mixing music using reference tracks

How to Get the Most Value from Your Reference Tracks

Tom Frampton

March 31, 2021

Whether it's your first time firing up Pro Tools First and beginning your musical journey or the twentieth time opening Pro Tools | Ultimate this week, utilizing reference tracks will help you get professional-sounding masters fast.

It's not uncommon for a music producer to spend hours creating an epic masterpiece of music. Whilst enjoyable, perspective can be lost, leading to bad mix decisions. Trying to battle ear fatigue on your own is futile, leading to mixes that can be overly bright, too dark, overcompressed, or too punchy. Reference tracks help you recalibrate your ears and maintain a great sense of tonal balance and dynamics.

The majority of professional producers will cite beginning to use reference tracks as the turning point in their abilities. Learning how to use reference tracks properly can skyrocket anyone's production quality. Here's how to get the most value out of your reference tracks to help you get your mixes sounding better than ever.

REFERENCE plugin in Pro Tools

Setting Yourself Up for Success

Making music is often a solitary endeavor. Comparing your efforts to a commercially successful song that sounds great and has been enjoyed by the masses can give you an accurate benchmark of what to shoot for when fine-tuning your song. It's a feedback loop that helps you see what's wrong with your song and helps ensure positive progress.

There are great tools available to make using reference tracks easier and more accurate, like the REFERENCE AAX plugin from Mastering the Mix. In your mastering session, load up the AAX of REFERENCE as the final plugin on your mastering chain. REFERENCE should come after your metering plugin but before any speaker/headphone calibration software (if you use it).

drag and drop reference tracks into REFERENCE plugin

Drag and drop the reference tracks you want to use onto the Wave Transport, or click Add Reference Tracks and select your files from your computer.

Select reference tracks that are in the same genre with similar instrumentation and sounds to the mix you're working on. It's important to use reference tracks that you think sound amazing and, if possible, choose tracks that have had commercial success. Finally, use high-quality files. You don't want to try to match your sound to a low-quality MP3, which often lack bass and sound harsh.

The Most Important Step for Informed Mix Decisions

Once you've loaded your reference tracks, click the Level Match button to balance the tracks so they all have the same perceived loudness. Accurate level matching is almost impossible to do just by ear, but it's crucial if you want to make informed mix decisions.

The human ear perceives the frequency spectrum differently depending on how loud the sound is. This can give you the misconception that a loud song has a fuller bass and more clarity in the high frequencies when compared to the same song monitored with less volume.

why level match matters with reference tracks

This misconception leads you to dial in more low-end to match the louder song, when it isn't what the track needs. This loudness bias is at the heart of all bad mixing decisions and is the main reason why so many people find themselves going round in circles failing to get their music sounding great on various playback systems.

level match feature in REFERENCE plugin

The Level Match feature in REFERENCE will instantly balance the loudness of your track and your references in real time, allowing you to compare the two tracks without bias.

matching levels in REFERENCE plugin

A Clear Direction of How to Match the Sonic Quality of Your Reference Tracks

When you listen to your reference track and you compare it to your own music, it can be difficult to put your finger on what changes you need to make. The Trinity Display uses intelligent algorithms to show you how the frequency balance, stereo width, and punch of your track compares to your reference.

Frequency Balance

The white Level Line tells you how the EQ balance of your original song differs from your reference track.

The Trinity Display has a thin, faint line through the middle. This represents 0dB. The thicker white Level Line will move into the upper half of the Trinity Display if the frequencies of your track have more perceived volume than the corresponding frequencies in your reference.

The Level Line will descend into the lower half of the Trinity Display if the frequencies have less perceived volume than the corresponding frequencies in your reference. When the level line is on the middle 0dB line the tonal balance is identical.

frequency balance in REFERENCE plugin

If the Level Line in the low-frequency range is lower than the central 0dB line, you may choose to open the Pro Tools mixer and increase the volume of your kick and bass. Alternatively, you may decide that adding EQ boosts to the low end of your bass elements might be a better option to get your low frequencies sounding more comparable to your reference.

If the Level Line in the high frequencies is above the central line, you might decide to use the classic EQ III to reduce the volume of your hi-hats, cymbals, and sweeping effects. Alternatively, you may decide to create some EQ cuts to reduce the high-end energy to make it comparable to your reference.

Stereo and Punch

REFERENCE also allows you to compare how the stereo width and punch of your track compare to your reference tracks.

The Stereo Width shows you how wide the audio is across the entire frequency range of either the original track you're working on or your reference. You can use panning in the Pro Tools mixer or stereo tools to adjust the width of specific frequencies to get a comparable sense of space in your song.

stereo width in REFERENCE plugin

The Punch Dots will move towards the 0dB line if that frequency band is more compressed in your original than in the corresponding frequency range of your reference. They'll move away from the 0dB Line if that frequency range is less compressed. The more opaque the dots are, the larger the difference between the punch of your track and the punch of the reference.

punch dots in REFERENCE plugin

Reference tracks shouldn't stifle your creativity or force you to make decisions that aren't right for the music. They help you create music that translates well on different playback systems and in different environments. Download the free trial for REFERENCE here for a great new addition to your Pro Tools setup.

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Tom Frampton headshot
Tom Frampton
Tom is a musician, audio engineer, and entrepreneur based in London, UK. His credits include Tiesto, David Guetta, Steve Aoki, and more. His company Mastering The Mix creates game-changing plugins for forward-thinking producers.

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