What are your go-to reference tracks?

What are your go-to reference tracks?
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What are your go-to reference tracks?

My sense is that many of the best mixers have a small handful of primo reference tracks that they used, each representing a different style of music, but each style represented by just one reference.

It seems I’m always winging it when it comes to reference tracks. Different one every time. Is that how you do it?

If you do have some go-tos, what are they and what is it about them that grabs you?

Mostly - just something in my music library that sounds good and sounds roughly close to the overall intent of the track I’m mixing.

What I’ve gathered is that people will sometimes have mixes where they like one or two elements. Or even just certain aspects of those elements. Like maybe, “I would never want to mix a vocal louder than the one in this song.” Or, “the low end in this track is sublime.” So it might be several tracks they’re referencing against in one session.

Personally, I’ve never had luck with reference tracks. I feel like one day they might help me, but my experience is that I can never pick a reference track. I don’t even get that far. And if I do decide to just pick something and bring it into my DAW, all it does is make me feel terrible about myself and my song. So I’ve skipped it for now.

One thing I have begun doing which is somewhat related, is practicing by creating “copycat” tracks. This is basically like what art students do when they copy masterwork drawings. I bring a song that I really like (for one reason or another,) into my DAW, and then do my best to copy just a section of it. I try to get the drums and other instruments to match, and then do my best to match the vocal style and production. I just finished my first one last night and… well it’s far from perfect, but I learned a lot and I think I’ll get better as I go. Plus it’s a lot of fun to step into someone else’s shoes and expand my realm of possibilities with things I never would have tried on my own. And maybe these exercises will help me to eventually be able to make better use of reference tracks down the line.

Thanks for this, Cristina (would love to hear your mix from last night, BTW!). I’m not sure though how what you’re describing is different from a reference track. Is it just that you’re only applying it to a section and not the whole song?

Maybe I’ll render a little A/B comparison. The difference here is that I tried to literally copy the track. If I did a perfect job you’d hardly be able to tell the difference between my track and the original. Typically I think of a reference track as something you’re using as a ballpark sort of reference. Or like… to use the art comparison again… maybe you have a few photos of dogs pinned up near your desk because you’re working on a dog cartoon strip. And you use the references to get an idea of what the dog should look like from different angles and to get proportions right etc. That would be the “reference.” What I have been calling a “copycat” track would be more like taking a drawing of a dog, putting it next to your workspace, and then trying to copy it exactly. It can be a great way to learn!

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Gottcha. Now I get whattcha mean. Actually, now that you explained it, I look back at your previous post and that’s exactly what you said! :relaxed: Sorry about that. My bad. I misunderstood.

So, this is interesting to me. You’re not talking, then, about remixing someone else’s tracks to learn how to get it to sound like their mix; you’re talking re-creating their mix from scratch, on your own? The only piece I did that with was the Time in a Bottle mix that’s somewhere on this site. That was just two guitars mainly, then added a touch of harpsichord and strings, courtesy of @Lophophora. I’d love to hear the project you did, though. Very cool.

I do use reference tracks; I don’t know that it’s so much about trying to make my song sound exactly like the reference, but I’ve found it helpful for matching balances mainly.

  • I start with the low end to compare not only the volume of the bass, but how rounded or muddy or whatever my song is in comparison.
  • Then I compare the high end, re: brightness of my high end, how wide, volume compared to low end, etc.
  • Next I look at the balance of bass and drums, esp kick/snare.
  • Last is my vocals and how they sit with the rest of the mix.

And, of course, I listen for volume/panning/etc. of guitars, and other elements as well, but hopefully if all of the above is good, this stuff can just fall into place.

Anyway, it seems to especially help me with my low end. But I don’t have a well-defined collection of ref tracks to choose from. Just my thoughts.

How do you all use your references? What do you listen for? Or do you not use them either?

This is a great topic, and it reminds me that I don’t follow my own ritual as much as I had planned. When I was in audio school, the idea was that you have a collection of tracks that you really like and also think were produced very well. The point behind that was as a freelance audio engineer you would be going into different studios in different locations, and you needed a way to ‘center’ yourself and your ears.

I think this can work well for mixing a song also, though in some cases you’re going to want several references in line with what you’re mixing. To me, the whole point is keeping your ears sharp and not getting stuck or numb to what you really like to hear. If you know what you want, you are more likely to adapt everything else to it - even accounting for different styles and genres.

That said, since I lean toward hard/heavy Rock most of the time, some of my favorite references were The Cult “Electric” album (a true classic), Mutt Lange era AC/DC and Def Leppard material, and a number of others. I think having some diversity in the porfolio, but also some similarities revolving around your tastes, can be really helpful in just keeping your feet/ears on the ground.

I use reference tracks in 2 different ways.

  1. “Absolute” referencing
    I have a playlist with a dozen of songs I love and that I have been listening to A LOT, some of them ever since I was a teenager 30 years ago. Most of them happen to be great mixes but that’s not what I’m after here, the point is that I’ve listened to them in so many different places, periods and systems, I know exactly how they’re supposed to sound, anywhere. I use this playlist when I have to deal with a new environment or a new system, or simply when I drive a new car and I want to set the EQ right.

  2. Mixing/mastering references
    I have a few playlists by music genres, mostly for these genres that have specific “sonic codes” like hip-hop, metal etc. I’ve built these playlists either by searching for great mixers and browsing through their portfolios, the reference tracks my customers gave me for a specific job, or my own music culture (which is not great, for some genres). I use these when mixing or mastering, doing A/B comparisons and making sure I’m in the ballpark in terms of balance and sonics.

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The Cult Electric is really an awesome album!

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Actually, I have a folder full of reference tracks. I’m not sure if this is what you’re supposed to do, but I actually line them up in my daw depending on what I’m referencing. If it’s clean electric guitar, I have “Give Life to Music” by Daft Punk which has the guitar playing of Nile Rodgers. I’m not referencing the tone per se, but rather how it sits with the voice and bass and drums. If I’m stuck on the Bass guitar, I’ll listen to Rush, or Led Zeppelin, or even Duran Duran to get the essence of the way it was mixed in those songs. Over the years I’ve actually acquired a folder full of genres, artists, and styles that I can simply drag and drop into Logic and listen to the elements I need to. I also play live with the tracks to see how my played sound fits into the mix of the reference track. Again, it’s not to copy the sound I’m hearing, but more how to get the “feel” of that sound.

Once the reference track is muted, I’ll adjust my track accordingly but most of the time I’m in the ball park of where I wanted to be.