Reference Of The Week #1

Jan 10, 2020

Hello everyone -- and Happy New Year! :)

OK -- as I mentioned at the end of last year, I'm going to try to continue the weekly Friday posts I was doing for Freeware Of The Week, but with a new focus: Reference Of The Week. Now, just before I kick things off with the first track, let me just clarify that I don't just mean 'mix reference' here. I'll be suggesting tracks that I think are good for using 'as a reference' in more general terms. Of course, plenty of them will naturally be things for mix referencing, but there are also tracks I refer to regularly for the purposes of acclimatising myself to different monitoring environments, for instance, or for testing equipment of one sort or other. In each post, I'll try to clarify exactly what I see as the purpose of each specific reference track, though, so hopefully that'll avoid any confusion!

It's also a habit of mine to actually edit out the most useful section of each reference track I select. Just as there's a variation in usefulness between tracks by the same artist, or tracks from the same album, or tracks from the same mix engineer, there's also usually a variation in usefulness between sections of the same song, so I try to make a point of narrowing things down in this respect. Looping this section during mix-referencing also means that I retain focus on the most useful part of each reference track, irrespective of which section of my own mix I'm listening to. Again, I'll try to indicate the section of each reference track I'm referring to, using a track-time range in brackets after the track title.

Now that those preliminaries are out of the way, let's get down to business!

Finlay Quaye: 'Even After All' (0:59-1:42)

I'm going to start the ball rolling with one of my most go-to references for testing speaker systems or evaluating the monitoring in unfamiliar studios. What's brilliant about this track is that it's tremendously revealing of a monitoring system's low-frequency mixing capabilities. In the first instance, the kick drum is very short and tight. In fact, if you zoom in on the waveform, you can actually see that the main body of each hit is only about 10-15ms long. The fact that it both starts and stops really quickly means that any trace of resonance or sluggishness in the monitoring will cause the kick sound to lose its compactness and punch -- a bit like you're using a softer beater and/or a less well-damped drum.

But the kick's only a part of what I'm listening for; it's the other bass instrument layers that really sort the sheep from the goats. The strongest low-frequency contributor is the simple two-note synth-bass line that alternates between 'A' and 'E' notes on the second eighth-note of every bar. This timbre is comprised of a fundamental frequency (55Hz and 41Hz respectively), a first harmonic (111Hz and 82Hz), and very little other energy besides. Like the kick drum, it's very tight in the time-domain, so again it quickly reveals any resonance problems at those frequencies.

In addition, though, there's a more sustained background bass line with a softer attack and decay. It sounds a bit like its played on some kind of upright bass or bass guitar -- it's not the main rhythmic riff part, but has quite a similar timbre. At the start of my reference snippet, this bass line just doubles the low synth's 'A' and 'E' notes (although with a characteristically plaintive little upper-mordent ornamentation), so you may not find it that easy to identify it at first. But around about where Finlay sings the lyric "order in this society", this more sustained bass part moves a little higher in register and deviates from the low synth's note pitches, so they become easier to distinguish from each other. Once you've learnt to differentiate the two parts, though, you should be able to do so the whole time -- assuming, that is, that the low-end clarity and resolution of the monitoring system is any good!

So when I pull up this reference in any new monitoring situation, I'm listening for how well I can separate those two bass lines (and indeed the rhythmic riff bass part not far above them). The clearer and more independent those lines sound, and the clearer the differences between their amplitude envelope characteristics, the more confident I am that I'll be able to mix bass on that specific system.

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