5 ways to use reference tracks to improve your music producing

Image Credit: Omar Prestwich

How do reference tracks help when mixing and arranging a new song?

A useful tool for helping to arrange and mix your tracks as you produce is to use reference tracks, songs by other artists in the same genre that can be used alongside yours to compare. There’s a reason popular songs are produced and structured the way they are. It just makes sense.

The aim of reference tracks isn’t to sound exactly like the other song – there’s nothing fun about copying – but to use them as a benchmark to learn from and take inspiration from. Here are a few tips to consider.

Pick more than one track to reference

Use up to five reference tracks to avoid just copying a single track. Perhaps one for arranging, and two for creative inspiration and mixing reference. Choose tracks that are the same genre and style as your track. What elements and instruments stand out to you?

Get thinking about reference tracks before you start

You’ve got a general melody or loop sketched down, now get inspired by listening to other songs first before you dive into producing yours. Consider what you’re ultimately producing your track for. Where do you imagine people hearing it – the club? The radio? Then listen to popular songs in your genre. Note how they’re arranged in different ways – how many drops, different sections and so on.

Use the reference track’s arrangement as a roadmap

Pull the song into your DAW as its own track. You can use this as a framework to follow the arrangement. Put in markers where big moments happen: Verse, chorus, breakdown, drop, build, outro. Place your own writing parts within the bar counts. That’s a framework to get creative within, not copy.

Compare the mixes

Obviously the fully mastered professional mix of the reference track is going to make your fledgling track sound a bit embarrassing, but don’t be put off. It’ll help you to hear elements that stand out, which parts attack and which parts are smooth, noticing heavy bass or use of synth, length of reverb and delay. It’ll help give you inspiration and a fresh perspective.

Use plugins to help

When it comes to mixing, real-time reference plugins make comparing the tracks much simpler:

No one tip makes sense for every producer. You might be keeping things arty, out to produce something entirely experimental. As a useful tool to make sure your arrangement makes sense and your mix is good, and to get some creative inspiration, you’ve got nothing to lose by giving reference tracks a try.

I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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