Why Use Reference Tracks?
Reference tracks are used by producers and engineers at all stages of their careers. It’s a great way to make sure our mixes sound as good (or at least comparable) to commercially successful releases. Reference tracks shouldn't stifle your creativity or force you to make decisions that aren't right for the music. Reference tracks help you recalibrate your ears when you’ve been working on a track for a long time. They help you create music that translates well on different playback systems and in different environments.
Preparing the Comparison
In your mixing session, load up an instance of REFERENCE as the final plugin on your master bus. REFERENCE should come after your metering plugin but before any speaker/headphone calibration software (if you use it). Drag and drop the reference tracks you want to use onto the Wave Transport and set the mode to FREE. Here is a checklist to follow when selecting your reference tracks:
- Choose reference tracks that are in the same genre as the mix you’re working on.
- Choose reference tracks with similar instrumentation and sounds to the mix you’re working on.
- Use reference tracks that you think sound amazing.
- If possible, select reference tracks that have had commercial success.
- Use high quality files. You don’t want to try and match your sound to a low quality MP3.
Once you’ve loaded your Reference tracks, click the Level Match button to balance the tracks so they all have the same perceived loudness. Your mix will most likely be a lot quieter than your reference tracks giving you the misconception that it has a weaker bass and less clarity in the high frequencies. The Level Match button will allow you to compare your mix to the reference tracks without bias, allowing you to make informed mixing decisions.
Comparing your mix to the reference tracks
Now that your tracks are level matched, you can begin to objectively look at how your mix sounds compared to your reference tracks.
Some questions to ask yourself when using reference tracks:
- Are the vocals too hot?
- Is the Kick level too loud?
- Is the bass too quiet?
- How does the reverb, delays and other spacial effects compare?
- How does the balance compare with other tracks in a similar genre?
- Is the stereo image wide enough?
You might chose to make your mix slightly more dynamic than the mastered reference tracks to compensate for any compression and limiting that might be applied to your mix during mastering.
When you listen to your reference track and you compare it to your own music, it can be difficult to put your finger on what changes you need to make. The one-of-a-kind Trinity Display uses intelligent algorithms to show you how the balance and punch of your track compares to your reference. You can create from 1 to 5 moveable frequency bands in the Trinity Display. Each band gives you a specific reading of how the punch and balance of your track compares to the punch and balance of your reference in the corresponding frequency band.
The white Level Lines show you how the balance of the frequencies in your mix compares to your reference tracks. If the Level Line is above the centre line then those frequencies are more prominent in your mix. If the Level Line is below the centre line then those frequencies are less prominent in your mix. Ctrl+Click anywhere in the Trinity Display to add more frequency bands to get a more detailed view. Ctrl+Click on a frequency band divider to remove it.
If the Level Line in the low frequency band is lower than the central 0dB line, you may choose to increase the volume of your kick and bass. Alternatively, you may decide that adding EQ boosts to the low end of your bass elements might be a better option to get your low frequencies sounding more comparable to your reference.
If the Level Line in the high frequencies is above the central line, you might decide to reduce the volume of your hi-hats, cymbals and sweeping effects. Alternatively, you may decide to create some EQ cuts to reduce the high end energy to make the high frequency energy comparable to your reference.
The purple Punch Dots in the Trinity Display will tell you how the short-term dynamic range of your track compares to the short-term dynamic range of your reference. If the Punch Dots are moving towards the white Level Line then those frequencies are more compressed in the mix. If the Punch Dots are moving away from the Level Line then those frequencies are more dynamic in the mix. The brighter the dots are, the greater the difference in the dynamic range. If the dots are invisible then the dynamic range is the same in that frequency band in both the mix and the reference.
The Punch Dots give you a detailed indication of how punchy the different frequencies are in your mix in comparison to your reference. It’s quite easy to hear if your high frequencies are piercingly loud in comparison your reference, but it’s more difficult to tell if they are over-compressed or over-dynamic in comparison.
If you create a frequency band ranging from 2k-20kHz, and in that band the Punch Dots are very clear and moving away from the Level Line, then you mix is much more dynamic in that frequency range than your reference track. You may decide to add some compression to the prominent elements of your mix in that frequency range. This insight will help you get your mix sounding closer to the sonic qualities of your reference track.