Now we’re getting to the sharp end of using reference tracks effectively.
You’ll remember that in Part 1 we looked at the exercise of imitating your favourite reference tracks in order to better understand their construction and generally improve your critical listening and production skills.
But how do we launch into this track analysis?
Here I’m going to run through some key questions you can use to get to the heart of your reference tracks:
1. Relative balance: How loud are instruments in relation to one another?
E.g. how loud are the drums in relation to the bass, or the rest of the instruments? How does this balance contribute to the perceived role of the drums ‘driving’ the track, or of sitting back in a more supportive role?
2. Panning: How are the parts panned across the stereo spectrum?
It can help to draw a simple semi-circular diagram and mark on it where you think each sound is placed in the mix from left to right.
E.g. Are most of the sounds bunched up in the centre, or are they spread evenly from left to right? Are there any key sounds that are panned hard to either side? How does that affect their role in the mix?
3. Frequency response for individual elements and the mix as a whole: How do the different instruments fill out the frequency spectrum?
You can work this out with careful listening, but if you want to get surgical about it you can put the reference track on a track in your DAW and run it through a spectrum alanlyser plugin for a graphic display of frequency distribution.
E.g. Is there a significant sub-bass element? What is the fundamental frequency of the lead synth or guitar? Does it clash with the vocal, or are they carefully seperated to occupy different frequency domains?
4. Compression: How compressed is each instrument or part? How compressed is the mix overall?
E.g. Do the drums and bass obviously pump together or is it more subtle? Is there a lot of dynamic range on the lead instrument or vocal, or is every breath or fretboard squeak as loud as the main notes? Is there any dynamic range at all, or has everything been maximized to near destruction… ;)
5. Depth: How are parts distributed from ‘front’ to ‘back’? How much reverb is there on each instrument or part?
Here it can be useful to draw another diagram like we did for panning – except this time you want to mark how close or distant each instrument seems to be.
E.g. Which elements are completely dry / upfront? Which are the most distant? Is that clearly due to reverb, level in the mix or EQ? Is the reverb tail on the snare audible?
6. Changes: How much do different aspects of the mix change from one section to another, and throughout the track overall?
E.g. Which instruments change, and in what ways, to create an increase in energy from verse to chorus? How many different synth parts are there playing the same riff in different parts of the track? How many elements are dropped out to achieve that amazing breakdown? How much mix automation is involved on each part?
With your answers to these questions you’re well on the way to creating your imitation of the reference track; but more importantly, you’ve just deconstructed and taught yourself a massive amount about almost every key aspect of production and mixing, which you can also apply immediately to your own music.
What are your favourite / most used reference tracks? What are the best reference tracks for particular genres? Leave a comment below!