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.