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How to use your favourite song as a reference track for mixing

When you're mixing, how do you know what you're aiming for? Do you have a reference track for comparison, or is the sound you want in your head already?

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The objective of mixing is easily stated. Make the song sound good. But how do you judge what sounds good? And how do you know when you have achieved 100% goodness value?

These are important questions. Without answers, then you will never know when your mix is finished.

In the old days of expensive studios, a mix was finished when the session ended. The console would be zeroed for the next client. Although some consoles had a 'recall' feature where a mix could be reconstructed, they were in the minority, and resetting the console and outboard fully could be expected to take a couple of hours.

These days, we can reopen a session file at any time. So until a recording is actually released to the public, the mix can never really be considered finished unless someone in charge definitively says it is so.

In home studio recording this is a huge problem. Work never gets truly finished because the mix is never finished. And that's because...

There never was a proper target to aim for. The home studio producer had a vague idea in his or her head what the mix should sound like, but not a precise idea of what that sound should be.

But the solution is simple. Use a reference track.

Well that isn't news. It is commonly said that a track that has proven itself in the market for the genre in which you are working should be imported into the session as a comparison.

That's good. But it isn't the complete answer because there is more to it than that in this slightly different approach...

Reference track

Although common advice is to use a reference track to compare your mix with, how should you choose that track?

You could choose your reference track on a mix-by-mix basis. There's nothing wrong with doing that, particularly if you work on a wide variety of material.

However it is also worth considering having just one reference track, and really getting the sound of that track, played through your monitors in your studio, into your head.

If you listen to that track regularly in your studio, daily perhaps, then you should not have to import it into your session to reference it because you know it so well already.

Which song to choose?

Obviously one that is in a similar genre to the music that you mix. But there's more to consider...

One problem with using a reference track is that it will be mastered. So you are comparing your mix with a mix that has been mastered.

This might result in your mix already having the mastered sound, which may not be a bad idea, but it is normally better to concentrate on blending the mix, then applying mastering processing as a separate stage.

On the other hand, you might choose a reference track that only has light mastering applied. There are two ways to do this (actually three, if you could get your hands on an unmastered mix of a commercial release, but that's going to be difficult)...

1. Choose a track from before the recent battles in the 'loudness war' started, sometime around 1995.
2. Source your reference track from vinyl, where the technical limitations of the medium usually lead to a milder mastering treatment.

I'm going to give you an example of a track that I like. Don't think it's the only possible choice because there are probably hundreds of songs that would work just as well. And I might change my mind at any time. But my choice is...

Psycho Killer by Talking Heads (1997)

So why do I choose this? Well if I'm mixing guitars, drums and vocals it has all of these elements.

But also - I might be committing some kind of sacrilege here - I don't think it's all that good a mix. Not as a mix anyway, but as a vehicle for getting the song across it definitely does work. Sometimes a mix can be too blended for its own good. And in this song, each instrument is very clearly separated, yet blending in to a practically useful whole.

To put this another way, it isn't setting me an impossible challenge. If you pick a reference mix made by one of the world's top mix engineers, then how exactly are you going to equal or surpass that?

Also, David Byrne's singing really is not very good technically. But the song works as a whole, so it's a good example of getting a vocal to work despite apparent limitations.

To add one more very good reason to choose this song, it was very popular in its day and still well-remembered now. And it doesn't hurt that it features in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

One more quick point on this song - there is a re-mastered version from 2005 which is well worth hearing once as a comparison, then forever keeping well away from. I'll have more to say about this in a future article because it raises other interesting points.

Summary

It is worth considering having just one reference track that you listen to regularly so that you get the sound you are aiming for into your head, rather than clicking back and forth between your mix and the reference. It isn't the only way to work, but it is well worth trying.

By David Mellor Monday October 30, 2017
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