Why Every Music Producer Should Use 3 Types of Reference Tracks
One of the most important tools we have as producers is right under our noses—other tracks! Reference tracks play an essential role in helping guide our own productions toward the professional, polished sound we’re all looking for.
However, there’s one HUGE pitfall when it comes to using references. Have you ever created a song that ended up sounding a little too close to your reference track? Or maybe you’ve come across two tracks within a genre that seem a little “too familiar”? This is the serious danger of using reference tracks incorrectly!
Here at Cosmic Academy we teach our students how to avoid falling into this trap. Reference tracks aren't supposed to be used to COPY! Instead, they’re meant to help guide you through the process, and hopefully get you the best possible version of your original, unique song.
The problems arise if you're only using one track to do all your referencing. This means pulling creative inspiration from it, then using that same track to mark out your arrangement, and then when you get to the mixing and mastering stage, using that SAME TRACK once again to guide your own mixdown and master. When this happens, your song is going to come VERY close to just being a carbon copy of your reference!
To avoid this, we suggesting having a (at least) THREE separate reference tracks that each fill a distinct role:
Mix / Master
Let’s quickly touch on each of these three below:
1. Creative Reference Track
This is the track you’ll use to draw musical ideas and inspiration from! In this case, you have a lot of flexibility. Try songs from different eras, different genres, different artists. The more creative, the better! You have a ton of wiggle room when choosing here. Just make sure to draw inspiration from the musical ideas, don’t copy them!
2. Arrangement Reference Track
This is the reference you’ll use as a “roadmap” to mark out the arrangement in your own song. For this one, it’s best to use a tried and true, successful track within your genre. DJs, playlist editors, and listeners have come to expect certain norms in the successful tracks from each genre, and our best advice is to stay within those broad lines. Certain genres of music follow certain structures, and it’s so easy to lose sight of how long—or short—some of our sections are when we’re just banging away in the DAW. Use bar counts from other successful songs to stay within the reasonable section lengths in your genre!
3. Mix & Master Reference Track
This is where you’ll really be relying on the track to guide the sonic characteristics of your song: the mixdown, the tonal balance, and the loudness.
For this one, you also want to stay within the same genre, roughly the same bpm, and maybe even the same key. But because of all those similarities, this is why this reference should NOT be one you use for creative inspiration or for arrangement. For this sort of reference, you want to pick a track that sticks out to you because of how well it’s mixed and mastered, because you’ll be trying to match it (or even do better)!
In fact, we suggest that here, you should use multiple references. This is because the odds of your mix fitting just one reference are slim to none. Successful tracks aren’t all identical, but they do all sit within the same ballpark. Some are louder while others are softer, some emphasize slightly different instruments in the mix, some have a slightly different sonic character (despite being in the same genre).
As such, pick a few very well-mixed tracks and “play the average” of all of them. Your track doesn't need to sound “just like” any particular track, but it should "FIT IN” to the average of all of these commercially-released, well-mixed tracks. As you skim through your mixdown references, yours should be within the same league. If it is, when a DJ or label hears it, they’ll have no hesitations about the quality compared to the professional tracks they hear everyday.
So in your next production, keep this in mind! Dive into your track folder or head over to Beatport and find some references to help guide your production process! We promise that by using this approach, the process of finding that careful balance between “unique enough to be fresh, but normal enough to be familiar” will be easier than it was before!