The importance of a reference playlist for mixing

Are you in the market for a new pair of monitor speakers for your studio? Are you going to be working in other studios with monitors that are unfamiliar too you?
Have you ever mixed music on an unfamiliar set of Monitors only to find out later that the speakers exaggerated the highs or lows, and now your mix sounds muddy or dull?

How do you tune your ears and get the perfect mix in most studio environments without spending any extra money?

I have been introduced to a fantastic way to solve this issue. After reading Michael Stavrou’s “Mixing with your mind” . I had a huge “aha” moment that has never left me. I will admit upfront that I’ve been a bit lazy about what I am going to share, so committing to this will be a challenge we can all share. Also I figured that this tip is too valuable to not write about. I certainly am accustomed to having reference songs when I am mixing but I haven’t quite taken it to this level. I look forward to us sharing our collective results sometime in the future.

Reference Tracks
A reference playlist should be a collection of preferably unmastered songs that you know are mixed well. Since you know your reference songs really well, you will easily be able to distinguish the differences in monitor systems. Some may be a bit brighter, some may be a bit darker but you will now have a reference that tells you when a song is mixed just right. This will really come in handy when you work in others studios, or when you move your studio to a different location. Also if you ever help someone set up their studio, your reference CD can reveal what placement works best for their monitor speakers.

Somebody else’s reference playlist would most likely be useless to you as you really need to have a close relationship with each song. You need to have heard it enough times to immediately be able to pick up on a control room’s strengths and weaknesses. You and only you will know how your reference tracks should sound. As you become more and more comfortable with this playslist of yours, you will want to hear it on as many systems as possible. Each new environment will teach you more about the room you are working in and also about the subtleties of your reference itself.

Advantages of a reference playlist

*regardless of the sound of your monitor speakers, you know what a good mix is supposed to sound like in that studio

*It beats lugging around a ton or gear every time you have a project outside of your own studio

*Enormous time saved in discovering advantages and disadvantages in an unfamiliar studio environment.

*This can save you alot of unnecessary spending on new gear.

How to create a reference playlist:

The songs you use for your reference playlist is very important, but only you can determine which songs fit the bill. Create a collection of your best unmastered mixes. Mastered material is not a realistic sound that comes out of a mixing studio. Masters have a risk of making you play the loudness game on your mixes, over EQ’ing and overcompressing. You also run the risk of your mastered material masking the transients you are going for. It’s important to use your own mixes because you will be familiar with all the little nuances that’ll reveal the most to you. If you have no mixes of your own that you are yet proud of, you might consider using mastered material just as a more general reference, but once this leads you to better sounding mixes, ditch the mastered song as your reference. You will only need small 60 second-90 second clips of each song you use. 6-8 songs should be plenty. Some songs should reveal the accuracy in the highs while others might be a good way to test how much extra reverb the room is creating. Another song could reflect the dimension or imagery of the room. Still another might reveal the best location to pick up accurate bass response. The better you know your tracks, the easier it will be to familiarize yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of the room.

Once you have made your CD, you want to listen to it in as many professional studios as you can. Most studios will be happy to show off their control room if they think you may be a potential customer. Soak in all of that information. The more studios your hear your playlist in, the better. Make sure to make this the first thing you do when you walk into a new studio. You don’t want your ears to have too much time to adjust to the new environment. When you come back to your home studio, you may find you want to make some adjustments to your own monitor placement and settings. Also NEVER play your reference playlist in a home system or a car stereo system. This will only stand to ruin your perspective of what sounds professional and what doesn’t.

Dial in your monitors:

Although I haven’t yet used a reference to it’s full extent described above, I have used reference songs in another way.

Everyone hears a bit differently, and everyone has a certain amount of tolerance of different frequencies. When I am using an unfamiliar set of monitor speakers, or working in a new location, I will play a reference song to hear how the speakers sound. Although I know, for example, that the hi-hats on this reference song sounds perfect to my tastes, it may come across through these speakers as too harsh or bright, or too dull.  If this is the case, I will see if the speakers have EQ adjustments on them for highs or lows and adjust them until it sounds good to my ears. Alternatively, I can make small adjustments to a master EQ on the master track of my Digital Audio Workstation (Ableton, Cubase, Pro Tools etc). By doing this, I will have a better idea of when a certain frequency is right. Once the mix sounds great to my ears, I will turn off the master EQ and then mix the song down.

Before trying this technique myself, I would find my mixes were sounding a bit on the dull or muddy side. This is simply because my ears are pretty sensitive to high frequencies, so I wouldn’t mix them quite as loud as I should have for a great sounding mix.

Be very careful with this technique as it doesn’t take much to lose more than you gain. Small adjustments on a medium to wide Q can be all you need. If you find yourself changing your EQ by anymore then 2-3 DB, you may want to consider purchasing another pair of speaker monitors after all.

I hope you are able to use these tips to improve your mixing results and save you money, or at least give you some things to consider before you fork over your cash needlessly.

Happy music making,

Jason

 

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