10 Reference Tracks You Should Be Using for Mixing in 2023
Reference tracks for mixing are a vital tool for getting professional mixes. Here are 10 songs that capture the sound of 2023 that you should be using as reference tracks to improve your mixes.
The sound of music has changed over the decades and certain trends emerge, defining the sound of that time and 2023 is no different. But if you’re having a hard time getting your music to sound competitive and current, the best place to start is to identify what is sonically different between your mix and a mix you’d like it to sound more like.
Reference tracks help point out these differences to us, but what is a reference track and where do you get free reference tracks for mixing? Read on to find out!
Follow along with this article using iZotope
What is a reference track?
A reference track is a song that you listen to before or while you mix to compare how your song sounds with a commercially available song. Reference tracks can be songs you love from childhood so you know how they should sound on any given system whether on speakers or in headphones. They can also be songs sent to you by a client who is looking to achieve a particular type of sound.
Listening to reference tracks when you are in a new room or are about to mix on an unfamiliar system can give you perspective about the frequency response of the system and how the room reacts to sound. I think of it like a calibration process for your ears! You use reference tracks for all sorts of purposes from trying to get a kick drum sound just right to getting inspiration for instrumentation.
Sonic trends in 2023
In recent years it's been cheaper and easier to make music digitally using tools like software instruments and AI. As a result, a lot of today’s music includes things like synths and programmed drums. R&B and Hip hop are only continuing to rise in popularity and you can hear its influence more and more in pop and even country music (looking at you, triplet hi-hat patterns).
Intimate, close-sounding vocals are more popular than ever thanks to artists like Billie Eilish and are often accompanied by sparser instrumental arrangements to let the vocal take up more room.
Background vocals have always been a thing, but thicker vocal stacks with more parts and additional vocal melodies that get treated more as an instrument than a voice are popular as well.
Where can I get free reference tracks?
It's never been easier to get free reference tracks and build up your reference library. Audiolens is an app by iZotope that analyzes audio from your soundcard and displays the EQ curve for visual comparison.
Just go to YouTube or your favorite streaming platform, pull up a song you’d like to use as a reference track, and capture the audio. Audiolens will then capture the sonic characteristics of your reference track such as tone and dynamics, and allows you to save a sonic thumbprint in your Target Library. You can even apply items in your Target Library to a mix or master by using Ozone 10’s Master Assistant or Neutron 4's Assistant View.
10 reference tracks you should be using in 2023
Here are some songs that have come out in the last year or two that have caught my ear as great reference tracks. Some songs on this list are very electronic and some are more acoustic but they all have characteristics that I find valuable in reference mixes such as low end management and a wide stereo image.
1. "Anti-Hero" - Taylor Swift
Mix engineer: Şerban Ghenea
Assistant mix engineer: Bryce Bordone
If your goal is commercial success, it’s good to know how your mix compares to the best-selling songs. "Anti-Hero" earned over 17.4 million plays in its first 24 hours on Spotify globally, becoming the biggest opening day for a song in the platform's history and is an example of the synth/vocal/percussion arrangements popular in today’s pop music. The different layers of vocal tracks and how they work together gives us not only a sense of width but of depth as well, with some layers being drier and more up-front than others. This depth is also reflected in the various synth parts that dance in and out of the mix between vocal phrases.
Check out these 9 Great Reference Mixes for Modern Pop for more pop reference tracks.
2. "Chaise Longue" - Wet Leg
Mix engineer: Alan Moulder
This track has a great intimate vocal sound without the hyper-sparkly top end so it sounds close and real. If we compare the high end in the Audiolens screenshots between this song and “Anti-Hero,” you can see the top end for this track is a smooth curve whereas “Anti-Hero” has a spike, giving Taylor that more pop vocal, “fresh air” kind of sound. I love the heavy snare and how the sides of the room seem to burst open when the guitars enter. “Chaise Longue” is another example of arranging verses so that they’re mostly vocals/bass/percussion until the chorus for maximum contrast between sections.
For more rock-inspired reference tracks, check out our list of 12 Great References for Rock.
3. “demon time (with BAYLI)” - Mura Masa
Mix Engineer: Nathan Boddy
Assistant Mix Engineer: Lilian Nuthall
The stereo image of this track is so active with all sorts of synths, samples, vocals, and percussion firing all over. There are so many different textures going on between the sine wave sweeps, motorbike sounds, huge bass, and whispery vocals that draw your attention back and forth as well as front to back. In the Audiolens screenshot below, the low end looks diffused because we are seeing a visual representation of the bass dropping in and out of the song compared to the previous reference tracks where the bass remained in the mix pretty consistently.
4. "Goodbye Mr. Blue" - Father John Misty
Mix Engineers: Jonathan Wilson, Dave Cerminara
This is a beautiful recording of acoustic instruments, a first on this list! It sounds both full and spacious with everything fitting together well sonically. The acoustic guitars sound like they’re just in front of the strings and both sit nicely on top of the bass and drums. The low end of this track rolls off at a higher frequency than the previous tracks which makes sense given the less-aggressive kick drum sound compared to everything else on this list, and the bass playing more of a supporting role rather than being front and centered with the vocal.
5. “How Does It Feel?” - BAYNK
Mix Engineers: BAYNK, Ryan Schwabe
This song just makes me want to move. The stereo image is very active with vocal effects and the airy harmonies that add a dimension of height to the track. This vocal is among the most processed of the bunch as far as audible tuning, reverb, and delays so I like using this as a reference track to check the balance of my effects and lead vocals.
For more electronic reference mixes, check out 10 Great References for Electronic Music.
6. “Late night talking” - Harry Styles
Mix Engineers: Kid Harpoon, Tyler Johnson
This album won the GRAMMY for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical this year and the mix sounds great so I had to include it on this list. The bass is even and overall this song is a good example of compression for feel and groove. There are so many vocal harmonies that span at least two octaves at times, adding tons of texture.
7. “The Drama” - Kesha
Mix Engineer: Jason Lader
This track opens with a bass synth with a close-sounding vocal that's pretty dry except for a little delay after certain phrases. It’s not until the background vocals enter in the second pre-chorus that we get some more reverb and after then the song starts to get, well, more dramatic. Another trend that I’ve noticed in recent years is including a section in the song that sounds like it could be a completely different song and we hear this concept at the end of this track with the “as a house cat, in my next life I want to come back” round.
8. “Too Good” - Moonchild
Mixing Engineer: Richard Furch
This track is cool for its blend of electronic elements with acoustic instrumentation. The recorded fingersnaps instead of using widely-available samples at the beginning add a layer of analog to the programmed beat. The bass is a funky foundation to the Rhodes part which helps to fill out the low and mid ranges. The Rhodes also helps to widen the stereo image until the horns and background vocals take over. The clarinet and trumpet parts add a mellow texture under the breathy lead vocal.
9. “WHERE SHE GOES” - Bad Bunny
Mix Engineer: La Paciencia
Looking at the screenshot from Audiolens below, we can see this track has the most dynamic low end and top end. We get this resulting image because this track features a lot of vocal-only moments where the beat drops and comes back in. You can use Audiolens to capture the curve of these vocal-only moments and using Neutron 4, apply the curve to your own vocal tracks. This track has a lot of momentum and energy that comes from the kick and syncopated snare, driving us forward.
10. "Why We Speak [Feat. Q-Tip & Esperanza Spalding]" - Robert Glasper
Mix engineer: Qmillion
This track has a very dynamic stereo image with the very top end and low end being a bit more compressed than the middle ranges which gives the song a groovy bounce. The different treatment of Esperanza’s and Q-Tip’s vocals show a range of vocal production techniques, with background vocals firing in different ranges of closeness vs. farness. Although this track features acoustic jazz drums, they are mixed with a hip hop touch rather than living firmly in their acoustic realm. Blending elements from different genres is another trend that has been gaining popularity.
Start using modern reference tracks in your mixes
Whether you’re new to mixing or a seasoned pro, having a few reference tracks handy helps guide you in making creative and technical decisions. A/Bing between your mix and a reference sheds light on how various sound systems can sound very different, and what might need to change about your mix to make it sound more competitive. Hopefully you even discover a new artist or song you like in the process!
And if you haven't already, download Audiolens to get access to thousands of reference tracks from your favorite streaming services, YouTube, and more.