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4 Popular Mixing Reference Tracks, and Why They Work

May 8, 2019

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We all have favorite music; songs that move us emotionally, melodies that get stuck in our heads, songs that make us want to dance. When you mix music for a living like I do, you listen for something different. Not that music doesn’t make me want to dance, but I like to listen to certain tracks before mixing as a sort of calibration process for my ears. Here’s how I described it in a previous blog entry:

“We calibrate input levels when recording, and we should calibrate our ears before mixing. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with quality reference material, so cue up some music that’s well performed and expertly mixed. There’s a semi-apocryphal story about a famous mixer who listened to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” every day to tune his ears before mixing. I tried it. It wasn’t my jam. We must each find our own ‘Sugar.’”

I have a set of tracks that I use as reference for mixing; you can find that playlist here on Spotify.

I’d like to talk about four of these tracks here, and tell you why I find them indispensable and danceable (in some cases).

To shine a light on each track’s frequency balance, we’ll be using Tonal Balance Control, an advanced analysis tool included with Music Production Suite Pro, Neutron, and Ozone.

Tonal Balance Control visualizes the frequency content of incoming audio against selected target sonic profiles, based on professional mixes and masters. Through inter-plugin communication, it can also control EQs in Ozone and Neutron, allowing you to immediately use this insight to achieve better balance and clarity in a mixdown or master.

Try it out yourself

Try Music Production Suite Pro for free and explore the power of reference tracks in Tonal Balance Control Pro. Plus access more than 30 industry-standard plug-ins, production courses, custom presets, and royalty-free sample packs.

1. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel

Producer: Daniel Lanois

Mix engineer: Kevin Killen

Mastering engineer: Ian Cooper

This song was a cultural touchstone in the late 1980s, and it was a breakthrough reinvention for Peter Gabriel (PG) as an artist. For me, it’s all about the following:

Arrangement, recording quality, editing, imaging, balance, and frequency response.

The first thing I notice is the smooth frequency response and transparent high-end. On an RTA, the frequencies are well balanced from 20 Hz – 20 kHz.

From the downbeat, the quality of the recording is evident as the opening percussion gives way to Gabriel’s poignant vocals, which are blended perfectly with the track. Percussion is allowed to fill the far left and right of the stereo image, while the band and PG are firmly centered. In the pre-chorus the compressed/chorused guitars and ethereal background vocals swirl hard left and right, setting us up for the dramatic chorus. The well-conceived arrangement is the star here because we can hear the band’s natural dynamics as parts enter and depart our focus, always audible, never obscured. The editing choices here are key—what parts stay in and what gets left out.

By the time Youssou N’dour’s vocal enters in the out-chorus, the frequency response curve has nearly flattened, and the amplitude of the piece has reached its zenith but never sounds overly compressed. Well written, well played and produced—all-in-all, this track represents everything I could ever want in a mix. This is my “Sugar.”

A word on mastering:

Unless you have the before and after mastering versions of a song, a listener never really knows what magic has happened in the privacy of the mastering suite. I give mastering engineers all due credit, but I would love to have sat in on the mastering sessions to see what the mixes really sound like.

Here’s a frequency response snapshot in the chorus, as monitored via Tonal Balance Control.

2. “Settle Down” by Kimbra

Producers: François Tétaz, M-Phazes

This is the outgrowth of a project Kimbra started when she was 16 and in high school. However and whenever she did this, I consider it a prototype for mixing layered vocals with sparse electronic instrumentation. Even her edited breaths are used to drive the rhythm track forward. The frequency curve feels constrained until the drums/percussion enters and fills out the rest of the spectrum.

As engineers, we basically have three tools for mixing music: Volume, EQ and stereo panning.

Balancing with volume is obvious: you make a thing louder than something else when it’s supposed to be louder. Using EQ is a bit more subtle, because you have to decide which instrument will occupy which part of the frequency spectrum without competing against its neighboring instruments/voices for attention. What do you do when you want everything at the same volume, but the parts naturally occupy the same frequency range? (Like all the crazy vocals in this song.) You use stereo panning to differentiate between parts, to give the feeling of space in the mix image, and to freak out the people listening with headphones or earbuds. Kimbra uses all three techniques to great advantage in this piece, which I like to use when referencing layered vocals.

Check the Tonal Balance Control screenshot below; interesting dip at 250 Hz...

3. “LOYALTY.” by Kendrick Lamar

Producers: DJ Dahi, Sounwave, Martin, Top Dawg

Mix engineer: Derek Ali

Mastering engineer: Mike Bozzi

Everyone needs a reference for low end, and this is mine. The beats are largely sampled and re-purposed for the groove, but when the 808 kick joins with the bass line, the low end is fierce almost down to DC. Oddly, this was mixed/mastered in such a way that this doesn’t cause the rest of the track to distort. We had Kendrick on the GRAMMY telecast the year this album came out, and his live tracks were unbelievably bass-heavy. That is fun to listen to on a PA, but hard to translate on small speakers. Somehow, they pull it off on this record, so it’s my go-to for low-end reference.

The Tonal Balance Control screenshot below tells the story:

4. “Right Down The Line” by Bonnie Raitt

Mix engineer: Ryan Freeland

Mastering engineer: Bob Ludwig

A remake of the great Gerry Rafferty original, this version is a reggae-influenced live band track that’s simultaneously clean and greasy, full but sparse, laid back but burning in its own way. This is what’s supposed to happen when you get a bunch of great musicians in the studio and everything just clicks.

From a frequency response perspective, this track is a little bass-heavy in the verses, which is pretty standard for reggae-style mixes. Not overly so, though, and it’s not so thick that you can’t make out the other instruments and vocals. In fact, this track is on my list because it is so well arranged/balanced/recorded/mixed that you can hear every nuance of every note this seasoned session pro’s played. In fact, if you close your eyes and listen, there is so much space in this mix that you can just about feel where the band was positioned in the room as they recorded. It’s like walking into your living room in the dark, you can feel where the couch is supposed to be. And the table, the TV, and so on. Everything just fits so well in the space.

By the time we get to the chorus, the frequencies have filled out, the dynamics have come up, and we even hear an entire choir of Bonnie singing background ahhs. These are arranged with the organ parts (expertly played by the amazing Mike Finnigan) to sound like an orchestra with strings. I know, weird thing to say about a reggae version of a UK pop tune done by an Americana artist, but hey.

Here’s a screenshot of the verse frequency response:

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