If you’ve got expectations about how your music should sound, put together a reference cd before you get to the studio. It will help the engineer’s objectivity and he’ll have a great idea about what you’re trying to achieve. This could be especially helpful if you’re trying to attain a certain tone. Want to emulate John Bonham? It’s not just in the mix. The mics the engineer chooses and how they are placed play a big part in the overall sound.
Having reference material gives us a goal. The audio engineer uses reference cd’s for a variety of purposes; from a/b comparison in the studio to adjusting room acoustics in a venue. These reference cd’s are what defines a benchmark standard and helps the engineer to maintain objectivity during his endeavors at acoustic manipulation.
Some of our ongoing favorites include Steely Dan’s AJA for the exquisite overall sonic character, Norah Jones’ “Sunrise” for the clarity of her vocals, and Deep Forest’s self-titled album for astounding dimensional quality. It’s also great music.
Of course, most engineers will agree that it’s preferable to have reference material that both sets acoustic standards AND is highly tasteful, it can’t always happen. Fortunately, you don’t have to like it to admit it sounds good.
Maybe we should add Nickleback to our list?
Steely Dan’s material has long been considered the “gold standard” of reference material. So, what does Steely Dan’s engineer use for reference these days? A recent magazine article posed this big question. “Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick—there’s a cut on there called ‘My Brain is Like a Sieve’—and I also use a cut off Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, ‘Lucille.’”
Musical taste is subjective while many aspects of a mix such as dynamic range, equalization, reverberation, and other tonal characteristics are not. Often these elements are tricky to balance in a mix and without reference material, the engineer tends to lose sight of his objective. The ability to be highly discerning becomes lost without a comparison to material outside of the immediate audio environment. Ears tend to adapt to the listening environment. This is accentuated by fatigue and even by factors such as the lack of dynamic range in today’s modern music.
We use a variety of playback systems to achieve a balanced sound. By making comparisons on several differing sets of speakers, the weaknesses or excesses of the audio’s character becomes quite apparent. When mixing while simultaneously making comparisons to suitable reference material, we get great perspective and we’re able to sonically adjust our material to our meet our objective. The end result? Well… it sounds good. Really good. On everything. With exactly the character we’re striving for.