Referencing 101

articles videos Jul 21, 2019

When you are mixing it is easy to lose perspective on the track you are working on, it is also very easy to put the listeners focus on elements of the mix that were designed to be more texture or backing parts. Due to this and many other reasons, it is important to be able to return to a more “objective” state. Utilizing roughs mixes and commercial referencing are great ways of being able to quickly analyse your mix direction and to also “reset your ears”.

Roughs

When a piece of music is being recorded there will always be some sort of vision. It is the mix engineer’s job to take the raw recording and make it sound as good as it can, whilst retaining the vision set forward by the producer. Some styles of music and its arrangement will mean that it is a straightforward task to match the mix to the vision, for instance, a classic punk track would be very difficult to misinterpret (provided you know the remits of the genre in the first place). However, a densely arranged pop, dance or an experimental rock track could easily put the focus on the wrong elements. This might be as simple a mistake as favouring a guitar line that was initially intended to be a secondary interest or it could be that you have buried several elements that the artist and/or producers feel are key to the arrangement. This is why it is important to have some sort of representation of what the producer and artist want, this usually comes in the form of a rough. A rough is a mix made by the producer or engineer that helps to identify level balances and effect ideas. Some producers make roughs that are pretty comprehensive and sound very good, others are live up to the nickname. Roughs are usually given to the band to listen to after it has been tracked; this means that the band/producer/record label might all become accustomed to those tones and balances. This means that they are likely to want something that sounds tonally similar but sonically better. Although this means that you will have some remit to work too, you shouldn’t let that cloud your judgement too much, regarding the way you approach the mix. Remember, you were chosen to mix the project because they like the way you mix, if the rough was good enough you wouldn’t have the job. Because of this mix engineers often disagree over when is the best time to listen to the rough. On one extreme are those that listen to the rough before doing anything else, this helps the mix engineer realise what the production team and the band want and then make the best sounding representation of that idea. On the other extreme are those that like to disregard the rough mix until the end of the process (or in rare cases not listen to it at all), this is so that they can be more creative with the mix and aren’t constricted by the original vision. When mixing I tend to use a process that sits somewhere in-between these extremes. I don’t listen to the rough straightaway; I prefer to premix the session first. During the premix process, I have organised, edited and auditioned all the tracks, meaning that I have a good knowledge of exactly what the track is made up of and I have some ideas of how I think it should all fit together. This has allowed me to start becoming creative and generate ideas that put my stamp on the track; during the premix, I have also set some basic levels that relate to my personal taste. When the track is ready to mix, the first thing I do is listen to the rough in its entirety. The rough is added to my session in such as a way so that I can flick back and forth between my mix and the rough at the touch of a button. This has two main benefits:

  • Vision matching, from listening to the rough I can hear how my vision differs from the production team. Hopefully, you will be pleasantly surprised at how synchronised the visions are. If not it will allow you to re-evaluate and adapt to create something that appeals to everyone.
  • Finding production gold, sometimes the roughs are very comprehensive and even have effects like delay, reverb, chorus etc. If you don’t listen to the rough you might miss an effect that is truly special that you hadn’t even considered, most of the time these sorts of effects will be loved by the band too!

If you are lucky enough to have an assistant or intern that takes care of the pre-mix then you might want to spend a few minutes auditioning the individual tracks so that you can build up that picture of how the arrangement fits together.

Referencing

The rough will help you judge your mix compared to the producer/bands vision, but adding finished commercial releases to the session will help you judge the fidelity of your mix; this is called referencing. Having some commercially released tracks to compare your mixes too makes sense on several levels:

  • Setting a “sonic target”, commercial references allow you to have a quality to aspire to.
  • Genre specific decisions, the genre of music often dictates the way that you set your basic level balance, EQ and dynamic processing. If you don’t know the genre inside out, proper references can help to identify niches between styles of music. For instance, the kick drum on a metal record is likely to be very scooped in the midrange and also have a lot of emphasis on the “click” around 4-5KHz. A “rootsy” acoustic album, on the other hand, is likely to have more sub and midrange and little to no impetus to the “click”.
  • Correct ear fatigue, it is paramount that your ears stay objective about your production. However, it is shocking how quickly your ears adapt to a situation and become accustomed to the sound you hear. This means that your ears will start to like your mix, even when it isn’t finished. Flicking to the reference mixes even if it is just briefly will help “reset your ears” to what is actually a good mix.
  • Ideas, let’s not forget that your reference mixes are likely to be from the very best producers, mixers and bands on the planet and there will be plenty of cool tricks that you can learn from them. Whether it is a delay effect, a bit crushing distortion or stereo-imaging trick, there is plenty to take inspiration from in your references.

I often use reference tracks at the start and end of my mix, but not during the majority of the mix. If I am in an unfamiliar acoustic environment I’ll listen to references before mixing. This helps acclimatize to the genre of music, the room and the monitors. For a breakdown of some of the songs I use to acclimatize to new acoustic environments, I have a Spotify playlist here:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/42I38YqkWOSCnyP4hro0Jg?si=I2Pv-0JRQO6KJMNclFHRrg

Once I have started the mix, I won’t reference again until I have at least done all of the basic processing (EQ, compression, FX, saturation etc), when mixing genres I am familiar with I’ll often complete the automation too. This is because it is very easy to concentrate solely on the technical minutia of the mixing process e.g. how much top-end EQ should I put on this snare? This leads you to underdevelop the more important parts of the mixing process:

  • How should the mix serve the song?
  • What emotion is it meant to achieve?
  • How does the song's journey develop and how can the mix emphasize that?

Remember that I song that fails to trigger the appropriate emotion is a failure even if the mix has a high-fidelity. You will also be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you can “tweak” the sonics, sometimes just some overall mix bus processing can revitalise the mix and match it to your references. However, it is MUCH more difficult to cultivate emotion in a song once it has already been over-processed (read: start again). Once I start referencing I will regularly flick back and forth very quickly between the references, the rough and my mix (all level matched). This is so that I can “keep myself on track” and avoid that pesky ear bias. If you have a multiple speaker set up, it is useful to audition the references and your own mix on every speaker system you have set up to check for as many different translation issues as possible. An important factor to remember when referencing is that you need to volume match the reference tracks to your mix; your ears are very susceptible to preferring the louder track and not necessarily the best one sonically. So to reference effectively you are better off volume matching all of the tracks so that they are the same volume. Knowing that we need to leave 3-6dB of headroom in our mixes so that the mastering engineer can do their thing, means that we have to bring down the level of the already mastered reference tracks to the level of your mix and not the other way around. One common pitfall when referencing is that you are comparing fully finished mastered products with your mix, which hasn’t had the loudness processing, added to it. Even though you will have level matched the material there is likely to still be some bias towards the hard-limited commercial track. Whilst you are always aiming to get the best possible end result you should be wary of obsessing too much over the reference. Referencing so much that you spend 60 hours on one mix is likely to make the end product worse not better and you are likely to feel pretty downcast about the product. Knowing when to stop is key, but is easier said than done. Referencing is best done with several tracks rather than just one. If you only use one reference track the danger is that:

  • It just starts to sound a lot like the band you are referencing.
  • Applying exactly the same treatment will probably make the end result worse. This is because of the difference in performance, instrumentation, microphone placement and production make some of the decisions for you.

Having many reference tracks allows you to concentrate less on the tonality of the specific instruments and more on the sonic quality as a whole (plus you will be surprised at the amount of variation between productions). The reference tracks are there to help maintain objectivity on what is sonically acceptable but they should not be used as an explicit guide to mixing your track. You may also decide to use a specific track as a reference because of the way certain frequency areas interact. For instance, I often use the Arctic Monkeys album Favourite Worst Nightmare as a reference in regards to creating a clutter-free low mid. 

I have also used the Foo Fighters album Echoes, Patience, Silence & Grace to pinpoint a scooped and aggressive mix in the high mids. 

The track The Pretender, in particular, is one I use a lot and is right at the point where I still find the amount of presence very pleasing to my ears but any more would probably be overkill. The mixdown stage is where the production starts to “come together” this can make it pretty heartbreaking when you aren’t able to deliver the end result you envisioned or when your mix doesn’t stack up to the references. Every engineer will have plenty of low moments, especially in the early days. The people that really succeed in the industry are those that let them “fire them up” to achieve the greatness they aspire to. When I have those moments I like to remember a few life lessons I’ve learnt along the way:

  • The more experience you get making records, the closer you will get it to sound to your reference mixes.
  • Whilst your mixes get will get better, you will always feel that there is room for improvement compared to your peers.
  • As your skill increases, you will start to demand more money for your work and your equipment list will also reflect your skill level to some degree. This means that if you can’t afford a £100,000 SSL console it is most likely to be because you aren’t quite ready for one, AKA don’t blame the gear.

So just to summarise, references are great for maximising the potential of a mix but can also be very deflating if you overthink things. Remember, life is a learning experience and your next mix is likely to be better than your last; repeat ad infinitum. I have made some companion videos to this blog post, which walk you through some of the common pitfalls to avoid when referencing:  

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