Should You Use Reference Tracks for Mastering?

As audio professionals, there’s always a question about when we should and should not use reference tracks while we work. For those that aren’t familiar, reference tracks are other songs that engineers and producers use as a reference for the sound they’re after.

Some choose to use parts of specific songs, such as the guitar tone of one song and the drum or vocal sound from another. Others choose to use references more loosely, matching the overall sound of their session to something that sounds similar to what they’d like to sound like. Regardless of the approach, there are some definite pros and cons to the use of reference tracks.

Most commonly, music producers tend to second-guess the use of reference tracks because the majority of references are completely mixed and mastered. Does it make sense to try and track a guitar that sounds exactly like a finished product when the mixing and mastering steps might change its tone?

Mixers tend to have the same reservations about their use – especially when it comes to individual elements within a mix. A great drum sound might sound great in one song, but come across as too big or boomy in another. Things that sound right tend to sound their best because of the instruments and mix around them.

In all of these situations, I think reference tracks offer more benefits than drawbacks though. If I can use a reference track to get 90% of the way to the sound I’m after I’m happy. That extra 10% comes from massaging that tonal goal into the rest of the mix. If I can get the sound I want and glue it into the rest of the track, the reference track has done its job.

With the biggest hesitation around using reference tracks coming from the pre-mastering vs. post-mastering differences, how do you decide if using a reference for mastering is right for you?

Mastering Shortcuts

If you’re brand new to mastering or it’s not part of your normal workflow, reference tracks can be one of the easiest ways to create a competitively mastered track.

Mastering engineers spend years learning and perfecting their craft. They take common audio tools and extremely detailed monitoring setups to accomplish their masters. All of that training and gear comes at a very high cost.

As a non-mastering engineer, you’ve got a long uphill battle to get the same level of results as mastering professionals achieve. But what if you could take a shortcut?

Similar to the “90%” scenario I mentioned in the last section, you can make similar moves when mastering. Use a reference track to get your song sounding as close as possible to that mastered track. Take advantage of built-in monitoring in your DAW or plugins with monitoring capabilities to track how your song compares. Once you’ve got your track closely matching your reference, apply a few final touches you think are needed to get the final, mastered sound.

Mastering Modern Music

If you’re trying to keep your song competitive with modern music, reference tracks are a must (yes, even for mastering engineers with years of experience). Reference tracks not only give you a sound to chase after, but a way to hear how your track will sound right alongside its competition on Spotify, the radio, and just about any other place your audience might hear the song.

Modern pop, rock & country tend to be the most detail-oriented when it comes to mastering. As the heavy hitters on radio and streaming platforms, they’ve got more listeners looking for consistency. You want something unique enough to get stuck in your listeners’ heads without being so jarringly different that they skip the song.

To accomplish this, many mastering engineers will use references to see where the RMS levels of modern songs sit. They’ll track where the peaks are and how frequently they come in a song. They’ll likely work with a spectral analyzer to see how dynamic different frequency ranges are in reference tracks.

Overall, the mastering process is still their own. They’re making the artistic decisions with EQ and compression, but they’re accounting for how others are treating the same things. Matching levels keeps things consistent with other songs without sacrificing some of the more unique parts of a mix or master.

Can’t Master A Bad Mix

No matter how great a mastering engineer is at their job, there’s no substitution for a good mix. Mixing is where your songs come together. It’s where your various instruments become balanced and dynamic, creating a cadence as your song rises and falls.

To make sure your mixes are in mint condition before sending them off for mastering (or mastering them yourself), let me take a listen and give you my feedback. Having a seasoned producer with millions of records sold review your song and provide feedback is invaluable. It’s something I wish I had when developing my craft.

Submit your mix today.