Reference Tracks: An Easy Way To Get Better Mixes

One of the simplest and easiest ways to make your mixes better is by using reference tracks. Reference tracks are completed songs that share a similar genre and style as the songs you are producing.

Reference tracks inject new ideas into your music. They can help you identify your song’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement.

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What Is A Reference Track?

Simply put, a reference track is a completed song with the same genre and the same style as the song you’re producing. It’s a song that has been composed, recorded, arranged, mixed, mastered, and sounds fairly similar to yours. 

Why should you use a reference track? When you’re in the music production process, sometimes it can be difficult to evaluate your incomplete song

You might not know what’s working or what needs improvement. You might not know what can be added to the song or what the next step is. You might not know when you’re done with a certain phase and ready to move on to the next.

Reference tracks can help you overcome these challenges. 

By comparing a completed song with your incomplete song, you can introduce new ideas into your songs. Reference tracks can help you understand what you can do to make progress and make your songs better.

When To Use Reference Tracks

Reference tracks are useful during all stages of the music production process.

You can use them at the very beginning of a song when you’re looking for new ideas to make something interesting. 

You can use them during the arrangement phase to think about how your song is structured and plan out how instruments are integrated into the song.

Finally, you can use reference tracks in the mixing and mastering stages, where you’re putting the finishing touches on your song and getting the final details just right. 

In my opinion, reference tracks are most useful during the mixing stage. With a narrower focus on the details, reference tracks can be the most impactful. 

How To Select A Reference Track

Selecting a reference track is pretty simple. Like I mentioned before, a reference track simply shares a similar genre and style as the song you’re making. 

Finding Common Ground

Think about what defines your song. What are the two to four elements that make it unique and interesting? These are the characteristics that you want to look for in potential reference tracks.

Consider the instruments, the arrangement, and the mood. If you find a reference track that shares the same key elements, you’re in business. 

It Doesn’t Have To Be Identical Or Perfect

Your reference track doesn’t need to sound identical to your song. It doesn’t have to share all the smaller details, only the big ones. If you try to find a reference track that has all of the same details, it’s going to be hard to find a suitable match.

Additionally, reference tracks don’t need to be “perfect” mixes or songs within your genre. It’s not about measuring and grading your song against a golden standard, it’s simply about comparing and contrasting the two songs. 

The Playlist Test

One way I like to evaluate a potential reference track is with what I call The Playlist Test

I simply imagine my song being played next to the reference track in question in a playlist or on the radio, and I ask, “Does this pairing feel like a natural fit?”

How would it sound? Would it be natural to go from one song to the other? Would it fit within the theme of the playlist or the radio station? Or would it be very different and very jarring? 

If the pairing sounds natural, you have a winner. If not, you’ll want to keep looking. 

Example Pairings

Below I have pulled together some example album pairings to get you thinking about what you’re looking for in a reference track. These aren’t individual songs, but the same principles apply. 

Example Reference Track Pairings

Figure 1: Example Pairings

Each pairing belongs to the same genre and contains similar instruments, arrangements, and moods. If you aren’t familiar with any of these albums, choose a pair and listen to a few of the songs on each album. Notice the similarities and differences? 

These types of relationships are what you want to look for when it comes to finding and choosing reference tracks.

Acquiring Reference Tracks

There are several places where you can acquire reference tracks. 

What Are You Listening To?

The first place that I start is simply by looking at what I’m listening to right now. Chances are, if you’re making music in a certain genre, you’re probably listening to music in that genre as well. 

Take a look at the music you have been listening to recently or in the past. Is there anything that reminds you of what you’re making now? Chances are, there are at least a few reference tracks right under your nose. 

Genres and Sub-genres 

The next place to find reference tracks is through music databases. To do this, I like to use a website called Rate Your Music, which catalogues the vast majority of commercially released music and organizes it in great detail by genre.

If you have a song that is similar in nature to your song but not close enough to be a reference track, you can use Rate Your Music to find similar music that pairs better with your song. 

Once you identify your song’s sub-genre, you’ll have plenty of options at your disposal. 

Rapid-Fire Streaming

The last place to find reference tracks is by listening to playlists and recommended artists on streaming sites like Spotify and YouTube. 

These places can automatically steer you towards a lot of music like your songs, and you can listen to lots of songs quickly to find good reference track candidates. 

Downloading Files

Once you’ve identified your reference track, I recommend downloading it from a website like iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, or Beatport

Find more resources for downloading reference tracks here.

The reason I recommend downloading your reference track is so you can put it into your DAW, which is going to make it a lot easier to evaluate the two songs compared to leaving your reference track somewhere else. 

When you download your reference tracks, I recommend looking for good quality files. Using high quality file formats like FLAC, 320kbps MP3, or AAC are all really good options. 

You want to have a reference track that is similar in quality to the music that you’re working with in your DAW. Since mixing involves the most nuanced elements of a song, the sound quality is important. 

Finally, it’s okay to use multiple reference tracks at once. If you find multiple reference tracks that work well for your song, that gives you more material to compare your song to and more ways to make it better.

Sometimes you won’t be able to find a perfect reference track for your song, but you might be able to find two or three that cover all the bases, and that’s okay too. 

Setting Up Your Reference Track

To setup your reference track, all you have to do is pull it into your DAW right next to your song. 

As you can see below, I’ve got a project open in my DAW. I’ve got all the individual musical tracks, including the drums, the synths, the guitar, and the vocals. Right below those tracks, I have the reference track that I pulled in. 

Figure 2: Reference Track In My DAW Session 

Once your reference track is in place, you do need to level match your reference track to make sure that you don’t have any volume differences that are going to get in the way of comparing your song to the reference track. 

To do this, simply listen back and forth between the reference track and your full song. Use your ears to manually adjust the volume fader on your reference track and find a level of loudness for your reference track that is close to your song. 

You don’t need to worry about using any tools or plugins for this process, just make sure that the reference track is similar in loudness and you’ll be all set. 

Level matching the reference track will help you avoid mistaking volume differences for mixing issues. 

Let’s say your reference track is much louder than your song, making your song’s drums sound quiet and wimpy compared to the drums in the reference track. In reality, your entire song might just be quiet, and level matching the songs will fix the problem. 

Using Reference Tracks

Once you’ve got your reference track in place, it’s time to use it. 

All you have to do is listen back and forth between your reference track and your mix and see what sticks out. 

I like to do this a couple of times: the first listen to get a general feel for the differences in the songs, and additional listens to focus on specific instruments, specific frequency ranges, the stereo field, and other specific elements of the songs.

As you make these observations, there are generally four ways to apply changes to your mix.

1. Fix Known Problems

If your mix has an issue that you already know needs fixing, you can look at that part of your reference track to see how the mix engineer tackled that part of the mix. 

If the drum mix is an issue in your song, study how are the drums are mixed on the reference track, and use this as guidance for fixing your mix. 

2. Improve Weaknesses

In a vacuum, it can be difficult to see what parts of your mix aren’t as strong as others. Compared to your reference track, however, these weaknesses can become much more apparent.

Once these weaknesses are clear, you can use guidance from the reference track to make improvements. 

3. Make Additions

You may have a good mix already, but do you have a great mix? Special effects like reverb can take your song to the next level, and reference tracks can provide you with examples to make these additions.

4. Verify Decisions

If your song is already partially-mixed, it can be helpful to know which parts of it are done and don’t need any more attention. To make these decisions, you can look at the reference track and verify what parts of your mix are good and can be left alone. 

Use this technique to focus on the parts of the mix that do need work, making the overall process much simpler. 

Additional Best Practices

Keep It Intuitive

As you use reference tracks, make sure to keep the process very intuitive. 

There are an endless number of differences between your song and your reference track if you really dig into the details, but focusing on the smallest details won’t necessarily make your mix better.

Numerical differences like specific frequencies and volumes aren’t going to be very useful to study because they’re highly situational. Only certain differences can translate effectively to your song, so focus on those.

Make It Your Own

Make sure to always make your mix your own. Adapt elements from the reference track to your song, don’t copy them directly.  Make your mix as good as it possibly can be.

Don’t Speculate

Don’t worry about what the other mix engineer did. It can be really tempting to think about what plugins they have, what settings they used, and other details like that. 

Chances are, you’re never going to be able to know those answers. Trying to figure out exactly what was done in the reference track will be a waste of time.

Beyond The Basics

Once you’ve mastered the basics of reference tracks, you can take these principles to the next level. 

Build A Reference Track Folder

As you use reference tracks more and more, it’s useful to build a reference track folder consisting of all the reference tracks you’ve used.

If you consistently make songs in a single genre, some reference tracks may be useful for multiple songs, not just one. 

In time, your reference track folder can instantly give you multiple options for each song you make, saving the time and effort of finding a new reference track each time. 

Find New Sources Of Inspiration

When you listen to music in your spare time, look for ideas and inspiration in music that has less in common with your music. 

There’s going to be less overlap between completely different genres of music, but you can still find interesting ideas in other musical genres that can benefit your music. 

These types of ideas can make your music truly unique if applied effectively. Get creative with it!

Final Thoughts

Reference tracks are an easy way to make better mixes. They’re easy to put into practice, and the benefits will be instant. 

If you already use reference tracks, I hope this article has helped improve your existing process. 

If you haven’t used reference tracks before, I recommend you try them with your next song. 

Reference tracks can be a very powerful part of your mixing process. They’re a powerful tool for me and many other producers, and they can help you too. 

If you have any questions about reference tracks or any of the topics that I discussed in this article, leave a comment below!

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