Studio Talk: Use Reference Songs When Mixing

Mixing is my guilty pleasure

I have been blessed with the ability to mix my own music.  I have been mixing  for the past 8 years now in Pro Tools.  Mixing, to put it simply, is the balancing of instruments and vocals in a song.

Pro Tools Edit & Mix Windows

Applications like compression, equalization, automation, panning, reverb, referencing and delay are almost always used in mixing as well.  We won’t discuss most of these techniques in this blogpost.  Our focus will be on referencing.

First, let me provide you with some background information to help set the stage.

Pro Tools is my go-to DAW

Pro Tools is a digital audio workstation (DAW) software application that is used to record, mix, and master audio content.  It’s widely recognized as the “industry standard” or “flagship” DAW for recording and mixing music.  Pro Tools can be found in most home and major recording studios.

Pro Tools Ultimate 2018
Pro Tools Ultimate 2018

I have to thank recording and mixing legend Dave Pensado and his manager Herb Trawick for giving me my license of Pro Tools at NAMM 2014.  This was such a huge blessing to me because it really elevated my mixing skills.  I attended a live taping of Dave and Herb’s Youtube show Pensado’s Place at the Avid Booth.  I shared a story with them during the Q&A session, and as a thank you gift for sharing, they gave me a perpetual license to Pro Tools.

I recorded and mixed 510JAZZ’s January 16 and Bossa510 albums using ProTools, and I found that it made things so easy for me!  Mixing does take time and is a skill that can be finessed with time.  Just like anything else, what you put into it – is what you get out of it.  I spent countless hours working on the recording and mixing of our 510JAZZ songs.

Reference, Reference, Reference!

One mixing strategy that I used, that is standard practice for mix engineers, is to use a professional reference song to check your mix against.  As a mix engineer it’s easy to question aspects of your own mix.  You might ask yourself questions like “Is the kick drum too loud?” or “Is my lead vocal to soft in the mix?”.  To remedy this a mix engineer will compare his mix to a commercially recorded song that sounds similar, that has been mixed by a professional: the “reference song”.   This technique allows the mix engineer to conduct an “A-B test” of their song to check if the vocal is too soft compared to the reference song.

Using reference songs greatly increased the overall quality of my mixes.  I’m lucky enough to have access to a huge collection of CDs at my local public library.  I would check out commercial Latin Jazz CDs, R&B CDs, Contemporary/Smooth Jazz CDs and even some Hip-Hop CDs to find songs that had a similar vibe to our own original songs.  It was pretty fun to jot down commercial songs that could be used for referencing.  For each song that I mixed on our January 16 album, I found a commercial reference song.

Magic AB 2 the rescue!

I purchased a “plugin” to make referencing easy in Pro Tools. A “plugin” is third party software that can be launched and used in Pro Tools or most other DAW’s. The plugin that I bought is named Magic AB 2 from the company Sample Magic.

Magic AB 2 from Sample Magic
Magic AB 2 from Sample Magic

The Magic AB 2 plugin allows you to load up to nine reference songs to compare your mix against.  This plugin should be assigned to the last insert found on the Master Fader in Pro Tools (see figure below).

The two main parameters you’ll see in this plugin are “A” & “B”.  When “A” is selected you will hear your mix playing in Pro Tools.  When “B” is selected you will hear the reference song playing.  Pretty simple to use huh?  This makes checking your mix verses a commercial mix insanely easy.  I’d recommend this plugin to any mixer.

Mixing our title track “January 16”

“January 16” is a special song to me.  It’s dedicated to my grandmother Jesusa.  We called her Grandma Susie for short.  She loved her family so much.  The Spirit really moved me to compose and produce a tribute song for her.  As we finished the recording of “January 16”, I knew the mix had to be just right.  I needed to spend some quality time carefully mixing the song, and to do that I needed a great reference song that I could compare our song against.

When it came to mixing our song “January 16”, the reference song that I chose was “Just Friends” from the artist Musiq.  I felt that “Just Friends” had a similar soulful groove to our song “January 16”.  It  contained similar instrumentation and vocal structure.  I was also very familiar with the song, as growing up it was one of my favorites.

I loaded up “Just Friends” in the Magic AB 2 plugin and was able to tell when referencing that my mix needed more low end, specifically kick drum and bass guitar.  Adjusting the low end really helped the mix of “January 16”. I was also able to compare the vocal level of “January 16” vs. “Just Friends” — this was a huge benefit!

Using Magic AB 2
Using Magic AB 2


If you are getting ready to mix your next song and were not thinking of using a reference song, I hope this blog post changes your mind. It’s the best way to make your mixes sound better.

Don’t feel like you have to purchase Magic AB 2.  You can still conduct A-B reference comparisons without this plugin.

Have a blessed week everyone.

Have you had a chance to listen to “January 16” by 510JAZZ?  You can do so now by clicking here.



Recording The Album – The Gear

When it comes to recording music, a good musical performance is always key. Musicians should show up on recording day prepared and well rehearsed.  This usually is the formula to a successful take.

It has been a blessing to be the recording engineer for both 510JAZZ albums Bossa510 & January 16.  All our music was recorded digitally with microphones, mic and line cables, microphone preamps, audio interfaces,  an iMac computer, and Pro Tools.

In this post I’d like to highlight which audio interfaces I used for recording both 510JAZZ albums and why I chose to use them.  When recording 510JAZZ’s debut album Bossa510  we used two audio interfaces: the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo (thunderbolt) and the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40.


Universal Audio Apollo Twin Duo
Focusrite Saffire Pro 40

The main purpose of an audio interface is to take an analog audio signal that is captured from a microphone and convert it into a digital audio signal that can be routed into your computer.  The digital audio signal will get recorded in the computer by a DAW like Pro Tools (computer recording software).

At the time (2014-2015) the UA Apollo Twin was a new and very popular consumer audio interface.  It came with some of UA’s coveted plugins for mixing, so I knew I wanted to use it for recording our album.  The UA Apollo Twin was our master audio interface.  It contains two high quality microphone preamps and an optical input used to route in an additional 8 audio inputs.

These additional 8 inputs were supplied by the Saffire Pro 40 via an optical cable.  I must say the Saffire is a great interface that is reasonably priced and provides lots of versatility for recording and mixing.

This post is about recording… But if you did your math correctly, that gave me a total of 10 audio inputs for recording.  In 2015 (10) microphone inputs was more than enough for recording the core 510JAZZ band.

For the core 510JAZZ band; keyboard, electric bass, drums, and vocals, I was able to divide up the inputs.  I usually would dedicate 6 inputs to the drums, 1 input for electric bass, 2 inputs for keyboard, and 1 input for scratch vocals. I won’t get into microphone placement much on this post, but it did play a key part two shaping the sound of the band.

Once the microphones were in their desired positions, I would set my microphone preamp levels (input levels) via the gain knobs on the audio interfaces.  Gain staging at this level is really important, I learned from many sources that in the digital domain clipping the audio signal can be really destructive to your sound.  To combat clipping one can turn the gain knob down on the audio interface.  Clipping is usually indicated by a red LED indicator on the audio interface. Usually healthy levels for recording are indicated by green and yellow LED’s.

I learned so much from recording our first 510JAZZ album.  Fast forward to 2017 and recording our album January 16.  I wanted to get another audio interface to allow for recording more sources simultaneously.

When Universal Audio made the announcement about the Apollo Expanded  addition to their Console Software (which allows for the cascading of multiple UA Apollos) a lightbulb went off in my head.  This lightbulb visual was shortly followed by the classic “Cha-Ching” sound of cash register sounding off.  The UA Apollo interfaces are not cheap.  I found a great deal on the new Apollo 8 interface online and was able to get one for our studio!

Apollo Expanded


Universal Audio Apollo 8

The Apollo 8 became my master audio interface.  I was able to set it as the master interface in the UA Console Software.  Once I was up and running with all 3 audio interfaces (Apollo 8, Apollo Twin, Saffire Pro 40) I was able to record 18 inputs at once, yikes!

When recording the January 16 album this equated to more microphones on the drum kit – 8 total.  This allowed for our guitarist Tony to participate in all core 510JAZZ recordings.  I usually would dedicate 2 microphones to his guitar (electric or acoustic).  This was a great perk, but required so much more attention to detail.

I was up for the challenge and it really paid off.  I encourage anyone who is new to recording to start off with an audio interface that suits your recording needs and really get to know it.  When you are getting ready to expand you can think of an interface that would equip you for the occasion.

Be sure to listen to January 16 & Bossa510 by 510JAZZ.

Have fun, each day is a blessing.



David Vargas


Sound on Sound. Accessed 5 Sept. 2018.

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Universal Audio. Accessed 5 Sept. 2018.