No mixing environment is perfect.
Even when you have acoustic treatment, quality monitors, and great headphones, there’s always a bit of guesswork in the final stages of your mix process.
To get good results you should know what you’re up against—and the right way to work around it.
Reference tracks are how you get that perspective. They’re an incredibly useful tool that will help you decide your mix objectively.
However, what is reference tracks? Which ones should you use, and how to work with them?
In this article, we’ll explain what reference tracks are, how to choose a reference track for a better mix, and some of my tops pick for different mix situations.
Let’s get started.
What are the reference tracks?
Reference tracks are recordings with desirable sonic features that engineers use to evaluate their work-in-progress mixes. Many professional engineers have go-to reference tracks they depend on to bring their work closer to their vision for the final mix.
By comparing back and forth between a reference track and your mix, you can evaluate the changes you should make for a better-finished product.
The way to use reference tracks
It’s easy to get lost in your mix and lose your sense of direction. Checking in with a reference track as your work is among the greatest ways to avoid it.
All you should do to use a reference track is drag it into your mix session and set up a way to toggle back and forth.
As you go you’ll get a sense of the important features you should compare to evaluate your sound, you’ll see why this technique is so useful.
Maybe you’ll discover you’ve been overhyping your upper midrange or turning your bass synth up to loud. Maybe you’ll realize the vocals don’t need quite so much reverb or that the drums are too compressed.
You might not have caught these issues if you didn’t take a step back to mix reference.
Using reference tracks is simple if you keep in mind a few basic rules:
- Match the volume of the reference along with your track as closely as possible
- Toggle back and forth directly using “solo in place” when you can.
- Listen critically to the most important features of your mix and the reference
For a deeper dive into the way to do effective mix referencing, take a look at our guide.
How to choose a reference track
The great thing about reference tracks is that you can use almost any audio material, as long as it fits into your workflow and provides a good comparison.
In general, you need to choose a reference track that demonstrates the best qualities you’d hope for in your own mix.
That’s completely up to you, so the best approach to choosing a reference track is to experiment and follow your ears.
Start with tracks you love and listen attentively for their production high quality. In case you listen critically, you’ll start to understand the sounds you prefer and the way to recognize them in your own mixes.
If you need a place to start, here are some qualities to look for once you choose a reference track:
- A similar or related genre
- Well-executed mix features (great top end, great stereo imaging)
- Standout individual instruments (great vocals, great drum sound)
Other ways to reference
Reference tracks are traditionally used within a DAW session for direct comparison.
However, modern mix referencing is evolving. There are more ways than ever to use reference material in your workflow.
Proper referencing requires precise level matching to work. This means referencing in-progress mixes against finished masters outside of your DAW isn’t always possible.
That’s where instant AI-powered mastering comes in.
That means you’ll be able to mix references anywhere—in your car, on your home stereo, or earbuds on the bus. That’s the precise information you should make good decisions about your mix.
If you need to make any adjustments to the mix you’ll be able to just master it again with no turnaround time and no extra cost.
My favorite reference tracks
Everybody has to find the reference tracks they like best. It can be a very personal choice.
That will help you get started we’ll list a couple of the reference tracks that we’ve used and what we like about them.
1. Lonesome Tears — Beck
Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change was produced by Nigel Godrich and recorded at legendary Ocean Way Recording at the height of its powers.
The mix features a very broad span of frequencies from deep sub-bass to smooth and airy extended highs.
You’ll be able to really get a sense of the extremely wide spectrum from the spacious string sound.
I sometimes use this track to judge the overall frequency extension of a mix we’re working on.
2. Strawberry Swing — Coldplay
Coldplay’s Viva la Vida is a sonically diverse pop album with good ambient textures throughout. It features production by Brian Eno and electronic artist Jon Hopkins.
It’s an excellent example of the “Brauerization” compression-centric style pioneered by top mix engineer Michael Brauer.
Every element feels like it’s in focus at the same time, like an HDR photograph.
This reference track might help you get a sense of what masterfully applied compression can sound like.
3. Out on the Weekend — Neil Young
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Neil Young’s Harvest is famous for its clear and natural sound.
Engineer Elliot Mazer has stated that no compression or limiting of any kind was used during the mix.
That makes it great for listening to natural transients and the attack and decay of acoustic instruments.
4. Inside Out — Spoon
Spoon’s They Want My Soul was mixed by Dave Fridmann at his Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York.
Fridman’s style is notorious for its intense saturation, bordering on distortion.
“Inside Out” features bold layered electronic drums and samples with aggressive saturation that somehow never gets fatiguing.
We sometimes use this track to judge if we’ve added too much harmonic distortion or if any saturated tones are too harsh.
Bringing reference tracks into your workflow is a part of how you mature as a producer and hone your skills.
No matter what genre or style you work in, there’s a reference track you can use to pull your mix in the best direction.
Now that you know about reference tracks and how to choose one that works, get back to your DAW, and keep chasing your excellent mix.