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Reference tracks for mixing vs mastering
Old 13th July 2019
  #1
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Reference tracks for mixing vs mastering

Hey everyone. New to this forum and loving it already.

I see a lot of people suggesting using reference tracks when mixing, especially in the beginning. All the suggestions I read say to lower the volume of the reference track to match the unprocessed mix, which makes sense.

The thing I am confused about is if I am using released songs as referenced tracks, aren’t I comparing and I mastered mix to a mastered one? Do I just try and get close to the mastered version and if less mastering is needed, so be it?

Also are there any good plugins for reference tracks that are better than just dumping it on a track and keeping it muted?

Thanks!
Old 13th July 2019
  #2
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That is one of the downfalls of using reference tracks in the way you describe.

How I was taught - and what makes more sense to me - is to use reference tracks when you are in a new environment, such as new speakers, a studio or control room you aren’t familiar with, a new live venue, etc..

The idea is to have a handful of tracks that you are intimately familiar with, then use those same tracks in any new environment/monitoring situation. If you know your reference tracks well, then you will know what to listen for, and it will help you adjust to being able to trust what you are hearing.

If you do use a particular reference track for a particular mix, then use the highest quality version you can, and level match things as best you can. Depending on what you’re going for and what track you’re using, the mastered track might have the life squashed out of it, and you might find yourself chasing that - unwittingly or not. If that’s fine, there’s no harm in getting the mix as close as you can to how you want the final master to sound, in fact that’s the goal.
Old 13th July 2019
  #3
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I use reference tracks as inspiration, and to keep you on the right path.

things like:
Oh, I put way to much reverb on this
I think they used a flanger on the vocals, i might try that
the drums are kinda quiet, i like that, i will try that
I like the eq on the vocals, i will try that


mix for awhile, then check the reference track and you will go "wow my guitars are way to loud" or "vocals are too wet"
you will get so hyper focused while mixing you need to reset your palate, that is what I use reference tracks for.
Old 13th July 2019
  #4
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s wave's Avatar
I try to use reference tracks to match a an 'energy' level of a good or hit song. Sometimes for word pronouncement/audibility. I try not to compare. Also use em to try to match a big dynamic range and see how the new song is holding up on the segues. Sometimes I just try to match a 'noise' reference track like white pink brown. I think there are in-exhaustable possibilities. From a creative standpoint - I do not really use them - but for matching an overall feeling yes. Such as 'am I reaching the level of this really well produced song?' and 'how well is my mix/production holding up overall with this song?' ...that I know so well and sound great on many playback platforms.
Old 13th July 2019
  #5
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ecnarps View Post
...Also are there any good plugins for reference tracks that are better than just dumping it on a track and keeping it muted?

Thanks!
Magic A/B
Old 13th July 2019
  #6
In short a reference track is an approximate guide to what a great sounding record is when you are mixing. It is a reality check and yes it is sensible to keep in mind that a mastered track will most likely have a greater intensity, density and drive if your production genre is on the heavier side of rock or a form of modern dance music. (and quite possibly other styles to a lesser degree)

The main thing is to start your track mix with your drums around -12 to-14 dBFS peak to leave plenty of headroom and then bring down the reference track by whatever it takes to get it to a similar level by ear. As your mix proceeds do a check periodically to make sure they remain at very close volume by ear, as well as comparitive tonal/instrumental balance checks. (as you tweak your mix it may increase of decrease in volume a little so you might need to adjust your reference volume a little.) You may well have to bring the reference tracks fader/clip volume down by 24dB or so to get volumes close, whatever it takes !

A dedicated plug in makes this easier but it is entirely possible to do on a spare
stereo track in your DAW.

For a longer read you can have a look here at an article I wrote, it remains a very effective practice, even for experienced mix engineers :

https://www.masteringmastering.co.uk...en-mixing.html
Old 13th July 2019
  #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SASMastering View Post

The main thing is to start your track mix with your drums around -12 to-14 dBFS peak to leave plenty of headroom and then bring down the reference track by whatever it takes to get it to a similar level by ear.
Thanks for this...

Do you attain this dBFS by mixing all the drums to a bus and lowing their aggregate level, or do you bring in one drum mic at a time keeping the level that low to begin with?
Old 13th July 2019
  #8
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Thanks to everyone that responded to this. So many great suggestions here and I look forward to trying them all..
Old 13th July 2019
  #9
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ecnarps View Post
Thanks for this...

Do you attain this dBFS by mixing all the drums to a bus and lowing their aggregate level, or do you bring in one drum mic at a time keeping the level that low to begin with?
If you are making recordings the ideal is that peaks of drums should leave plenty of headroom below 0dBFS anywhere between -16dBFS and -12dBFS is practically a good place to be. This will typically be a good clean sound from your preamps (in terms of applied analogue gain) but healthy enough to be well above analogue noise floor in decent equipment.

So they should theroretically be in the right ball park with your faders at zero. These figures are by no means absolutes just sensible starting places for all. (I hasten to add, when recording at 24 bit depth)

Even before they hit a bus which they may well do, peak drums around -16dBFS to -12dBFS and you will will rarely hit 0dBFS in mixing which is a good thing. It stops you getting into a situation where you start clipping the output by accident and have to start reeling back the master output fader before you bounce/export upon completion.

As an added bonus these signals will right in the sweetspot for any analogue modelling plug ins you have that are sensitive to gain vs non linear behaviours.
Old 4 weeks ago
  #10
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sacksey's Avatar
 

Depending on the style of the song you are making, take 4-5 references that YOU like the sound of (how they're mixed), and have them either in your project, or just start another DAW session with your track + those others. From your references, pick ones which have a different approach to the tone of the mix.

For example, ask yourself what is the style of the song you are mixing now? What track could you use as a reference for that style which has a "dark" mix? What about one with a "bright" mix, etc.? Use contrasting ones, simply because not all "dark" or "bright" mixes are the same. You might think your track is mixed too bright/dark, until you hear it alongside a similar reference. The same goes for reverb wetness, delay FX, all of it.

Play through the track at different points of the song, and then jump straight to similar points of your reference songs (intro, chorus, etc.) Listen for things like volume comparisons, overall "tone" of the mix, low end, etc. Whatever you might feel uncertain about, stack your track up next to something you like the sound of that you know definitely works, and make your comparison.

Also vary how long you listen to each one before making the comparison. Your ears adjust quickly, so how does your track sound after you have listened to a reference fully through 1-2 times vs. listening to the reference for just 10 seconds? Also, try listening to 2-3 references in a row, then when you get to the loudest point in the 3rd reference, immediately jump to the loudest point in your track. Throw your ears off intentionally so that you "forget" what you know about your mix and hear it more instantaneously against what you are comparing it to.

Also, it's very important to do that exact same thing with your track and the references through different sound sources. This is very important. Use the exact same method, but play everything through laptop speakers, then ear buds, then through studio style headphones, etc. Listen to the way that each one is able to translate, then how yours translates. When you are critical of what changes in YOUR own mixes through those mediums, go back and listen to the references and see what has actually happened to THEIR mixes through that same playback source.

We are so critical and FAMILIAR with our own mixes that we will hear the discrepancies in our work in a lot more judgmental way, but go back again and see if the laptop speakers make any of those mixes sound too bright, or make some parts too loud in the mix, etc. Those things do happen with successful commercial mixes also, it's just that you aren't so immediately critical when you hear them through something other than your monitors.

You also want to become familiar with loudness metering when comparing tracks. Don't just use your ears, use your eyes also (Yes, this is a sin in mixing...). People say never mix with your eyes, but there is no such thing as "never". Do both, just to learn something about what is going on in your track and their tracks. Use EQ analyzers, loudness metering, stereo metering, etc. Whatever you can get your hands on. It can all be used to help you understand more the different areas that go into getting the results you are hoping for.
Old 4 weeks ago
  #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sacksey View Post
Depending on the style of the song you are making, take 4-5 references that YOU like the sound of (how they're mixed), and have them either in your project, or just start another DAW session with your track + those others. From your references, pick ones which have a different approach to the tone of the mix.

For example, ask yourself what is the style of the song you are mixing now? What track could you use as a reference for that style which has a "dark" mix? What about one with a "bright" mix, etc.? Use contrasting ones, simply because not all "dark" or "bright" mixes are the same. You might think your track is mixed too bright/dark, until you hear it alongside a similar reference. The same goes for reverb wetness, delay FX, all of it.

Play through the track at different points of the song, and then jump straight to similar points of your reference songs (intro, chorus, etc.) Listen for things like volume comparisons, overall "tone" of the mix, low end, etc. Whatever you might feel uncertain about, stack your track up next to something you like the sound of that you know definitely works, and make your comparison.

Also vary how long you listen to each one before making the comparison. Your ears adjust quickly, so how does your track sound after you have listened to a reference fully through 1-2 times vs. listening to the reference for just 10 seconds? Also, try listening to 2-3 references in a row, then when you get to the loudest point in the 3rd reference, immediately jump to the loudest point in your track. Throw your ears off intentionally so that you "forget" what you know about your mix and hear it more instantaneously against what you are comparing it to.

Also, it's very important to do that exact same thing with your track and the references through different sound sources. This is very important. Use the exact same method, but play everything through laptop speakers, then ear buds, then through studio style headphones, etc. Listen to the way that each one is able to translate, then how yours translates. When you are critical of what changes in YOUR own mixes through those mediums, go back and listen to the references and see what has actually happened to THEIR mixes through that same playback source.

We are so critical and FAMILIAR with our own mixes that we will hear the discrepancies in our work in a lot more judgmental way, but go back again and see if the laptop speakers make any of those mixes sound too bright, or make some parts too loud in the mix, etc. Those things do happen with successful commercial mixes also, it's just that you aren't so immediately critical when you hear them through something other than your monitors.

You also want to become familiar with loudness metering when comparing tracks. Don't just use your ears, use your eyes also (Yes, this is a sin in mixing...). People say never mix with your eyes, but there is no such thing as "never". Do both, just to learn something about what is going on in your track and their tracks. Use EQ analyzers, loudness metering, stereo metering, etc. Whatever you can get your hands on. It can all be used to help you understand more the different areas that go into getting the results you are hoping for.
This is fantastic. Thank you so much for putting this together. I’m starting my first mix on my new setup when I get my Mac back from repair. I want to start a “best practices” system for all mixes going forward to keep consistency.
Old 4 weeks ago
  #12
For your first mix 1 good middle of the road reference will be sufficient, more will most likely make you confused and could end up being counter productive.
Old 4 weeks ago
  #13
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sacksey's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ecnarps View Post
This is fantastic. Thank you so much for putting this together. I’m starting my first mix on my new setup when I get my Mac back from repair. I want to start a “best practices” system for all mixes going forward to keep consistency.
One thing I'd also caution against is the fact that this stuff is an art form, which means that everybody has their own take on it, and there's plenty of ways to make things which shouldn't work, actually work brilliantly. When I'm referencing other music, the goal is not to replicate so much as to literally just hear a different example of what I'm going for. I want to do my own thing at the end of the day, even if it fails. I'm not trying to be radically different at all, I just want to learn how to really understand what it is that I do, so I take the differences I hear in other people's music with a grain of salt and always try to consider the context of the music.

A huge part of that is to remember to compare the use of instrumentation. Every song starts with that. If one track sounds tonally different to yours, ask yourself why in light of the sound sources used. Specifically by that I mean don't just rush to "Ah, I messed up. I'm not hearing something, etc." Don't underestimate the importance of the choice of snare, or especially hi hat tones. Those are two of the most prominent and continuous sounds in most typical songs, and they significantly impact the overall presentation of the mix. Even though mixing appears to be all about frequencies (and is), it's the instrumentation that creates those. If a track sounds very different to yours, that's probably the reason why, so take that into account before you make too many changes or criticize your own work too harshly. I've been guilty of that way too many times. Also don't be afraid to take a risk and go your own way. If you find out later you weren't perfect with something that just means you can hear and understand mixes better than you used to.
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