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The Best FREE Tool: Reference Tracks

Updated: Aug 9

Why use reference tracks?

Using reference tracks is the most powerful listening technique of all, and is especially important when we’re in an unfamiliar room or just starting out with music production and don't have the training, experience or practice to be able to trust our instincts. It's important to only use tracks that we’re extremely familiar with if we’re a new artist and unable to reference our own tracks in different

environments. Also, when selecting reference tracks, use songs with a similar makeup or instrumentation. This means we should pick songs that are in the same genre and have the feel that we're aiming for.

Reference tracks are used when A/B comparing songs
Using reference tracks to fast track your music production

Evaluate the reference track’s impact and how it grabs you:

- How does it make you feel?

- What emotion do you feel when listening?

- Does it take you on a journey?

- Does the track build?

Don’t try to be better than the quality of the finished mastered track at this stage, that’s impossible. Simply gauge how far you are from a strong and cohesive mix.

The art of mix referencing

Listen to the top ten songs in your favorite genre on Beatport, Apple Music or Spotify and you’ll clearly hear a difference between these songs and yours. When you’re just starting out, mix referencing can be depressing and enough to make you want to quit, which is why so many young producers shy away from it. Yes, this exercise is painful, but it's also the absolute best free mixing tutor available and the fast track to commercial-sounding production. The fundamental point of mix referencing is that it delivers to you what your own ears, brain, and level of experience can’t, by showing you an objective comparison between your song and the professional production of the reference track.

Our brains are equipped to process sounds by comparing our current experience in relation to other experiences. Our ears and brains have a relative judgement system that can be hacked when we’re producing and mixing by comparing our song to another high quality production. Mix referencing also allows us to compensate for a skewed listening perspective, working from a home studio or bedroom that has a less than favorable monitoring system or little to no sound treatment

Song selection process

Selecting the right reference track has a huge impact on the outcome of your track and how fast you improve as an artist. Vetting suitable tracks should take a while, and careful consideration should be used when finding a song that you want to use as a reference. Listening to songs in the genre that you’re aiming for on a variety of sound systems includes listening to your collection of songs side by side, comparing low

end tightness and energy, the openness of the tracks, the energy and emotion they convey

Using a great reference track is the best free listening tool and will make any producer better when done properly
Selecting the right song has a huge impact on your finished production

Select songs that are contemporary and current, even if the genre you’re working in is intended to sound dated. We’ve come a long way from ‘High Fidelity’ and if we want our song to hold a candle to today’s commercial releases we’re going to have to reference our song to today’s best examples. Know

what your target audience is listening to and values! Also know what your peers sound like.

There is no such thing as competitors in art. Everyone is a collaborator. Your favorite artist should be viewed as an inspiration, not as some god-like deity who's heights and achievements can never be matched. Remember, even the top-tiered artists started out somewhere and sucked for some time. Give yourself the opportunity to be bad for a while and good things will come from it!

Try to be aware of a reference track’s quality even if it’s not to your taste. A song can sound amazing even if it’s not your favorite artist. For example I listen to Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and Madonna because the production on their albums is literally insane. A million dollars goes a long way when producing music and these artists sound like it. Pay attention to trends in pop music. You don’t have make music like this but it doesn’t hurt to model your top or bottom end after big productions like these.

Pay attention to the sonics of a production. This is what makes a good reference track. Referencing isn’t about copying another track. Never copy. Dave Pensado of the popular Pensado’s Place says your song will be different “because you’re not given the same information… It should be for inspiration, just to make sure you’re able to compete with what your contemporaries are doing”

Pay close attention to room ambience and reverb when referencing. This is one of the trickiest areas of production to get right. Mix buss processing can be easily overdone without good referencing, and the overall tone of a track needs to be compared to a suitable track in the target genre. And lastly, the exercise of selecting reference tracks is excellent ear training and helps familiarize us with the sonic templates of d

ifferent styles. Understanding the parameters of contemporary songs in the genre that we’re doing goes a long way to perfecting the craft of production

How to reference

Our hearing quickly compensates for differences in sound. The quicker we can switch between our work in progress and the reference track the more revealing the contrast will be. Editing the reference track to just the highlights is a good way to isolate the best parts and to reveal the shortcomings in our track. This way long intros and outs aren’t skewing our judgement. Be aware of ultra loud mastering and tr

im your reference track’s level to match your work in progress. Our ears gravitate towards louder material and will skew your decisions if volume differences are left unchecked.

ListenHub by Sonnox allows the user to reference a pro song and enhance the production of the user's work in progress
ListenHub by Sonnox (makers of the Oxford Inflator & Limiter)

There are apps specifically designed for referencing, tonal matching, and claim to make the process easier. Check out Expose 2 by Mastering the Mix, ListenHub by Sonnox (for Mac only), Reference 2 by Mastering the Mix, Metric AB by ADPTR AUDIO, MCompare by MeldaProduction, Streamliner by ADPTR AUDIO, I’ve always placed my reference song in track number 1 inside my DAW, and routed the audio directly out bypassing any mix buss effects and adjusting the volume level to match my working track’s volume. I'll then figure out the tempo of the reference track, warp it so that it’s consistently in time,

and tag the different sections of the composition. This allows me to see the structure of the song and gives me a guide for how long each section of my song could potentially be. This helps when I’m adding or subtracting parts for variation and interest and lessens the amount of guesswork and math needed during creative moments. To switch back and forth between tracks quickly, I use the ‘Solo’ button on the reference track and then press the same button to un-solo or return to my work in progress.

PRO TIP: I've made my custom Ableton Live template available that has all of the group faders set to -12dB so that when I’m done working on my song the level is at the optimum -6dB before mixing. I make sure to work within these levels by gain staging as I go. See this link to the Gain Staging tutorial for a more in-depth explanation and walk-through. Visit my shop to download my custom Ableton Live template and for other offers that will help you transform your musical ideas from guess work to fast-lane production success!

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