How can you ensure your mixes translate and compete in the commercial realm? Start referencing! These 5 tips will get you well acquainted with this critical practice for pro mixes.
By Josh Bonanno
We all want our mixes to compete at a commercial level and be able to hold their own against others once released.
Using a previously released song as a reference while working is a great way to be in-formed on how your productions and mixes will compare when they’re spun back-to-back on playlists in the real world. Let’s talk about 5 ways to better use references to your advantage.
1. Understand the reference is not the same as what you’re working on
While referencing a song is both a good guideline and starting point, understanding that the reference is different from YOUR song is critical. At the end of the day, you are comparing apples and oranges. Using a reference should not act as a direct roadmap or checklist of how your song will sound in the end. The original recording sources, room, players, key etc., are likely all drastically different, thereby making the outcome different as well. So, don’t treat your reference as the Bible.
There are two important things to consider when choosing a song to reference, that will help make things as close as possible sonically.
a. Choose a song that has similar sonic characteristics to what you are hoping for your song to sound like.
This may seem obvious, but it is an important thing to consider. Sonic characteristics vary wildly between genres and eras. Referencing a rock track with live drums is not going to give you much valuable sonic information if your song has synthetic sounds and 808s with deep subs. Also, a song mixed and mastered in the ‘70s or ‘80s is going to have a different loudness and frequency contour than what you may want for a ‘modern’ sound. Being intentional about finding a sonic reference that closely matches your vision will help clear up confusion and keep you on the right path to having your song translate.
b. Use a referencing source that is high quality.
This means that physically purchasing and downloading the high-resolution audio is going to be your best comparison tool when A/Bing with your song. The audio quality of most streaming services is still unreliable, as they use normalization, limiting (in some cases), and other encoding algorithms which compress the audio and change the overall quality – making it less than ideal for referencing. While a low-quality YouTube rip or MP3 can still provide some perspective, it is important to remember that you are placing a larger divide between your song and the reference, further skewing the decisions you make and the overall quality of the outcome.
2. Gain Match
It is crucial to ensure that whenever you reference or compare anything, whether it is one song to another or even a tonal shift within an element of the mix itself, you compensate for the difference in level. Doing so allows for a fair comparison and avoids tricking your ear into thinking that louder is better. There are plenty of ways to gain-match things (some more technical than others) but the key thing to remember is, trust your ears! Our ears can do a really good job at matching the perceived loudness of things when listening critically, so don’t be afraid to trust what your ears are telling you in this process.
Here’s my preferred way of approaching gain-matching of reference tracks:
a. Import the high-resolution audio reference of your choice into your DAW. In Pro Tools, I like to set my solo preference to X-Or, meaning I can only have one thing solo’d at a time (Fig. 1). This lets me quickly switch between the tracks I want to compare and contrast.
b. From there, I start by using my ears, and I pull the louder source down in volume until it sounds relatively close in perceived level to the other source. It helps to use the lead vocal as your “anchor” point of reference here.
c. Once they are close to the same level to my ear, I use a metering plugin to double-check what I heard and dial in the levels even closer from there. I use either the WLM Meter to measure the LUFS of the two tracks or the PAZ Analyzer to read the RMS. Both are great tools and can tell you a lot about your song vs. the references. But for this process, I am mainly looking at the momentary and average readings to further gain-match my two sources.
d. You must ensure the metering plugin is inserted post-fader on both of your sources. In Pro Tools, I use an additional master fader (after any mix bus processing) to do this, but in any DAW, placing the meter plugin as the final insert before the output will serve the same purpose. It should be obvious if you missed this step as the readings between the two meters will differ drastically, and your goal is to have them as close as possible.
e. From there, you can go back and forth between both songs and continue to pull the reference track up or down in volume until the meters read virtually the same numbers.
Again, this is my personal method. There are plenty of ways to gain-match audio sources in and out of your DAW, so be sure to use your ears and find a method that works best for your workflow.
3. Isolate Frequency Ranges
It can be useful at times to take a more “narrowed-in” approach when using a reference. You can do this by isolating specific frequency areas that you may be struggling with or want more insight into. With your reference track level-matched and loaded in your DAW, this is super easy to do. I usually like to do this in the low end and mid-range. Doing so allows me to really know how low certain instruments are extending and what role they are playing in the sub frequencies. Solo-ing the mid-range can inform you about how the densest section of the song is working together and translating. You can use this technique for any area of the frequency spectrum that you want to investigate further.
The process is simple; you are essentially creating a sweepable band-pass filter. I like to use a visual style EQ like the F6 EQ for this. Simply engage both a high-pass and low-pass filter and move the frequencies closer to each other until you are highlighting only the area you want to listen to. Switch between listening to your track and the reference with the same EQ curve applied to hear how the two songs differ. What instruments are present in that frequency range? How loud are they? Are there unpleasant resonances? Where are they in the stereo field? This technique provides a close-up look at the song and can help to find problem areas in your mix.
4. Use a Meter to Check Levels and Dynamics
Checking your frequency and sonic balance is one benefit of using a reference track, but the other is using the reference to inform you of how loud and compressed overall your finished song is compared to your reference. While streaming services like Spotify might loudness-adjust playback of their content, there are other platforms and mediums your music will be played on where that won’t be the case, and you want your music to always sound competitive. For that reason, it is important to compare your final master to the reference.
Using your meter of choice, PAZ or WLM, you can measure and compare the two tracks. When comparing the songs, ensure that you have both faders set to unity rather than the gain-matched version in Step 2. For this process, you want to hear the differences (if any) in loudness between the two songs, so you can work towards the target.
When measuring your overall loudness, understand that LUFS measurement is a bit more sensitive to high frequencies and will give you an accurate picture of the average high-end dynamics. RMS, on the other hand, will be more sensitive to the low end and its average dynamics. Knowing this can be helpful, as comparing the LUFS vs. RMS measurements can provide insight into how “flat” a mix is or if the mix is leaning towards being bass-heavy (High RMS, low LUFS) or bright and top-end forward (Low RMS High LUFS). Looking at multiple meters to compare references will give you the most accurate results in the end.
5. Listen in a New Environment
The final way you can check your song against a reference is by listening in a new environment and seeing how your song feels compared to the reference in that new space. The shift in listening environment and perspective can sometimes reveal a lot that your room may have been hiding (or masking) and can provide additional information on how your song will translate once released. This is the reason you will often see studios with multiple sets of speakers and artists who want to hear their song in the car before signing off on it.
However, when working, if you want to save yourself the trip to the car or you lack a different monitoring environment, a great way of getting a quick, reliable perspective shift is to monitor through CLA Nx. The Waves Nx plugins allow you to use headphones to step outside of your own listening space and listen in a world-class studio, including Ocean Way and Abbey Road Studio 3. CLA Nx gives you the sound of Mix LA, Chris’ personal mix studio. If you followed all of the previous steps above to gain match and properly route the audio of both your own song and reference track in your DAW, using CLA Nx is as simple as putting the plugin as the last insert on your master track and switching between the two songs. This is a quick and easy way to change the lens you are viewing the song through and have another level of assurance in knowing how your song translates in a new listening environment.
References can be a powerful tool, but they can also lead you astray if you don't use them in the proper way. Following the ideas outlined above is a great way to get started and ensure that next time you reference a mix, you will be getting the most out of the experience.
Josh Bonanno is a mix engineer, producer, and beer snob based in Nashville, TN. To hear his work and know more about what he does check out joshbonanno.com.
Want more on mix referencing? Go in-depth in the ‘Science of Mix Referencing’ here!
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