Mixing: What Are Reference Mixes & Why Are They Important?


Using reference mixes is an often overlooked yet incredibly powerful method of improving our own mixes. I neglected this tactic for years and only really began crafting consistently-good mixes once I began utilizing proper reference tracks.

What is a reference mix, and why are reference mixes important? A reference mix (or reference track) is an audio mix/track that we can compare our work against as we make our way through the mixing process. A reference track is typically in the same style/genre as what we're working on and acts as a goal post to work toward in terms of mix aesthetic.

In this article, we'll discuss reference mixes in greater detail, including how to choose the best reference mix(es) for your work and how to go about actually referencing the reference mix(es) once you have them assembled.


What Is A Reference Mix?

In general, a reference mix is a commercial release in the same or similar genre as the mix you're working on. It should act as a sort of “goal post” to work toward in terms of the overall mix aesthetic. In other words, we're typically trying to match the general sound of the reference.

Of course, reference tracks can also present mix aesthetics we're trying to avoid, where we will do our best not to sound like them. However, it's the most common and effective to have a reference that we'd like to sound alike.

So for this article, we'll focus on reference mixes that we want our own mixes to sound similar to.

As we make our way through the mix, we can periodically A/B our work against our reference mix. We'll go over the different methods of doing so later in this article.

To learn more about A/B testing, check out my article A/B Testing & Its Importance In Mixing (With 5 Best Tests).


The Benefit Of Using Reference Mixes

A/B testing against your reference mix(es) is one of the best methods to improve your mixes.

By quickly switching between our own mix and our reference track, we can easily understand how our mix matches up against a reference we deem as a worthy goal post.

Our ears/hearing have a natural propensity to adjust to whatever we're hearing. This means that we can swiftly lose our objectivity while mixing.

This adaptability is partially why taking frequent breaks, utilizing multiple monitor systems, and A/Bing our mixes to our reference mixes is common practice.

Periodically switching our monitoring to our reference mix will effectively “reset” our ears and remind us of the overall aesthetic we're going for in the mix.

For example, we can easily get caught up in increasing the brightness of the mix. It may sound good in the short term but rapidly cause an overly harsh result. If we can reference another mix periodically, we may catch ourselves before going too far in terms of increased brightness/harshness.

As another example, we may go down the road of pushing the low-end too much, thinking we're enhancing a thick and powerful bass response in the mix. However, this can all too easily cause a lopsided, dull mix with lost headroom/loudness. If we can reference another mix periodically, we may catch ourselves before going too far in terms of boosting the low end unnecessarily.

As yet another example, we could push the lead element (typically a vocal) a bit too loud in the mix (increase its overall level) to make it heard, when really we should be allowing it to shine in the mix in other ways. We can end up with the vocal or lead element being far too loud relative to the rest of the elements in our mix. If we can reference another mix periodically, we may catch ourselves before going too far in terms of increasing the gap between the lead elements and the rest of the tracks.

The list goes on. The main takeaway here is that using a reference mix properly can help with our objective decision-making in the mix and point us in the right direction in terms of the mix aesthetic we want as an end product.


How To Choose An Appropriate Reference Mix

Let's now shift our focus to choosing an appropriate reference mix (or multiple reference mixes) for our work.

The first criterion should be that the reference sounds like something we'd want to emulate. As mentioned earlier, it's generally best to use a reference mix we want to emulate in terms of overall sonic character. So choose something in the same or similar genre or style to the mix you're working on.

We should be very familiar with our choices of reference mixes, having a solid understanding of how they sound in the playback systems we'll be monitoring/listening through (studio monitor pairs, headphones, car system, etc.). It's also advantageous to enjoy listening to the reference mix.

By having a solid understanding of the overall aesthetic and the minute details of the reference mix, we can better apply the reference mix information to our own work.

The reference mix should be in a lossless format (Wav, FLAC, ALAC, etc.) so that no audio information is removed or compressed. Lossy formats (mp3, AAC, WMA, etc.) are data-compressed and often have missing information. We want to reference high-quality audio to get the best results possible in our own mix.

For more information on digital audio file formats, check out my article Complete Guide To Digital Audio Formats (MP3, WAV, & More).

Do your best to choose the best mixes you can find. Choose reference mixes that are so good; they make you stretch your mixing abilities to achieve similar results.

That stated, I should mention that when we're just starting out, it's completely normal (and even expected) to fall short of the reference mix quality. Remember that commercially-release music is generally mixed by world-class mix engineers before being mastered by world-class mixing engineers.

That's not to say that we shouldn't strive to mix to the best of our abilities, which is a big benefit of utilizing great-sounding references.

I have a video detailing the benefits of using reference mixes. Check it out here:


How To Reference Against A Reference Mix

Now that we understand the importance of using reference mixes, we can go about choosing our own for whatever mix we're currently working on. The question still remains regarding the best method to actually go about referencing our own mix against our reference(s).

In the modern world of mixing, the primary method of referencing the reference mix will be from within your digital audio workstation. There are plenty of tools, strategies and plugins to do the job, but the main goal is to import the reference mix into your session for easy A/Bing.

Let's break down a few different strategies:

  • Importing the reference mix directly into the session
  • Referencing outside the session
  • Referencing through a dedicated A/B or reference mix plugin

Of course, we can also bounce our mix and reference it elsewhere, which is also important. However, for this article, we'll be discussing referencing within the DAW as we're in the mixing process.

Importing The Reference Mix Directly Into The Session

Sometimes importing the track into your DAW is as easy as dragging and dropping a lossless audio file to a new stereo track.

Other times, we may have to record a reference track into our DAW in real time. In this case, we'll use a virtual audio device for routing. There are plenty of options out there for this task.

If we have the reference we need but don't have access to a lossless audio file, we can route our computer's audio output to the virtual device and then route the virtual device as our DAW's input. With a stereo audio track created in the DAW, we can set the inputs of that track to accept the audio being played by the computer. Record the lossless version of the reference track into the DAW and go from there.

Once the reference track is on its own stereo track within the mix session, we need to set up a way to quickly A/B between it and the rest of mix.

The first step is to ensure the reference track is not being routed through any mix bus processing. If the mix bus is routed to the main outputs (outputs 1 and 2 – left and right, for example), then we'll want to route the reference mix to another set of outputs (outputs 3 and 4 – left and right, for example).

This way, we aren't processing the reference track through any mix bus processes, which would undoubtedly colour the reference material.

Related articles:
Top 11 Best Tips For Compressing The Mix Bus
Top 11 Best Tips For EQing The Mix Bus

What Are Audio Buses? (Mixing, Recording, Live Sound)

Of course, if we aren't using any mix bus processing at all, we can likely get away with routing the reference to the same main outputs as everything else and simply toggling between solo and mute on the stereo reference track channel. To make the transition between the mix and reference seamless, we should set the solo mode of our DAW to cancel the previous solo (this is often referred to as X-OR mode, though different DAWs may have different names for this process).

But this won't be the case in most mixes.

So once we have our reference routed to the proper outputs, we can toggle between the two different outputs (1 and 2 or 3 and 4 in this example). This will likely require a monitor controller and an audio interface with multiple stereo outputs.

Assuming the main mix is routed to outputs 1 and 2 (left and right stereo), we can route the reference track(s) to other available outputs. Take the following as an example:

  • Outputs 1/2: main mix (stereo).
  • Outputs 3/4: reference track A (stereo).
  • Outputs 5/6: reference track B (stereo).
  • Outputs 7/8: reference track C (stereo).

From there, we can route the physical outputs from the interface to the monitor controller and be able to select between them to choose which stereo output is sent to the common pair of monitors.

In analog mixers, we can often input a playback device into an auxiliary input or independent channel and have it output to a different output. Alternatively, we can set it up so we can easily switch between its channel and the main mix at the main output.

For more info on auxiliary tracks, check out my article Mixing/Recording: What Are Auxiliary Tracks, Sends & Returns?

Plugins are available to accomplish this idea virtually within the DAW, which is yet another option for switching between the main mix and the reference track from within the DAW.

Regardless of the method we use, I need to mention that level matching is essential when A/Bing against our reference(s). As the name would suggest, in the context of referencing our reference tracks, level matching is the practice of matching the perceived volume of our mix and the reference.

This is perhaps best done by matching the LUFS (loudness units full scale) or RMS (root mean square) values of the mix and the reference.

Referencing Outside The Session

We can also opt to reference our reference tracks outside of our mix sessions.

This can be done by having the reference loaded up in another playback device or software being routed to the same monitors. In this setup, we can pause the mix, quickly playback the reference, pause the reference, and get back to our mix.

The time it takes between pausing and playing can be frustrating as it takes our immediate attention away from the mix quality at hand. I never practice A/Bing my reference mixes in this fashion, though it could potentially work.

More commonly, though, we'll be referencing our mix against others outside the studio (in the car, the home stereo, earbuds, etc.). This is an important step for ensuring proper mix translation.

I have a video dedicated to mix translatability that you can check out here.

To learn more about mix translatability, check out my article Top 10 Tips To Improve Your Mix Translatability.

In this case, we should really ensure we're level matching and, if possible, set up a playback situation where we can easily jump to similar sections between our mix and the reference (rather than starting from the beginning each time). Again, this goes back to wasting time in the switching.

Referencing Through A Dedicated A/B Or Reference Mix Plugin

The third option is my favourite, and that is using dedicated plugins for A/Bing against my reference mixes.

Plenty of plugins on the market allow us to quickly set up an A/B test between our mix and the reference. They typically go last in the inserts of the mix bus so that they're referencing the entire mix processing without being processed by anything afterward.

For more information on inserts, check out my article Audio: What Are Inserts? (Mixing, Recording & More).

Many of these plugins will automatically level match for us. Most give plenty of information on how the two mixes compare in terms of parameters such as stereo width, frequency content, and long-term dynamics.

Of all the referencing plugins I've tried, Mastering The Mix's Reference 2 (link to check the price at Plugin Boutique) is my personal favourite.

Mastering The Mix's Reference 2

Getting The Most Out Of Our Reference Mixes

Getting to the specifics, we can use our reference mix to compare these individual elements between our project and the reference track. In doing so, we should ask ourselves questions about how the different elements compare. Here are a few example questions worth considering:

  • How upfront is the lead vocal?
  • How are the drums and cymbals panned?
  • How loud is the snare drum?
  • How do the bass and kick drum interact?
  • How much reverb and space is there?
  • How loud are the lead elements relative to the rest of the mix?
  • How wide is the mid-range? What about the high-end?
  • How are the mid-range instruments panned?
  • How much low-end is in the bass?
  • Does the bass cut through in the mid-range at all?

If you're striving to achieve a similar mix to the reference, comparing elements is an essential step.

To make a note of the arrangement, it's also worth lining up the reference to our own mix so that we can A/B similar sections (chorus against chorus, verse against verse, etc.).

I have a dedicated video on the importance of note-taking with tips for note-taking through the mix if you're interested in checking it out here.

Consider the overall balance of the mix, the width, depth and height, and how compressed the mix sounds.

Be sure to check out my top tips for width in the mix in this YouTube video. Also, check out my top tips for depth in the mix in this YouTube video.

Beyond matching the balance and placement of individual elements, we can also use the reference track to help “EQ match” our mix. As the term suggests, EQ matching is the process of hearing/seeing the EQ curve of our reference track and adjusting our mix to match it better.

Again, when we're deep in the mix, our objectivity naturally becomes skewed.

As we work through the balancing and processing, we may be mixing overly bright or dark or with too much mid-range or not enough. We may perceive the mix balance as improving as we make our mixing decisions, but these decisions are largely based on the current balance rather than on anything else.

By regularly comparing to our reference mix, we can quickly recalibrate our ears while also becoming aware of how our mix sounds relative to the reference. A/Bing the reference can remind us to brighten our mix if it's too dark, bring up the bass if it's too light, or adjust the frequency balance in some other way.

The most obvious method of EQ matching is to insert an EQ on the mix bus and make the alterations there. Although this can technically do the job, if there's significant work to be done to match the frequency balance between our mix and the reference, the issues are in the mix itself.

So rather than making broad changes to a mix bus EQ, it's advisable to adjust tracks within the mix to reach the desired EQ curve for the overall mix.

It could be as simple as bringing up the faders of a few select instruments or boosting or cutting the EQ of a few tracks or buses. Fixing the mix this way can lead to much better results than applying great amounts of EQ to the mix bus, which can have an unnatural effect on the overall results.

For more info on using bussing in your mixes, check out my YouTube video here.

Additionally, if you happen to find yourself in an unfamiliar mixing environment/room, cueing up a reference track you're familiar with can help you make the adjustments necessary to better understand the acoustics around you.

Suppose there are certain characteristics you know to be true about the reference mix that seem exaggerated or under-exaggerated in the new environment. In that case, you can move forward in your mix with confidence that it may not sound perfect at the moment.

So if you haven't already, I strongly advise that you begin using reference mixes in your work. There's so much to be gained, and I hope this article made a strong case for using reference mixes in your mixing endeavours!


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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