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Reference mixes are essential to the process of mixing, and modern pop music has a polished, iconic sound that is replicated again and again in mixes today. So how do you use reference tracks to get your pop mixes sounding professional?
In this article, we’re going to explore nine great reference mixes for modern pop. However, instead of selecting current chart-topping hits of the week, I’m offering reference mixes that are all at least a few years old. Why? Because all of them (for the most part) had a major impact on their own time, and furthermore, they have stood the test of time—their sound informs the sound of today.
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.
What is a reference mix?
A reference mix is usually a professionally mixed and mastered track that can be used as a reference to the mix/genre you’re working with. It's one of the single most useful tools in your arsenal that gives you something to aspire to: if you can make your mix sound as good as the reference on multiple playback systems, you can safely say you did your job well in the mixing phase. Reference mixes also keep you honest. Sometimes you fall in love with your mix, only to put on the reference mix and hear just how much work you have left to do.
As a mix engineer, I make sure my mix is loudness-matched with the reference mix, and at various points in the process I compare mine to the reference; when I do this, I have better results.
Producers: Illangelo, Mano
Mix engineer: Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese
Mastering engineer: Tom Coyne
Look at the enduring hits right now on iTunes, Spotify, and Billboard and you’ll note a trend toward the downtempo, the atmospheric, and the distorted. To my ears, you can’t find a better inspiration for our current sound than this smash hit.
Much of what people seem to like about the dirty, distorted timbres of today—the stuff that seems to break all the rules of mixing—can be traced to this mix. Indeed, it’s telling that this song became the standout hit off the record, when all business-related signs pointed to “Can’t Feel My Face” as the breakout single.
So what is it about this mix that makes for great referencing? Let’s dive in.
In the second verse, listen to how sonic flourishes create an atmosphere of dread. Observe how these elements are placed in the mix, from the weird reverberating keys in the right speaker, to the scream that presages the chorus.
As for the chorus, you can see it in the Tonal Balance Control analysis above: the bass overwhelms. And yet, the kick knocks past the bass forcefully, without sounding muddy or clouded. Somehow the vocal stays present over the fray. His voice hovers above, unaffected, largely from the distended booming of the low end bass and kick.
It would do you well, when referencing this mix, to notice how distortion is implemented on the chorus’s vocal. His tone is pure, almost Jacksonian, in timbre. Yet it is brought low by the grime. Listen to this vocal as you set above your own distortion in accordance with modern times.
Producer: Shea Taylor
Mixing engineer: Frank Ocean (among others)
Mastering engineer: Vlado Meller
Pop of today is often a moody affair, with a ton of evocative elements mixed into the soundscape. (Think “Goodbyes” from Post Malone, for instance). So, for a great example of how to handle atmosphere in a classy and blissful way, check out this gem from Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.
Note how the drums are clean and defined in the face of distorted vocals and modulated synths. The bass drum is harmonically tuned to the song. It fills out the low end of the mix without overwhelming us. The snare element isn’t overly bright, yet still cracks.
The harmonic synths and natural instruments sit in the midrange, swirled by filters that emphasize different parts of the frequency range at different times. You’ll hear elements that hit on the left, but reverberate ever so slightly on the right, showing you how to make stereophonic space with delays as you add effects to your own projects.
Some stabbing chords are bathed in processing that belies their origin—in the third verse, are those guitars or strings? Or are they a synth of some kind? The mystery is in the sound choice, but it’s abetted by the mix.
And, of course, those vocals—so bright and clean on the verses, with the appropriate number of delay throws and discrete echoes. The chorus then brings us a beautiful falsetto, one distorted to the perfect breaking point of saturation, with a reverb hitting us on certain key phrases (“ahead,” “forever”). All of this is complemented with a judicious use of modulated delay throws.
When the vocal jumps to hard-panned distortion on the left and right, it’s quite effective, fitting in so well with our current aesthetics, yet old enough to stand as a classic, enduring example.
Producers: Lady Gaga, Zedd, Infected Mushroom
Mixing engineer: Zedd
Mastering engineer: Gene Grimaldi
This song is the exception that tests the rule: it hasn’t really made a mark on the times. The production is soup-to-nuts crazy, starting with a desert-tinged, bit-crushed intro quickly followed by a faux-Arabic breakdown and more lo-fi vocals. Next, a crescendo of noise that crashes into a four-on-the-floor breakdown, complete with EDM growling synth-bases. The chorus proceeds to borrow from another genre—the power pop ballad.
None of this proved to be as successful as her previous records: Artpop is regarded as a stale rehash; the thing that inspired Gaga to get out of the mainstream and experiment with more natural fare, such as "Cheek to Cheek," and "Joanne."
So why have I picked this mix? For the sheer technical mastery!
So many elements are handled with flair and excitement. The growly, glitchy synth lines of the first verse are especially imbued with energy, a rocket-to-the-sky feeling. If you have a mix that needs to sound this bouncy and dancy within the realm of EDM-tinged pop, Aura is an impeccable reference.
Producer: Lukasz Gottwald, Benjamin Levin
Mixing engineer: Serban Ghenea
Mastering engineer: Chris Gehringer
Even in 2022, four on the floor pop rears its noggin amid the 808 kicks. To my ears, there’s no better specimen of how this stuff should sound than Serban Ghanea’s classic mixes from the last decade. A great example of this style is “TiK ToK.”
Listen to the way the kick cracks in the chorus: it’s almost out in front of the song—but not quite. Even in the verses, the kick knocks us forward as the synth lines harmonize on the left and right of the mix.
Also, notice the sibilant lead vocals, which almost blister our ears, but stay just shy of harsh. This is an important element to get just right for many a pop vocal: a bright voice that keeps its sheen, but doesn’t fatigue you in the sibilant range. Here’s a good reference when trying to get your vocal to sparkle just shy of painful.
In today’s pop, cutting and atmospheric synths still rule supreme. You’ll also note a clearly defined kick drum, one that anyone can identify on any sound system.
For those reasons, we harken back to this jam from the 1980s, which somehow doesn’t sound out of place on a playlist of contemporary pop. Indeed, I started putting “Sweet Dreams” on my reference radar after hearing it at a wedding sandwiched in between two more contemporary tunes. It sounded perfect in that context, and continues to inspire in the studio.
Listen to how these analog synths are mixed, both in timbre and in the stereo spectrum: they dominate the stereophonic space, yet maintain a solidity and heft. Still, they don't overwhelm the vocals. They stay out of the vocal leads which sing up the middle, as well as the stereophonic backgrounds.
Also listen to the high end of the kick on this tune. It has the perfect amount of “click” to cut across the rest of the mix.
For these reasons, the tune is still a vital reference, even for being older than I am.
Producer: Joel Little
Mixing engineer: Joel Little
Mastering engineer: Stuart Hawkes
Solar Power might be the newest one. Melodrama might be the one Gen-Z appreciates the most. But this gem off Lorde’s first album still boasts the most classic mix, one that’s as vital today as it was in the 2010s. Listen to the way this tune pits its bass against the kicks: a prominent bass drum hits the downbeat, while a secondary kick knocks out syncopations. The bass instrument remains relatively sustaining against all the percussion.
Pay attention to the snare drum, a simple snapping sample with the perfect amount of reverb. Indeed, space in the percussive elements is handled with much aplomb. It would do you well to reference the soundbed when trying to preserve space in a mix.
But above it all, notice the complement of stacked, harmonized vocals. These voices make use of the stereo spectrum in a classy way: sometimes we get hard-panned vocals on the pre-chorus, while more mid-focused throws like “and everybody’s like” show you how to play one set of harmonized vocals against another.
In the great regurgitation of pop music, guitars have found their place again—but since nothing old can truly ever be new, we now have grunge-remiscient tunes with trap beats, soundcloud aesthetics, and chord changes devoid of anything remotely dissonant.
Look, do I like this song, this genre mix-and-match from GAYLE? Not so much, no. But that’s not important. What’s important is that I respect how it sounds—and I respect that lots of people do like it.
This billboard-charting hit finds itself smack-dab in the middle of a new trend, one made popular by artists like Olivia Rodrigo, and now carried forth by people like Mimi Webb (House on Fire) and Tate McRae (She’s all I wanna be). Now, us engineers must learn to balance 808 kicks with fiery riffs, and this song is a good example of how to do that on a grand pop scale.
I don’t have to like something to mix it—but I do have to understand how it sounds the way it does, and more importantly, why it sounds the way it does. This is an excellent reference for that.
Producer: Sylvan Esso
Mixing engineer: BJ Burton
Mastering engineer: Huntley Miller
I came across this tune by way of a client who wanted me to use it for a mix reference. After listening to the song many times throughout the project, I decided to add it to my cadre of all-around references—tunes I use on a daily basis when I’m working, regardless of the genre.
The vocals, for one: silky smooth and perfectly bright without too much sibilance, the vocal is perfectly mixed. If I can get my vocals to sit in the mix like this, I can be confident I’ve delivered a record that’ll hang with today’s pop music, one that may just span the test of time.
Another reason I use this song concerns the overall mix: this is not a tune with the simplest arrangement in the world. There are plenty of layers and textures going on here. Usually, the more elements in a tune, the harder it is to achieve a result that sounds loud and proud on every single platform—loudness-normalized or otherwise. This tune, however, handles that issue with aplomb: on streaming services, “Ferris Wheel” trounces much of the pop competition in terms of loudness. On its own merits, it’s no slouch, coming in at -8 LU integrated.
So, the tune has become a bell-weather for me in achieving the apparent loudness I want without giving any one element in a mix short thrift. If I can make my mix stand out like this one, I’ve done my job—and that’s exactly how a reference should help you.
This is the newest tune of the lot, coming out in February of 2022. The artist, Peach Face, is poised to make her big pop break. I’m proud to have mixed and mastered a few songs for her in the past, though I did not have a hand in this one.
That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the sound of "Midnight Lover," however. Expertly mixed by Will Beasley, the vocals hang perfectly in front—but what really gets me going is the bass. Round and exciting and in your face, the bass takes up much more room than is customary in your typical pop tune, and yet nothing suffers for it. Certainly the percussion doesn’t: the kick drum is just as fierce as any tune with a more subdued low end.
Not only that, the bass doesn’t have any negative impact on the apparent loudness of the tune on streaming platforms. It’s not uncommon for a massive low end to make the numbers read louder than they sound—but that’s not an issue here. Listen to this tune back to back with a Remy Wolf song and it stands just a little bit louder.
That’s no mean feat—which makes the tune a great reference for modern pop.
Start using pop reference mixes
I hope these reference mixes get you started on creating a professional sounding, modern day pop mix. Get your free demo of Tonal Balance Control to load in any genre or specific pieces of music to reference in your next session.