As music evolves, reference tracks do too.
Everybody in music production knows that reference tracks are an essential tool for getting ears oriented within a critical listening environment. While some songs will never go out of style, new ones must constantly enter the canon to account for changing consumer tastes.
SonicScoop surveyed a sampling of audio professionals to find out what their personal next generation reference tracks are. The stipulation: the songs must be five years young—released in 2012 or later. We also asked them for their classic references, which could emanate from any era.
Producers, mixers, mastering engineers, studio designers and more, with expertise from hip-hop to classical, gave us their insights on how they get in sync with a sound system. But you’ll learn more than just what songs they go to—get invaluable detail here about exactly what they listen for to check for system accuracy, and why.
Whether you’re checking modifications to your own setup, visiting another space, or getting calibrated with a client, their selections are sure to give you fresh sources of sonic security.
Role in the Studio: Producer/Engineer/Mixer, and Governor, Chair and Vice Chair for the GRAMMY’s LA Chapter, Producer/Engineer Wing and Latin “CPI” Wing.
Credit Highlights D’Angelo and The Vanguard, Elvis Costello and The Roots, Stevie Wonder, Placido Domingo, Dr. Dre, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Clare Fischer Big Band, Luis Miguel, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé, Arturo O’Farrill & Chucho Valdes with The Afrocuban Jazz Big Band Orchestra, Tim McGraw.
What He Listens For: I have built a list of many recordings that offer me ways to evaluate the integration of elements in a mix, density versus clarity in the mix: The low and high end, impact of the mix, and where the vocals sit within a track.
But especially I listen to how much emotion a mix conveys to the listener. To me, that’s the key to any mix.
I work on so many styles of music from classical to R&B, soul, pop, opera, jazz, that I keep a vast amount of tracks at my disposal. There are too many to list, but I have included a few below.
Next-Gen Reference Track #1: “Stressed Out” by 21 Pilots or “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons show how to implement very modern production values in a mix. “Stressed Out” is simple, effective, but still very emotive approach.
Next-Gen Reference Track #2: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk shows how a more traditional approach can be polished and made current with a very subtle update.
Next-Gen Reference Track #4: “Shadow Days” by John Mayer, any track from Alison Krauss & Union Station off the Wallflower Album or “Dirty Rain” by Ryan Adams. These are very beautifully-crafted, non-pretentious, and natural-sounding mixes.
Classic Reference Tracks:
Role in the Studio: Engineer, mixer and producer.
Credit Highlights: Whitney Houston, Kanye West, Ledisi, Keane, Theophilus London, Meshell Ndegeocello, Guy Sebastian ft John Mayer, OneRepublic. Upcoming releases with Trey Songz, Busta Rhymes feat Maxwell, Travi$ Scott, Justin Bieber.
What He Listens For: There’s generally three different situations when I’d use reference tracks.
1) At the start of a session, when I’m working in a room I’m not 100% used to acoustically.
Generally this would be for mixing, but certainly when tracking as well—especially for a full range and complex instrument like live drums. It’s important to know the sound and expectations of the control room you’re monitoring in. In this situation, an older, “classic” mix that I’m familiar with is the best type of reference track.
2) When I need a reference for style comparisons. Sometimes an artist will mention that they have someone else’s production in mind and they want their mix to share some sort of element from it, like a vocal effect, or a general balance of how the whole song sounds.
3) This is more for competitive reasons—making sure your mix plays as loud as something commercially released so that the client doesn’t get upset or thrown off by your mix being quieter than the last track they listened to.
This is a situation when using a modern release as a reference track is important. However, I only recommend making something as loud as possible if you are the mastering engineer and you are in the mastering phase, or when sending the mix out for comments to clients who don’t know better and need it loud in order to think it’s good, or if you know the mix won’t be getting mastered but instead going straight to soundcloud, mixtape, etc.
Next-Gen Reference Track #1: “The Hills” by The Weeknd
This mix has a lot of lows, highs…and mids! It pushes the limits of brightness and bass. For this reason, I think it’s a good record to use for checking how much of the sonic spectrum I’m covering in my own mix. (You can do this with a spectrum analyzer instead, but I think your ears and musical judgement are usually a better gauge).
Next-Gen Reference Track #2: “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran
A solid mix that has a good amount of brightness without being harsh. By no means is this the bassiest mix, so I wouldn’t use it to compare your low end to like most engineers would utilize reference tracks for. Rather, the lead vocal on this track is mixed about as loud as anyone should ever mix a vocal over a band without it being TOO far up front. For this reason, I’ll sometimes use this record to compare vocal levels with when mixing similarly-styled non-aggressive pop songs.
Next-Gen Reference Track #3: A rough mix of a production I’ve been working on recently and have listened to over and over on multiple systems. This is useful if I’m in a control room my ears aren’t familiar with, just to acclimate my ears to the environment. NOT to gauge EQ’ing of the mix I’m doing.
Classic Reference Track: Ron Blake “Shades of Brown” because I tracked and mixed it, Greg Calbi mastered it properly, it sounds full-range, and I know it really well.
The Roots “Do You Want More”. The entire album. Bob Power mixed the hell out of this album, and I listened to it repeatedly growing up, and like much of Bob’s work on those ‘90’s hip hop records, it pushed the sonic boundaries of highs and lows, so that CD is a useful tool for me when getting acclimated to a room.
Lastly, Radiohead “Everything In It’s Right Place.” This song, and the entire Kid A record, should sound pretty much perfectly smooth, warm and balanced across the hi fi spectrum. If it doesn’t, it’s an indicator to me that the room has flaws to look out for.
Role in the Studio: Acoustical consulting and systems engineering with experience in engineering, recording, mixing.
Credit Highlights: Studio design projects for Church Studios, London UK; VSL Synchron Stage, Vienna, Austria; Jungle City Studios, New York USA