Referencing some of your favorite songs in the same style and genre of the mix you’re working on is a hotly debated topic within the music industry. For as many mixers there are that swear by using reference mixes to get faster, better sounds, there are just as many that argue against them. Going back and forth on the arguments for or against are enough to give anyone whiplash.
It’s a lot like most other mix advice – people have strong beliefs about the right way to do things (or at least what they would consider the right way).
Today, we’re not here to pass judgement. If you came here, you’re either thinking of trying out reference mixes while you work or you’re already using them and you’re not sure what kind of impact they’re having on your results.
By the time we’re finished, you should have a clear understanding of the things working in your favor and the limitations reference mixes may be putting on your workflow. From there, it’s up to you to decide what direction to go in moving forward.
A Beginner’s Guide to Reference Mixes
For those just discovering this topic for the first time, reference mixes are exactly what they sound like – other mixes that you enjoy/admire/aspire to replicate in some manner. Reference mixes provide a bit of an anchor point for anything from basic leveling and balance to advanced guitar and vocal tones. The amount that you allow a reference mix to influence your own individual mix decisions is up to you, but the general idea is that a reference mix (or mixes) can give you a target to shoot for.
Beginners have a lot to gain in a very short amount of time by using reference mixes. Because they don’t have the ear training or experience of seasoned vets in the industry, having a professional “benchmark” to reference can help them compare their own work against that of a pro. While reference mixes have a few drawbacks that we’ll discuss next, they’re generally very minor in comparison to the ground that a newbie can gain quickly working with reference mixes.
Don’t Become Dependent
Perhaps the biggest argument against reference mixes is that they end up making things sound uninspired and unoriginal. In other words, mix too much like another mixer and you’ll never develop your own sound.
I know engineers that have built successful careers using reference mixes and mix templates. They can replicate just about anything they hear, but they struggle to come up with new sounds and styles from scratch. Obviously, this isn’t the case for everyone, but it’s a cautionary tale for anyone that works with reference mixes regularly.
So what can we do to combat reference mix dependence?
It’s simple: practice without them. Just the basic practice of mixing from scratch occasionally can help break up the routine and give you back some of that independent thinking that only mixing in your own isolation can provide. While you’re at it, maybe ditch the plugin presets too. It’s crazy how much we can fall into doing things the same way, regardless of whether we use reference mixes as part of our workflows.
Mastered vs Unmastered
Another major argument against reference mixes is that they’re mastered, final products that you’ll never be able to replicate (and shouldn’t want to). Trying to make your song sound like a finished, mastered product is jumping the gun and something you need to be wary of. You’ll want to leave plenty of headroom for mastering and chances are your reference tracks don’t have much of that at all.
An easy way to combat this issue is to reduce the level of your reference track by a few dB while you work to level the playing field, but it’s still not a perfect solution. The compression and dynamics will likely be vastly different on the mastered track. If you can learn to live with this, great. Otherwise, you may want to steer clear of reference tracks.
Reference Elements, Not Mixes
One of the best ways to keep reference tracks a part of your workflow without overdoing things is to use references for elements in your mix rather than overall mix structure. Some of the best guitar tones I’ve recorded and mixed were based on reference tones from songs that I loved listening to while working on an album with a band.
The same can be done for things like drums, bass, and all other instrumentation in a song. If you’re after a specific style and you can point to a single song that already exists with the sound, you’re after – why wouldn’t you use that to your advantage?
At the end of the day, there are no rules about reference mixes or any other techniques or workflows. There’s only what works best for you and gets you the results you want. If reference mixes help you get there, or they help get you there faster, use them!
If you’re interested in learning the ear training techniques that I’ve used to match guitar tones to reference tracks in the past, make sure you check out the Toneforge Bootcamp course on the JST site. In the course, we take a deep dive into the anatomy of a great guitar tone, dissect some real-world examples, and take those tones all the way through from tracking to final mix.