What is reference?
Though no two mixes are the same and peoples tastes and styles will heavily influence this, universally speaking a ‘good mix’ is always still a ‘good mix’ and a bad mix is bad. Plain and simple. How many times have you finished up a mix at some ridiculous hour to come back the next day and instantly turn down the vocal 3db or realize that your mix is insanely bright and needs to be pulled back? This is because for such a long uninterrupted period of time this is all you have heard. You have lost touch with what sounds good and the basic standards of a good mix.
Now before I continue I must address, for experienced mixing engineers reading this who have mixed track after track and have been in the game a fair while, this may not apply. After many years in the industry their ears are trained to understand and hear the standard and as a result, the above scenarios may happen far less or not at all.
However, I have witnessed first hand from some of the most experienced engineers in the game, still do exactly what I am about to discuss. So for you who are newer to the mixing world, keep reading on. So how do we combat losing track of what does and doesn’t sound good? It is very simple. Import a particular mix into the session you are mixing so that at any time you can listen to the track and see where yours stands. Does the vocal sit in a similar spot? Is your mix thinner or has more bass? Does the snare and kick sit in a similar position? By listening as you go and asking these questions as you mix, you can be guided to a really good standard mix.
Side note: Do not stress if the volume is significantly different, most likely the track you are referencing is mastered by a professional. I personally like to turn down my reference track a few dB so that the volumes are similar as I like to leave some head room in my mixes.
Now obviously, you will not import a Green Day track into a country song you are mixing, or a Taylor swift song for a thrash metal band. Ask your client what particular sound they are aiming for with their own references and add some of your own that you love the production and mix of. You may not even overly like the song, but you appreciate just how good of a mix it is. As you let this guide your mix into ‘good territory’ you will naturally begin to put your own taste and style into the mix and it will become your sound with reference to ‘X’.
What other advantages does referencing a track have?
Scenario: You are a young up and coming engineer that is used to mixing in your 4x4m bedroom through 5″ KRK monitors with little to no proper sound proofing. But, you have pulled some decent enough mixes as you have become used to the room nodes and standing waves. But did you ever put the mix on in your car and get a severe shock? (reference!).
Now you have worked with a band that want to pay a little more money and get you to mix their track in a professional studio through 8″ Genelecs with a sub and a pair of NS10s to reference. You have never been in this room. You have never heard tracks through these speakers. You may worry that you will walk out of the studio, put your mix on the car on the way home and pray that it translates okay. Bring some reference tracks with you, import them into the session and press play and just sit and listen. You don’t have to sit there and try calculate any annoying frequencies. Simply sit their and get your ears and brain accustomed to this new environment and know what good tracks sound like in this room.
Referencing a track does not always mean with another track however. Another very important form of referencing is when you take your mix and play it back through other speakers, headphones etc. As just discussed, listening in the car is a very popular and great way to hear your mix as it is a place you will have heard many songs and great mixes before. I also love to have headphones close by to listen with as I go.
Now I’d like to move on to one other smaller topic I have found really interesting working around a lot of mixing engineers. It is different ways to monitor as you mix. From working in a studio I have become to see a familiar trend with the more experienced and respected mixing engineers in how they monitor during mixing. As a general guide, you want to mix at a comfortable enough level. Loud enough that the bass can be pushed from the speaker cone, but not too loud that everything immediately sounds great and excited as you may fool yourself into a “pumping” mix. I would say as a rough guide, a level that you could slightly raise your voice over to be heard. It is then fine to have stints of listening louder as you try and ‘sweep and cut’ annoying frequencies or find resonances etc.
Listening louder also has a great advantage. Though I wouldn’t recommend a 5 hour stint listening loud (your ears and brain will tire quicker), as a great engineer and producer has taught me, you need to be able to listen to the mix loud and it doesn’t hurt. Our ears are very sensitive to frequencies around the 1kHz – 4kHz mark and it is usually in this area you may find some problems with things sticking out. Do you immediately want to turn down that female vocal, or those strumming guitars or cymbals? If you do, find what is bothering you and turn it back a touch and make sure you can here the mix at a loud level comfortably.
The opposite to this is also to listen very quietly. When I first started mixing I came across a few engineers discussing that listening very quietly for some passes has its advantages also. Does the vocal still sit ok with the track when quiet? Can you still hear the snare keeping it together? There are a variety of things to listen out for but it is good to do so.
One last way I like to listen is to crank the mix again and leave the room. Again just too hear if anything sounds odd or sticks out. You will be amazed to find what you might discover. When your mix sounds balanced and the way you have intended in all these different listening environments and listening levels, then it is safe to say you have achieved a ‘good mix’. I’d like to stress however, these are guidelines to use.
A ‘good mix’ is a loose term that I have used. Great mixes however, are created through having well engineered and produced sessions for a start, but also through hours of trying different sounds, fx, automation and other ideas. Hope this has helped you somewhat as I know it helped me a lot when I was exposed to it all!