How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. How do you mix like a pro? You use reference tracks.
Reference or Die
Reference tracks are store-bought commercial songs that you drop into your DAW to compare your song against. You’re not after copying so much as emulating the loudness of various elements and the overall EQ feel. Want to pass the car test on the first try? Use a reference track.
REFERENCE is a plug-in that you can use as a host for reference tracks. Is the vocal as prominent? Does the snare pop out the same? Is the level of bass similar? Does it feel as compelling? Is it as squashed to death so that any semblance of musical feel is completely destroyed?
Inserting reference tracks into your project can be a routing nightmare as you have to avoid any plugins you have inserted so that the reference is not affected. You insert REFERENCE as the last plug on your stereo out. You can toggle with a single click between your song and the reference. This solves any complex routing issues elegantly.
REFERENCE accepts one or more reference tracks in a simple drag and drop. You can isolate specific areas of the reference by dragging across its wave form and Control-clicking to loop that area (it turns pink). More than one area can be highlighted at the same time and the Control-click will switch the looping area, and Option-clicking will remove the highlight of an area.
You need to read the manual. Thankfully that manual is 12 short pages with plenty of pictures. It is very easy to read and follow. One thing to note in that manual is that first it explains what something does, THEN they explain how to do it. Understanding this style of presentation makes the manual easy to go through.
So, you can drag and drop one or more songs into REFERENCE. You can loop segments and A/B against your masterpiece. REFERENCE will level match the reference(s) to your project volume at the click of a button. It provides LUFS and peak meter, and it will show different bands of the spectrum — like a multi band compressor — to show you whether each frequency area of your song is louder or quieter than the reference. We need to discuss this, musician to engineer.
Along the bottom of REFERENCE is a multi-band area, the ranges of which you can adjust by dragging. It is important to first engage the auto levelling feature so your song is the same LUFS loudness as the reference track. Then the magic happens as you are shown horizontal bars within each zone to show you whether your track is louder or quieter in that range compared to the reference. The trick is to modify your mix so that the horizontal bars line up better; or, you can do what I did and cheat.
Cheater that I am, I inserted a multi-band compressor and set all the thresholds maxed out to 0 dB so that the compressors never engage. That way I could adjust the volume levels of different frequency ranges of my song without compressing. I set the MB compressor to the same frequency zones as Reference. Then I did my best to center all those horizontal bars which was an absolute exercise in frustration until I noticed the RESET button on the lower left of the screen. Make your adjustment, hit RESET, and continue looping. I advise looping short segments because if you don’t the levels will drift around as they average and that is frustrating and time consuming. RESET!!!
The result of this exercise was enlightening. My mixes are always bass heavy and the adjustments cleaned and cleared things up a lot. It did indeed make my mix sound similar to my reference track.
I did a comparison of methods. I used Match EQ which is quicker and easier than using REFERENCE. The results were similar but not at all the same. (Remember, I cheated with multi-band adjustments instead of adjusting individual tracks like a pro would have done). I would suggest tweaking the tracks of your mix with feedback from REFERENCE and don’t forget the RESET button, hit it EVERY time you make an adjustment. If you want quick, dirty, and not quite as effective, use Match EQ and be done with it. The results are not identical, but close enough for Rock ’N’ Roll in a pinch.
I only know of one other product like Reference and that is Melda Productions’ MCompare. They currently cost about the same and Reference with it’s ability to match levels, mark areas, loop them, and then directly guide you toward a similar frequency mix seems to be worlds better than Melda’s offering which does none of these things to my knowledge. If you want only one, definitely get REFERENCE.