Mix referencing… If you make music, you’ve probably heard the term. Most engineers and artists do it in some form. In essence, mix referencing is the art of checking your mix.
But mix referencing means more than it used to these days—all thanks to advances in technology and access to unlimited mastering.
Traditional mix referencing relied heavily on referencing your own track against a different mastered track.
But thanks to unlimited and instant mastering power, you now have access to immediate mastered feedback using your own mixes.
Since it’s a new concept, we took the time to lay out what all the new mix referencing possibilities are, and highlighted how unlimited mastering will help throughout your workflow.
What Is Mix Referencing?
Mix referencing can mean a lot of things. Like comparing your mix to other music and seeing how it stands up sonically or comparing a mix to a bounce from the same project to get similar results.
It can also mean checking your mix in different listening environments to see how it’ll sound in different playback scenarios.
Classic system for listening tests include:
- In the car
- In mono
- Tiny speakers (maybe even tweeter only)
- Laptop speakers
- Even your phone speaker
These are the most important environments because, y’know, it’s where 90% of fans are going to hear your music!
Mastering: A new approach to mix referencing
Up until now, mix referencing has dealt primarily with your ‘mix.’ Which typically means a rough bounce from your DAW—unfinished, and unmastered.
But with instant mastering, you can enjoy the benefits of mastering throughout your process.
Here’s some smart ways to use unlimited mastering as a mix feedback tool to fix some common mixing problems.
Pushing Your Kicks Too Far in the Mix
Everyone wants a kick that cuts through the mix and gives your track a pulse. But pushing your faders to get huge kicks during the mixing phase can cause problems with your master.
Mixing on smaller or less than ideal speakers or headphones is the biggest culprit here. The kick might sound clean during mixing, but the master comes out with audible distortion on the kick.
Use LANDR to find that sweet spot where your kick is still hitting hard without distortion on the master. It will help you get better at using compression and pushing levels in your mix.
It will help you get better at using compression and pushing levels in your mix.
Adding a bit more compression to your kick in the mix can help you avoid the hard limiting effects done by the mastering process. Adding small amounts of compression at different stages in the mixing process works better than adding more at the end.
Mastering each time you adjust will guide you through the process and teach you when and where to add compression in your mix. Listen for distortion on the master and adjust your settings at each stage. Here’s how the process sounds in action…
This is an example of a kick that’s pushed way too far in the mixing stage:
The hot kick might sound good in your mix, but It’s no surprise that the first test master is going to distort:
Now listen to the mix after easing off the kick and applying some smart compression based on what we heard in the master:
The kick is still present but it’s cleaner and cuts through the mix much better. Not too quiet, not too loud but juuuuust right…
The kick might not sound as bold in the mix any more, but that’s where the mastering comes in. Here’s what the new master sounds like:
Bass eating up all your headroom:
Bass is the toughest part of a mix to get right. One of the biggest issues in home monitoring set-ups is inaccurate and/or lack of bass in the playback.
When bass-heavy music (like trap or types of EDM) is produced in these environments it can lead to a few problems…
If the you think the bass isn’t loud enough in your mix, the tendency is to push your levels until you hear it (don’t lie, we’ve all done it). This is a particularly bad idea when working with traditional 808-type bass that are foundational to a lot of music these days.
They’re often pitched quite low (between 20 – 40Hz) and have very little harmonic information. Put simply, that means our ears can’t use the harmonics to trick our brain into hearing the fundamental pitch.
Cranking the levels to hear the bassline in your mix is going to suck up all your headroom real fast.
Cranking the levels to hear the bassline in your mix is going to suck up all your headroom real fast. During mastering the bass will crap-out the limiter and you’ll hear it as distortion.
So what’s the fix? A combination of mix referencing, some EQ and saturation, mastering and improving your monitoring environment (try headphones) will help.
Here’s how to use your master to check your low-end and fix your mix. This mix has a bassline that’s pushed way too far. Tons of sub-frequencies are really muddying the low end:
Pushing all those sub-frequencies just so you can hear the bassline in your mix will compromise that valuable headroom you need for a good master. So the master of this mix is going to sound less than ideal in the low end and distort:
After referencing the master it’s clear that the bass needs some tweaking in the mix. Based on what I heard in the master, I went back and used Maxxbass to add some bass harmonics.
Some simple EQ can help as well, or some light saturation to help the 808 stand-out in the mix a bit without pushing the levels.
Here’s what the fixed mix sounds like:
But we’re not done quite yet. Always check your new mixing decisions with another master to ensure that the new processing had the desired effect and fixed the problem. Here’s the master of the new mix:
The bassline is cleaner and stands out without compromising headroom on the rest of your track. The result is an overall better mix and better master.
The ‘Master Often’ workflow:
Of course using mastering for mix referencing doesn’t have to be so specific. Mastering throughout your workflow will help in many ways like:
- Deciding what direction your mix is going
- Making progress on your rough mixes by versioning your projects
- Experimenting with mixing ideas and fixes
- Getting an idea of your final mastered result
- Testing your mixdown and mastered versions in multiple playback scenarios
These are just a few of the ways to insert multiple masters into your process. Here’s what the 3 step ‘master-often’ process might look like on a typical session:
Phase 1: Rough levels mix
You’re done writing, editing and arranging. Awesome, this is where the fun starts.
Start your mix with some basic fader levels. Try to create a rough mix using only faders before you even think about applying heavy processing and effects.
Setting smart fader levels early will help you hear and understand the raw sounds before getting too deep in in processing.
Once you feel you have a basic foundation for your mix, bounce your rough mix from your DAW and run it through LANDR.
Take a break, have a coffee, get some air. Come back fresh and listen to the master.
Take a break, have a coffee, get some air. Come back fresh and listen to the master. Does it hold up to what you envisioned? Is your master true to your rough mixing decisions?
Getting to know your rough mix with a quick master will help with your mixing decisions later on, so keep that version around for easy reference when starting your processing.
Unless you’re Dave Pensado, chances are you’re still far from done, but you’re much better equipped to start the rest of your mix. All the decisions you make from here on out will be easier because you laid that foundation.”
Rinse and repeat until you’re happy with the foundation.
Phase 2: Rough Creative Mix
Once you have a foundation, start applying creative audio effects (delay, chorus, phaser, etc.), plus some light compression, equalization, panning and whatever else you need to stick your vision.
Be careful to mix with headroom in mind or you’ll most likely end up with distortion. Don’t peak your VST meters and try to keep your master fader bouncing around -10 to -15 so that you’ve got plenty of headroom for the next few phases of mixing.
Once you’ve dialed in your basic effects and compression. Bounce your mix to LANDR and have a listen. Is there any distortion? Are you heading in the right direction? Is the energy in the low end the way you want it?
Remember, tails and layers from creative effects will often get boosted during the mastering phase. It’s important to check that you’re not pushing your effects too hard during this phase and make necessary adjustments based on how your master sounds.
You should be constantly strategizing how to finish the track at this point.
Phase 3: Finishing
Your mix is starting to take shape! So you should be constantly strategizing how to finish the track at this point.
Questions you should be asking are:
- How’s my dynamic range?
- Is the bass performing the way I wanted it too?
- Are all the elements of the mix gelling and audible?
- Do I want all the elements to be audible or are there some that should be playing a more background role?
- Are my effects carrying out the function I intended? Or are they compromising that original idea I had in my first master?
Bounce to LANDR often and listen to the master in different environments (including car and headphones). Ask the above questions in the different environments.
Keep in mind that you are iteratively working towards the perfect final mix. Tackle specific problems after each pass of mastering and listening. Your reference master should be guiding your mixing decisions. Even the smallest tweak can alter your master, so check early and check often.
Focus on the ‘quality’ of individual elements. For example does the kick sound cheap when you listen to the mastered version in the car?
Go back to the mix and play with the EQ and compression until you find that sweet spot. Bounce, master and go back to the car.
Ready for Anything
Once all the individual elements are sounding great AND making sense as a whole. You’re in the final stages. At this point you should be making quick, small changes. Master and listen as much as possible. Share your versions and bring some friends to your listening sessions to get their final feedback.
Only you can decide when you are actually finished, the trick is setting your own bar high and knowing what to listen for.
Mixing is all about rigour. Instant mastering gives you valuable feedback as to how your track will sound finished.
So reference often and take advantage of the luxuries that unlimited and instant mastering provides—’cause it’s not just the final step anymore…