Tips for Using Reference Tracks in a Mix
So what I want to do today is kind of expand on our video recently where we talked about the top 10 mistakes. This is the one thing that we didn’t talk about in here, which I think is really, really important. I’ve got this from working with so many high levels mixers that have mixed my stuff, that these are the three things that I always see them doing.
So we’re going to talk about these three things when it comes to referencing tracks. So let’s get stuck in!
Number one, and I’ve seen this written into people’s contracts, is they want a really high quality rough mix from the artist. I’ve even seen one guy that says he requires a label approved rough mix. Now, what does that mean? Well, what that means is if you’re mixing somebody else’s material, and you’re a professional mixer, or like a lot of you watching here, amateurs or semi-professionals, or whatever it is, if somebody is sending you something to mix, have them send you their best sounding rough mix.
Now, why is that? Well, that gives you a starting point, and if a guy like me, or Neil, or any of those guys that are actually having somebody else mix their stuff, you know the mix is going to be really, really good. So if you’re an A-list mixer, and you’re getting a rough mix from a really great producer or engineer, you’re being saved a lot of work. That mixer is getting the roadmap already laid out very nicely for you.
So number one, when you’re mixing other people’s stuff, have them send you their rough mix. If they’ve had somebody else mix the song and they kind of like it, except for this detail, that detail, this detail, have them send that to you. Use rough mixes. Because they’re a great roadmap.
They do one of two things. They give you something to reference to beat, because quite often, you can put up somebody’s rough mix and go, “Oh, this is really cool except the bass is out of control.” So you can sit there and get back to that kind of level of mix, EQ and compression wise, or level wise, and then just solve the bass issue in the last person’s mix.
Then you can spend more time having fun. You can spend more time doing little embellishments. Doing specific vocal effects, or reverse effects, or muting things, and get more into the artistry and the creativity of mixing. So having a great rough mix, or somebody else’s mix already being done will really help you out.
Now, you might think that’s cheating. Well, you know, it’s not cheating. It’s getting the best results. Quite often, as a producer, I find that if somebody else reproduces the song, the demo that I did with an artist, it comes back 99% the same as the demo that I did. You know, and this has happened all of the time in our business, so when you’re dealing with the — or you’re looking at the careers of the top guys, look at how they maintain their success.
They have the advantages of having great mixes done by great engineers and great producers that they’re beating, but they know where to start from. They also have the advantage sometimes when producing of already hearing a demo produced to a really high level, and they borrow and take those ideas from somebody else, then maybe embellish it slightly, but that roadmap has already been done.
So don’t be afraid to ask your artist for a really high quality rough mix, and if they’ve had it mixed by other people, but are not happy yet, get those mixes. Referencing the rough mixes and other mixes will help you.
So that’s my number one thing. Number two, always reference previous mixes that you have done, so that you’re always in the same ballpark and improving all the time.
So let’s just say you’ve done a mix for an artist that people love, and it’s doing really well. Now, really well doesn’t mean it’s downloaded ten million copies. That’s one way of doing really well. Another way of doing really well is to put it up on Sound Cloud and people love it. People can be ten people. Ten people who have heard your mix and love what you’re doing, and you’re proud of that mix. Use that when mixing.
Quite often, when I’m mixing an album, I’ll mix a song, I’ll spend three days going backwards and forwards with the artist, until it gets to a point where they love it.
Now, when I come to mix the second song on the album, I have their rough mix in there, but I also have the mix that I just spent three days on there, so I’m always referencing that, at least I’m going to be as good as that mix. Maybe even better.
So take that philosophy. Take the rough mixes, and other mixes that may have already been done by the artist, or by somebody else, and reference those, and use them, and find the problems in them, and improve upon them. Then add more creativity, and then number two, use your own mixes that you’re happy with, so you know where you’re at at all times.
Lastly, thirdly and lastly, don’t be afraid to have mixes by other people of other songs as references. So, reference other people’s mixes. If you’re doing a band — like, I mixed the Black Veil Brides live album, DVD, and Blu-ray. I had the references of all of their studio recordings, so when I was working on a song, I had — I went and I purchased the band’s studio version of it, so I knew what they were trying to do, and I wanted to beat the studio version, and also have the live atmosphere in there, so I had all the crowd mics going, but I wanted to take all of the essence of the studio version, but improve upon it and have all of that attitude in there.
But let’s just say I was mixing a band like Black Veil Brides that wasn’t Black Veil Brides. I might use some of the top hit singles by Black Veil Brides as a reference point to make sure I’m as good as that, if not better than that. So if I — if I’ve got another kind of modern rock band that has — is reminiscent of that kind of sound, then I’ll find two or three of the best sounding other modern rock band’s mixes, and I’ll put them in there, and I’ll reference backwards and forward while I work on a track, and I’ll be like, “Well how did the drums sound on this song? They’re good. Ah, I’m better than that. What about this one? Oh, I like the way that snare is. Can I incorporate some of that?”
So don’t be afraid to reference other things. Obviously, make sure you’re referencing other things that relate to what you’re working on. It’s no good referencing a piano/vocal when you’re doing heavy rock guitar with a screaming vocal over it. Reference another heavy rock song that’s current and sounds fantastic. Reference that when referencing how the vocal sits in the mix.
Don’t reference a girl’s vocal when you’re doing guy’s vocals. Don’t reference a guy’s vocal when doing girl’s vocals, etcetera. Make sure you do logical things, and you will save yourself a lot of heartache of listening to tons and tons of things that aren’t relevant.
So just spend a few minutes before you start mixing maybe picking some tracks that you can put in there.
Okay, so those are my three tips, and those are the three tips that I have seen all of the big mixers do. Number one, get a really high quality rough mix from the artist. If they’ve already had other mixers do it, get those too, so you can compare, contrast, and beat.
Dave Pensado, when he mixed my Daniel Powter song a couple of weeks ago had my mix, and he beat it, but he referenced it, and if you see the interview, he talked about referencing it. He said I had the roadmap laid out for him, and then he took it to the next level.
I saved him a lot of work, but I also got a better mix from him because of it.
Secondly, reference your own best work to make sure you’re always in the ballpark and beating something you’ve always done. Have one of your mixes in there you’re proud, and then once you’ve mixed, say, the first track on an album or an EP, have that as a reference so that you’re always in the same ballpark and the same area.
Thirdly, and lastly and probably as important, if not more important than the other two, if you’re working with a band of a specific genre, find — or an artist, an artist of a specific genre — find another successful, great sounding artist in that genre, and get tracks — at least one, possibly two tracks by somebody in that genre, and have those in there so you know hat you’re trying to beat. What you’re trying to A, emulate, and B, ultimately get better still on.
Something that’s very important of course when you’re referencing already mastered tracks is to level match. Make sure you’re listening at the same volume, because often, things sound truly exciting because they’re really loud. Your ears are really sensitive between 3-5kHz, so guitars and cymbals, and vocals and stuff, and snare drums are very aggressive in that area.
So you can get a little carried away overly EQing things, or turning things up if you’re not properly matched. So make sure when you’re listening to a mastered track to bring it down so it matches the level you’re listening at.
So do that with all of your rough mixes, and your reference mixes, so they’re always listening at the same level.
There’s a couple of plugins out there that help with the level matching issues. One of them is Ian Sheperd’s one called Perception. That works really, really well, and that will help match the level so you’re just listening to the music at the same level, and you won’t get that imbalanced frequencies, because as I was saying earlier, if you push something up super, super loud, it’ll sound more aggressive than listening at lower levels.
There’s also another one called AB Level Matching as well. There’s a couple of plugins out there. I highly recommend trying to match it by ear first of all, but if you feel like you can’t, then get one of these plugins to help you, because it could really, really help take your mixing to the next level.
So my overriding thing is reference tracks at all times. Always reference, always take yourself out of the zone so that you’re listening to the music as a whole, and you’re not so caught up in the detail that you spend hours on maybe one instrument, and then when you listen to it as a whole, it doesn’t work. You want to always be referencing other tracks.
Thanks ever so much for watching. Have a marvelous time mixing. As ever, please leave me a bunch of questions and comments below, and tell me what’s your experience? What do you do? Do you have go-to tracks? Some of your work that you love that you’ll always want to be in the same ballpark on and beating? Are there certain sonic things that you just hold in super high regard and are always trying to beat?
Whatever it is, please share. I’d love to have a big discussion about it, and thank you ever so much for watching. Have a marvelous time mixing, and I really appreciate all of the comments and feedback that I get.