Of all the mixing tips, tricks, and hacks I could teach you, there is one that can take your mixes to new levels no matter what gear you mix on, what room you mix in, or how much experience you have as a mixer.
Its beauty lies in its simplicity and foolproof effectiveness. You can’t screw this one up.
If you use this hack your mixes will instantly sound more balanced, more professional, more engaging, and more polished. It’s almost like magic.
Not only will it improve your mixes, it will make you a better mixer in general.
And the best part? It won’t cost you a single penny.
Via Jiahui Huang Flickr
Do The One Thing You Don’t Want To Do
The irony of what I’m about to explain to you is that although it’s the best thing you could be doing for your mixes right now, it’s actually the thing you LEAST want to do.
What is this hack?
Simply put: you need to use a reference track when you mix.
That’s right. I want you to find one of your favorite professional mixes, one that is a good representation of what you would like YOUR mix to sound like, one that you think is practically perfect sounding, and then do what most people don’t do: import it into your session as a reference.
Before I share three simple reasons why you want to do this, you might be wondering why people DON’T want to do this.
It’s pretty simple: when you reference a pro mix, it makes your mix sound lame.
No one wants to feel defeated when mixing, and that’s typically what happens when you import a killer mix someone else did and compare it to yours.
But there are three amazing things that happen when you do this one simple act.
Instant Foolproof Perspective On Tonal Balance
If you’ve mixed in a home studio environment for more than 5 minutes you might have discovered the frustrating phenomenon that is your crappy room.
It affects the way you hear everything in your mix – which is a total bummer.
Whatever inherent acoustical flaws your room has get mixed up in the sound coming from your speakers giving you a half truth representation of what your mix really sounds like.
But even if you DID have a perfectly treated room or you prefer to mix in headphones (thereby eliminating the room from the equation) you still have no real clue as to what proper tonal balance is for a mix.
That’s where a reference track saves the day.
Flip over to the reference and take note of how loud the bass is, where the vocal sits in the mix, how bright the guitars are, and what the mid range is doing. This track tells you what a well balanced mix sounds like on your system, in your room, and all you have to do is mimic it with your mix.
I exploit this hack by asking simple questions: “What does the snare sound like?” “How round is the bass guitar?” “How loud is that kick drum?”
These questions cause me to focus on the reference track, one element at a time, and then try to get my mix to sound similar.
Get Schooled On Panning, Effects, And Transitions
One the most helpful things you can do when mixing a song is bring in a reference, if for nothing else than to learn what your favorite pros are doing with their panning, effects, and mix transitions.
A recent example would be when I sat down to mix a stripped down acoustic singer/songwriter track for our Dueling Mixes members this month. It had two guitars, one upright bass, one organ, one violin, and a few vocals.
Initially it seemed like a great track to pan tight, almost mono.
But after bringing in one of my favorite reference tracks for this genre (a Grammy winning album by the way) I noticed that even with almost identical stripped down instrumentation they panned things hard left and right.
And it sounded great!
I’ve always enjoyed that album, but never realized that they used LCR panning. Using a reference track gave me a quick education on what other top engineers are doing currently.
I do this same thing to learn about reverb, delays, song transitions, etc. I’m always learning something new and applying it to my own mixes.
You Become More Well Rounded For The Long Term
The third and final reason to use a reference track is not just for the short term (i.e. a great mix) – but to become a more well rounded and knowledgeable engineer for the long term.
It’s a simple fact that with every mix you complete you get better at your craft. But by using a reference track each time you mix, you dramatically speed up that process.
You are no longer mixing in isolation – with no baseline for how great mixes sound.
You are no longer mixing purely from memory.
You are becoming a student of great mixes and then applying what you discover to your own work.
And it pays off handsomely.
Do Your Mixes A Favor
On your next mix, do yourself (and your mix) a favor by using a reference track.
Check in with it regularly at the beginning and end of your mix. While painful at first, I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the final results.
For now – leave a comment below and let us know if you currently use reference tracks and what your experience has been. And if this is brand new to you, let us know if you plan to start using them soon! (Hint: you should)