5 Tips: Using Reference Mixes | Soundways

Using Reference Mixes

Mixing music can be highly subjective.  For novice engineers, it can be hard to know where to start.  Many will ask "how do I know if my mix is good or not?"  Well, the truth is that every mix is different.  A mix that sounds great for one genre may sound horrible for another.  So, how do engineers know if a mix sounds good?

Veteran engineers rely on years of experience to know when they have crafted a great mix.  For beginners, using reference mixes can be a good way to ensure that your mix is up to professional standards.  References can provide a tonal map to work within.  This can save engineers time and allow them to work confidently.  Here are some tips for using reference mixes.  


Tip #1:  Pick a Reference

It is important to pick an appropriate reference for the song that you are mixing.  A good reference mix should be something that you know well.  It needs to sound great and translate to all speaker systems.  Be sure to choose a reference in the same genre which you are mixing.  Using a pop reference when mixing a metal track is a certain way to mislead your decision making.  

As you develop your engineering skills, it is good to create a collection of reference mixes.  Use these references consistently as you continue to work in different listening environments.  As you get to know these recordings, you will be able to identify anomalies in monitoring systems and room acoustics.  This can help to avoid problems when mixing in unfamiliar studios.  


Tip #2:  Quality Matters

When choosing a reference mix, quality matters.  If possible, use a high quality 96kHz, 24bit .WAV file.  For most instances, standard 44.1kHz, 16 bit .WAV files will work just fine.  

Using MP3's or other compressed formats to reference can be problematic.  Different compression algorithms can introduce varieties of distortion.  It is always best to use the highest quality material when referencing.  


Tip #3:  Use Reveal


When using reference mixes, it is important to focus on the audio core.  The core is the frequency range most sensitive to the human ear, 2kHz - 5kHz.  Balance in this range is essential in order for a mix to translate properly.  To listen in the most accurate way, use Soundways' Reveal plug-in.  

Place Reveal on your DAW's master bus and engage Critical Listening mode.  Now compare your mix and the reference.  You may find that your mix sounds harsh.  The vocal could be a little too loud, or the snare a little too quiet.  If this is the case, make the necessary adjustments with tools of your choice.  Once a pleasing balance has been achieved, turn off Critical Listening mode.  Now make any adjustments to the low frequency range.  Mixing in this way ensures that you make the most precise adjustments possible.  


Tip #4:  Compensate for Mastering

Most engineers will choose finished, mastered material to use for referencing.  This is a great way to ensure that your mix is of the highest professional quality.  However, mastering levels are typically much higher than those found in mixing.  Mastered tracks usually have several dB of limiting applied, increasing the overall loudness.  

It is important to compensate for the increase in level when using mastered material for reference.  To compensate, reduce the level of your reference track until it is comparable to your mixing level, typically -9dB to -12dB.  


Tip #5:  Take Breaks, Reference Often

Our ears are highly sensitive organs.  When mixing, they can quickly become adjusted to loudness and tonal characteristics.  This can lead to ear fatigue and poor decision making.  It is important to take breaks and reference often, especially when mixing full-time.  I often listen to references at the beginning of a session and upon returning from each break.  This helps to recalibrate my ears to the monitors and room.  



Most engineers know that they want to avoid ear fatigue.  However, it can be hard to know when it is time to take a break.  Soundways developed aFMonitor to help engineers make better decisions and avoid the effects of ear fatigue.  Studies show that short term ear fatigue can occur after only 6 minutes, and long term ear fatigue after 12 minutes.  To avoid these effects, simply place aFMonitor on your master bus.  aFMonitor will track the playback time and let you know when to take a break.  When resting, simply stop playback.  aFMonitor's rest timer will let you know when it is time to start mixing again.  

Using these tips you will be able to pick better reference mixes, and craft mixes which translate to all listening environments.