Reference songs and how to use them

Inspiration.

It comes in many forms. As a feeling. A mindset. A way of life. We won't get into everything that inspires you today, but we will focus on your music and the songs that inspire you.

Every one of us idolized an artist or career when we started out. If you're one of the lucky ones, you've been able to carve your own path and support yourself as well.

Good on you for turning your passion into a sustainable existence. Don't forget to add some "life" in there as well. "Balance," for all you Libras out there.

I want to talk about a subject that needs to be addressed: your music versus your reference songs.

Reference songs are so useful. Whether I'm producing, recording, mixing or mastering, I always want to know how YOU would like your music to sound. Reference songs can help with this immensely, and play a major role over the course of your project.

What do I mean by this? Let's break down a project to its usual "chapters."

1. Pre-production
2. Recording
3. Mixing
4. Mastering

Pre-production. This is the time for the songs that inspire you to give a glimpse of what is possible for your own music.

Most of us that play music started out by playing the songs of our heroes, which in turn helped us develop a musical vocabulary. Has there ever been a published author who hasn't read a book?

You have to start somewhere, and learning the ropes by imitating those you idolize is a great way to figure it out. As you write, there's an excellent chance that your songs may borrow a few notes here and there from some of your favorite tunes.  ;-)

When it comes time to record your own music, its helpful to use and share songs that inspire you as a "yardstick" of sorts. Whether it's lyrics, tempo, sounds, instrumentation, production, or arrangement, using reference songs as a "goal" can let you know how your tunes are measuring up.

Recording. All your songs have been hammered into place in the rehearsal room. The arrangements are mapped out, tempos decided, sounds dialed up. Now's the time to document all that hard work and record the best performances you can.

If there's a question about some of the sounds you're getting, take a listen to some of your reference songs to point you in the right direction. When I listen back on an album that I worked on from early in my career, it's fun to remember what I and the others in the control room were listening to obsessively at the time. Nothing inspires greatness like, uh, greatness.

Mixing. Just as the line from Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," I'm here to tell you, "We'll fix it in the mix" does not exist either.

"Saving money" by not rehearsing enough and whipping through the recording sessions will rear its ugly head in your mix.

The greatest use of your reference songs are typically at this stage.

Some questions to ask yourself: "How does your song measure up?" "Is the arrangement as good as it can be?" "Do the drums have the same impact?" "Does the chorus FEEL like a chorus?"

If you invested the time properly while recording, all these factors can be addressed at mix time without hitches.

Skipping past chapters 1 and 2 will eat into your mix time and budget greatly. "Fixing" drum sounds, re-amping guitars, having to edit the arrangement - these are the culprits that take away creative time at mixing.

So what should be an amazing experience ("Bohemian Rhapsody" anyone?), where your song takes off, instead turns into a triage unit where you're doing everything you can to stop the bleeding. Not fun, believe me.

Mastering. Still the "magic" part of the process. There are so many misconceptions of what mastering is. Of the entire process, it's the moment where the least amount of work is done, but the impact is often the most dramatic.

Granted, if your song(s) isn't good, mastering will not help you. The best way to think of it is like a cake. You started out with the best ingredients, put them together perfectly, baked it just right, and now you need to add the icing.

Every song you hear commercially has been mastered. Every album your album will be compared to has been mastered. It's an essential part of the process, so make sure you include a mastering session into your budget.

(Technically, if your mixes are amazing, mastering won't be an incredible difference. What it will do is make your music "competitive" to everything else out there).

The better the mix, the better the master, so make sure before you leave the mix studio that your work is the best it can be. Working with a professional (really, at every stage) will greatly increase your chances of having your vision represented exactly as you had hoped.

Just like your heroes.

In writing this I had a few funny stories on my mind. Years back a good friend of mine had a mastering studio here in NYC, and he was mastering a hip hop album. Nothing special about the album, sounded like it should.

When he was done, the clients were very upset. "We don't understand, we bought ALL the same gear that Outkast has, how come OUR album doesn't sound like Outkast???"

Uh, be sure to balance those expectations versus reality, my friends.

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