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Using a reference track during mixing

If you are a musician who is also doing your own mixing and recording you are likely to need as much help as possible achieving a good mix down. One way of understanding how your mixing is holding up against professionally engineered records is to listen against a reference which you admire the sound of within the genre of music you work with. There are a few pointers which can make this much more successful.

Initially try and pick a good mix as opposed to focusing on whether the track is a good song or musically inspiring. Great songs may not always have the best mix downs so always consider this when choosing a reference track for comparison. Don’t just choose your favourite tracks. Put in a little more effort and select good mixes. When selecting a reference mix try and ensure that the files are at least a 16 bit wav file, compressed file formats like MP3’s are not ideal for using as a reference as their fidelity is already compromised by the lossy data compression.

Once you have a few references you can listen to them collectively and will notice that they all have a bit of a different sound relative to instrumental balance and tone. This is to be expected and is normal. What you are listening for is basic good balance of instruments and also a pleasing tonal balance. An example of good balance would be a kick and snare that are punchy, but not overly prominent, guitars and bass which are defined and work well together and vocal that sounds like it is clear and yet part of the mix as opposed to being glued on top of a backing track.

A mix should have a pleasing stereo image, nicely filled and spacious but not overly wide. When it comes to tone you will want to listen for clear, defined bass that is not muddy. Drums that occupy a sensible range of tone given the exact drum type (snare, kick, toms, hats) vocals that are well balanced, not too thick sounding and not to thin and harsh. Overall, there should ideally be clarity of sound without undue harshness. Once you have selected some decent mixes then you can import them into your workstation onto a new stereo track.

Now you have the tracks in the sequencer your first job will be to bring down the perceived volume of your reference mixes so you can make accurate judgements. If a reference track is louder than your mix the ear will be instantly fooled into thinking it is better sounding and will also make judging tone and balance much more difficult. So simply balance the perceived volume of the reference track by ear to your mix. This can be achieved using a fader or a part based volume handle/envelope. Once you have done this any inadequacies should jump out of your speakers. Take notes and compare and contrast and make notes of what you might need to do to remedy the problems that you hear. This way you can then ‘save as’ your mix and make, fader, eq, compression and panning/balance adjustments and get yourself in the right mix ball park before self finalizing or professional mastering.

Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound Mastering a low cost high quality online mastering studio based in the UK.

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