Producers and mixing engineers, you need to learn how to use a reference track.
In this post, I want to talk about why they’re important and how to actually get the most out of them. The end goal being, your song sounds as good as your favorite artists.
What Is a Reference Track?
A reference track is just what it sounds like ‒ a song you reference while producing and/or mixing your track.
The reference track needs to be professionally produced, mixed and mastered. The idea is to find inspiration from the reference track to use in your production and mix.
Why not just trust your ears? Because your ears lie to you, and so do mine. You need to know what actually sounds professional.
You’ll learn why your favorite songs sound so good by actively listening to them. Then you can apply what you learn to your production and mix.
How To Get the Most Out of a Reference Track
Now let’s dive into exactly how to use a reference track so you can get the most out of it…
Choosing a Track
When choosing a track to reference, whether it’s for producing or mixing, ask yourself why.
Why are you choosing this track? What specific element of this track do you want to incorporate into your song?
Maybe it’s the snappy snare sound, the delay on the lead vocal, or the lush guitar effect.
Listen intentionally to your reference track so you know what elements of it you want to emulate in your song.
Listen On Your Studio Monitors/Headphones
After you’ve chosen your reference track, make sure you listen to it on your studio monitors and/or the headphones you’ll be using.
Every sound source is slightly different, so you need to know what a pro-level song sounds like on your sound source in your recording space.
If you can make your song sound like your reference track while using your headphones and/or monitors, you’ll be golden.
How do you use a reference track to make your productions more interesting?
Try these steps:
- Insert 2-3 reference tracks into your DAW or pull them up on Spotify, then listen to what you like about each one
- Try to intentionally listen to every element of each song
- Borrow the structure of the reference track for your production (how often changes happen, what elements come and go, using similar transitions/ebbs/flows)
- Look at the big picture — you’re using a reference track as a guide, not a thing to copy or steal
- Try outlining your production based on the reference track(s)
Once you’ve got a pro-level production, it’s time to mix the track.
Here’s how you can use a reference track during the mixing stage:
- Find a song with a similar genre, instrumentation, and vibe
- Drag the WAV file of that professional song onto a new track in your DAW
- Pull down the gain on this new track so the volume is similar to your mix
- Between your mix and the reference track, compare the kick, snare, vocals, low-end, and top-end
- Adjust your mix accordingly
- Don’t try to copy the reference track, just use it as a guide
Without using a reference track during the production and mixing phases, it’s like you’re sailing the Atlantic Ocean on your own with no map.
For the sake of your recordings, please try using one a reference track.
A thought. While everyone is a product of their influences and studying the works of those who came before is the way people learn, there has bene an increasing number copyright infringement cases where millions were won when the traditional song structure (melody line) was not the main copy issue. The Marvin Gaye case was primarily about copying his arrangement and production style and not a particular song. Your recommendation to consciously lift specific elements from other other works could put producers dangerously close to this if taken to literally or too specifically in what they nick. It might be helpful in sharing that concern with readers when writing this type of article.
While the Marvin Gaye case was outrageous in its result (who puts a case like that in front of a laymen jury ?!) and should never have hapened, the article actually does *not* encourage readers to “lift specific elements” – quite the contrary. It specifically says “you’re using a reference track as a guide, not a thing to copy or steal”.
Frank…your argument is moot. In Canada a single judge will listen to the evidence and act as jury. Musicologists Lawrence Ferrara and Judith Finell are two of America’s “audio forensic” specialists. If you read all of the court documentation, they were both given the same parameters to break down the infringements for exactly what you speak to “laymen terms”. That’s actually what won the case for the Gaye estate.
It’s true. The case was a joke.