How To A/B Reference Mixes When Mixing Songs In A DAW: A Step-by-Step Guide

How To A/B Reference Mixes When Mixing Songs In A DAW: A Step-by-Step Guide

A/B referencing your mix to your favourite songs and professional mixes is a key mixing technique that every audio engineer should master. By comparing your mix to professionally mixed tracks, you can make sure that your mix meets industry standards and sounds competitive across different playback systems. In this article, I'll provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to effectively A/B reference mixes while mixing songs in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). We will cover everything from the importance of A/B referencing in the mixing process to practical tips on how to implement this technique seamlessly into your workflow. Let's look into the art of A/B reference mixing and discover its potential for transforming your mixes.


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Understanding the Importance of A/B Mix Referencing 

  • Why we do it: A/B mix referencing is a crucial part of the mixing process because it allows us to compare our mix with a professional reference track. By listening attentively, we can identify areas where our mix falls short and make necessary adjustments. This helps us achieve a more balanced and polished final product.
  • What we're listening for: When A/B referencing mixes, we're not cheating, we're seeking to understand how professional mixes achieve clarity, balance, and impact. We pay attention to tonal balance, instrument separation, stereo width, dynamic range, and overall sound quality. This critical listening enables us to fine-tune our own mix and ensure that it meets industry standards.

Selecting High-Quality Reference Tracks 

  • Choose songs with exceptional vocals that are clear, well-balanced, and exciting.
  • Look for tracks with solid and impactful bass lines that provide warmth and a solid foundation to the mix.
  • Seek out songs with dynamic drums that are powerful yet controlled, adding energy to the overall sound.

Here's my current mix reference playlist:


When selecting reference tracks, listen to the dynamics of the song – how they build and release tension throughout. Consider the overall loudness of the track relative to others in your reference playlist.


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Setting Up Your A/B Reference Workflow in Your DAW 

  • Import the audio file onto a new track: Start by importing the reference track you want to compare your mix to onto a new track in your DAW. This will allow you to easily switch between your mix and the reference track during the mixing process.
  • Solo modes: Set the solo mode to X-OR instead of Latch in your DAW's preferences. This way only one track can be soloed at a time. Then mute your reference track. Now you can solo and unsolo your reference track to A/B with your mix tracks.
  • Mix A/B Plugins: Utilize plugins like Metric A/B by ADPTR AUDIO, REFERENCE 2 by Mastering the Mix, or A/B Assist by NuGen Audio to streamline your A/B referencing workflow. These tools make it simple to compare your mix with a reference track, helping you make better mixing decisions along the way.

By setting up an effective A/B referencing system in your DAW, you can ensure that your mixes are balanced and competitive in today's music industry.


Analyzing Frequency Balance, Volume Levels, and Dynamics 

When comparing the level and tone of the vocal, kick, snare, and bass in your mix, pay close attention to how each element interacts with one another. Make sure that the vocals sit properly in the mix without being drowned out by other instruments. The kick should provide a solid foundation without overpowering the rest of the track.

Make sure the snare cuts through the mix crisply without sounding too harsh or muddy. Additionally, check that the bass is present and full-bodied without muddying up the lower frequencies. Each element should complement one another to create a cohesive and balanced sound throughout the song.

Remember to use tools like EQ, compression, and volume automation to adjust each element's frequency balance and dynamics as needed. Be mindful of how changes to one instrument can affect others in the mix, making adjustments accordingly for a polished final product.



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Checking Reverb and Effects Levels Against Professional Mixes 

  • Identify vocal delay: Listen to the professional mix and pay attention to the delay applied to the vocals. Compare it against your own mix to ensure it sounds similar in terms of timing and intensity.
  • Analyze reverb on vocals: Take note of how much reverb is used on the vocals in the reference track. Adjust your own reverb levels accordingly, making sure they match or complement the overall vibe of the song.
  • Check snare reverb: Focus on the snare drum in both mixes. Determine how much reverb is added to give it space without overshadowing other elements. Make adjustments as needed to achieve a balanced sound that fits well within your mix.


Adjusting Your Mix Based on A/B Referencing 

  • Match the General Bass and Treble:
    • Use A/B referencing to compare your mix with a professional track and adjust the bass and treble levels accordingly.
    • Make sure that your mix has a similar balance of low and high frequencies for optimal clarity and depth.
  • Adjust Vocal, Bass, and Drum Levels:
    • Focus on matching the levels of key elements like vocals, bass, and drums to maintain a cohesive sound throughout your mix.
    • Use volume automation tools to fine-tune these levels based on the references you are using.
  • Mix Loudness:


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Posting "Before and After" A/B Mixes 

    • Share Your Progress: Posting before and after A/B mixes can be a great way to showcase your progress as a mixer. Clients or band members can listen to the differences and improvements you've made in a track.
    • Use Soundcloud Playlists: Create SoundCloud playlists for A/B demonstrations, making it easy for others to compare different versions of the mix side by side. This visual representation can help them understand the changes more clearly.
    • A/B widget: allows you to embed an A/B playlist into your website so visitors can easily switch between two different mixes for comparison. This real-time switching feature helps listeners hear the subtle nuances between versions quickly and effectively.
  • Efficient Feedback Loop: By using such tools, you can efficiently gather feedback from clients or band members on specific sections of the mix that may need further tweaking. This streamlined process saves time and enhances communication during the mixing phase.


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Also read: 

How to Become Great at Mixing Songs

The Best Equalizer Settings: The 5 Step Magic EQ Settings that work on everything!

The 6-Step Magic Reverb Settings for Vocals and Snare Drums



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