Image Credit: Omar Prestwich
How do reference tracks help when mixing and arranging a new song?
A useful tool to help you arrange and mix your tracks as you produce is to use reference tracks, songs from other artists of the same genre that can be used with your own for comparison. There is a reason why popular songs are produced and structured the way they are. It just makes sense.
The point of the reference songs is not to sound exactly like the other song – there is nothing fun to copy – but to use them as a reference for learning and inspiration. Here are some tips to consider.
Choose more than one track to reference
Use up to five reference tracks to avoid simply copying a single track. Maybe one for arrangement, and two for creative inspiration and mix reference. Choose songs of the same genre and style as your song. What elements and instruments have marked you?
Think about referral tracks before you start
You have a general melody or a sketched loop, now get inspired by listening to other songs before you jump into producing your own. Think about what you are ultimately producing your song for. Where do you imagine people hearing it – the club? The radio? Then listen to popular songs of your genre. Note how they are arranged in different ways – how many drops, different sections, etc.
Use the benchmark track arrangement as a roadmap
Pull the song into your DAW as its own track. You can use it as a frame to follow the arrangement. Put markers where the big moments happen: verse, chorus, ventilation, fall, construction, outro. Place your own writing parts in the number of bars. It’s a framework in which to be creative, not to copy.
Compare the mixes
Obviously the perfectly mastered professional mix of reference track will make your nascent trail a little embarrassing, but don’t let that put you off. This will help you hear which elements stand out, which parts are attacking and which parts are soft, noticing heavy bass or synth use, length of reverb and delay. It will give you inspiration and a new perspective.
Use plugins to help you
In terms of mixing, real-time reference plugins greatly simplify the comparison of tracks:
No advice makes sense to every producer. Maybe you keep the artistic stuff, to produce something entirely experimental. As a useful tool for making sure your arrangement makes sense and your mix is right, and for getting creative inspiration, you have nothing to lose by trying out reference tracks.