Tips to take your audio mixing to the next level

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7 Nov 2018

HERO reference tracks

7

Nov

Tips to take your audio mixing to the next level

7 Nov 2018

Do your audio mixes sound good in your own studio but different everywhere else? One way of improving your mixing no matter what studio monitors, headphones or acoustic treatment you are working with is to compare your mix to other commercial tracks during the production process.

Veteran producer and SAE Audio lecturer Chris Lambert aka Chris Bass shares his tips for referencing other music to take your mixing to the next level.

 


Chris shares his top tips for
reference tracks in mixing
 

  • Reduce the volume of the reference track by at least 10 dB when mixing
  • Identify your goals - determine what you and/or the client want to deliver to the audience
  • Listen in an uncompressed .WAV or .AIF file format
  • Use reference tracks with the qualities you wish to emulate
  • Trust your ears first then check your work with frequency and dynamic metering

Some people believe referencing is only important for mastering, as the mix process should be about the engineers’ interpretation of the song without outside influence and working mix engineers have the experience to do this. As you are learning, you should be striving for a mix that can sound as good as when you listen to it on any playback system and this is where referencing comes in.

Turn it down

Before starting, turn down a reference track to help start gain staging and to facilitate better a/b comparisons. We have a tendency to favour the sound of ‘louder’ tracks

Commercial references have gone through a mastering process after the mix and will likely have a higher average level than your working mix.

Turn your reference tracks down in volume by at least 10 dB. Note that this won’t change the dynamics of your reference track (peak to average ratio) but it makes comparison more viable from a psychoacoustic standpoint as our perceived ‘loudness’ comes from average level.

 

Find what works for you

Your approach to referencing should be individual. Certain techniques suit some engineers more than others:

  • You may choose to reference only after your mix is near completion for fine-tuning. 

  • You may choose to only reference during breaks from mixing to "clear your ears" as some professional do 
(this takes confidence and experience). Or 

  • You may reference constantly at every turn, which has its pros (sticking to conventions) and cons (see 
'Element referencing’ below).


The methods you use in referencing, some of which are listed below are not mutually exclusive. You can 
combine techniques as it suits you, the track and the session.


MOST IMPORTANT: A reference should not distract you from striving for a mix that creates the emotional response that you wanted to provoke in the listener. 
Referencing should not interfere with the message/intent of the song.

Choosing reference tracks 


Don't use tracks that have been bit-rate reduced or lossy-compressed (.mp3, .aac, .wma), instead use .WAV or .AIF. Your choice of track should suit your reference method, try to stick with different sets of references which you know really well and have heard on a number of systems. 



Referencing Methods


 

Element referencing

Choose reference tracks with different qualities that you wish to emulate in your mix. I.e. one track with great vocal sound, another with a bass sound/level you like, another with the drum ambience you wish to emulate, another with a crisp hi-hat sound... in other words, elements of mixes that you like.

PROS: You are taking what you like best from different mixes

CONS: Its very easy to lose sight of the forest whilst concentrating on the trees - in other words, you may focus too much on individual elements without considering the most important factor - how they fit together to create the mix.

Genre referencing

In this method you use reference records representative of the genre/sub-genre that your client’s mix falls into, picking songs that people might choose if they were to put your artist in a playlist for their mp3 or in a radio show. It is good to use current references of that style, as well as some classic tracks that define that genre.

PROS: In this method you are making comparisons from a consumer point of view and taking a holistic approach, giving you freedom in creativity and how you construct a mix whilst still using references in a looser fashion.

CONS: This is really more suited to engineers with a lot of experience. If you are just starting out you may find it hard to move between references without losing sight of what you are trying to do with a mix.

Copy-cat referencing

Find a track to reference to that is a good mix and represents your track exactly in what you are going for. I.e. same genre, same arrangement (matching instrumentation), same vocal style/sound, same playing style, etc. Mix so that your mix sounds as close as possible to the reference.

PROS: Gives you something very definite to aim for and is a good exercise for sharpening your ear and honing your use of mix tools.

CONS: It is extremely difficult to find a track that matches yours exactly, so you sometimes end up using a track that is a compromise and not totally suited to the style/artist.

De-construction or Dynamics/Tonal referencing

This is an extreme form of "Copycat". In this approach you are looking at the characteristics of the reference from a technical standpoint, start by choosing references that are similar to what you wish to emulate. By using tools like cross-overs and filters you can compare the different frequency ranges in terms of tone and dynamics. I.e. solo up the sub-frequency area in your reference track and compare it to the same range in your mix.

Use meters to gauge the difference in dynamics; listen to identify which components of sounds/instruments are present/absent and in what amount and use spectral analysis meters to watch where the mix energy is concentrated. Then listen to the un-filtered mix and compare the balance of frequencies overall, i.e. the comparative levels of sub/bass/low-mids/presence range/treble/air in the reference.

PROS: This can reveal much about a particular genre of music and is great for learning.

CONS: This is what some would call "colour-by-numbers" type mixing. You are concentrating merely on surface aspects of the mix and are completely trusting the validity of your reference.


Want to study music?

If you are interested in taking your skills and music career to the next level, why not consider a qualification at SAE Institute Australia.
Free call SAE on 1800 SAE EDU to speak to a friendly course advisor or Book A Tour to visit an SAE campus near you.

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CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR

Design Lecturer Rachael Shea
Chris Bass
is a Producer/Engineer/Musician who has worked on over sixty commercial releases from hip-hop to punk to funk and other genres.  As well as teaching at SAE Adelaide, he is currently undertaking the Masters of Creative Industries at SAE Institute Australia. 

Follow Chris's credits here or visit his portfolio here.