What Is a Reference Track and How to Use It
A reference track is a professionally produced song from another artist representative of how you want your own music to sound. In this article we’ll cover how you can use reference tracks to improve your production, how to choose them, and where to get them.
Basics of Reference Tracks
Let’s start learning about what reference tracks are, why you should use them, and where to get them.
Learn how to use reference tracks
Learn about fundamental techniques for using reference tracks in mixing and mastering sessions with tools like Audiolens, the new desktop app that analyzes audio from any streaming platform or audio source.
What is a reference track?
A reference track is a professionally produced song from another artist representative of how you want your own music to sound. Ultimately, you want to be able to accurately compare your work to what’s out in the world—recordings, sounds, musical ideas, or songs you admire that define the genre within which you’re working.
Letting reference tracks guide your decisions at different stages of the music production process will help ensure your work is headed in the right direction by:
Why should you use reference tracks?
Using reference tracks help you find your sound as a music producer. Whether you’re aware of it or not, everything you create is inspired by ideas you’ve already been exposed to. So if you’re on a journey of finding your sound, the way to do it is to explore as many ideas as possible and curate your favorites. The originality of your work will be expressed through your taste—the ideas you chose and how you went about combining them.
Another benefit of using reference tracks is that they remove the pressure of creating from scratch. You can give yourself a starting point by curating sources of inspiration. All art movements, including music, exist within the context of a conversation. Artists always build on existing ideas and techniques.
For example, there are plenty of common arrangements in every genre that work really well. You don’t have to innovate on arrangement every time to create innovative music. Instead, allow yourself to borrow ideas from other songs while you focus on adding one or two new elements such as a sound design technique, unique vocals, or a clear master.
How to choose a reference track
So how should you choose a reference track? Here’s a checklist you can use to help you choose the best reference tracks for your music production practice:
- Choose reference tracks with a similar style or genre as the project you’re working on
- Choose reference tracks with similar sounds, timbres, and instruments
- Use reference that sound great in different listening environments and speaker systems
- Use lossless audio file formats
- Select reference tracks that proven to be commercially successful
As you listen to music, try building playlists of songs that catch your attention so you can go back to them whenever you need them. For more, check out how and why we chose reference tracks for different genres:
Where to get reference tracks
One way to get a reference track is to simply buy the song from an online music store and download it as an audio file. However, in the age of streaming, not everyone is downloading audio files. Today, the best and easiest way to get reference tracks for mixing and mastering is to use Audiolens, which allows you to capture the tonal balance curve of any song directly from your computer output.
If you ever run into any music you like in your streaming service of choice, simply press the “capture” button in Audiolens and it will extract a tonal balance target curve you can save and recall for later use in your mixing and mastering workflow.
Additionally, Audiolens has the ability to connect to any iZotope plug-ins inside your DAW, like Neutron or Ozone, to drive the decisions the AI-powered Assistants make when building custom signal chains for your track.
How to Use Reference Tracks
Learn about key techniques for using reference tracks in the different stages of your productions.
Learn how to use reference tracks
Follow along as professional mastering engineer Jonathan Wyner guides you through best practices for using reference tracks in your next mastering session.
The key to using reference tracks is to use multiple references for different stages of the music production process. For instance, you may use one track as a reference for synth sounds, another for chord progressions, and another for the mix and master. Here are some different scenarios where you can use reference tracks to elevate your productions to the level of the best ideas out there (as well as some reference track plug-ins you can use).
If you know music theory, you know artists in any given genre reuse the same chord progression, drum beats, or melodies as a foundation for new ideas. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you’re composing because chances are, there’s already a song out there using the same idea.
So if you find a song with a chord progression you like, try recreating it in your DAW. Then experiment with different ways of performing it; maybe a different rhythm, inverting the chords, or adding chord extensions (7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, etc.)
Once you have the chords down, you can add other parts to it or continue finding references for different elements of the song.
Sound design and instrumentation
Sound selection is about choosing a palette of sounds that express the emotions you want to communicate. You don’t have to invent new instruments every time you produce. Many genres are actually defined by a specific group of instruments. Think of rock music and the use of electric guitar, drums, guitar bass, etc.
So if you hear a synth you like or a combination of instruments that work well together, try recreating them in your own productions.
You can recreate sounds yourself if you know sound design, or you can browse through sample packs designed for the genre you’re working with.
Sounds.com has high-grade, radio-ready samples that can help you get started (along with a free trial!)
Song structure and arrangement
The quality of your music can also benefit by drawing inspiration from song arrangements and structures that carry energy perfectly throughout a song.
If you like how a song evolves and engages you, try matching your song’s arrangement to the arrangement of your reference. You can do this by creating an arrangement map:
- Drop the song into your DAW
- Open up a spreadsheet
- On the first column, list out every sound and instrument you hear in the song
- On the first row, list out numbers in multiples of 4 to represent the bars in a track
- Fill in the cells where a sound fades in
- Arrange the elements of your song to match the reference arrangement
This exercise is called an arrangement map and it can help elevate your songwriting immediately.
Reference tracks in mixing are used to match the tone, level balance, panning, effects, and dynamics of one song to another. When mixing, you may ask yourself, “how loud should the kick be compared to the bass,” or “what effects should I put on my vocals?” If you want your mix to have the sonic characteristics of professionally produced music, it’s crucial to use reference tracks to guide how you process individual elements of your mix.
In the video below from iZotope's Are You Listening? eductional series on mixing and mastering, learn how a reference track can be used in the mixing stage to help a desired sound come to life.
Preparing your session for mix comparison
Start by preparing your session for comparison:
- Gain stage your session and create a static mix
- Choose a mix you admire, drop it into your DAW
- Route your reference to a new bus you label “REFERENCE”
- All other tracks are routed to a different bus you label “MIX”
- Bring the level of your reference down to the level of your mix
Once you’ve loaded your reference track, you’ll notice it’s a lot louder than your mix because it has already been mixed and mastered. In order to make accurate comparisons, make sure to bring the level of your reference down to the level of your mix.
Match the level balance and panning positions
Now that your mix and reference are level matched, you are ready to compare how the individual elements in your mix sound against the reference and make moves to match them. Start by matching the level balance and pan positions.
Some questions you can ask yourself as your comparing mixes:
- What’s the level relationship between instruments?
- How loud are the vocals compared to other instruments?
- How are the drums panned?
- Is your bass too quiet or too loud in comparison?
- What’s the relationship between the kick and bass?
- How do your effects compare?
Use Neutron to match the tone and dynamics
Once you’ve matched panning and level relationships, you can move on to using tools like equalization (EQ) and compression to match the tone and dynamics of individual instruments. The most efficient way to do this is to use Neutron’s Assistant View.
Assistant View uses AI and machine learning to match the tone of your track to a sample or stem. For example, if you like the sound of a drum sample, drag it into an instance of Neutron on your drum bus. Mix Assistant will analyze the sample, extract its tonal balance and dynamic information, and create an effects signal chain for your drums to match it. From there, you can adjust your signal chain’s parameters to taste.
Using reference tracks in mastering follows similar principles. Except this time, instead of matching the level balance and tone relationships between individual instruments, you’re matching the width, dynamics, tonal balance, and loudness of the entire mix.
Preparing your session for comparison
Once you finish your mixdown, you’ll want to move on to the mastering stage:
- Bounce your stereo mix down to a lossless audio file format (WAV, AIFF, or FLAC)
- Start a new project and import your stereo mix
- Add Ozone and Tonal Balance Control to the master bus
- Import a reference to Ozone’s Master Assistant View
Match tonal balance, dynamics, width and loudness
Master Assistant in Ozone allows you to import and save references. Once you import a reference track, it will analyze the audio file and extract a tonal balance curve it uses to build a custom signal chain for your mix. From there, you can use controls in the Assistant View to make broad changes or dive into the signal chain to adjust your signal chain’s parameters to taste.
As mastering engineer Jett Galindo says in her tutorial on using reference tracks in mastering sessions, 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 the reference tracks for mastering. 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.
Start Using Reference Tracks
Using reference tracks is a great way for ensuring your track is headed in the right direction.
We hope this guide gave you a useful overview that can help you produce a consistent and high quality sound.
Here are the main takeaways:
- Choose reference tracks that have a similar style, sounds, and instrumentation as the project you’re working on.
- Use Audiolens to get reference tracks directly from your music streaming service of choice.
- Use different references for different stages of the music production process.
Learn More About Music Production
Below are a series of helpful resources to get you started on your music production journey.
Learn from professional audio engineers
Learn the art and science of audio mastering in the Are You Listening? video series. Learn mastering basics like compression, EQ, and loudness, and explore state-of-the-art tools to help you become a better audio engineer.