Make powerful kick drums smash out with reference songs

Reference songs or reference tracks are mentioned frequently in how to’s and tips and tricks.
They are a great tool for mixing and mastering in general but often get overlooked. Reference songs are simply songs that you use to compare your work to.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about hearing a track at a club or party and trying to make something similar to the awesome kick it had, but never quite getting it to work.

Making the peaks so high the rest of the track is too soft.
Using a reference track is one tool you can use to avoid that trap. You can compare your low end mix to the track you heard in the club.

Reference songs are used by professional mixers and mastering engineers all the time. It’s not a beginner hack.

TLDR go straight to the kick drum section to see how to do it.

My mastering template for song references

In fact my own mastering template has no less than space for 3 reference tracks.

Screenshot of a customer mastering session in the Mixbus32c. The top 3 channels contain reference songs.
A recent session for St. Louis artist Modern Andy showing the top 3 reference song rows


I assign them to the following;

  • A well mixed and mastered song of the same genre
  • A previously released song by the artist I’m working for
  • An untouched version of the final mix that I’m working on

I hear you thinking “but the last one isn’t a reference”. Sure it is, when mastering I always reference against the original mix to make sure I am keeping true to the message and feel of the song and making it sound better, not worse.

The assignment I use is not a hard and fast rule. If I’m focusing on a particular area, I’ll use a song where that specific frequency area has produced really well. I might switch one out or add another channel. (In mixing I focus on specific instruments or sounds).

How to set up your reference song tracks manually in your DAW

You can setup reference songs with any DAW. It can be done manually or with a plugin.

Manually setup reference songs


The manual way is to add channels to house your reference tracks.
There are a few simple rules for the setup;

  • Do not apply processing to the reference channel so you only hear the reference song
  • Make sure the reference channel bypasses any processing on the master buss to avoid adding processing
  • Setup your solo buttons to solo exclusive, to when you toggle the channel everything else cuts out
  • Drop the level of reference song to match your mix. This prevents your from being fooled by louder=better.
Mixer view of mastering session above.
Reference channels have a VU meter to assist in level matching.
Mixer view of mastering session above. All reference channels have VU meter to help me with level matching

One reason I like to use Ardour or Mixbus32c is I can insert a VU meter into the channel strip that I can see without opening the plugin.
Another is that it has a monitor strip which allows me to bypass the master strip entirely for my reference songs.

Use a plugin for automatic referencing.

You can simplify your reference process by using a plugin. I have Metric AB by Adaptr Audio. It automatically does the level match so that you don’t have to worry about your brain tricking you.

I prefer to use it for mixing as the levels change often. Plugins usually provide some more visual information to help you see what is going on.

Kick Drums remember, how do we use our reference songs?

There are two things you need to do when referencing a song for your kick drum; listen and look to understand the differences

Listening

To know if you have done it right, or at least in the ballpark, you must listen to the differences between your mix and the reference song.

Then you need to make adjustments to the kick channel. If it’s louder make it louder, if the reference is softer make it softer. You may need to use a complex process to achieve this, or you may only need to raise the level.

  • This doesn’t have to be about copying the entire sound, but you can take ideas and test them to see if they work for you.
  • Listen for how the kick is EQ’d and see what happens if you sculpt yours in a similar way.
  • Listen for any effects on the kick drum, is there compression to make the level more consistent or is it letting a big transient through.
  • Ask what is the relationship between the kick drum and the surrounding instruments?
  • Does the kick drum dominate the song more or less in the reference song?

Looking

Your ears can tell you more than your eyes can but they can still give you different clues to help you.

Look at the levels of your reference song and compare it against the master channel of your mix. Compare the bump the kick drum may be causing and ask if your mix is creating a more significant bump than the reference.

Comparing the EQ signature of the songs may tell you if you need to lower or raise your kick drum, and also let you see the relationship with other sounds. It takes practice to see this quickly, so don’t worry if you can’t see anything straight away.

That seems easy, what do I do next?

Well trained ears can tell you more about your music than untrained ones. The same goes for eyes.

When you start using reference tracks it can be difficult to identify what is going on. Like everything, practising will make it easier for you.

Comparing against reference songs is a way to quickly train your ears so start doing it with your current project. Focusing on a specific areas like a kick drum will help you get there quicker, and get you that kick drum punch you really want.

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