I’ve talked before about how important it is to compare your mixes to other mixes that already sound good. Mixing in isolation is a bad idea. You get instant perspective on your mix when you bring in a track and listen back and forth.
But I seem to get a related question a lot: “Should still I reference my mixes to other tracks that are already mastered? Isn’t that a problem?” The answer is no, its not a problem. Rather it’s the best thing you could do!
Via Seongbin Im Flickr
Mastered Tracks Are The Standard
Simply put, mastered tracks are what people listen to, not unmastered mixes. So honestly it would be rare for you to find great sounding mixes that haven’t been mastered to use as your reference tracks. Mastered tracks are what actually make it out into the world and it’s what people listen to. Therefore these should be your benchmark, your standard.
They are a standard for two reasons. First of all they should translate well onto almost any speaker situation. Second, they have usually been “signed off” by a few different professionals as being rock solid in terms of balance and clarity. This means, by comparing your mixes to mastered tracks you will learn a lot about your speakers, your room, and your ears. You’ll want to do whatever you can to make your mixes more closely match those masters.
Mastered Tracks Aren’t Drastically Different Than Final Mixes
Despite what some people on the internet might lead you to believe, mastering engineers aren’t magicians. They don’t take OK mixes and turn them into chart topping masters. Rather they finalize a great set of mixes to work well together as a cohesive album or EP, make any EQ balance decisions needed, and get the volume up to commercial levels. Translation, the goal of mastering isn’t to change the sound of the mix, it’s to put the final coat of polish on and ship it out the door.
No offense to the great mastering engineers of the world, but when you hear a great track that you like, you’re not “hearing” the mastering. Rather you’re hearing the performance, the recording, and the mixing. Those three things account for 95% of the sound (in my very technical opinion). This is important for you to understand, because when using a mastered track as a reference, you’re really just hearing a great mix. No need to worry that somehow you’ll never compete with it because it has been mastered. That’s silly.
How To Do This Practically
OK, so you need to do a couple of things practically when referencing mastered tracks. Why? For one, if you are doing your job right as a mixer, these mastered tracks should be a whole heck of a lot louder than your mix. Since your goal in mixing isn’t to make the loudest track possible, simply import your reference master(s) into your DAW on a stereo track and turn the fader down till it’s output matches that of your mix. Be careful to route the master directly to your speakers and not through the same mix buss as your mix, with all of your plugins.
With your reference at the same volume as your mix, you’ll no longer be thrown for a loop by loudness. Rather you’ll be able to listen to the EQ balance, the volume of kick drum to snare drum, to vocal, etc. You’ll really be able to compare apples to apples, your mix to theirs. This is where you can really get some help for your mix. The goal here is to “trust” the mastered reference and train your ears.
Make The Best Mix Possible
In the end, your goal really should be to make the absolute best mix possible. If you just mix in isolation you’ll have no standard but your own. If you set a professionally mastered track as your standard you’ll force yourself to rise to the challenge and deliver a mix that sound as good or better than a mastered track. Only difference? It won’t be as loud. Which is totally fine since that’s what mastering is partly for anyway.