How to Cross-Reference Your Mix?
After pouring hours into a mix, you finally get the chance to hear it in a brand-new environment. Despite all of the work you put into it, your masterpiece sounds nothing like a professional track. What gives?
We’ve all been there.
When I first started creating music, it seemed like no amount of work could make my projects sound anything but amateur. I knew that if I really wanted my work to be taken seriously, I needed to hunker down and figure out what was holding me back during the mixing stage.
What Does it Mean to Cross-Reference a Mix?
To put it simply, cross-referencing is using a professionally mixed and mastered track as a guide. This isn’t about copying your favorite artists or trying to replicate things to a tee. It’s about ensuring that your work is comparable in terms of quality.
The goal is to match the overall tonal quality and mixing levels; not stifle your creativity. Think about the last time you listened to Top 40 radio. Chances are, everything sounded relatively similar. There weren’t any songs that jumped out at you because of overbearing bass or fluctuations in vocal volume.
That’s because those tracks were likely cross-referenced with others. This isn’t something that’s delegated to newer engineers or at-home producers. Even the professionals do it!
Your goal when cross-referencing a mix shouldn’t be to make things sound exactly the same. Having some creative license and doing what’s right for your track is the ultimate priority. Cross-referencing is simply there to ensure that the finished results of your work sound great regardless of where it’s being listened to.
Why is Reference Mixing So Important?
There’s a lot that can go wrong with a mix! The possibilities of what you can do in your DAW are endless. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make things any easier during the mixing process. While there are several fundamentals that you can follow, it’s an open-ended task that can lead to several outcomes.
The best way to look at cross-referencing is to think of it as a guide. It’ll help you get to the best possible outcome by guiding you as you make tough decisions. Here are a few reasons why using a cross-reference track is so important.
Overcoming Sound Issues
If you’re an at-home creator, you’re probably dealing with a less-than-ideal environment. There are a lot of things that you can do to make your home recording studio setup work in your favor. However, you’re still going to have some sound issues that you will need to contend with. Whether it’s reflections, colored sound from your equipment, or a dreaded dead spot in the room, those issues will affect your ability to mix.
Therein lies the problem. When you’re listening to those sound issues for hours on end, they start to become inaudible. As a result, you’re mixing for the room. You might adjust levels incorrectly because of the way your studio changes the audio. The moment you bring that track out into the real world, all those sound issues become glaringly obvious!
A reference track can help you get a better idea of what to aim for. You already know that the reference track sounds good, so aiming to replicate it will ensure that yours does, too.
Combating Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue is a very real thing that producers and engineers have to deal with. The longer you’re working on a project, the more difficult it becomes. In most cases, mixing takes several hours to complete. Fine-tuning your plug-ins, filters, and levels takes time.
As you down those energy drinks to complete a song, your brain is actively working against you. Producers are at a greater risk of making glaring mistakes that will need to be fixed later. When you cross-reference your mix, you’re able to save a lot of time deliberating on your infinite choices. Instead of experimenting in an attempt to figure out what things should sound like, you have a reference track to make it happen quickly.
Mixing for the Masses
At the end of the day, your goal is to get your music heard by as many people as possible, right? Well, not everyone is going to have the same high-end equipment that you do. Just because a mix sounds superb in your home doesn’t mean that it will translate well for others.
Most consumer-level gear is colored to make the music sound as good as possible. That’s why we must use relatively flat studio monitors when we’re mixing.
When you use a mastered track as a reference, it’s already prepared for mass distribution. Mastering engineers work hard to make sure that the track sounds good on every single device out there. Having that frame of reference can make all the difference and help you avoid the pitfalls that many newer mixers encounter.
Choosing the Best Reference Tracks for Your Mix
One of the most important things you need to do is choose the right reference tracks. Notice how we said “tracks” and not “track.” It’s always good to have multiple songs that you can go back to. It gives you a broader perspective on your work. Plus, it helps you avoid making things sound too similar.
So, what makes a good reference track anyways? The truth is that there’s no “gold standard” here. It’s different for everyone. Many seasoned engineers and mixers have a collection of go-to songs that they use constantly. Luckily, there’s no shortage of solid tracks out there that you can use.
But ultimately, the right songs are going to come down to the specific project you’re working on. The goal is to choose a track that’s similar enough to what you want your finished song to sound like. Here are some tips to find suitable reference tracks:
- Choose reference tracks that are the same genre as yours.
- Pick tracks that you enjoy and have listened to a lot.
- Use songs that are professionally mixed and mastered.
- Try sticking to tracks that were commercially or critically praised.
- Reference tracks with similar instrumentation as yours.
- Use tracks that have the same “feel” as the song you’re working on.
What About Quality?
Here’s something that some people will overlook. When we refer to quality, we’re not talking about the song itself. Rather, we’re referring to the file. Always use the highest quality file that you can get. This means no MP3s! MP3 files are notoriously compressed. Cross-referencing an MP3 file will only lead to more issues! Stick with lossless WAV, FLAC, or AIFF files.
Best Plugins Available to Cross-Reference Your Mix
Back in the day, cross-referencing a mix wasn’t the most efficient process. Engineers had to load up the reference track into a separate channel in the DAW. However, that lead to some notable issues. Using a dedicated channel meant that the reference track had to be sent through the Master buss. If you already have plugins on that buss, your reference mix would be modified, which defeats the purpose.
Luckily, plugins have made the job much easier. Plugins allow you to hear multiple reference tracks without any modification. Not only that, but most plugins come with useful tools like frequency analysis and volume matching. They take a lot of the hard work out of cross-reference mixing. Here are some best cross-reference plugins to try out:
- REFERENCE by Mastering the Mix
- Metric AB by ADAPTR AUDIO/Plugin Alliance
- Tonal Balance Control 2 by iZOTOPE
- MCompare by MeldaProduction
Tips on How to Cross-Reference Your Mix
1. Make Sure Your Reference Plugin is After Mastering Plugins
When you’re loading up your cross-reference plugin, make sure that it’s placed after any mastering plugins you might have on your Master buss. Remember, your reference tracks are complete. They’re already professionally mastered. Placing the plugin before all of your other tools will only ruin the mix of the reference track, forcing you to make some bad mixing decisions.
2. Match Volumes
There’s going to be a clear difference in volume with your track versus the reference track. Before you do anything, match the volumes. Many plugins allow you to make those changes with only a few clicks.
3. Pay Attention to Frequency Bands
One cool thing about referencing plugins is that they allow you to see the individual frequency brands of your track and how they compare to the reference. This is an important tool that can make all the difference in your finished product. Don’t ignore those frequency bands! If your plugin allows it, split those bands up into smaller chunks for greater control. Ideally, you’ll have all seven frequency bands present.
4. Use a Spectrum Analyzer
For even more in-depth information, take advantage of a spectrum analyzer plugin. This should be placed after your cross-referencing plugin so that you can easily see the analysis for both tracks.
One for the Road
It doesn’t matter how experienced you are. Every mixer can benefit from cross-referencing! This technique can take your tracks to a new level while also improving your skills. Ultimately, we want our tracks to sound professional. So why not stand on the shoulders of giants and use your favorite songs for guidance and inspiration?
If you’re struggling to produce a top-shelf mix that will ensure your songs stand out on the crowded music marketplace, we can help. At SupremeTracks, we ensure your mixes sound as good as any Top 40 artist out there. Check out our professional mixing and mastering services to learn out more.