Referencing / Comparing with reference tracks

Do you do it? If so, how do you do it? Only for specific genres?

I don’t do it often enough in a systematic way, but when I tried it I always had the feeling it helped a bit with improving sound, especially for more modern genres. There are some interesting plugins that allow for specific comparisons of frequency ranges and similar (Reference), comparing specific track parts (Magic A/B) or giving a purely analytical data overview for multiple tracks (Expose). Do you use specific plugins or just compare complete tracks in a media player?

Let’s share some experiences!

(picture from G-Sonique ^^ Redirecting...)


If I compare my stuff to anything, it is after I’ve worked on it a while. But usually while working on tracks I’m leveling stuff. I don’t even bring another finished thing in to my projects but when I do perform these tasks, i keep in mind they’re also mastered. Unless you’ve found a mix of something.

I won’t say never do it in headphones but I think you’ll have better comparisons over your monitors or even in your car. At least in your car you can even EQ stuffs on the fly. “Ok I only have a 3 band eq but I did lower the bass, and mids by -6 and -3, leaving the highs at 0. And my mix sounds tons better.” “How can I do that again in my DAW?”

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That pic in the OP is amazing.

I don’t usually use reference tracks because I doubt that my mastering skills would ever get my tracks to the level of that which has been produced in a professional studio and mastered with hardware.

I do find that when I’m mixing my tracks, that I’ll bounce out versions and find myself A/Bing between versions to see if I lost some important sonic details/tonalities/textures due to ear fatigue.


Agreed on the Pic! It explains why i never use reference tracks… scared of that beast. Also, frankly… I’m so self possessed by my own ideas that I wouldn’t want the influence. I much prefer feedback from the Listening Booth… because at least that is a response to what I’m attempting, rather than me responding to someone else’s track.

Not saying I’ll never try it…

I do make a point of doing the A/B thing, just to make sure I’m not losing my way from original intent…and listening to my track with lots of different setups, rooms, etc.(I like the car idea! gotta try that!) :sunglasses:


Tried it I’ve compared the mastering of some tracks, and analyzed it with eq and the free trial edition of Adobe audition when I had it and I’ve found that the mastered stuff had no headroom, as for the sound design I can probably make something in a similar vein but as far as mixing goes I’m eh…if anything my reference is the music i listen to but then again im mediocre…sooo when creating stuff it’s usually just Jam sessions of me fucking around hence why all my tracks sound like a shit board of Canada breakcore(vsnares) idm glitch dubstep(vaetxh) remix lol…also acid is a big influence on bro step and I’ve never made acid…so anyways the only reason I’ve gotten better is because I’ve actually tried making electronic music covers I tried doing Clark, flylo, enduser, trifonic, hecq, autechre’s hantz graf and aphex twin…it helped me become a better composer…even though I tried remaking something electronically…as far as my own creations it’s mostly just trial and error and seeing what sticks…if you want to use reference tracks it’s okay but I’d say doing electronic covers will help you progress further but then again everyone is different…

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I spent a lot of years intentionally not learning to play the songs that everyone was playing around me… my thought was “…you can only hope for second best by doing a cover…” it did help me develop my own style… but it also isolated me a bit… it was a fair trade.

Then I got an opportunity to ply lead guitar, flute, back up vocals and occasionally bass for a singer songwriter guitarist who had a deep bank of originals and an amazing repertoire of covers in folk, rock and country from the 40’s through the 80’s. We played a gig on average once a week for about four years.

I learned a lot… he would (in the middle of a gig) start strumming and humming… look at me and say “…let me play one verse then you join in…” so I would learn two or three new songs almost every time we played … live … on stage. It taught me to listen, to support, and when in doubt , keep it simple!

The point is… playing all those covers taught me a lot about composition that I couldn’t have learned any other way…

I’m still glad I took the time to develop my own style… but I’m even more glad I had the opportunity to learn the Anthology and more.

So… yeah …doing covers is important…:sunglasses:


Thanks for all the input, guys! Lots of stuff to think about, even though nobody really seems to use referencing hehe.

Bringing cover works into the discussion is really interesting. I would not have seen much of a connection, but of course, it can be used or has a similar effect as if referencing the composition, melodies and arrangement of tracks.
What I meant in the OP with referencing was more focused on the sound of specific genres.
This is obviously less important for more experimental stuff or soundscapes, but imho can help people that are trying to produce tracks in hope to be played by DJs, so they see where the problem is when DJs tell them they would like to play but can’t really mix that track ^^

When I used referencing, I made folders for common sub-genre-specific sounds of a few roughly similar tracks, then put some tracks togehter and compared to my sound in terms of compresison and tonal qualities or with Reference in terms of stereo width, compression levels and so on for specific frequency bands. Some tracks sound much better but don’t help much since they have a very difefrent setup of synths and frequency interplay, so that changing into that direction makes your track worse, but by checking a few different track you can get a nice picture how your track compares. With regard to loudness and compression, it’s still crazy in bass-heavy and club genres. The good stuff often hits at up to -4.5 LUFS, crazy levels of complete madness if you adhere to common mastering guidelines, recommending to keep levels at around -12 or -14 LUFS.

Not so sure about the big hardware advantage these days - but I think in general, even though not the best case, you can reference mixdowns against masters. For instance, if your mixdowns have a completely different frequency or stereo field than your mastered reference tracks, chances are you should “fix” it at the mixing stage.

Haha, yeah, great point! :smiley:

Serves a bit different purposes as mentioned above, but I think cover work is a nice idea for musicians and I can imagine it being helpful. However, my precious music time is getting more and more restricted so I like to use it mostly for just playing a bit for relaxation or some original work or remixes of people I know or from around these parts ^^

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Not so sure about the big hardware advantage these days - but I think in general, even though not the best case, you can reference mixdowns against masters. For instance, if your mixdowns have a completely different frequency or stereo field than your mastered reference tracks, chances are you should “fix” it at the mixing stage.

Well, I consider a better computer to be better hardware as well. My computer even can’t properly handle mixing on some of my tracks. So I have two options, complete the track before adding any EQ/compression/imaging/etc and then be annoyed that I can’t hear playback to do any of that, or do it as I go and get a less developed song progression because after the plug ins are there, even if they are turned off, I can’t get playback.

Plus, software mastering plug ins tend to be very pricey. I’ve had cousins or friends who have worked at professional studios, and one of the preamps to the mics cost around 26,000 euros. I don’t expect my recordings to ever be as crisp/clean to begin with… lol

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Using reference tracks is a great way of gauging how a mix will translate across multiple systems, especially in a studio space that may be lacking in acoustic treatment or has other elements that can affect ones mix.

I mean, in the live sound world when an engineer gets ahold of the PA in a new room or is working on a new system the first thing they’ll do is listen to reference material to see how the room or the PA is going to affect the sound.

When I am working on mixes (or masters), especially for clients I ask for reference material, so that I know what the expectation of a mix is going to be - especially when working on genre specific mixes.

My approach is to have my stereo bus routed to 2 channels of my console, and then the reference material sent to an additional 2 channels, so at any given point I can solo the reference track to get an idea of where certain frequency ranges need to sit based on a tune either I or the client to find ideal or desirable.

Its just another tool for listening analytically.


I tend to agree with your comment on hardware NOT being a huge advantage.

With how good software has become its really only a matter of minutiae when comparing HW to Software and a lot of the differences come down to preference or what the engineer is accustomed to.

I go down the rabbit hole from time to time looking at HW bus compressors and usually tend to land on - will this $2000 dollar 2 channel dynamics processor make my mixes $2000 dollars better? I dont own one so lets just say… no, i dont believe so. I have some fantastic plugins and the cost of entry for getting HW that sounds better is pretty prohibitive. For that same $2000 i could make more significant upgrades, like monitors or acoustic treatment that would far better benefit my rig.

just my 2 cents.

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For myself, if I had $2k I had to spend on a practical mixing equipment I’d probably spend half on monitors and half getting my room treated/buying some of that software that adjusts what you hear according to your room.

There is no way in hell one $2k compressor is going to make anyone’s work sound $2k better. I’m sure there is a “theorem” named after some dude that explains this, but yea…agree 100%

Something that has always confused me about using reference tracks though–should one be listening at the same perceived volume or the same volume according to some kind of measurement system like DBFS etc?

Also, anyone have any experience with master bus EQs that “capture” the EQ curves of a track you like the mix of and it tries to “apply” that math to another track to achieve a similar mix.

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TBH I say just get the volumes of the two in the same ball park, I don’t worry about measurement systems pretty much ever…

using ears to do the job FTW.


Good to hear. Im too lazy for that other shit.

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LOL, if i had $2k laying around to throw at professional mastering plug ins, then I’d probably get a computer that can handle more than 6-10 tracks in a project without massive latency or even just clipping playback all together.

So, yeah, I have no expensive with non-hardware professional mastering plugins either. Glad they seem to work well for some people.

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The closest thing I do to referencing is my loose take on a track that I like. What that means in practice is I’ll do slightly different things in my mix to give it that “x” character without changing too much of what I’m doing so that it doesn’t sound like me anymore.

So, if my reference was Major Tom by Peter Shilling, I might use a bit more delay/reverb send than normal, maybe bitcrush it a bit, and hipass stuff bit stronger than I normally would to suck some energy out of the bottom end. What you wouldn’t see is me trying to find the exact drum samples he used or emulating the exact effects in his track, just the vibe.

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Thanks for all the thoughts and experiences guys!

Might have been interesting to mention the genres people commenting are producing. I would be interested to see some opinions and experiences by folks who produce stuff to be played in contemporary genre-specific sets in club settings, since I would expect referencing in the sense of the OP using plugins such as Reference, Expose and Magic AB to be of more use to producers of loud dancey clubbish genres. Would be awesome if @OptimalPrime could give some insight on experiences in the DNB scene, for instance.

Hi meta, it’s been a while since I’ve popped back in here. I’ve finally got broadband again so can type properly now without relying on a bloody phone.

So given you wanted to know some info from how I go about things, I thought I may as well chime in.

For a long time I didn’t used to use reference tracks, and part of it was the fear of realising the difference in quality would be a kick in the nuts, however it’s super important for me now and has helped to improve things. I’ve got Magic A/B installed just to try out but found myself not bothering and just use my one and only method, and that’s to directly bring in a reference track into the project. I always do this because I did notice that my media player was once playing at a difference in level compared to Cubase. So what I do is make sure I’ve set up a channel purely to put a ref track on, then run my mixdown/master project through a separate mastering bus rather than the final stereo out. The only things I do put on the stereo out are analyzers and maybe a limiter set to 0 just to catch anything from my project. This way, I can play the ref and my track without affecting the ref itself.

With the sort of stuff I do, loudness is a major aspect to it and sometimes I hate the way this has to be. It doesn’t subjectively, but it does if you want to stack up against everything else, and there’s a good chance of messing up the track if you don’t get it right in a way that it would actually be better not to push it so much.

I’ve heard people talk about listen to lots of things as a reference, but for me I always stick to tracks which sound as close to the style I’m specifically working with. I also change what tracks I’m using too and don’t just go for that one super-hyped track simply because people think it’s perfect. Some guy on YT would make EDM and always go for a Knife Party track for example. I think with DnB there’s a huge variety of styles and sounds used which can change how you approach things. Minimal tracks tend to have weightier elements because of the space and liquid tends to be less aggressive and lighter for example. Neuro can be big, but it depends on the elements involved and can end up sounding harsh with too much midrange in some cases. But either way listen to something that fits closely to what you are doing and check it on the analyser.

I’ll look at the values of the low end and I have another analyser which shows a visual red band where the sub is which helps too. I’ll often have a few reference tracks lined up and try to at least fit it in there. Of course, I try to make sure the reference tracks are of pretty good quaility by respectable labels and artists. I often find myself listening to different things at different times such as the general weight of the sub and then how the kick or snare comes through, the airyness, the width, then try to analyse what is it that is wide specifically, what is the dry/wet ratio like on elements as dry elements will always be up front and adding pads and things like this will also set back the upfront feel too, think about the layers. Another thing is the key of the ref track vs your own. This is important because some keys such as f and g are really heavy and if it’s a different note, no amount of tweaking will get it to sound as deep if your root is higher.

I always do a session then return back to it on a different day even when I’m done. It’s also good to mix your tracks on a set of decks live to these references and other tracks to get a feel for how they blend. The difficulty with a finished track is that you are comparing a finished track to an unmastered one. It’s not too bad if you’re working on the master process itself, but early on in a mix it can be misconceiving. I do however like to have a reference during production stages, but will lower the volume and start processing the sounds to get closer to it early on so less is needed at the mastering stage. It can detract massively from the creation process though when doing this and isn’t something I do all the time.

I haven’t yet tried an EQ matching facility like the one Ozone does, but have been curious. This doesn’t fix the whole track as there’s a lot more to think about. I’ve been curious about Izotope’s Neutron (I think it is) which is supposed to be pretty good for analyzing reference tracks and applying settings to your own. Ultimately though, you need to just practice listening to ref tracks next to your own a lot and really get to know what is going on with them. Test them out on other speakers too. Headphones are just as relevant but I like to use both monitors and then test on headphones. I’ve literally got bed covers all in-between my monitors just to absorb excess bass. I was having issues with a resonant noise every time I hit the kick drum. It drove me up the wall and by putting covers there, the ringing disappeared instantly and everything sounded more solid. When I had my studio it was all treated but I’m now having to use my room until I get my GF’s garage converted properly.


Hey there.

Here’s some thoughts from me as well:

When using musical references as “guidelines”, I think it’s important to remember that you’re imitating an imitation.

Naturalistic painters face the same dilemma:

Let’s say you want to paint (imitate) a tree, - but instead of looking at a real tree (in nature), you decide to look at another man’s painting (with a tree in it). So you imitate an imitation, and, in doing this, remove yourself one step further from a direct/naturalistic approach to painting.

…and if the painter you seek to emulate already did the same thing himself, when he painted his tree (and the painter before him as well ), - the trees will inevitably begin to look less and less like real trees.

Now, in some cases, painting unrealistic tress might be just the thing, and if that’s the case, then removing yourself consciously from the original source (real trees) can work very well.

But if you use the same method, hoping to paint a life-like tree, - you’re likely to end up frustrated.

Your technique might be masterful, but your tree will look like shit.

But anyway (returning to music):

A frightful amount of new electronic music today sounds to me like bland imitations of “the real thing”. Like something went wrong at some point, but no one gave a damn, - and now the whole thing feels strangely meaningless, lifeless, “generic”…

You probably know what I mean.

And I think that exaggerated use of referencing/comparing during the mixing and mastering process plays an important role in this.

But what is “the real thing”, then?

I’m still looking for answers, - but I believe that (at least part of) the answer can be found in nature.

So, I go outside in nature and meditate, walking or sitting on my butt, no earphones, actively watching and listening to sounds, sometimes taking notes, – and then, later, I’ll try to incorporate my observations (if anything intersting) into my music.

Specific sounds, proportions, repetitions, variations, harmonics, dynamics etc.

Working like this, empirical natural science (the study of the universe) becomes the main activity, - while making music becomes secondary - something I do for fun and enjoyment.

To be perfectly honest, I sometimes compare my mixes to other people’s mixes as well, but I tend to regard it as an expression of my own vanity and self doubt, - and I try not to take it too seriously.


Thank you so much @OptimalPrime! Hope everything is well!
Very interesting to get some info about your workflow, that’s a lot of food for thought…

Also thanks @Balafonman for the input!

Just came home from a long work-related trip, gonna give all this some more thoughts on the weekend!

There is much wisdom in all you said… there’s nothing wrong with learning from other people’s work but imitation will always leave you, at best, second best.

In order to create you must open yourself to the experience of the world around you and explore… follow your muse. You can’t force it… it doesn’t always work… but when it does you will know it. Your heart will race… the hair will stand up on the back of your neck and you will get very emotional… you might even cry. Go with it…

Again … you can’t force it, but you can get better at it. It’s called practice, hard work, study, but above all… be true to yourself, not a reference track.

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