Reference tracks are essential in any studio. Following up on our previous guide “Next-Gen Reference Tracks”, we’ll continue asking top audio pros what they put their ears on.
Give a look – and a listen – at three studio reference tracks that serve as “guiding stars” for Jeremy Lubsey, Mastering Engineer for Vlado Meller Mastering:
Since my first day as a mastering engineer, I’ve never stopped critically listening to all kinds of music, no matter what system I’m on. To this day, the act of listening is probably my most important habit as a mastering engineer.
I can twiddle knobs all day long. However, if I don’t have the concept of the sound I’m trying to achieve, I feel like I’m on a journey that gives very little in return.
Whether it’s moving to a new room, getting my ears warmed up for the day’s work, or recalibrating my ears mid-session, these three tracks let me know what I’m actually listening to, regardless of what kind of music I’m working on or where I’m mastering it:
Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Take Five”:
I essentially grew up on this jazz classic, and it steered me down the path of music and saxophone studies.
Paul Desmond’s saxophone tone is key for me; where it sits in the mid-range lets me know usually where I should place the focal point of the mix when I’m trying to EQ/Compress program. On my ideal system, I want to hear the saxophone right in front of the stereo field, but I don’t want the saxophone to have a piercing quality to it at all.
However, on the numerous amounts of systems I’ve listened to this classic, I’ve heard the saxophone all over the place within the stereo field, ranging from a searing mid-range displayed on the sax to a muffled low register of the saxophone (leaving the upper range of the B-section of the chorus, being played on the sax, to play out of balance with rest of the instrument), to a very dull mid-range throughout the program.
The fatness of Joe Morello’s drums are another key to me as well. I always pull this track up to let me know how big the low end should be and how much sizzle the top end should have. On this track, it all comes across so effortlessly to me.
Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”:
This is the one track that I always tend to go to when dealing with intense drums and overall mixes that balance a lot of different elements that are so densely packed together.
The very first distorted vocal line immediately lets me know of the midrange placement and even about the low-end of the track. Once the drums come in for the four-measure figure, I’m mainly listening to the low-end articulation of the system. Not only am I listening to the body of the drum sound, but I’m also listening to the attack of the drums and listening to how clear they come through.
There are a lot of surprises that happen in this mix ranging from the loud screams to that disrespectful 808 hit that just slaps you in the face, which I always look forward to in the mix. It’s those parts of the mix that I’m listening to in order to find out how far I can push things in mastering. (My favorite part about this track though? It was mastered by the one and only Vlado Meller!)
Corinne Bailey Rae – “Like A Star”
This is probably my favorite overall mix/master to listen to.
Corinne Bailey Rae’s vocal is obviously the center of this mix in such an intimate way; I always listen to how the instrumentation enters and accompanies her in every way without ever stepping in front of her performance. There’s a subtle scratchy/piercing quality to her voice that I initially key into first. It sticks out in the mix and just peaks out of the speakers on the systems that I listen on when mastering.
As the day gets longer during mastering, my ears get duller. When that happens, my EQ in the mid-range tends to brighten. This track for me is a go-to when I want to know if I’m at all in the ball park.
The concentrated low-end bass is another aspect of the song I focus on. The well-focused low-end presence within the mix is something I always try to implement in the tracks that I master.