we spend an awful lot of time with our tracks when producing, pouring over every detail & honing all the sounds. ironically, this can lead to a worse mix as we begin lose perspective the more familiar we get it. after hours of listening to a snare that is too loud, our ears simply become accustomed to that imbalance. when played back with other songs, however, the imbalance is painfully obvious. one common & convenient way to not lose an objective perspective is to compare your mix to a reference track - a professional song in the same genre with a similar sonic makeup. the goal here is not to copy the sound & balance of the other song, but rather to have a benchmark so we can say "ah, my snare is louder than a normal track in the genre" & decide whether or not that's a desirable thing. in this way, comparing your work-in-progress to a finished song can take a lot of the guesswork out of mixing. here, we'll go over how to set up your default default template to accommodate reference tracks.
the reference track
first, you need to create a new audio track. this is where you'll drag a reference track onto, so label it "reference". change its output routing to ext. out 1/2 (or wherever you send your master output) to ensure the reference track doesn't run through the project's mastering chain. then, mute the track - you don't want your reference to play with the rest of your song's tracks.
we'll be using a lot of key mappings for this technique. I've covered key mappings extensively before, but for this guide we'll be using some pretty simple ones - just key map the backslash key \ to the reference track's solo button. now you can switch between your song & the reference track with a simple click of the \ key, since it's muted when unsolo'd.
this is pretty handy in itself, but we can take the concept a lot further by adding more features for comparing & analyzing your track & the reference.
as we all know, low frequencies are the most essential part of the mix to get right but also one of the hardest. a reference track can prove particularly useful for checking the balance in the low end, so we'll set up a filter that can be quickly engaged to isolate the bass in both tracks. I also like to check the high end between my track & the reference, so I have a high pass filter built into my set also.
let's start by adding two auto filters to the reference track. make sure to switch these to clean circuit type if not already - we want as little added coloration as possible. set the lo pass filter to 275Hz & the high pass filter to 2kHz. you can adjust these frequencies to taste, but those make pretty good starting points.
next, you'll want to turn off the filters & key map the device activators so they can be quickly turned on & off - I like to use the brackets [ & ] for lo & hi pass, respectively, as they seem the most intuitive.
finally, copy both filters to the master track (make sure they go at the end of your chain, if you have one!) & map the same keys to their respective filters - [ for lo pass, ] for hi pass.
now if you want to check the low end of your mix, you can just press [ & you'll hear the isolated bass. of course, the reference track will also be filtered to the same frequency so you can use the \ key to switch between low ends. this is useful to hear how your track's bottom end compares with the professional track, if there are unfiltered frequencies present from tracks that shouldn't be down there or excessive mud that should be balanced.
another area you might find useful to check is mono compatibility. setting this up is actually very similar to the filters - just add a utility to your reference track & key map the width control to the + key. you'll need to look in the mapping browser & change the max for this to 100%. repeat this process on the master, again remembering to put it at the end of any existing devices in the chain.
there are lots of reasons you'd want to check your mix in mono, but those are outside the scope of this article. suffice it to say, if your track is working as well in mono as the professional track, you're in good shape.
while we want to use our ears as much as possible, frequencies visual. for this you'll need an external vst - voxengo's SPAN - a free visualizer plugin.
make two new audio tracks below the reference track & name them "a-master" & "a-reference". then, create a return track (option_cmd_t) & put SPAN on it. you'll probably want to collect all three tracks ("reference", "a-master", & "a-reference") into a group, as they should take up as little space as possible
set the "a-master" track's monitor to in & its output to sends only. set the input to master & its input channel to post mixer, then pan the track hard left. send the track to the SPAN return track.
repeat the process with "a-reference", setting the monitor to in & its output to sends only. this time, set the input as "reference" (the original reference track) & its input channel to post fx. finally, pan the track hard right & send it to the SPAN return track.
now set up the return track - this is pretty simple. switch the return track's output to sends only (it doesn't need to output audio) & then just open up "routing" & change the B group assignment to 2. now go back to the analyzer & set underlay to 2. you'll now be able to see your track's frequency spectrum in orange & the reference track's in green.
you can compare frequencies any time by opening up SPAN on the return track, but keep in mind you don't want to over-rely on visually comparing the frequencies of these tracks - they will probably be in different keys & use different instrumentation & just generally a bit different. after all, the whole concept of using a reference track is to establish a benchmark to see where you're at in your mix. but if you can't quite achieve the sound of your inspiration, checking the frequencies could call your attention to a major imbalance in your mix that you should fix.
saving to default template
you'll want to make sure this system is saved to your default template so you don't have to set it up for every new song. make sure the reference track isn't solo'd, the group is collapsed, & the filters are both off. then, open up preferences (cmd_,) & save to default template so that everything - the tracks, devices, & keyboard mappings - are all loaded every time you start a new project. all you have to do is put an appropriate reference track in the "reference" channel.