Using Reference Tracks

Using Reference Tracks

Music producers use reference tracks to allow them to compare the sound of their own track to a professionally mixed track that has been released. If you have read any of my previous production blogs, you may have already seen that I love a good reference track. ‘Why?’, you may be asking. Well, because a reference track is useful in all stages of producing a track; from helping with the initial creative process to guiding us through the mixing and mastering stages at the end - having a good reference track (ideally multiple) is essential in producing your own music. In this blog, I would like to outline how we would use reference tracks in our productions and some of the benefits that arise from doing so. Let’s get into it!

Make sure to use WAV/AIFF

Right, before we go into more creative and let’s be honest, interesting, ways to use a reference track, I need to stress to you the importance of getting your reference tracks in WAV or AIFF formats and not in MP3.
WAV and AIFF files are uncompressed, lossless formats which means there is no quality loss. This makes them perfect for production. MP3 files, on the other hand, are compressed music files that are not lossless and so are not good to use as reference tracks for production. WAV and AIFF files do take up more storage space than MP3 files, however, in the production process, you want the highest quality music at your disposal and MP3s don’t cut it, unfortunately.

Here I have a reference track loaded into Logic Pro. Make sure the track is in .wav format!

Decide The BPM For Your Project

One of the first things to decide when starting a track is what speed you want the track to be played at. You can use your reference track to figure out what BPM you’d like to write at. In Logic Pro you can use the BPM counter located under Metering in the Audio FX. All you need to do is load up the counter on the channel where your reference track is located and after playing the track for a brief period you will find out the BPM (make sure you play a section that has a clear beat!) and can match yours up with it. If you’re not using Logic Pro, then you can just as easily search for the BPM on the internet or use the metronome in your DAW to manually match the tempos.

In Logic Pro, you can find the BPM of a track using the BPM Counter

Great for Arrangement

Getting the arrangement right for your track can be tricky and it can sometimes be hard to know if you’ve got the pacing right. When I’m unsure about the structure of my project I often use my reference track as a guide and will recreate their arrangement, for example if their breakdown is 24 bars long then mine will be too.
Sometimes, I will use the markers in Logic Pro to map out the arrangement of the reference track before I’ve even started producing just so I have a template to work with.

You can use markers to help structure your track.

Helps With Sound Design

It’s important to select a track that is in the same genre as the track you are looking to make. For example, if you are making a big room track, select a big room reference track and if you’re making hip hop then select a hip hop track and most importantly make sure the tracks you select are good! By selecting tracks that are in the same genre, you may notice there are particular sounds used that you like and this can act as a basis for creating your track.

Matching Your Levels

The best reason to use reference tracks is for comparing your mix. Maybe you’ve finished adding all the elements you want to add to your track and you are happy with the arrangement, so all that’s left to do is see how well your track stands up compared to other professionally mixed tracks. By playing your track alongside a reference track and constantly switching between them (perhaps by using an AB mixer) you will quickly get an idea of what your track is missing or if you have got everything right.
I would suggest reducing the level of the reference track to match your mix output level during comparison, purely for the fact that your track won’t be mastered and so will be a few decibels quieter.

Use Match EQ

On Logic Pro, you can use the Match EQ plugin to match the EQ of your track to the reference - you can do this on the master or on individual channels. This is a great way to see quickly what differences you may have with the other track, for example, your track may not sound as bass-heavy and this will be reflected in the Match EQ as it will have applied a boost to the low end of your mix.
I find the Match EQ is great on the master channel as a way of letting me know if I’m on the right track. If I see that it has had to make large adjustments (ie increase the levels of certain frequencies by more than 2-3dB) then I know I need to go back into my mix and make the necessary changes. You also have the option of leaving the Match EQ on and choosing how much of its adjustments you want to have applied automatically - a good option if you need to have something mixed quickly.

Logic Pro's Match EQ

Reference Tracks In The Mastering Process

Once you are happy with the arrangement and mix of your track, you may be looking to get the track mastered, or even try mastering it yourself. If you are looking to master your own tracks, a reference track (preferably multiple) is essential to help make sure the track is loud enough and sounds good on all systems. A reference track will also aid you in checking whether your track has enough width, compression, saturation, dynamic range and many other details that are vital in achieving the best master possible. In Logic Pro, the Multimeter is a great way to compare your tracks and provide you with as much detail as possible.

Logic Pro's MultiMeter


It is important to remember that using a reference track is effective in all stages of music production. However, you still need to make your track creative and unique. This blog entry is designed to help producers understand the different ways we can use reference tracks, from sound design to mixing, and also in the mastering process. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and have found it useful. If you would like to take online lessons with me over zoom just contact us!

You can also browse our music production courses by clicking here.

Paul Dempsey


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