It is such a depressing realization that day you discover the gut-wrenching truth that your mixes sound way different out in the “real world” than they do in your studio.
After spending hours and hours crafting (what you think) is a killer mix, you take your mix to your car or to a different set of speakers in your house only to have metaphorical cold water splashed on your face as you wake up to the fact that the mix sounds awful.
What’s the point of a great mix in your studio if it is a horrible mix in the places people will actually hear it?!
Via Jonathan Grado Flickr
Reference Tracks – My Complete Method
The simple solution to this problem is not acoustic treatment (or more of it) or more expensive monitors. Rather it’s reference tracks.
I’ve talked about this at length because, although I’m not against acoustic treatment or strategic speaker placement (I use both) they are still an incomplete solution.
BUT – many people have heard me say that and they get the overall idea of WHY it’s a good idea, and yet those same people aren’t really sure HOW to best use reference tracks.
Is there a method to the madness? What should you be listening for when referencing a pro mix next to yours? I thought you’d never ask!
The 4 Point Checklist
When I’m nearing the end of my mix I bring in a reference track – something that has a similar vibe, similar instrumentation, and similar mix aesthetic as mine.
Then once I’ve brought the volume of that reference down to the volume of my mix, I begin listening for 4 specific elements of the reference: low end, top end, kick/snare level, and vocal level. That’s it.
Here’s how it goes down.
I listen to the reference track for a few seconds and only pay attention to the low end. How does the bass sound? How much bass is there? How round is it?
Then I flip back to MY mix, and with the reference’s low end in mind I listen and compare it to mine. Do I have more or less bass than the reference? Is my low end muddier than the reference?
If there are drastic differences, I adjust my mix to more closely match the reference. This could be simply turning up or down the bass track, or it could be using some multi-band compression or EQ on the master fader.
Then I move on to the top end; comparing the reference to my mix, zeroing in on how bright each mix is. I make any slight adjustments as necessary.
Then I move on to the kick and snare levels. These are critical because in most modern music they drive the song. I’m simply listening for volume of those tracks as compared to my reference. This gives me a good indicator how far off I might be with those elements.
And finally I listen to my reference and zero in on the lead vocal. How hot is that vocal compared to the vocal on MY mix?
Vocals sell a song so to mix without referencing the level of a vocal in a good pro mix is foolish. This helps me know if I’m in the ballpark.
Rinse And Repat On A Crappy Speaker
After walking through those 4 simple points, I go through the checklist one more time – but now instead of listening on my studio monitors (or headphones) I listen on some crappy speakers.
These could be computer speakers, laptop speakers, or my personal favorite – the mid range mono speaker.
Ideally these speakers have horrible bottom and top end, and an exposed or pronounced mid range. The goal here is to compare your mix to the reference again, but with a fresh set of ears.
Walk down the list of 4 points (especially kick/snare and vocal volume) and make sure your mix lines up pretty close to the reference.
Remember, you won’t ever get your mix to sound exactly like the reference. That’s not the point.
Rather you’re using it as a guide to what sounds good out in the real world and bringing your mix closer into the realm of translatability.
Your Mix, But Better
This simple method won’t make a bad mix good, but it will make a good mix better – and help it sound solid just about anywhere it’s played.
And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
You work SO hard on your mixes, but not so they sound great in your studio. Unless of course that is where you hope everyone in the world will come to listen to them.
No, you want to send these mixes out into the world with confidence that they will hold up on a variety of speakers, systems, and setups – so people will hear your hard work, for better or for worse.
So let me ask you: have YOU been referencing pro tracks up until this point? If so, have you been using the 4 point checklist I described? Share your thoughts below!