Saturday, October 24, 2015

Recording and mixing using Reference Tracks! (a guide for dummies)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we will talk about a little trick that everyone uses (also the pros) to improve our ear and to check out if our mix is going in the right direction: using a reference track while mixing.
What does it mean?
It means using a track that we "trust", like a song that we consider a perfect mixing and mastering balance, to confront in real time with our project, when mixing it, in order to make sure we nail the right balance and overall tone we are aiming to.
Note that this article is an integration and expansion of our Ear Training, Referencing and Mixing Articles! 

Everybody, when mixing a project, tend to fall in the psychological "trap" that the project sounds good, that everything is well balanced, even if it's not, because our "ear" tends to "accustom" itself to what is hearing, and after a certain amount of time we tend to not notice anymore certain problems, especially eq-wise.
What can we do? Surely one remedy is to stop for some minute every hour or so of mixing, to let our ears rest and reset the "eq-bias" they have accustomed to.
The other method is switching back and forth between our song and a reference track.

The greatest producers in the world (for example Dave Pensado), has an array of songs they trust (for example one song in which there is the best vocal processing, another one in which the drums sounds perfectly balanced and so on), and when mixing they create an empty channel, load those tracks into it, adjust the volume so that it is comparable to the volume of their project and make a/b comparisons all the time, checking out all the most important areas of their mix, to see if it's comparable to the best industry standards in term of overall sound.

The main areas to compare are:

- Balance: How loud are the vocals, or the drums, compared to the rest of the instruments? Are all the instruments sitting properly in the mix? 

- Overall bass amount (this is good for comparisons also in the Mastering Phase): is our song too bass heavy? Or not enough?

- Effects: do our vocals need some more reverb? Or, when comparing them to our reference track they are drowning on it?

We can also use reference tracks in the recording phase: since we know that the starting sound is the 60% of the final sound, we should try to nail a tone as perfect as possible before even starting to work on it in the mixing phase.
This could help us placing the microphones in a certain position while recording a guitar, or in working on the drum sound (both in finding the right tuning configuration or finding the right samples when using them, for example), and so on.
In the Mastering phase using a reference track is interesting to compare the overall loudness, the overall eq (to see if our project is too "dark" or too "bright" compared to the perfectly balanced reference track), and so on.
(just remember, though, that if we put our mastering plugins in the master buss they will affect the reference track channel too!).

As we have seen there are many, many uses and good reasons to use a reference track. It can sound like an extra waste of time, but I assure you that it will bring its results! Let me know if you have tried it, and if it helped you improving your mix!

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  1. But if I put a reference track in my mix how to compare if this reference track is already mastered and it sounds louder than a mix?

  2. obviously you must keep in consideration the fact that the track is already mastered.
    The first thing to do is to lower its volume to make it match the rest of the project (and possibly, when listening to it, disable all the plugins in the master buss), then you could use it to check out for example if our drum tone or balance between the instruments is the same... and so on. You can't, obviously, un-master a final track :D