Tip 06 – Referencing Your Tracks!

What’s happening in my lows? What’s happening in the lows of that commercially released and great sounding track? And what’s the difference between the two? How loud are the vocals in that track compared to the vocals in mine? Why does my track sound so shallow and narrow while the other track sounds so loud and wide? All (and more) questions that might pop up when you’re comparing your tracks to the tracks of others. Referencing your tracks, comparing them to other tracks and zooming in to details can really help you see what’s going on in your mixes.

It’s (not) as simple as A/B (/C)

When references your mix-downs it’s always a good idea to turn down the reference tracks to roughly the same volume as your mix-down. Ideally this will be somewhere between -3 and -6 db, so there is some headroom left for mastering. However, when you’re referencing your track with the master chain on, you shouldn’t turn down your reference but use it as it is. Now while it is very simple to just switch between the one track and the other, I personally prefer to be able to zoom into the details of what’s going on. I have a specific reference chain for this purpose which works really well for me, which I’ll explain below.

  1. Multi-band processor (compressor/imager/eq etc)
    I always start of with a multi-band processor. It doesn’t really matter what sort of processor it is, compressor, imager etc. As long as you can solo the different frequency bands. It’s important though that the plugin shouldn’t though any processing. So in case of a compressor, make sure the threshold is above the signal so it isn’t actually compressing. Now set the bands to cover the subs, the lows to mids, the mids and the highs. As you’ll understand, checking these specific bands is as easy as using the ‘solo’ button on the bands. Be sure to keep the crossover frequency in mind though!
  2. Mid / Side Processor
    I always use a1StereoControl for this, which has become a tool I can’t live without over the past year. Using this tool you can solo the mids and sides, meaning you can solo the mono and the stereo information. Now combining this with the multiband processor above, you can already see where we’re going.For example, if you solo the highs in the multi-band processor and the sides in the M/S processor, you will hear exactly what’s going on there. Now combining this with visualizers and meters, and of course by using your ears, you’ll get very valuable information!
  3. Spectrum Analyzer
    My personal favorite is Voxengo Span, which can be used to view your spectrum. It has several modes and settings which makes it a perfect tool for pretty much any situation. For example; the lo-freq preset can help you zoom in on the low-end information. While the ‘stereo mastering’ preset is perfect for the overall visual feedback on your track. It also has a correlation meter, but also some other extensive metering.
  4. Metering
    This depends totally on your personal taste. Although I would suggest a meter that supports peak, RMS, correlation, LUFS. Basically just an extensive meter. TT Dynamic range meter  is a good free one, that supports most of these things.Hofa also has a great free metering plugin, which supports most of these protocols as well. Check it here.
  5. Stereo Analyzer / Visualizer
    For example a gonio-meter or vector scope. This is a way to visualize the stereo image and any phasing that might be going on in your mixes. Hofa plugins offer a great free tool for this called the ‘Hofa Goniometer & Korrelator‘. A great way to visualize and see the difference between tracks that sound wide, and those that don’t.
  6. Waveform Visualizer
    I personally use s(m)exoscope for this one. It visualizes the outgoing signal as a waveform, showing you exactly what’s happening there. This way you can visually see any peaks, but for example, also the way compression affects the signal.
  7. Multi Tool
    VPS Scope from Vengeance is a plugin that is distributed freely (both by itself as well as together with the Computer Music Magazine). This plugin offers metering, a signal scope (with extensive options), spectrum analyzer, and severel stereo meters. Definitely worth looking into this one as well! Check it out:

Tools of the trade

Now that you have all the tools that you need, you can really start comparing your tracks in a much more elaborate way than just a/b’ing them as they are. To give you a few example;

a) If you want to see what’s happening in the sides of your bass, solo the sides in your M/S processor and solo the lows (not subs) in your multi-band processor. Now check your visualizers, meters and stereo analyzers and use your ears. Check how your bass sounds in the sides and check how the other tracks sounds. Are they sounding similar? Or is there a big difference?

b) Want to hear what’s happening with your stereo info as a whole? Simply solo the sides and check it on the meters, visualizers and imager. With some M/S eq’ing on your master, you might be able to bring your track to the next level

c) Want to check the body of the vocals? Most part of any vocal usually sit in the mids of your frequencies and are also mostly in the mids of your stereo information. Of course male vocals are usually a bit lower than female vocals, so the bands could be adjusted to that. You could also turn it around and switch on the sides. This way you can hear the tricks that are used to make a vocal sound bigger. Doubling, stereo delay, reverb. etc.

d) Want to compare loudness? Simply use the meters. Check RMS, lufs, peaks etc. See how any changes in your mix-down affect the signal.

As you can see there are a lot of options here which can provide you with tons of information on your mix-downs. This information can help you make thought-out decisions in your mix-down and mastering process, however it’s important to always keep using your ears as well!

Hope this production tip helps you with your tracks. Happy producing!

And if you need any help, you know where to find me!

Michael de Kooker