There are plenty of articles telling you which reference mixes to use, as different genres demand different approaches to mixing. Indeed, iZotope places hefty importance on referencing—an entire referencing section is built into Ozone 8. But how should you reference? When should you reference? What should you listen for while referencing? And how do you select the best references for your particular track, regardless of genre?
We’ll answer all of these questions and more in the following 13 tips. Six are basic and practical, seven are musical and philosophical, all of them are important. Let’s have at it!
1. Use your rough mix as a reference
As mix engineer Ike Schultz made clear in our interview with him, always utilize the rough mix as a reference. This is true even if you’re working on mixing your own production—either the rough is a starting point you need to beat or a yardstick to measure how far you’ve come.
In either case, you need the rough mix to make sure that the rough mix doesn’t make things worse. Nothing is more disheartening than A/B-ing your mix with the rough mix after hours of work, only to find you’ve killed the vibe—missing the forest of emotionality for the technical trees.
If you’re working with your own production, you may blur the line between mixing and production while you work. This is understandable. An automation of EQ or a deployment of sidechain compression could be considered both a production decision and a mixing move.
Still, try to draw a firm boundary somewhere between the end of production and the beginning of the mix. “Save as” the session, label it as the mix, and bounce the current state of the mix as a WAV file. Drop it into Ozone 8’s referencing section and let it live amongst your other references.
2. Use your client’s reference
Anytime I mix or master a project, I always ask for a reference from the client. Later on, we’ll see how your own favorites will come in handy, but these mixes should always be informed by the reference your client provides.
Why? Because the client also knows what they want to hear—they have an idea of where the project is going. The client reference gives you a peek into their predilections and goals for your final result. It is your first genre-specific guide as well.
Try to get a WAV file of your client’s preference—it’s always better than the lossy version—and drop it into Ozone 8’s reference section next to the rough.
3. Use your favorite mixes as references
My first batch of personal references is compiled from the music of my childhood. There’s some Soundgarden in there, some Nine Inch Nails, Mos Def, Radiohead, Alan Parsons Project, Tool, D’Angelo, Talking Heads, Porcupine Tree, Alanis, Jeff Buckley, Hawksley Workman, and many others.
Your list will be different—I grew up in the nineties, which is obvious if you read the previous paragraph. Whatever you choose, these reference mixes must move you the most. You must admire their music and their sonics, and this is as much for inspiration as it is for matching. The client reference and rough mix will appeal to the technical needs—you won’t be close enough to those mixes to fall into emotional traps.
But you still need the emotional traps. You must capture the feeling of mixes that inspired you all throughout your life, that’s why you should reference your favorite songs. These help you achieve the je ne sais quois that the client reference and rough won’t inspire.
4. Use references in the same sonic sphere
When selecting from your most prized personal references, pick one or two that work best for the song or project. Select these mixes using a couple of different criteria.
You could go for a reference that matches the genre of your current project. For instance, if you’re working on a gloomy pop mix with heavy synthetic elements, you can choose something in your stable that matches the tempo, the sonic landscape, and the overall sound you wish to achieve.
Alternatively, you can focus on the element that needs the most work and choose the best reference to match it. A while ago, I had an Americana mix with drums recorded in less-than-ideal environment. I wanted them to sound so much more expensive than they did in the audio I received. So, I selected “Everybody Here Wants You” by Jeff Buckley, a tune with some of the most cleanly recorded, crisp drums I’ve ever heard. Now I had something to work towards, even though the songs were completely different (a waltz versus a slow jam, distorted guitars versus clean electrics and strings).
Take two references from your personal collection, filtered for genre or sonic ideal, and place them in your Ozone 8 referencing section. Now you should have the rough, the client refs, and two personal mixes in your referencing stable. That should be enough.
5. Level match the reference to the mix
If you follow gain staging tips laid out in other articles, you’ll usually find yourself working towards a consistent level target every time. Say you mix at -20 LU, or you prefer to go a little hotter, maybe around -17 LU. After setting up your static mix to hit the desired target, bring your reference mixes down to this same level.
Why? Let’s not beat a horse to death––we know there’s a difference between louder and better. We want to mitigate this difference wherever possible, and level-matching ensures the difference doesn’t happen.
6. Keep your monitors at 85 dB SPL
Science tells us that if we monitor too low, we won’t hear the bass and treble in an adequate relation to the midrange. The same is true if we monitor at levels that are too loud—and we can cause ear damage to boot.
A sweet spot is needed, one where we can take an accurate accounting of bass, mid-range, and treble frequencies. 85 dB SPL is the average number recommended, though you should still take frequent breaks at this level.
Use an SPL meter—even one on your mobile device is good enough for these purposes—to ensure your mix and reference mixes are all playing back at around 85 dB SPL on your loudspeakers.
If you’re not hitting the desired playback level, change the output level of your monitor control until you are. Do this at the start of your mixing session. Note that 85 dB is not always correct for every room. Some rooms do better at 83 dB (mine does), and some work better a little lower. It depends on your room.
The important thing is to select a consistent level to make decisions, especially utilizing referencing mixes. Now, with the practical stuff out of the way, you can use the following musical tricks to get the most out of your references.
7. Avoid ear fatigue
After setting up initial balances—or after working on a mix for an hour or two—take a ten-minute silence break to rest your ears to avoid ear fatigue. When you come back, play five seconds of the reference and switch immediately to five seconds of your mix. You’ll have an immediate idea of how far you are from the real thing—and what you must do to steer the mix home.
Something about the silent break and the quickness of comparison makes the difference here—you’ll catch things you hadn’t noticed when mired in the mix previously. But if you listen to each mix for too long, your noggin will convince you that your mix is not so far off as it immediately seemed. Make no mistake, your first impression is correct in this circumstance. Don’t let your brain trick you. You must instead trick your brain.
8. Drastic moves to match the reference can be ok!
Many times when matching a mix to a reference, I’ll think, “Am I really going to have to boost this element so much to match it?” This is followed by, “That can’t be a good idea, can it?” I’ll never know unless I try, and that’s what using a reference is all about, focusing your effort and will into worthwhile arenas.
Speaking of arenas, I’m working on an arena rock mix presently for a band who worship at the altar of Pantera and Ted Nugent—the reference is literally Pantera’s cover of Cat Scratch Fever. They want the snare drum to sound as close as possible in particular.
Left to my own devices, I would not add machine-gun snare samples to a kit, nor would I boost it all in the highs. But I had the reference to guide me. I wouldn’t have been able to make the call without the reference. It just so happened the call was correct, no matter what a screenshot of the EQ looked like.
For the record, here’s what it looked like before and after referencing:
9. Zero in on one element at a time
Sometimes we hear a mix and go, “I know what this needs—the snare sound from [insert a song you know well]!” This song becomes a reference track, of course, and we’re now trying to ape the sound of that snare as best we can.
Don’t think of such cribbage as a moral mixing issue; unless you’re working on a cover of the reference, the song is inherently different, and you’re also a completely different person from the original engineer. Your result will sound contextually unique.
In a circumstance like this, it can be helpful to engage in critical listening. When comparing against the reference master, try to focus on one element of the music at a time. Listen to your snare and quickly compare it to the reference. It’s not hard: if you tell yourself you’re listening to that snare, you’ll find you’re listening to that snare.
Here are three circumstances where this technique is especially useful:
- If you want to see whether your last bit of processing got you closer to the ballpark, engage in critical listening between your mix and your references. This works for any instrument that you’re sculpting.
- If you want to see whether you made something worse, engage in focus listening between your mix and the rough mix. Again, this holds true for all instruments.
- If you are making stereo bus or mastering decisions, again, use focused listening in reference to the rough. Say, for instance, you’re going for transparency in limiting. Spend a minute A/B-ing the limiters of Ozone against the rough mix, and you’ll hear right away if the kick, snare, bass, or vocal isn’t playing well against the limiter. Level matching is an absolute necessity here, as you want no perceived loudness jump to influence your decision.
10. Listen for relationships within the reference
Now, instead of locking onto one instrument, listen to the relationship between two or three. It could be the kick, snare, and vocals. You could choose the bass and the kick. Perhaps the vocals and their respective reverberation/effects occupy your focus. Whichever pair or trio you choose, you’ll quickly arrive at the correct balance if you compare the relationship in your mix with the relationship in the reference mixes.
Think of the vocal/effects balance, this is always hard to clock at first—for instance, this relationship sounds inherently different in cans than in loudspeakers. So you may not know where to start.
But come on, yes you do: with the reference! If you have faith that that reference is the right anchor for your mix, then comparing the balance between your mix and the reference is exactly where you should start.
11. Ask questions every step of the way
Are my trebles as smooth as the reference or are they harsh? Is my bass sitting correctly or is it tubby and overwhelming? Is my percussion cracking through or is it muffled by other instruments? These are all questions you should ask yourself while you’re comparing your work to the references.
There’s more: is my track as wide? If not, how does it feel? Wider or less narrow? Be inquisitive here with any element that immediately doesn’t stack up against the reference; it will become apparent to you and you must suss it out.
12. Reference similar sections (chorus with chorus, verse with verse)
When judging the impact, depth, width, and weight of your chorus, try to line the section up with similar parts of a reference. Make sure you’re switching between these comparable song sections, and keep the goals of your mix in mind while you listen.
Is your chorus supposed to be wide, open, and soaring? Or should it be impactful, dense, and in your face? Does your reference achieve the same goal? And if so, how? Is your mix achieving this goal like the reference does? Or does it fall short in some way?
Using the tricks already provided—everything from level matching to homing in on a single detail—you can pinpoint how your mix falls short in this section.
13. Use meters while referencing
We all know that the ears serve you better than the eyes. However, sometimes the eyes can be informative, especially when referencing material—and especially when contrasted with your ears.
Take loudness metering, if the reference is playing back at -17 LU short term, and your mix is also hitting -17 LU, all’s hunky-dory, right?
Perhaps your ears provide a different story—your ears say the reference feels louder. This tells you something about the apparent loudness of your mix, and what you need to fix. Most likely, it’s a frequency-balance issue. Your mix could use more midrange or top to give it the same feeling.
Also, if you’re using Insight 2, keep an eye on the correlation meter while referencing. If your mix feels as wide as the reference, but the correlation meter gives you a reading inching towards the negatives, that tells you something about what you’re not hearing—namely any phasing issues you may not notice.
Using something like the Loudness History Graph in Insight 2, get a feel for the dynamic range of the reference, and see how it stacks up against your mix.
Hours of mixing can leave your ears dull to dynamic range issues. A metrical comparison helps you see when you’re boringly flat in comparison to the reference.
Now, I personally don't rely on visual frequency analysis in my referencing. I just don’t get a lot of mileage out of watching curves hopping around.
Obvious differences leap out easily—too much bass, too much of any one frequency band for that matter—but different songs are so innately dissimilar, even when arrangements share common instrumentation. So I find such visual comparisons tend to lead me farther astray than closer to the truth. Your mileage may vary.
Some feel innate shame, or wanton anger, when told to use reference mixes. It’s sort of like the musician who doesn’t want to learn musical theory, thinking their creativity will be sullied, negatively impacted, restricted.
Don’t be that person. Have more faith in yourself! Your talent is not so fragile, your vision is not so equivocating, that your whole vibe will be ruined by influence. You are still you. References will only help you be the best you that you can be.
If you doubt me, there are other pros who agree—I can show you my references.