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How to Use Reference Tracks in a Mastering Session

by Jett Galindo, iZotope Contributor January 23, 2020
Learn how to effectively use reference tracks in your next mastering session.
Learn how to effectively use reference tracks in your next mastering session.

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“I’d like my song to have the same energy and loudness as a Top 40s pop/hip-hop track.”

“This R&B track needs to evoke the vibe of Beyoncé’s hit single.”

Music references are incredibly helpful mastering tools when it comes to the efficiency of a mastering session, for several reasons we’ll be discussing below. However, relying on reference tracks comes with a few important caveats that, if not given proper attention, could either make or break the flow and authenticity of your mastering. 

Let’s dig deeper into its many advantages while paying attention to a couple of track referencing guidelines in order to guarantee mastering results that are most authentic to the music. If you haven’t already, check out our Are You Listening? video on reference tracks in mastering below.

What are reference tracks?

As the keyword “reference” suggests, reference tracks are meant to serve as guides for understanding the intended direction of a record—both artistically and sonically. It’s commonly used in both the mixing and mastering stages, especially when an engineer is collaborating with an artist/producer who has specific ideas of how they’d like their production mixed or mastered. 

Artists may have a particular song, album, or artist that they want their particular record to sound similar to, or they might have a general idea of how certain elements in the production should sound. By referencing popular hit records that fall within the same sonic “umbrella” as the music that’s being mastered, the engineer instantly gets a better general sense of the timbre, tonal make-up, and overall dynamic range/energy that the artist is hoping to achieve in their music.

Ozone 9 has multiple features built-in that allow for a seamless and intuitive A/B listening experience between your music and reference tracks. Its Track Referencing feature allows you to listen to multiple reference tracks with ease within your mastering workflow. The Tonal Balance Control plug-in allows you to capture a reference track’s target curve to compare against your own track while mastering.

Ozone 9’s Track Reference feature allows you to listen to multiple reference tracks with ease within your session.

Advantages of using reference tracks in mastering

Reference tracks help you understand the client’s artistic intent

With the help of reference tracks, artists have an easier time explaining a specific sound they’re going for. With you being the mastering engineer, this is crucial for ensuring that your mastering decisions align with the client’s vision. Encouraging the client to be open about sharing their ideas helps bridge this creative gap between collaborators. Rather than relying solely on technical jargon and numbers, oftentimes all it takes to get collaborators on the same page is mentioning a popular hit record as a point of reference.

Reference tracks serve as a guide for relating your music to what’s out there in the marketplace

Besides helping you get a better idea of the artist’s direction, reference tracks are also helpful for checking how your masters compare to music within the same production style/genre that’s already out in the marketplace—whether it be streaming sites or record stores. Without losing your focus on the integrity of your mastering approach, you also want to make sure that the music you’re mastering would sit nicely on a playlist alongside other tracks that have the same style/characteristics.

Tips to effectively use reference tracks in a mastering session

Resist relying too much on reference tracks

It’s important for you as the mastering engineer to take the time and listen to the music you’re mastering without being influenced by any reference track. You don’t want to lose sight of the unique, defining qualities of your music when dialing in your mastering settings. 

A reference track might not even sound closely similar to the music you’re working on, so discernment is key! Your responsibility then is to analyze the notable qualities in the reference track and adjust your mastering approach with those in mind. Find out what the client specifically likes about the reference track—is it the punchy low end, the saturation and loudness, the presence in the vocals? Track referencing can go a long way when communicating with the artist.

If necessary, guide your artist/client toward finding the appropriate reference tracks

There may come a time when your mastering session involves a reference track that has zero similarities with the music you’re working on.

Part of the communication process—along with asking your client what they specifically like about that reference track—is to further guide them towards giving you more insights that are helpful to the mastering session. Try to steer them to references that are within the same production style/genre as their music.

Here are a few questions I like to ask that have helped me pick my clients’ brains in the past:

  • Who are your musical influences?
  • What other artists/songs do you envision being in the same streaming playlist as your music?
Guide the artist toward sharing reference tracks that are within the same production style as their music.

Reference tracks are meant to serve as a guide rather than a target—they’re not the end-all be-all of a mastering session

They are called reference tracks for a reason. Although tempting, resist the urge to turn your mastering session into a “sound-alike” exercise. You don’t want to compromise the integrity of your mastering by going the “paint by numbers” route. By “paint by numbers,” I mean making sonic decisions simply based on a target template/frequency curve.

Listen to the music and let its unique characteristics live and breathe in a mastered environment. Your role is not to “change” the music, but rather, enhance the music and help it effectively translate across all commercial playback systems.

Conclusion: don’t lose sight of artist intent

Though not necessary for a successful mastering session, reference tracks are absolutely helpful in the mastering world. But using references is only as effective as the quality of communication between you—the mastering engineer—and the client you’re collaborating with. Regardless of the reference tracks, your ears and mastering experience are what will ultimately dictate the final mastered sound. Listen with intent and hone in on mastering the music without losing sight of its unique characteristics. With these at the forefront, reference tracks naturally become even more powerful tools that enhance the efficiency and flow of your mastering session.

Learn more about mastering with reference tracks

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