We should all carry with us a thumb drive or media player (phone) containing several reference songs (as high-quality audio files). Reference songs serve a few purposes: (1) they can inspire and energize us to get to work; (2) they can remind our brain what a specific genre should sound or feel like; (3) they can cleanse our palette and re-center us if we have lost our perspective; (4) they can tell us a lot about a monitor system, especially if the monitor system and/or listening environment is new to us.
Where a wide range of sound and feel is possible, reference songs guide us to the target, homing in on the specific characteristics of our production—musical arrangement, instrumental balance, mix effects, loudness, etc. If we are losing perspective from focusing too much on one aspect of a production, musical references can reawaken us and help us regain our perspective. How loud should the snare be in an Island-trap record? Just check out your reference song “Despacito” (obviously!).
Many of us work in unfamiliar rooms and it is important to be able to check a few reference songs to determine the qualities and deficiencies in a particular room so that we can make informed decisions about our tracking and mixing sessions. Bringing your own headphones is a good idea, but even then you should listen to a few reference tracks to make sure the headphone system is up to par. Check for correct panning, frequency response, dynamic range, and distortion. I’m surprised how many commercial studios have noisy, underpowered headphone systems and how many do not even maintain left and right signals in the correct channels.
In this article, which will become an ongoing series of posts, we will develop a catalog of musical selections that provide useful information to us regarding the monitor system we are using. For instance, a song that contains a very low bass note, like a low C, three octaves below middle C, requires that our speakers or headphones reproduce frequencies down to 30Hz. If your monitor system struggle to reproduce that note, you know that you can’t reliably mix songs with heavy sub-bass material on that system. Similarly, if you are not able to hear specific stereo placement or the correct sense of width, height, or depth that you know exist in a song, you can assume the listening environment is somehow compromised.
The key to reference songs is that you really know what to listen for. You should be familiar with how the bass rattles your pants leg, or how the vocal contains certain harsh frequencies, how the reverb tail ends, the clarity of bass notes, the clarity of cymbals, the width of a stereo piano, etc. You are listening for sonic accuracy, not flattery, so things that bother you about a mix tell you just as much as things you like about the mix. Details matter, so make sure you hear that special reverb trick or subtle vocal double that you know is there. Even understanding how loud you can play the monitors before distortion or rattles occur is a good thing to know about a room.
Below is a list of a few songs that I use to discern sonic elements of a monitor system. These are not songs I necessarily use for musical inspiration, but they do cover many genres. Sometimes I only listen to a few seconds of the recording, maybe for the way the bass hits during the chorus, and sometimes several elements of the recording provide useful information. I’ve included with each song specific details that I listen for. From my selections below you should formulate your own list of reference songs. We will follow-up this article with subsequent articles that highlight reference songs for different genres and songs that have been hand-picked by respected engineers and producers.
Studio Recordings with Live Players
If you found this valuable and want to learn more about mixing and mastering with reference songs, also read this article about choosing and using reference tracks.