Your Mix Reference List Needs An Overhaul!
(photo courtesy: Creative Commons)
Unlocking the Key To Better Mixes: Your Mix Reference List Needs An Overhaul!
One of the most heralded techniques for getting better at mixing music and audio is the practice of measuring your mixes against your “reference” mixes. The advice (which is very good advice) is to keep a set of mixes with you whenever you are judging your current mix. Initially you’d “carry a CD with you” to A/B, now it may be “carry a Hi-Res Player with your songs, or have them in the cloud” (iCloud or Google Drive would work, that way you can download whichever tracks you want to hear in any location, just in case you forget your CD, thumb drive or Hi-Res player). I digress, make sure these reference mixes are ALWAYS CD quality, no mp3’s (or any other compressed format) here. For the most part, that’s as deep as the advice goes: “Be sure to measure your mixes against the reference material that you admire”.
Think about this. Has anyone ever gone into more depth about the process of developing a credible reference mix selection? Not really. There is a great article by Mike Senior I’d suggest reading, but that’s basically all you’ll find. @Mixrevu, we thought it’d be highly beneficial to delve into what a group of reference mixes (whether on CD or not) really entails.
We’ll answer these questions in detail below:
How long should it take to compile a reference mix list?
What Qualifies as a good reference list?
How do I use my reference mixes once they’re compiled?
Here are the 10 things you need to consider to compile a “reference mixes” list that is guaranteed to help you improve your mixes:
1. Use reference material that is mixed very well…not necessarily music you like.
It’s important to compile a list of solidly mixed material regardless of whether it’s in your “favorites” catalog. There is a place, for those “favorites” and I’ll give more info on that later. To get the most out of your reference list, make sure you are picking highly regarded mixes. How, you ask? Read on…
2. Audition many tracks to find your treasured few.
Don’t think about compiling this reference list as something that needs to be done in an afternoon. Take your time to audition tracks in the best listening environment you have access to, and then objectively evaluate the aspects of each mixed recording.
3. Carry those references with you to every gig.
What good is a reference list that’s not on hand? A good idea, would be to upload them to your Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud, that way they are accessible even when they aren’t if you get my drift. Other than that, keep a thumb drive or CD handy; your phone, more than likely, won’t keep them in the quality you need, which is CD quality, no mp3’s.
4. Sonically get to know your reference material better than you know any other mixes.
The only way reference mixes are consistently useful is if you know them backwards and forwards. It’s important to have a grasp on how each element of the mix translates, that way you will have an idea of when things go awry. i.e. if the bass is “boomy” at your stadium gig, you know the bass in that setup needs to be turned down or at least compensated for as you mix. Learn to audibly recognize each element, i.e. the snare reverb in this reference is 50ms, I’m only hearing 25ms in this room, this room is deader, or the monitors aren’t translating the reverb via the listening space as it should, I need to keep this into consideration when I add effects.
5. Match loudness levels of your reference vs. your current mix, that way you aren’t biased (we often hear louder as = to better)
This is pretty self-explanatory. In many blind listening tests, it’s been confirmed that listeners hear louder as equal to better. That, of course, is not the case, so it’s important to make the amplitude levels equal so that this bias is removed. Your reference mixes will all be mastered, so they will inevitably be louder. Leveling the tracks off is a way to remove some of the “non-mix related” bias, so you can judge the real “meat” of the mix.
(photo courtesy: TechTreme.com)
6. Instantly A/B the mixes, and listen to them in mono, Left, Right, Mid, Sides. (check out this plugin by Brainworx)
Trust me, you need to listen to your mixes in mono. This includes your reference mixes. It’s important to know how some of the stereo material you are creating translates. Good reference material won’t lose a lot in mono and that’s the kind of compatibility you are striving for. In addition, it’s great to check out the mid and sides channels so that you can unearth some gems. This may lead to fostering some of your own ideas.
7. Use metering plugins on your reference mixes first so you know how they react, and you can adjust your mixes accordingly.
The title says it all. Using your metering plugins on your reference track first will give you an idea of where you need to get your mixes, as well as, give you an idea of how a well-mixed song looks frequency-wise (it’s not flat across the frequency spectrum as you might think). You’ll also recognize from the goniometer how “spatially ambitious” the mix is. Again, there’s good information here for your tracks as well. Keep in mind, your mix instrumentation may be different, but hopefully you’ve chosen a reference in the same genre, with the same relative base music elements. This “metering run-through” should leave you with key indicators of what you should be shooting for once you place these same meters on your finished mix.
8. Use mixes of the same genre as your source material reference.
This just helps to keep things relatively similar and easier to objectively evaluate. If you are recording singer-songwriter vocals and guitar tracks why use a mix of Count Basie’s Big Band for reference? You really don’t have a lot to compare to.
9. Find mixes that have a technique you want to emulate, use those for practice. (i.e. Robert Orton does a fantastic EQ job on the bridge in “Let’s Dance” by Lady Gaga that makes you think one side is a delay from the other, it isn’t.)
This is a key point for me. In addition to settling on 4-6 tracks that are mixed well from top to bottom. I also see a great opportunity here to establish an “ear-candy” list. This is my personal favorite. This is a list (much like the rest of the list) made up of outstanding mixed material, and has some “effects” element you are working to replicate. I noted one technique that hasn’t left my brain for years in the title of this rule. I read more about how Robert Orton accomplished this in an article on SOS, and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. Every audio engineer and aspiring audio engineer can think of a few (maybe more than a few) recordings that have wowed them when it comes to an “ear-candy” element in a mix. It’s great to tack on a few of those recordings to your reference list for practice/inspiration, and to remind you of why you are doing what you are doing.
10. Get to know the engineers of your favorite mixes. Find those engineers and check out our features on some of your favorites. Mixonline.com and soundonsound.com have many features on some of the best engineers in the business as well. If an engineer you admire has a feature, you can get to know the motivation behind some of their most notable mixes.
Getting to know your mixing “idols” is just part of the craft. Everyone has engineers they look up to, and the engineers they aspire to work with. Some of the mixes on your reference disc may be from these engineers and there’s value in getting to know how those engineers work, and what they find valuable in a mix. You’ll notice there’s no particular “correct way” to create a Grammy award winning mix. From your Chris Lord-Alge’s to your Mick Guzaski’s, they can work completely “in the box” or analog only. Some of the “Secrets of the Mix Engineer” features in Sound on Sound magazine are a great place to start, and happen to be where I’ve gotten a wealth of knowledge on some of my favorite engineers and some of their most notable mixes.
Creating a reference mix collection doesn’t have to be hard, but it needs to be deliberate. It’s not something you throw together. Be considerate about what comprises your collection, because this is theoretically what you’ll be judging your work against as the epitome of a good mix. As you start compiling your list (or revamping after you read this article) refer back to this page to make sure you are considering all ten principles, there’s not one better than the other, but they all will lead to better mixes and your development as an engineer.
**Let us know how your reference mixes are going! Do you have any other suggestions for the list? Let us know in the Forum**
mixrevu.com audio blog
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