Reference tracks help bring a production closer to its' initial inspiration when the artist knows what to listen for. Everyone gets inspiration from the world around them. To be inspired by a painting of a flower and proceed to paint a different flower because of what you saw is not copying, it is simply the influence the initial art had that made you become more inspired than you would have been. Every musician faces this universal consistency when we sit down in front of a blank DAW because we can't erase those favorite tunes from the mind and shouldn't feel a need to; but rather to embrace that inspirational tune, actually put it in the DAW, study it, and learn from it.
Choosing the right reference track requires knowing what genre you are producing and making sure the reference has the same type of instruments. Farknown is a Future bass artist, which is a very specific subgenre of EDM. Sometimes it seems ridiculous with how many EDM subgenres there are which is why Farknown did some studying with reference tracks to figure out what elements stand out to make a future bass song have that label; a super saw is at the for-front of the mix, detuned to the likeness of the track and usually carrying the melody, a synthesizer with saw wavetables or a wavetable plugin like Serum can be used to create saw leads and Farknown used Sylenth in the track 'Alone' for his saws. Farknown explains why this genre is his inspiration, "I personally feel that Future bass has vulnerability to express any type of emotion whether it be anger, sadness, loneliness, happy, or just to feel something outside the real world."
Each section of the reference track can be lined up with the structure of your own song but make sure the reference track is close to volume with your work before comparing anything because the reference track is mastered and what we are comparing it to is not. Place a plugin that measures LUFS on the reference track to see how loud the reference is then turn it down to the level your production is currently at. If you need more guidance a plugin like 'reference' by mastering the mix can help you get a better look at the LFUS levels and other neat tools.
While tracking the reference can help you identify the instruments and fx that were used. "I mostly listen to the track first to identify what elements make this track unique as some have a guitar riff or crazy drum patterns" It's important to work from the very start with the track in order to make the best decisions for the melody and arrangement of the track.
While mixing volume, compression, and space can be compared from your work to theirs helping you make faster more accurate decisions while mixing. Volume is a relatively easy one, if something sounds too loud or soft compared to the reference it should be adjusted. Does the compression in the reference track match your own? Listen for a comparison in punch with the compression as well as peaks and dynamics; if your sound is too muffled and squished you may need to raise the ceiling of the compressor, if you think theres too many loud moments and harshness it'll need a lower ceiling. Lastly when comparing space there's two things to work on separately; panning and reverb. Physically place your instruments, leads, and drums in the same places on the L + R speaker that the reference track used, maybe the guitar was in the left speaker more, the synths are a wide stereo split, the kick was in the middle but maybe the high hats were panning, all things to check with the reference you are using. After the panning is figured out it's easy to focus on reverb, which sounds are dry in the reference and which sounds are wet? Not everything needs a ton of reverb but occasionally people will use a lot for special effects, the reference track can tell when and where to get saucy with the reverb
Using reference tracks helped Farknown learn about his favorite genre and to gain a professional sound. "It has helped me a lot in my production and has increased my understanding of music." Listen to Farknown's track 'Alone' on your favorite platform. Youtube Spotify
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