thing! Well worth 12 minutes of your life if you’re interested in the topic of ref track usage…

Re: using the same genre or not: I think Bryan and Adrian are both right. When starting out, it was MUCH more effective for me to stick with very similar styles of music. But later (especially after reading Mike Senior’s book) I started experimenting with comparing just certain sections of songs to certain sections of mixes where I had a specific comparison I wanted to make, and if one reaches that level of confidence where that becomes one’s SOP, more power to ya!

Even now, I usually still use genre-similar tracks, because that works best for me. (But that plug I posted about above will make it tons easier to do section-by-section comparisons with disparate ref tracks, no muss, no fuss.)

I know people do this, I’ve never done it myself, because I don’t understand what use it could be. Could you explain how that works Dave? Take, for example the level of the snare. If you are using multiple reference tracks, how do you decide on the correct level within your mix for the snare? Also, if you’re using multiple genres, again, how would the level of the snare be relevent in, say, a jazz track, when you’re mixing a heavy metal track?

Well, I watched it all.

It’s just a gimmick in my opinion. No-one is actually going to produce demonstrably better mixes using this. The main point about using a reference track is A/B-ing and listening to the difference, so that you can adjust levels accordingly.

I say once again, mixing is all about levels, not multi band compression, or reverb, or stereo imaging.

Yes, EQ and the spectrum is an important sub-plot, but it’s all useless if your levels are bad.

One thing they did get right - the loudness. I suggest that the reference track is normalised and then measured for LUFS.

Then, in the DAW, DON’T move the project’s master faders or master gain, and don’t touch anything to do with gain or faders for the reference track - you want both sources playing back at a genuine 0db. Then you can be sure that you are genuinely matching up to the reference track.

**You can move the fader on the reference track if you are compensating for its loudness. For example, let’s say it measures -6 LUFS and you want the loudness of your project to be -10 LUFS, you would drop the reference track’s fader by 4db.

I hear you Adrian, but can you not see the value of being able to quickly hone in on problem areas for just the kind of listening you espouse? I don’t disagree at all that levels are key, and this tool helps display those too (the white central lines in the trinity display). I’m using it heavily to revise my latest tune, and being able to understand the interplay between levels, stereo width, compression/dynamics etc in so short a time has been game-changing for me. It’s also super useful comparing two mixes of the same song. Beforehand using a ref track was trial and error guesswork, because I lack the years of experience many others here have about what was contributing to the difference between ref and mix. It’s great if you can immediately hear just where the differences are. I’m not there yet.

If you truly believe the mix revision I eventually post on that tune has not improved from the first version, using this plug, I’ll eat my hat. :wink:

I first learned of this approach from Senior’s book when I read it the first time a little over a year ago (I’m re-reading it now), and tried it a few times on a couple tunes where I wanted the level relationship between particular instruments to resemble a particular song, but other parts to be more like what I admired in some other tune. I would never use genres as disparate as jazz and heavy metal (I would never listen to heavy metal for any reason). If memory serves, I believe I used an acoustic-y Zep tune from LZIII for one section and a song by Camper van Beethoven for another.

That said, was it more effective than just picking one song and using that? Hard to say. Like I said, I tried this only a couple of times, and so I can see that it could be useful in some situations.

Here’s a passage from Senior’s book that speaks to this (there are others but this is one I could readily find):

“Another crucial thing to realize is that you shouldn’t try to reference your whole mix from a single track, because different tracks will be useful for validating different mix decisions. For example, Skunk Anansie’s “Infidelity (Only You)”, Sting’s “All Four Seasons”, and Dr. Dre’s “Housewife” are all tracks I regularly use to help me mix bass instruments. By contrast, I might use Cascada’s “Hold You Hands Up,” Gabrielle’s “Independence Day,” Norah Jones’s “Sunrise,” or Paolo Nutini’s “New Shoes” for exposed vocals. Other tracks can be useful as “endstop markers,” such as Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” where the vocal air and sibilance are pushed too far for my liking. If a vocal in my mix approaches “Torn,” then it means I have to rein in the high end-- and that it’s probably time to comb the Chihuahua or water the triffids or something.”

Shit. So I’ve been wasting my time panning stuff to create space between instrumenbts or sounds, compressing stuff to make sure it sounds good, adding a touch of room to make the mix sound together.
So glad I read this thread. I won’t be using any of those waste of time techniques any more.
It’s “ALL” about levels. Does that mean I should ignore EQ too, AJ?

PS> This is a joke.

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Put your hat away Dave, I’m sure it’ll be just fine.

This is pretty bizarre advice. Basically he’s saying “don’t use one single reference track because if you’re anything like me, you won’t have the ability to find a single reference track that sounds good in all aspects of its mix”.

I say the complete opposite. With your non-recordist, ordinary music lover’s hat on, pick a song that you really like. One that is the same genre, and inspires you. One that makes you think “wow, if only my stuff sounded like this awesome track”. That’s it - that’s the one. Put it in your DAW and make your stuff sound like it. I don’t know why people are making this so complicated - probably because $$ are inevitably involved.

The reason we say ‘use a reference track’ is because it’s an easy and quick way to a good mix. If the process is made complicated and difficult, then there is no point in doing it.


OK, please don’t take this in anything but the way it’s meant.
I understand what you say about reference tracks, and I take on board your reposte to my post.
I agree, all the other stuff can go hang if your levels are no good at the end.

But here’s my beef. I have NEVER used reference tracks, and I never will. I mix the way I want to get my stuff sounding and if that ain’t good enough for radio etc, tough tittie.

Am I wrong?

There’s no wrong or right in this. I’m just trying to establish a thread of reference for those who want to use the method.

You could do worse than give it a try though, if only to mark it off as ‘been there, done that, didn’t work for me’. You never know, it might work, or you might learn something.


I usually do off-the-wall electronic stuff. I don’t need no stinkin reference tracks. lol

But my next project is old-style country, and I will most certainly be using some reference tracks. Levels will of course be important – where does the acoustic guitar stand in reference to the vocals? But also eq etc.

Because of the nature of the project, I plan to use mainly Hank Williams.

The vox are already recorded, using ribbon mics and tube pre-amps to get off to a good start.

BTW, for helping the artist I used an entirely different sort of “reference track.” Since he wasn’t used to singing without his guitar, I had him record a track playing and singing at the same time but with a metronome in his ear, and then listen to that track while recording the vocals.

The ribbon mix is an MXL R144 I got on sale at Guitar Center and it sounds pretty good.

I’ve done this many times. It’s standard practice as far as I know.

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