Electronic Music has changed since it went palpably mainstream. From EDM to deeper subgenres like Dubstep, Trap, Future House, and various combinations thereof, the genre has evolved, both in the mainstream and the underground.
Thus, I thought a modern tally of great reference mixes was in order to aid in your own productions, mixes, and masters.
Wide subsets are on hand, including aggressive pop EDM, underground fare, and strange vanguards. More importantly, each reference has been selected with a specific aspect in mind.
We’re seeing a trend in electronic music: these days it makes use of traditional, recorded elements in a more prominent way. You can hear this trend in underground and mainstream varieties; consider Marshmellow’s “Happier” and its distorted guitars.
But we’re not here to talk about that tune—at least, not yet. We’re here to discuss the handling of sampled, recorded instruments with aplomb, clarity, and bombast. That’s why we’ve selected Egoless’s “Empire of Dirt.”
For a primer on how to treat percussion in electronic music and EDM, listen to how acoustic drums are given the trap high-hat treatment. Similarly, flutes are dispensed like arpeggiated synths, strings handle the slicing synth duties we often hear, and a distorted electric guitar gives us the equivalent force of a low, punctuated, envelope-filtered synth. The balance of it all across the mix is excellent.
If you look at the Tonal Balance Control graph, you can see the prominence at 60 Hz, followed by a bit of dip; plenty of space is given to let the subharmonic tones breathe. A lot of space is left in the high end as well for the strings—the graph dips above 1 kHz, but when the strings come in, you feel their high-end. This suggests ample space left for their luster.
Finally, check out the crest factor: it inches to the right. Too compressed? Almost there, but not quite. We have rumbly staying power in the low end, but it doesn’t travel into the lands of ear fatigue.
When I’ve got a mix with EDM elements—or a straight up EDM master—I’m usually keeping a keen eye on counterbalancing stereo elements in the low end.
Common sense tells us to keep the low-end—like kicks and sub-bass—mono, which is what we often see in the electronic game. Because of this, it’s been helpful to have references that help ground me in trying to seek a good balance in this regard. This mix is one of those references, for the stereo, growling synth and monophonic sub-bass are handled well.
This tune is also a great example of how to make something super bright without making it excessively piercing: delineation between all the elements is clean. Even the reverb has a cleanly cut-out space—check out the snare tied to a verb snare at 2:46, for example.
Finally, this mix is incredibly loud—it measures 7.6 LUFS integrated, and the drops can get up to a whopping -5.8 LUFS. But it never feels crushed. Part of this is due, I believe, to its gentle roll-off from the low-midrange through the highs, as shown in the tonal balance curve shown above.
This reference is aptly titled, what we have here is essentially a strong, four-on-the-floor downbeat, alongside a noise riff that loops in 3/4.
I love the slight phasiness of this 3/4 riff, how its elements appear to be pushing against my brain. Yet in mono, it all sums relatively well.
I believe this is due to the sidechaining: the swirling, 3/4 pattern ducks so well into the kick, without sounding excessively crushed. Lately I’ve taken to folding my own mixes and masters into mono and measuring them against this tune to see if I’ve nailed the fold-down quite as well.
If you listen carefully, you’ll also hear one of the downbeats stronger than the others—there’s a crescendo and bounce to each downbeat that gives you movement and rhythm. If you are producing something in a minimalist style, this is a good tune to reference for exactly that reason: little changes in velocity accomplish so much.
Let’s talk about the execution of the build: it utilizes elements swaddled in background reverb gradually coming into the fore, adding more and more to the goings-on. We have a keyboard with the type of harmonies we’re used to hearing in pop music, though slightly off-kilter in the mix—it comes in tilted toward the left headphone, as those stereotypical, poppy saw synths surround it during the build. These saw synths also exhibit subtle effects, somewhere between phasing and aliasing.
Finally, when the original beat drops back in, it comes swirling out of the reverb. If I’ve handled an arrangement with anywhere close to the same panache, I feel confident in my abilities.
This tune comes from a classical composer, yet it lands squarely at the forefront of electronic music—indeed, much of its press recognizes its electronic roots. Strange vocal samples give us something like a Gaelic chant of yore, but when the beat kicks in at 2:05, an expansive mix is achieved in full.
A low, sustaining kick thumps, while a midrange knocking kick punctuates, sounding a bit like koto drums. The vocals continue their synthetic journey to lands beyond Imogen Heap.
Tonal Balance Control shows us a massive low end and a prominent bump between 600 Hz and 1 kHz—to be expected when dealing with music whose harmonic complement is pretty much all vocals. Lately, I’ve referenced this mix for the interplay between monophonic elements and wide swaths of vocals—there’s a call and response theme throughout the mix between the phantom center and wider elements, and referencing it can be of use.
Submotion Orchestra also represents the trend of incorporating live elements into electronic landscapes. However, instead of chopping up samples, they utilize a full band, blending dubstep with ambient jazz and other genres. You can hear this interplay in the way synthetic basses crescendo to a fine point, nodding to dubstep’s low end. It’s also prevalent in the way electric percussion and real drums bounce off each other, from the transients to the effects employed.
Another lesson concerning stereo width occurs around 3:02. There, the tune plays up the middle, especially when compared to the wide pianos and strings that festoon the rest of the tune.
I was first hipped to Nomine by Andrew Eisele, who spoke to me for this article. He sang the praises of this producer, saying the fellow eschews compression whenever possible.
And yet here, he’s created a loud tune that hangs appropriately with club-geared music, coming in around -8.8 LUFS short term, 9.4 LUFS integrated. If you check out this tune in Tonal Balance Control, you’ll see how the bulk of the energy is concentrated around the low and low midrange. Yet, when you listen, the high-end is pronounced, suggesting that certain elements are left to work their magic there, with others culled out of their way.
This is certainly a good reference for mono bass management, as we have two constant basses playing simultaneously: the main feature synth and the sub bass. Yet both are distinct. It makes for a good fast-comparison with a level-matched mix.
We also have a great example of how to place dry percussion in an electronic mix, both EQ-wise and within the stereo field. Note the harmonic distortion in the prominent synth: it crunches but doesn’t overburden into harsh territory.
Finally, the vibe of this tune reminds me of the first level of the SNES video game Black Thorne. And I just love that!
I’ve used this mix lately when it comes to playing with phase. The build relies not so much on any one crescendoing noise. Instead, it takes a music passage more and more out of phase. Note how the build takes us into out-of-phase territory, as shown below:
The correlator is reading below zero, and the mix displays a wider signal than what is often deemed acceptable. Yet, when the drop comes in, look at the downbeat:
The contrast is something to behold.
I also reference this tune for its minimal groove. It creates such a vibrant feel using only a few, well-chosen elements. The beat is simple, the bass line is uncomplicated, and the impact of the house beat makes your head bob. This is a great exemplar for employing subtle rhythmic pacing to fashion a truly bouncy, swinging beat.
With nearly a billion plays on Spotify, you’d be a fool to ignore this tune, which resides on the poppy side of electronic music—it’s basically a pop tune from an electronic producer.
I spin this reference for a variety of reasons. If I have a tune that makes use of wide basses and stabby synths, I’ll call this one up. If I wonder whether or not my use of pitch-correction has gone too far, I’ll call this one up, as there’s an awful lot present here. If I need to keep a heavily electronic mix within the confines of a pop sound, I’ll call this one up.
To understand how that makes sense, let’s examine the Tonal Balance Control graph. You’ll see a smooth roll-off from the lows to the highs, one commensurate with a pop tune we might see in the Modern Tonal Balance Control preset. Indeed, it fits right in:
This suggests a tune that has been mixed for a wide array of listening systems—the club, the car, even the 70V system of the supermarket. If I’ve got a tune that hopes to hang in such habitats, I’ll give this one a spin.
Another swinger, I use this one to judge if my mixing choices have either destroyed or enhanced the groove. Extensive use of sidechain compression makes these synths bounce against their downbeats; if I’m mixing something with a similar effect, this is the reference to see if I’ve achieved the right bounce.
The tune also makes use of vocoded background vocals, which are more and more en vogue. Sometimes vocoded vocals require massaging to sound right, so I’ll use this as a judge when handling those.
As with “Happier,” this song seems to employ pitch correction, so it can be a good barometer for whether or not I’ve gone too far with that. Then there’s the low end of that kick: it’s massive! And everything drops out of the way. However, in terms of balance, it actually matches the Tonal Balance Control guidelines for bass-heavy music pretty spot on:
If you’re wondering why you’re seeing that spike at 800 Hz—that’s probably a relic of the long intro and some of the breakdown sections, which concentrate in that region.
This is a remix of a classic song and I like to reference it for how it’s made mincemeat of the original, forming something new in the process.
Indeed, Tiesto has used pieces of the vocal in canny ways—ways that inspire me in my own productions. In terms of the mix, I pay attention to face-impacting transients, as well as the high-end of the bass. Yes, sometimes it’s important to pay attention to a bass’s treble content, as well as its lows, and the basses in the build-up of this tune exhibit a high-end I try to approximate.
The tempo shift is also handled with aplomb, so I find it is a good reference for any electric tune that exhibits a violent change in speed.
The over-the-top, kitchen-sink sound design is impeccable from the wide basses to the weird ascending synth.
It’s worth having these references because they have tendrilled their way into all sorts of music—from jazz to pop. Just recently I got a jazz project that needed this sort of reference, as well as a rock project with some elements found in electronic music. So even if you trend away from this sort of music, it’s worth studying, for it’ll likely make its way to you.
And if you love this music, these tunes represent clear examples of its vital parts—from the handling of low end to the building of drops, from stereophonic content to the incorporation of sampled—rather than synthesized—elements. Whether you produce, mix, or master, I hope you find these tunes as valuable as I do.
To load the curves, download them and move them to the Target Curve folder, which you can locate in the following path on both Mac and PC /documents/izotope/tonal balance control 2/target curves. You will then be able to access the curves directly in Tonal Balance Control.