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12 Great Reference Mixes for Rock in the Modern Age

by Nick Messitte, iZotope Contributor January 21, 2020
Rock reference tracks
Rock reference tracks

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Click to download the Tonal Balance Control curves of the songs mentioned here to reference for your next project.
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 operating systems: /documents/izotope/tonal balance control 2/target curves You will then be able to access the curves directly in Tonal Balance Control. 

Rock music—a curious collection of genres these days! We hear so many variants of rock that it can be hard to slap any label on this genre whatsoever. Making matters more complicated, much of what the mainstream tells us is rock music doesn’t sound, feel, or rebel like the rock of yesteryear.

Though, for mixing and mastering engineers, there is no lack of rock music in the queue—the music often necessitates a studio environment for the recording of drums, and frequently finds its way to mixing engineers rather than producers working from home. Yet so much has changed since rock left the limelight, so you might not know which tunes to reference when mixing or mastering rock music. Thus, we present this list.

1. Steven Wilson, “The Raven that Refused to Sing”

Artist: Steven Wilson

Album: The Raven That refused to Sing (and Other Stories)

Mixing Engineer: Steven Wilson

“The Raven that Refused to Sing” Tonal Balance Control curve

Steven Wilson is an interesting figure in the world of rock, though he also belongs to prog, metal, and electronic styles. 

I find him particularly interesting because he frequently mixes his own music—and does a great job of it. Some of his records aren’t even “mastered” in the conventional sense. Instead, he mixes them for the final release. Often, you know what you’re hearing has been untouched by the mastering engineer. 

“The Raven that Refused to Sing” is one such tune. You can reference this mix knowing you’re competing against a fellow mixing engineer, not a mastering engineer. 

Wilson is a sentimental operator: he always goes for the gut. Note how he positions the strings in this arrangement—not overwhelming or spread out in the stereo field, but positioned just far back enough for emotional mileage.

On the Tonal Balance Control graph pictured above, check out the bump just below 100 Hz. If you solo the lows in Tonal Balance Control, you’ll hear this bump is the bass—you can hear how clear it is, with everything else staying out of its way.

5:39 into the tune, you’ll note the prevalence of softly-sung vocals and a doubling, whisper-low guitar over a sizeable band; the balance is impeccable, you can hear every word, and yet it is understood to be quiet. This occurs again at 6:50—though with monstrous guitar tones underpinning the lyrics. Again, an impeccable balance. 

Finally, the guitar tone at 6:10 is not to be trifled with! 

2. Gomez, “Notice”

Artist: Gomez

Album: How We Operate

Mixing Engineer: Adrian Bushby

Mastering Engineer: Bob Ludwig

“Notice” Tonal Balance Control curve

Whereas the previous tune has been referenced for its lack of a mastering engineer, here we’re choosing a tune that sounds great, perhaps because of the mastering engineer. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment. But first the tune:

This is a soft number, one that may appeal to fans of Dave Matthews Band or Jack Johnson. Heretofore, the band more of a raucous post-blues outfit. This tune is emotional, crescendoing as time goes on. Flip an iTunes soundcheck on it, it doesn’t dip too low in volume. However, look at the metric readout and take a gander at the results:

“Notice” metric readout in RX

Look at the end—it’s smashed! The second verse comes in at -7.1 LU short term. The ending? -5.0 LU! 

How did this happen? Why is this tune so sonically rich, and yet so modern in its flirtations with the digital ceiling?

The dispersion of instruments across the stereo field, the cleanliness with which they’re dispatched around the stereo spectrum, is part of the reason. Balance is achieved between the guitar elements in the left and right. 

Also, a relatively monophonic drumset helps set the width of the tune; the drums, aside from the hi-hat, seem to exist primarily up the middle, and yet the vocals and guitars help make the tune feel wide. 

The frequency balance is also very well thought out: this isn’t a bass that growls, the guitars don’t interrupt the bass, and the bass makes room for the kick with the use of what sounds like sidechain compression. Indeed, you can see it fits right within the Rock preset of Tonal Balance Control:

Rock Preset in Tonal Balance Control

What interests me is how well this is all preserved, even at a very high loudness. When I’m trying to preserve the integrity of a tune while ensuring a loud final product, this is a tune I frequently reference.

3. Tool, “Pneuma”

Artist: Tool

Album: Fear Inoculum

Mixing Engineer: “Evil” Joe Barresi 

Mastering Engineer: Bob Ludwig

“Pneuma” Tonal Balance Control curve

Tool is back, and with Joe Baressi at the mixing helm, it’s no surprise their record sounds great. This is one for those who like their rock right up against the verge of metal. 

The standout to my ears, in terms of the mix, is “Pneuma”, which exhibits a wonderful balance between the bass, drums, and guitar. The guitars aren’t needlessly fizzy in the trebles—indeed, they round out the lower frequencies, so that the kick drum and bass can really punch in the high-midrange. 

If you solo the bands of Tonal Balance Control and listen for the kick and toms, you’ll find them more in the high-mid range band than the lows (you’ll also find them in the lows, but not so much in the low-mids). 

If you look at the waveform, and if you analyze this song under the meters, one of the beautiful things you see is the way it gets louder over time—the way the initial chorus is much quieter than the last chorus. In this song, what I’m defining as the chorus (always a foggy term for a Tool tune) is the muscular riff, devoid of singing, that codas each section. The first time we hear it, here’s how loud it is:

“Pneuma” loudness in Insight 2

The second time we hear it, it’s just a bit louder:

“Pneuma” loudness near the middle of the track, shown in Insight 2

In the intervening five minutes, a long build has grown the pressure and loudness of the tune, and we wind up with this:

“Pneuma” loudness near the end of the track, shown in Insight 2

Whether I’m mixing or mastering, the takeaway is important: I must grow the tune intelligently, and slight changes in loudness can make that happen.

4. Jeff Buckley, “Grace”

Artist: Jeff Buckley

Album: Grace

Mixing Engineer: Andy Wallace

Mastering Engineer: Howie Weinberg

“Grace” Tonal Balance Control curve

When we think of Jeff Buckley, we often overlook everything but his voice—and yes, what a voice it was. But we don’t frequently praise his excellent guitar playing; its chime-like tones, dexterity, and complex chord shapes. We also don’t think about the clarity of his records.

I could’ve picked so many Buckley tunes to highlight how clear and beautiful the mixes were—and please, don’t sleep on “The Sky Is a Landfill” or “Everybody Here Wants You” as references. They are simply amazing, the former for its treatment of overdriven, yet distinct guitar tones; the latter for its amazing drum sound and silky handling of background vocals.

But for this example, we’re going with “Grace.” It deftly handling so many elements—acoustic and electric guitars, string arrangements, and vocals of various timbres. When you’re working with a dense arrangement in a rocky songwriter vein, this is a great reference, particularly starting around four minutes in. 

This is where we hear the overlaying of lead guitar parts, and of course, the clarity of Jeff’s vocals as he crescendos. There’s a lot going on here instrumentally, and it’s all being kept away from the screaming leads; even the flanged part is suitably buried while remaining audible. Indeed, you can see Jeff’s vocals here in the wave-form, between 600–1000 Hz. Solo the low midrange band, and you’ll find him there. 

5. Queens of the Stone Age, “No One Knows”

Artist: Queens of the Stone Age

Album: Songs for the Deaf

Mixing Engineer: Adam Kasper

Mastering Engineer: Brian Gardner

“No One Knows” Tonal Balance Control curve

I reference this mix for two reasons: the tightness of the drums, and the monstrous guitar tones. These guitars are distorted, heavy, pounding, and yet every note of the chord is audible—which is important, because these chords are more complicated than the average rock tune. If I’ve got guitars that need to both hammer and cut, all while maintaining intelligibility, this is a tune to reference.

Also, this mix exhibits a curious phenomenon when it comes to the drums: think back on the video—on the person playing the drums—and you’d expect these drums to be huge. With Dave Grohl playing, how can they not be? 

Yet they take up less space than you’d think; they’re almost like seventies drums in their dryness, and their overheads are relatively muted. All the better, because the guitars must stand out. If ever I need to know how little drums I can get away with in a big sounding rock mix, this is the tune to bring up.

6. The Kinks, “The Contenders” 

Artist: The Kinks

Album: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One

Mixing Engineer: Mike Bobak

Mastering Engineer: Artisan Sound Records

“The Contenders” Tonal Balance Control curve

I love the stuff Greta Van Fleet has put out recently—it sounds raw, vibrant, with a sort of raucousness I haven’t heard in a while. It’s always interesting to experience music whose decade you couldn’t pin down in a blind listen. The stuff is both rock and Americana, evoking blues, country, and roots music as well. 

But I probably wouldn’t use such music for my own references, unless it was supplied by the client. I’d rather go back to their references. And for this, nothing beats the Kinks. Not the Beatles. Not the Stones. The Kinks.

This song is a prime example of why. It opens with dual acoustic guitars until that riff hammers us home, blistering in around 0:41 into the song.

What follows next is some of the grooviest playing in rock music, combining piano, distorted electric guitar, acoustics, and harmonica playing a rhythmic role. The balance and ferocity of the mix is impeccable: in my mind, it’s always so heavy, and I never recollect that there’s only one electric guitar. 

Pay heed to the aggression in the piano, harmonica, and the electric guitars, as well as the panning. Lastly, the vocal mix is also intriguing: it’s buried, drawing you in. It’s proof positive that you don’t always need to mix a vocal loud and in your face.

In the Tonal Balance Control analysis, note the high midrange bump, very characteristic of classic rock tunes. These are the frequencies to worship when trying to get in the ballpark of this genre. 

7. Deerhoof, “Perfect Me” 

Artist: Deerhoof

Album: Friend Opportunity

Mixing Engineer: Deerhoof, Ian Pellici 

“The Perfect Me” Tonal Balance Control curve

The first time I heard this record, I was floored. Deerhoof is a relentless band, and this is a song that matches the energy they put forth at live shows, even with all its studio trickery.

Listen to how the quiet, high vocals of Satomi Matsuzaki are balanced against brutal guitars and peripatetic drums. The bridge of this tune—if you can call it a bridge—has some gorgeous guitar tones as well. 

Look at the bumps on the Tonal Balance Control graph: one around 60 Hz, another around 800 Hz, and a third at around 8 kHz. These are your kick drum, your vocals, and the cutting mid-highs of the harmonic instruments, respectively. They ring clearly in their delineated bands. 

I also love playing this tune when testing out the position, level, and polarity of a new subwoofer. The low end moves so fast, and the hits are so deep, that you can get a great feel for the sub in your room.

8. Oasis, “F******** in the Bushes”

Artist: Oasis

Album: Standing on the Shoulder of Giants

Mixing Engineer: Mark “Spike” Stent

Mastering Engineer: Howie Weinberg

"F****** in the Bushes" Tonal Balance Control curve

Yes, it’s Oasis. Yes, it’s like 20 years old. Yes, it’s barely a song. But I put this tune on for one reason and one reason alone when I’m referencing: the drums. Those smashed to high-heaven drums, particularly at the beginning. 

Folks, you can’t beat it.

The way the mellotron, vocal sample, and electric guitars are mixed together in the bridge section is also excellent—it’s a prime example of LCR technique breaking up the monotony of the previous section.

9. Gary Clark Junior, “Numb”

Artist: Gary Clark Junior 

Album: Black and Blu

Mixing Engineer: Adam Hawkins

Mastering Engineer: Ted Jensen

“Numb” Tonal Balance Control curve

You can notice a real saturation in the roots-rock, blues, and Americana tunes of our time. It might’ve started with the Black Keys. It definitely continued with the Stone Foxes. It’s marked by a crispness to the kick and the snare, a sound that makes the drums feel larger than life, both real and unnaturally-aided.

For this sound, I prefer to reference “Numb” by Gary Glark Jr. If we analyze it in Tonal Balance Control, we can see a bump a little below 100 Hz, another just over 600 Hz, and a third prominent bump around 3 kHz. When you solo the frequency ranges, you’ll hear these bumps represent our kick drum, our vocals, and the crack of our snare hits.

What’s more, soloing the bands shows us an interesting arrangement of frequencies: the lows carry the kick, the bass, and also the meat of toms (as opposed to tunes like “Pneuma,” where we hear the toms cracking through in the high mids). 

The low mids give us our guitars and vocals, and the high mids show us the crackle of all those lovely saturated snares. Soloing the bands thus can help us to see if we’ve reached a similar balance in our own mixes.

I’d also be a fool not to bring up the guitar solo, with its blistering fuzz tone. The tone is the star of the show here, and I’ll use it as a benchmark if I’m trying to get a similar fuzz tone in one of my own mixes.

10. The Mars Volta, “Cygnus…Vismund Cygnus”

Artist: The Mars Volta

Album: Frances the Mute

Mixing Engineer: Rich Costey

Mastering Engineer: Howie Weinberg

“Cygnus....Vismund Cygnus” Tonal Balance Control curve

Some people hate The Mars Volta. Some people love them. Regardless, you cannot deny two things: they were successful for many years, and their songs are packed to the gills with sound. 

Sometimes you get a messy arrangement that’s grand in its messiness, its invented tonalities and stacked harmonies, and for this, I reference the tune “Cygnus...Vismund Cygnus.”

First there is the groove: the drums are powerful, but they also move with the swagger of a salsa player. Next we note the guitar tones, and how they fit into every bit of the margins—sweeping from side to side, making use of every frequency spectrum. Indeed, one reason I reference this is for the trebles, to remember that heaps of treble are not necessarily bad; a way to get shrill high end in a manner still listenable.

My mixes trend warmer than this, so this is a good barometer for me to judge if I’ve got more room to push the high mids, or to cut the bass.

The tonal balance of this track is interesting when investigated under soloed bands. The lows give us our kicks and some of the bass energy. But the guitars and drums switch prominences through the verses and choruses: in the verses, we hear guitars in the low mids, while the transient response of the drum hits blooms in the high mids; the chorus finds this reversed—the drum transients boom throughout the low mids, while the guitars grow a bit more needly in the high mids. I find this information useful, as it shows us how we can vary where we focus energy on a sectional basis, thereby differentiating sections even as our level remains similar throughout the tune. 

11. Twenty One Pilots, “Jumpsuit” 

Artist: Twenty One Pilots

Album: Trench

Mixing Engineer: Adam Hawkins

Mastering Engineer: Chris Gehringer

“Jumpsuit” Tonal Balance Control curve

Look, if I have to pick from among mainstream rock bands—outfits like Imagine Dragons, Panic! At the Disco, and other guitar-lacking fare—I’m going to go with Twenty One Pilots. Why? Because I like the music. You might not consider them rock in the traditional sense, but they fit the bill for modern rock.

Take this tune from their latest record, a veritable lesson in bass tone, from a pronounced growl, to a fuzzy tone in the chorus that seems to handle the guitars. In the verse, the drums are a good encapsulation of the sort of timbres popular in the last few years—stuff like “Is There Anybody Here” by The Deer Hunter. If I need fizzy, compressed, and hefty drums in my mix, I’ll slap on this reference.

The pop flourishes—the strange soupy reverse verbs and vocoded harmonies—also help me judge if my own trickery has gone too far.

12. Super City, “Vulture”

Artist: Super City

Album: Sanctuary

Mixing Engineer: Steve Wright

Mastering Engineer: Tony Eichler

“Vulture” Tonal Balance Control curve

A certain feel is en vogue right now—a modern “mashed potato,” if you will. You hear songs like the new “Father of All” by Green Day, and “Dear Future Self” by Fall Out Boy. 

I’m not referencing those songs however; I’m referencing the tune “Vulture,” by an indie band I often bring up in conversation: Super City. 

Why this song, and not another? For one, its mix is wonderfully calibrated, incorporating electric and acoustic drum elements alike, processing the acoustic drums to have that saturated heft we come to expect in modern rock tunes. For another, this tune also applies to other, more indie productions, represented in songs like “Dangerous” by Big Data.

Mostly, though, I just like the way this mix exhibits both edge and warmth. Note the big bottom-end bump: this screenshot from Tonal Balance Control is taken during a breakdown section with a monstrous kick drum. In fact, I was once auditioning full-range monitors in a showroom, running this song to test the low end. The salesman was flabbergasted by the kick drum; he asked me, with lights in his eyes, if I had mixed it. Sadly I hadn’t. 

Also, note the bump between 2.5 kHz–4 kHz—this is the fuzz of distorted vocals, the buzzsaw nature of the guitars, made manifest in a graph. If I can get a similar ring to my distorted vocals, I’m happy.

Conclusion

Doubtlessly there are more songs we could put in here. I had a hard time narrowing it down to twelve. Still, these songs are a good place to start. Unless your rock mix exists in a deep subgenre, one of these twelve is sure to help you get going.

Get more references mixes:

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