Next-Gen Reference Tracks: 12 Top Engineers Share Their Essential Reference Mixes

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I own the studios and I am a studio designer, therefore monitoring is of paramount importance to me and the studios.

Here are 3 tracks that I believe are recorded well and also mixed perfectly for my personal tastes. They are all quite different from each other and cover different time periods of recording and sound.

Next-Gen Reference Track: The current track is “Cheap Thrills” by Sia from “This Is Acting”, released in 2016.

Classic Reference Track #1: “Warning Sign” by Coldplay from A Rush Of Blood To The Head is the track I utilize when critically listening to all monitors. This was released in 2002.

Classic Reference Track #2: Another classic reference track is “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel from So, released in 1986.

Kiara Mudd

Role in the Studio: Recording/mixing engineer and composer

(l-r) Kiara Mudd at BB4 Studios with David Lloyd

Credit Highlights: Bro4, Jessenia Vice, Ian Lloyd, John Ford, M1, Troy Ave, Grafh, Raekwon

What She Listens For: A reference track is important to me because it puts things in my mix in perspective.

I ask myself questions depending on the style of the record; Does this have the amount of space I’m looking for? Is the low end powerful enough? Is the vocal too buried in the mix or should I bring them more upfront?

During mixing, I would utilize them more towards the end when I’m close to finishing up a mix. I do listen to a few tracks similar to a track I’m working on before I mix a song but not for long because I don’t want to limit myself to thinking it should sound exactly like the song or songs I’m using for reference.

Next-Gen Reference Track #1“Royals” by Lorde

This song I look to when I have a very minimalist mix, that depends on the vocals to carry the song. This track is valuable because in the chorus you would think the instruments would ramp up, but they stay buried compared to how upfront the vocal is, which is different from the way I mixed those types of records.

Next-Gen Reference Track #2: “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

This song I look to when I’m trying to achieve a wideness to my percussion instruments. When I heard the width of them when they first came in I was like, “Wow,” and that was on a car stereo. It was even more eye opening on a proper system.

Next-Gen Reference Track #3: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons

I reference this song when I’m going for more of a grime texture to a record. This song overall handles the grittiness without being too harsh very well.

Classic Reference Track: “Voyager” by Daft Punk

I referenced many Daft Punk songs over time, but this particular song spoke to me when I was getting a handle on putting acoustic and synth based instruments in the same space. When the bass line and guitar lick comes in it blends seamlessly with the synth pad and drums.


Alex Sterling

Role in the Studio: Recording, Mixing, and Mastering Engineer, Music Producer

The sweet spot of Precision Sound Studios

Credit Highlights: Thomas rhe Tank Engine rock opera Steam Rattle & Roll, 5.1 surround mixing and mastering for David Chesky’s The Mice War feature animated film; mixing and mastering for remix projects with Sia, Delaney Jane, The National, and SOAK; Sax and Vocal recording for Grace Kelly’s Downbeat’s #2 Jazz Album of the Year Trying to Figure It Out.

A lot of recent production and engineering with NYC artists CHNNLL, Krychek, SIGNAL, Tsilala Brock, Ugonna Osuala, RighteousGIRLS, and more.

What He Listens For: Reference tracks are useful for orienting your ears for the day or even a few minutes. I find it helpful to use a fixed reference point to help me even out the differences in my hearing that are present day to day and over the course of the day’s work.

In the morning I am most acute and I can hear lots of detail and subtly, but over the course of a day’s work my acuity diminishes and my high frequency sensitivity is also slightly dulled. Because of this effect, I sometimes like to “check back in” with a recording that I know feels good when I’m fresh and can help me stay sonically on track when I have a long day of production or mixing.

What I am looking for in a reference track is really several different things and not all tracks offer all of them for all styles of music either. Here are some things I listen for:

1) Vocal presence, volume, and sibilance. For Pop, Hip-Hop, and Vocal Jazz projects, I feel that vocal clarity and presence is particularly important so I like to see where the vocal in my current project might sit relative to an appropriate stylistic reference.

2) Midrange density and ambience clarity. I am always striving to get more clarity and element separation in my work. This often involves cleaning out midrange clutter and resonances as well as trying to separate instruments into discrete elements that have some space around them and are more 3D in the sound stage. There are many great examples of open and clear productions and mixes that set a high bar for clarity and space that you can refer to when working on your own mix.

3) The infamous “low end”. Even in a well-designed and acoustically treated studio you still need to make a personal creative and technical decision about the correct low frequency energy and impact in your project. Different styles of music have different levels of bass energy and need an appropriate approach to sculpting the low-frequency elements and character. I am naturally bass greedy and can’t seem to get enough of it so I try to give myself a reality check by listening to a bass reference that is extremely tight and defined but not too thin for the style.

Next-Gen Reference Track #1:

For vocal presence, volume, and sibilance in pop:
Male vocal: “Retrograde” by James Blake
Female Vocal: “The Worst” by Jhené Aiko.

For midrange density, ambience clarity, and overall openness:
“Skyfall” James Bond Theme by Adele
The Less I know The Better” by Tame Impala

For rock density and aggression with clarity:
“Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees.

For low frequency tightness and precision in Hip Hop:
“One Dance” by Drake
“Obedear” by Purity Ring

Classic Reference Track:

For classic vocal presence, volume, and sibilance:
“The Girl From Ipanema” by Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto and Stan Getz. This track is also really good for overall ambience and depth in Jazz with a more classic aesthetic.

For rap vocal presence and tone in a denser arrangement:
“Break You Off” by The Roots

For classic midrange density, ambience clarity, and overall openness:
“Cherry Blossom Girl” by Air

Jamiroquai’s music in general, there is just so much stuff fit together so well without any mud or clutter.

For classic low frequency tightness and precision:
“You & Music” by Donald Byrd from the LP Places and Spaces. The drum sound is incredible for dry punch and clarity. In general this record sounds amazing.

“Smack My Bitch Up” by The Prodigy

Tatsuya Sato

Role in the Studio: Mastering engineer.

Tatsuya Sato (photo by Allan Coleman)

Credit Highlights: Aleks Syntek, Allen Stone, Danny Brown, A$AP Mob, A Tribe Called Quest, Joey Bada$$

What He Listen For: What I am trying to learn and understand in an unfamiliar listening environment is the room acoustics and the equipment—mainly the speakers.

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  • Fliz Kayce

    I’m in shock that someone would use “Shake It Off” as a reference track.

    Side by side with “Thriller”, it sounds laughably flat.

    For reference quality production in the last 5 years, Jamie XX’s “In Colour” is fantastic and so is The xx’s “I See You”.

    “Vehl” by Kidnap Kid is right on the edge of “Next-Gen” but it’s fantastic. On a good system, it should really fill the room.

  • Michael Murray

    There is no “Wallflower” album by Alison Krauss & Union Station as far as I can find?