Reference tracks

One of the most important techniques for producing great sounding records is frequent comparison to reference tracks. These are (usually commercial) recordings by other people that you are very familiar with. Each should represent something to aim for or something to avoid when you are working.

There are two basic aims: to guide you, and to reset your hearing.

Guidance is important because you want to be sure you are heading in the right direction. It is all to easy to end up with recordings/mixes/masters that sound great in isolation but as soon as they are put alongside commercial records they sound wrong and you start to wonder how that could have happened with all the care you took.

Resetting your hearing is important because human hearing is adaptive and psychological. It is adaptive in that the middle and inner ear contain protective mechanisms and the brain has compensatory mechanisms. It’s similar to the way our brains compensate for colour balance in our vision. Not only that but your brain can switch things around based on your auditory beliefs of the moment. The result is that as you work, your hearing is adjusting to the tone and dynamics of the music and to your expectations about what you are hearing and that leads to errors. Even a few seconds of a familiar reference track can reset your hearing and save you wasting hours or days fooling yourself.

One crucial thing to understand is that you must adjust the playback level of reference tracks to a similar or appropriate level compared to the piece you are working on. This can mean turning down the reference by up to 12 dB (sometimes more). This ensures you are not being fooled by the “louder is better” habit our hearing has. It also ensures that both pieces are working in the same part of the loudness dependent frequency response of your hearing – the infamous Fletcher-Munson curves:

Here are my default reference tracks. I use others but these have been my go-to set for speaker auditioning and all things recording for many years. I have a CD burnt with each of them adjusted to K-20 (more on this in another post but in short 0 VU = -20 dBFS) just to make things easy. Often I leave the CD running continuously in the player so there is a randomness to which track I get when I switch to the CD.

Rock In This Pocket – Suzanne Vega [-12 dB]
A nice clear rock track with strong bass and female vocals. I like the tonality of this record.

Candle In The Wind – Elton John [-13 dB]
Classic 1970s mixing even if the mastering on the CD is a bit hot. Great for checking bass response of speakers and subwoofers – if the bass guitar doesn’t sound even all the way up the neck, there’s a problem.

Every Breath You Take – The Police [-7 dB]
A great speaker audition track – if I can hear that Sting is playing round-wound strings on his bass, the speakers are on my short-list. Nice clear tone if a bit light on the lows.

Exodus – Bob Marley & The Wailers [-8 dB]
Sublime texture. I can feel the sound as much as hear it – especially when the organ comes it. Also supremely tight bass. Highs are a bit up-front and narrow but my ears just love to experience this track. My go-to reference track for micro-dynamics and strong tight bass.

King Of Sorrow – Sade [-14 dB]
Too strong in the lows. A great reference when checking the bass through my Sony MDR-7506 headphones. If the piece I’m working on is as fat as this, it needs a bit more work.

She Bangs – Ricky Martin [-13 dB]
Slammed with compression and limiting. The louder the music gets the more distant it becomes. A pity because the original tracks must be absolutely filled with punch and it would be great to hear a version with dynamics. Compare with Exodus above for why hotter records like this are actually weaker and less punchy. Frequency-wise, quite a good reference but I wouldn’t want to go any brighter than this.

Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads [-11 dB]
Some nice relief to avoid ear fatigue. Light on the bass and the highs but full of movement and a different perspective on a mix than the other reference songs.

K-20 Pink Noise – [0 dB]
For calibrating my monitoring system per the K system. If only more people truly understood this system. I must do a plain-English blog on this subject.

The dB figures shown above in square brackets show the amount I had to turn down the tracks to get them to comparable loudness. It’s not so precise for the hotter tracks because the quiet bits are often too loud and the loud bits not loud enough. Note that different releases have different loudness so these adjustments might not work for you if you try to replicate this collection.


© Mike Ellison.

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