How and why you should use a reference track during mixing

Illustration: Eileen Tjan

This article originally appeared on Flypaper.

Arguably one of the most important skills in mixing audio is the ability to listen. Listening to what others have done with their songs specifically and being able to both accurately describe and actively attempt to recreate the same auditory experience via the tools available to you are extensions of the simple, yet too often overlooked, act of listening.

That’s why the first section of our exciting, new Mainstage course, Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques I, is dedicated solely to improving your ability to actively listen, describe, and choose relevant reference material. Here’s one of the first lessons from the course, highlighting the importance of being able to describe the sound world of an audio recording and how to use a reference to gauge the effectiveness of your mix.

Describing Sound

Classical music has a whole language of notation that dictates how something should sound. As a mixer, we get instructions from bands, friends, and clients saying things like, “Can it sound fatter?” or, “Can the vocal feel a bit more distant?”

The translation is largely up to you, but to communicate about mixes, we need to be able to talk about the way something sounds. Let’s look at some common examples.

Big vs. Little

This one’s pretty simple, and it’s really just a matter of level. “Big” sounds are loud, and “little” sounds are quiet. You could also argue that big sounds have more bass and little sounds have less bass. But when contrast comes into play, it can be more interesting and subtle than that.

Check out the contrast in sounds in this Son Lux track, “Easy.” The guitars and winds are tiny, almost twinkly, and in contrast, you get these giant baritone sax riffs and a big, subby kick. The little things draw you in, and the big things blow you away.

Wide vs. Narrow – The Space

Does the mix sound “wide” and “open,” like a panoramic photo of the Grand Tetons? Or does it sound “narrow” and “intimate,” like looking at a mountain goat on the side of the mountains through a telescope?

The left-to-right dimension, or “width,” of a mix is determined by how the individual elements in a mix are panned. It can also be because of an effect like a big, stereo reverb. The best mixes do both with intimate moments that explode into big wide landscape mixes, like this one:


Reverbs and spatial effects can also create a front-to-back dimension in a mix. Think of a cave for a moment. When we say something sounds “wet,” we generally mean it sounds “deep,” like the source is in the back of the cave.

Some bands actually go out of their way to record in spaces like grain silos to get sounds like this. That depth is a huge part of their sound. But with the range of effects available via plugins today, it’s not impossible to get great results on a budget in your DAW as well.

When we say something sounds “dry,” we mean it feels “close,” or like the sound is right in front of us. As always, contrast creates the most immediacy and excitement, like in this Nirvana track, “Something In the Way.”

The same descriptors we use for describing reverb can also be used to describe whether a sound is effected or un-effected. Saying that a sound or stem is “wet” can also mean that it has compression, EQ, reverb, and potentially other effects embedded in the file. If it’s “dry,” it means that it hasn’t been “effected.”

Color and Warmth

When we talk about the color of something, we’re typically referring to the “brightness” or “darkness” of a sound. Think about a jangly acoustic guitar. It’s bright and shimmery, and those characteristics come from the high frequencies, as we’ll see in our lesson on EQ. “Bright” sounds can also be “cold” if they lack low frequencies.

It’s tough to think of something that conjures the feeling of cold more than the start of this track. Sigur Rós has an uncanny ability to make things sound like a thawing Icelandic landscape with fireworks in the background.

“Dark” sounds lack high frequencies and have a bass-y “warmth” to them. Think of something like a warm synth pad in something ambient like Radiohead’s “Treefingers” below.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Create the Unmistakable Keyboard Sound in ‘Everything in Its Right Place’”

We’re not asking, “Can you make it more purple?” Who knows what that means? To understand the way our bandmates, clients, and even the way we ourselves want something to sound, we can lean on reference tracks to help us reach our goals.

Go ahead and pick a random song and use some of the words above to try to describe it in the comments. Is it big, wide, intimate, cold, etc.?

Reference Tracks

For our purposes, referencing is the process of identifying one recording that has a vibe, sound, and instrumentation that is close to the song that you are working on. By using a reference as a sonic target, you can make more informed mix decisions and learn a ton about your mix environment.

Why Only One Reference?

It’s easy to love the snare sound from this song, and the guitar tone from another. Imagine you have two puzzles and you start interchanging pieces from the two. The mismatched pieces don’t work together because they don’t fit with any pieces of the puzzle you’re trying to force them into. Mixing kind of works the same way.

Referencing helps you learn about your mix environment, too. The way your mix sounds in your bedroom will be different than the way it sounds in your kitchen, car, or bathroom. The good news is, there’s a lot of music out there that sounds great in tons of places. By comparing our mix progress to a recording that we know sounds good, we can instantly sense differences in level, pan, color, depth, and impact.

You can make the best mix in the world with the most minimal gear, and referencing can help in a really big way.

To learn more, and have the chance to work with a professional producer for six weeks on enhancing your mixing skills, check out the course, Faders Up: Modern Mix Techniques I. Take 25% off any of our premium courses ($125 in savings) now with the promo code: SPLICE.

January 19, 2018