Ever since I stumbled across the concept I have become obsessed with putting together a reference ‘CD’ for checking mixes. I have to admit that I spent the first couple of years mixing without them and suffered many torturous days wondering why I couldn’t get my mixes to sound like the records I was listening to at the time.
Fast forward many years and as a freelance producer/mixer I mostly work from home for mixing and mastering, although I do occasionally work in other spaces. In those cases I take my reference ‘CD’ with me (inverted commas because my CD is actually a rugged drive) as well as some of my own work to play there. This helps me to get an immediate feel for the room and ultimately speeds up my workflow.
Good monitoring is very important but it is impossible to entirely eliminate unwanted frequencies and bass build up from a space that also serves as a practical living space (not to mention extraneous noise) and there will always be some compromise. Reference tracks can go along way to help you in this area and allow you to judge the space and set up your desk and monitors optimally.
It’s expensive, but if you can find (or even get a copy from the library) of the book ‘Mixing with your mind’ then this offers more conceptual approaches to getting the best out of your room and monitoring – all you need is an assistant! (If you read it you’ll understand the reference).
I always talk about the Mike Senior book as a great resource for home mixing and he has a lot to say about the importance of reference CD’s in all small mixing environments. He even goes to the extent of creating small 30 second blasts of sections of songs with a specific sound or part that he can access quickly.
No matter what mixing level you are at it is important to note; referencing is used by everyone, it should be something you devote time to doing every day (whether this is compiling tracks or just actively listening) and if you are still in doubt of it’s importance, remember that most, if not all, of the professional tracks you listen to were made using reference material.
The best part is that you don’t have to start at square one. Active listening may be a new approach but thanks to passive listening (something we do a lot more frequently) your subconscious has already done most of the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, the moment you realise you are passively listening then you aren’t passively listening anymore, but as a long-term music lover you have the benefit of years of practice.
One could argue that all songs make good reference tracks but it is important to make a clear distinction between which tracks you have chosen for which purpose. It may seem obvious, but if you want to check your bass guitar compression against a song, pick one that has a strong reputation for a good bass sound, rather than something you just like. Even if you only produce your own music it is good to have a diverse range of tracks on your reference CD. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say this should include Gangnam Style (although I draw the line at Robin Thicke for moral reasons).
Typically reverbs and delays can be hard to judge (how many times have you set up your reverb or effects bus, mixed a track then listened in your car and/or on headphones and thought the reverb was too loud?) Its much easier (and speeds up your workflow) to pick a song that you know has the same type of reverb you are after and reference against it.
Also, when referencing walk around your room, you’ll soon discover where the bass builds up or perhaps the main elements of the track lose focus. Sitting in the ‘sweet spot’ makes sense when mixing but the moment the track is in the real world no one will listen to it this way, so it is worth trying listening in as many ‘places’ as possible.
I work with a music critique service and a question I get asked a lot is how to make better, and faster, judgements when mixing or writing. More often than not the answer lies in using appropriate reference material. However, in order for reference material to be incorporated into your work flow you need to be able to access it quickly.
I use Sample Magic’s Magic AB plug in and save presets for specific genres or instruments, for quick recall. Balancing against your mix is easy too.
Also, Meterplugs have Perception which can be set up in a similar way, but takes a little more fiddling about.
A few things to remember; Use high quality (cd resolution or above) material for referencing, and if you get the opportunity to work in or visit other studios don’t forget to take some of your own current mixes to play as well as your reference material. It’ll be an eye opener :).
Lastly, don’t chicken out of referencing your mixes against professional ones for fear of disappointment. Being objective about your own work is hard, so although referencing can be a little soul-crushing initially once you get over that hurdle you’ll learn to become more objective and create professional sounding mixes you can be proud of.
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P.S The Mike Senior book I mention is called ‘Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio”.