How To Use Reference Tracks When Mastering
Getting yourself in the right frame of mind before making any changes to your sound will help you make better mastering decisions. Jumping into tweaking the tonal balance of a song prematurely without a clear sonic direction can end up worsening the sound.
Listening to a song for the first time is a unique experience. If you’re mastering your own song then you won’t have this privilege as you will have heard your song many times whilst creating it. If you’re working on a song you haven’t heard before, take the opportunity to experience and enjoy it as a consumer will.
Before you monitor the mix again, take a listen to one or two great-sounding reference tracks that have a comparable genre, instrumentation, and vibe to the mix. The reference tracks should be a good representation of your sonic goal for this final master.
Listening to these references at this stage will give you a good frame of reference for what a great master should sound like before you start making changes to your master processing. Be sure to match the perceived loudness of the reference tracks to the loudness of the mix to make sure the comparison is fair.
For the second listen, take a more analytical approach and make a note of the aspects of the track that you feel need to change to get the mix sounding more like your reference tracks. Get a feel for how the low-end sits in the context of the overall mix and how the balance compares to the reference track. Do the same with the mid and high frequencies.
By identifying the main changes you feel are needed, you’ve created a sonic vision and a clear target to shoot for. This will keep your mastering decisions focused and efficient.
Using Reference Tracks
One of the most effective and reliable ways to elevate the sound of your music is to compare it to reference tracks that you love the sound of. When you A/B between your mix and the reference track you can identify any differences and make adjustments so your master sounds comparable.
Whether you have high-end studio monitors with acoustic treatment or just a pair of headphones, if your master sounds comparable to the reference track, it should sound good wherever it’s heard.
It can be frustrating not knowing exactly how to get your music comparable to your favorite mixes. So, we created REFERENCE to help you compare the original production you’re working on in your DAW to your chosen reference tracks. If your mixes don’t sound as professional as commercially successful songs, REFERENCE will give you the tools and guidance to resolve this.
Load REFERENCE as the final plugin on your master channel. You can drag and drop your favourite songs into the UI, then jump back and forth between your original and your reference. We recommend that you loop the chorus as a starting point.
Before making any mix decisions when using reference tracks, it’s crucial that you match the perceived loudness of your reference track to your mix. Your mix will be much quieter than the mastered reference tracks. The way we humans perceive sound gives us the illusion that louder music sounds richer in the low-end with more clarity in the high end. This makes it virtually impossible to fairly compare the tonal balance of two songs at different volumes. Skipping this step can lead to disastrous EQ curves that butcher the sound of the music.
Our plugin REFERENCE automatically matches the perceived loudness of your production to your reference track in real-time, allowing you to make informed decisions when comparing the sound.
When choosing a reference track, try to choose a track in the same genre that you’re working in. Also, try to find a track with similar instrumentation and sounds to your production. There will be differences of course, but choosing a reference track that is a great representation of your sonic goal will help you make the best decisions for your track.
Once you’ve selected a great reference track. You can use the trinity display in REFERENCE to show you how your tonal balance, stereo spread, and punch compares to your reference track.
How To EQ Your Master To Sound Like Your Reference Track
When adjusting the EQ of your production, loop the section of the song that covers the widest range of frequencies, often the drop/chorus. If you work on the verse (where the drums might be quieter or the bass might not be present) you might overcompensate and boost the low-end too much.
Keep referring back to your reference tracks when adjusting the EQ to help you set the perfect tonal balance. Mastering should be approached with precision. Each EQ adjustment will have a sweet spot that you may miss if you’re 1dB off.
The white EQ line in REFERENCE shows you the exact EQ adjustment to apply to your mix to get your music sounding like your reference track. This takes out the guesswork and helps you dial in a pro-sound.
If the level line is within 3dB, this shows a very similar tonal balance. Anything above 6dB indicates a considerable difference in tonal balance.
Fine Tuning The Low-End During Mastering
The low-frequency range is tricky to get perfect. Too much of a boost in the low-end and the master will sound muddy and lack clarity. Too much attenuation of the low-end and the master will sound weak and thin.
Our plugin BASSROOM is an EQ designed to fix the low-frequency balance of your overall track. BASSROOM analyses your production and shows you the EQ settings needed to get a powerful and well-balanced sound.
Load up BASSROOM on your master channel before your limiter. Select a preset or import your own reference track. Match the bands to the EQ target suggestions, then tweak to suit your preference.
The preset and reference analysis targets are 100% unique to your music. BASSROOM analyses your audio to determine the EQ changes needed to match the tonal balance goal. It uses a revolutionary algorithm that is based on how the human ear perceives sonic energy. The unique filters in BASSROOM are optimized to shape low-frequencies during mastering. You won’t find another plugin that can adjust bass more transparently, retaining the punch and clarity of your music.
When adjusting the EQ on the master channel, you would generally want to go for broad Q bandwidths and EQ adjustments no greater than around 4dB. If the adjustments are greater than this then you may get more transparent results by going back to fix things in the original mix before mastering. Rules can always be broken and it’s the results that count. If a master needs to have a 6dB high-end boost to sound great then go for it.
Our plugin MIXROOM is perfect for dialing in a great sounding master in the mid and high frequencies. It works in a similar way to BASSROOM where you can select a preset or load in your own reference track to generate tonal balance targets. You can also adjust the mid-side settings for each band, giving you total control over how you shape the frequencies across the stereo field.
When making EQ adjustments, be sure to adjust the output gain of the EQ to try and match the output loudness to the input loudness. This will help you objectively decide whether your EQ decisions are improving or deteriorating your sound when you bypass the plugin. Both MIXROOM and BASSROOM have a level match pointer on the output gain to help you do this instantly.
Reference tracks WILL help you make the best possible decisions for your music. The best engineers in the world use reference tracks, even festival headliners like Nicky Romero (see Nicky using our plugin REFERENCE in his awesome studio below). Click here to download the free trial of our plugins Reference Mixroom and Bassroom and hear how they can help you get your music sounding more like your favorite tracks.