Whether you're a budding musician or an experienced mixing engineer, incorporating reference tracks into your workflow is an essential part of the process. However, finding free reference tracks that encapsulate your song's projected style can be challenging, especially if you tend to waffle between genres.
Fortunately, we've put together a comprehensive guide of several great reference tracks you can use to take your mixes to the next level throughout the mixing and mastering process. We've gone ahead and sorted these reference tracks by genre and shared a couple of tips to help you put these iconic tracks to work below.
Why Should I Be Using Reference Tracks?
Have you ever experienced the phenomenon where you'll mix or master your own songs, only to come back days later and be baffled by the results? You're not alone-- Ear fatigue is real. The truth is that we can only create in a vacuum for so long before losing perspective on the same track.
Reference tracks provide us with a quick, easy window into our desired sonic characteristics and elements so that we have a goalpost to shoot for. This method is super accessible to any engineer across the mastering and mixing stage, and makes a big difference. Plenty of the greatest engineers of our generation use this method, so there is no reason why you shouldn't too.
How To Pick a Reference Track
We'll share some of the best reference tracks by genre below, but here are a couple of additional considerations to keep in mind while shopping for your ideal reference song:
- Consider your style. What is the general genre of your song? Should the song sounds be wide in certain sections and more narrow in others? Nail down the specifics of what you're trying to address across the frequency spectrum as it relates to your composition as a whole.
- Opt for several reference tracks for different elements and all the instruments. Keep in mind that you don't have to use just one reference track. For instance, maybe you like the present vocals in one pop song, and admire the thumping huge bass in an EDM track. Having both of these references for both yourself and your mix engineer will help you get closer to your desired result.
- Compare, contrast, and adjust as needed. Don't forget that you don't have to get it right on the first try. Many major labels contract several engineers and select the one that produces the best result in alignment to the artist's goals.
- You can make several versions of your own mix, and then compare accordingly. Maybe you opt for one with bright, punchy drums, and take another where the bass line is the star of the show. The mixing process is just as creative as the writing and recording stage, so leave space for yourself to shift gears as you see fit.
Best Reference Tracks Sorted by Genre
Looking for a reference track to create professional sounding music? Here are some of the top reference tracks for mixing, broken down by genre:
Key Characteristics: Bright, clean, vocals sit at the center of the mix, often with an expansive chorus.
Reference Track: Teenage Dream by Katy Perry is an excellent reference mix for a pure pop song. With bright vocals, centered melodies and drums taking a back seat, this song has all the elements of a strong pop hit, with a more expansive stereo image during the chorus:
Key Characteristics: A focus on the low end of the frequency spectrum, tight, heavily compressed drums, fairly sparse but clean mix.
Reference Track: Power by Kanye West holds plenty of hip hop elements with sample manipulations, upfront drums, and tight powerful bass:
Key Characteristics: Rock music puts melody first via the lead instrument, which often fluctuates between guitar and vocals. Punchy, centered drums with varying levels of compression.
Reference Track: Hotel California by The Eagles is a clear example of a clean rock mix where the main vocal and guitar parts are the stars of the show:
EDM (Electronic Dance Music)
Key Characteristics: EDM music is known for a thumping bass line and kick drum, wide stereo image and tight, punchy drums.
Reference Track: A great example of the expansive width and sound design of EDM music can be found in Animals by Martin Garrix:
R&B (Rhythm and Blues)
Key Characteristics: As the name of the genre suggests, R&B holds a reverence for rhythmic bass lines, vocal clarity, live instrumentation, and smooth-sailing mixes.
Reference Track: You cannot get a better example of a tight R&B mix than the amazing Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You:
Key Characteristics: Classic country holds an emphasis on clean vocals, sometimes backed by wide harmonies, live instrumentation, subdued drums, and a spotlight on guitar.
Reference Track: You can hear this classic country mix approach in Willie Nelson's Whiskey River with clean, upfront vocals, and focused guitar parts:
Key Characteristics: Rap music has tight low-end, compressed, punchy drums a centered vocal backed by panned ad libs and phrasings.
Reference Track: Kendrick Lamar's Alright holds a focus on the strong centered vocal, hi hat with emphasized high end on the hi hats and 808s that hit right in pocket:
Key Characteristics: It can be challenging to reduce traditional Latin music to a single set of characteristics, but classical Latin puts melody and live instrumentation at the forefront with clean, crisp mixes.
Reference Track: Hear the guitar sing in the mix for Volar by Paco de Lucía, with backed vocals and stacked harmonies widening the stereo field:
Key Characteristics: Reggaeton is known for super-forward thumping drums, centered main vocals, with a tight, prevalent bassline.
Reference Track: One of the classic Reggaeton songs that serves as an excellent reference track is Gasolina by Daddy Yankee:
Key Characteristics: The indie/alternative rock sound is hard to define, but you can count on centered drums, processed vocals, and guitars coming out as the star in the mix.
Reference Track: You can hear these dynamics at play and the power of contrast in the hit record Creep by Radiohead:
Key Characteristics: K-pop is known for a bright, crisp, punchy sound that takes full advantage of the stereo image with plenty of width, backing vocals and a strong melody line.
Reference Track: Blackpink's classic DDU-DU DDU-DU embodies this modern mix with its dynamic feel:
Key Characteristics: Jazz music is known for its focus on improvisation, leading to highly dynamic mixes where different elements take centered stage depending on the focus at the time.
Reference Track: Miles Davis provides plenty of examples of an ever-shifting jazz mix on his album Kind of Blue :
Key Characteristics: Blues music is rhythmic based and is packed with texture that doesn't always align with a clean, crisp sound.
Reference Track: The legend Jimi Hendrix's Red House is a great example of blue's twangy sound, where guitar takes center stage:
Key Characteristics: Metal music is heavily compressed, distorted, and holds chunky guitars at the center of the sound, with vocals sometimes a bit further back in the mix.
Reference Track: Metallica's Master of Puppets is a great reference for a more classic metal mix:
Key Characteristics: Soul music focuses its mix around clear, emotive vocal phrasing. All other instrumentation is mixed to support the starring vocal.
Reference Track: The emotion comes through in the soulful mix of the classic Ain't No Sunshine by Bill Withers:
Key Characteristics: Folk music is focused on storytelling, making the mixes fairly simple and clean. Vocals are most certainly the star of the show.
Reference Track: Bob Dylan's classic The Times Are A-Changing is a great example of this holding the vocals front and center with accompanying guitar and occasional additional instrumentation:
Key Characteristics: Gospel music has a wide, expansive sound, with heavy emphasis on the main vocal and accompanying harmonies.
Reference Track: Total Praise by Richard Smallwood embodies this sound with a wide mix, full of harmonies and complex chords expressed through the accompanying piano:
Key Characteristics: Synthpop or other synthesized genres are known for the heavy focus on drum machines, synthesizers with vocals sometimes mixed with much less prominence in the center of the mix.
Reference Track: CHVRCHES' The Mother We Share showcases the wide, expansive feel of these mixes, and how the electronic beats and synthesized melodies sometimes hold more prominence or compete with the main vocal:
Key Characteristics: Punk music at its core is made to capture raw sound. Tracks are often packed with wide dynamics, distortion, stripped down instrumentation, and fairly narrow mixes.
Reference Track: Black Flag's Rise Above holds as a great reference track for punk's heavily compressed sound with hard-hitting, centered vocals:
Key Characteristics: Classical music is a dynamic genre, that switches balance at the whims of the conductor. These mixes are prioritized for clarity, aiming to capture the depth of live performance.
Reference Track: Mozart's Lacrimosa reproduced for streaming is great example. The dynamics start out soft in the mix as they would be experienced live:
Key Characteristics: Trap music is heavy on the low end. Gritty sub-bass and booming drums define the mixes of the genre.
Reference Track: 21 Savage's Bank Account holds that darker vibe with the hard-hitting 808s and drums:
Key Characteristics: Funk puts bass lines front and center, driving with clean drums and accompanying vocals sometimes taking a back seat.
Reference Track: The centered drum and bass line groove can be heard in Parliment's Give Up The Funk mix:
Key Characteristics: Disco music takes upfront, clean, four-on-the-floor beats, and pairs it with syncopated basslines, and a focus on the upper mids with soaring vocal design, string parts, and more.
Reference Track: You can't get more disco than Le Freak by Chic. This track has centered vocals with wide harmonies, a clean, rhythmic bass and plenty of details across the stereo field with string and guitar parts:
Key Characteristics: This EDM genre is defined by its heavily compressed, four-on-the-floor beat with emphasized kick drum, hi hats, bass and a repetitive groove that builds upon itself over time.
Reference Track: The Bells by Jeff Mills is a great reference track with the tight kick holding the main centered landscape as the foundation of the rest of the mix:
Key Characteristics: In house music, you'll notice a punchy 4 on the floor drum pattern, with tight low end and elements that extend across the stereo field, creating textures. Vocals might be very forward, or washed out across the stereo field with effects.
Reference Track: The house classic French Kiss by Lil Louis embodies all of the classic house mixing elements, where drum patterns and a pulsating groove are the highlights of the mix:
Key Characteristics: Trance music is characterized by pulsating beats that build up over time, working from a narrow field to a wide stereo image over time. Drums, bass, and melody are the stars of the show.
Reference Track: The journey of trance is well-documented in the classic Adagio for Strings by Tiësto:
Key Characteristics: Lofi or low fidelity music is characterized by its warmth from heavy use of saturation in the mix. Key samples are often centered in the mix, with somewhat fuzzy sound design. This genre may or may not use vocals.
Reference Track: You can hear this warm, nostalgic sound at play in Japanese Breakfast's Moon on the Bath:
How to Use Reference Tracks for Mixing: 5 Tips
You downloaded or found the perfect reference track on a streaming platform, now what? Here are a couple of tips to help you make the most of your music:
1. Import a Reference Track Into Your DAW
If you can, it's best to download your reference master track so that you can get a clear example of its sound inside the DAW where you're building your mix. Some plugins, like the highly regarded iZotope's Ozone, allow you to import reference tracks directly into the plugin suite and give you customized insights via AI to guide your mixing process accordingly.
2. Compare and Contrast by Using Solo and Mute
When you A/B test your mix, you're simply comparing and contrasting your mix against a mastered reference track. Make sure you are comparing your reference track and current mix with the same tools-- for instance, you should listen to both through a clear master channel without any added effects to keep the comparison 1-to-1 without introducing unnecessary variables.
Solo your reference tracks and mute others while listening in. You should be switching between your reference track, taking a listen, and then listening back to your current mix and then making changes based on what you noticed throughout this process.
3. Match the Volume of Your Mix and the Reference Track
You can use VU meters, limiters, compressors, and other tools to match the level of your own mix to the LUFs of your reference tracks. However, keep in mind that many streaming platforms compress according to a set standard of loudness units, so this should be approached delicately, especially during the mastering process.
4. Pay Attention to the Low-End and Bass
In most tracks, the bass line and the low end spectrum of the frequency range hold plenty of power in establishing a song's groove and foundation. Listen closely to how the bass parts interact with the drum parts and vocal, and try your best to recreate that balance in your own mix.
5. Evaluating the Stereo Image
Don't forget to take notice of how wide or narrow a mix is across the stereo field. So many great songs play with the balance of these elements to introduce dynamics and call attention to certain sections of the frequency response of a song. Try to visualize where different groups of instruments lie across the stereo image, as outlined in this video:
Mixing Reference Tracks FAQ
Are you still trying to find other songs to help make your own work sound great? Use these commonly asked questions and answers to guide your journey:
How do I find good reference tracks for mixing?
We've shared several great reference tracks you can use to cross-reference in your own productions above, but you can also utilize any of your favorite songs. The point is to use a track that emulates the sound design that you're looking to achieve through the mixing and mastering process.
Should you use reference tracks when mixing?
Yes! It's easy to lose perspective when working on any mix, let alone your own music as an engineer, recording artist, or music producer. Reference tracks can provide you with the needed guidance to achieve mixes like that of your favorite songs.
How do you use references in mixing?
To use references in mixing and mastering, bring your desired reference track into your digital audio workstation. This way, you get a 1-to-1 comparison while A/B testing your mix. Essentially, compare your dynamic master against your reference tracks soloed out in your DAW, and use the comparison to guide your production choices.
What is a reference song in mixing?
A reference track is an audio file you use to help you achieve your song's desired sound design via tonal balance, stereo imaging, and achieving the desired loudness level. You can use this track to compare and contrast against your own mix to inform your music production decisions.
Reference tracks are an essential tool for mixing and mastering, but it's important to select songs that align with your engineering goals. Hopefully, this guide provides you with plenty of options to help you achieve your desired loudness, tonal balance, and overall sound design while crafting your records. Enjoy putting these artfully crafted mixes to the test!