Review: Mastering the Mix Reference 2
Can this souped-up and affordable referencing plug-in help you upgrade your mixing and mastering skills?
Contact Mastering the Mix
Minimum system requirements
- OS X 10.8.5 or higher
- Windows 7, 8 or 10
- 64-bit AU, VST 2/3 or AAX host
Using reference tracks is arguably the most effective way to improve your mixing skills and calibrate your ears to the sonics of a professional-sounding mix. Several tools have been released in recent years to streamline this process within DAWs, not least of which is Reference from Mastering the Mix. The original Reference plug-in, released in 2017, did a fantastic job of simplifying mix referencing, allowing tracks to be loaded for A/B’ing in the master chain. It also doubled as a spectrum analyser, EQ and loudness meter for level matching.
This update refines the original concept and adds more tricks to its arsenal. You’ll want to place Reference 2 as the last plug-in in your output chain – unless you have a speaker-calibration plug-in, in which case that will go at the bottom. You can load up to 12 tracks in various file formats by hitting Add Reference Track or dragging and dropping files from your hard drive. You can then click anywhere on the waveform view to change the playback point and loop sections of a track. Playback can run freely or mirror the song position of your arrangement. The latter mode is especially useful for checking different versions of the same track. The new track-align function helps to automatically line up alternate versions when the start times are slightly different. You can do this automatically or manually, which lets you nudge the reference forwards or backwards in small increments.
One of the most critical considerations for making fair assessments when referencing the balance of several mixes is level matching. Reference 2 features an intelligent level-matching system that works in real time to set either one or all of the reference tracks to the volume of your original. You can also choose to match all the levels to the quietest track or to -14 LUFS, which is the general standard for most music streaming services.
Speaking of which, in the middle of the UI, there are volume meters that show your choice of peak, true peak and short-term or integrated LUFS. Next to these is a large button that switches between the reference and original audio, and a slider to make manual gain adjustments to the selected reference track.
New to this version is an additional plug-in called Refsend. This lets you route audio from anywhere in your signal chain directly into Reference 2 as though it’s another imported reference. It’s convenient for checking how your mix or mastering chain is affecting the mix, and works with the level-match feature.
Another interesting use involves setting up your DAW to accept system audio onto a record-armed track and then using Refsend to pipe the input into Reference 2. Although fiddly, using Refsend this way allows you to play tracks on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music or any source and then analyse them in the plug-in alongside your track. It’s better to use full-quality mixes, but it’s a neat trick nonetheless.
The Trinity Display at the bottom of the plug-in interface features a trio of useful visual insights that allow you to compare how your track stacks up instantly. The first is the level line, which tells you how your song’s frequency balance differs from the reference. If the line rises above or falls below the centre in the lows, mids or highs, it means your track has more or less perceived volume in that region. You can switch this to EQ match mode, which inverts the line and gives you an idea of the EQ adjustment required to get closer to the spectral balance of the reference.
When used alongside a useful and relevant reference track, we find this a terrific way to iron out resonant regions that our ears had missed. In our mix, we’re able to get noticeably closer to the sound of the reference by merely copying the EQ shapes on the display. To help you hone in your listening on a specific frequency region, you can click to solo an adjustable band anywhere in the spectrum. This is an invaluable tool to help compare the sub or high frequencies of a track without being distracted by the other content. However, we’re upset to discover that the ability to change the crossover filter slope hasn’t been added as part of this update, as it would’ve given users even more control over what’s being isolated.
The next insight is stereo width, which shows how wide the spread is across your selected track’s frequency range. Visually, this is a big improvement over the previous version, which simply divided the whole mix into three bands and showed basic width amounts for each. That said, we miss the ability to see both widths side by side.
Finally, the Punch Dots display how your short-term dynamic range compares with the reference track. A new kind of meter that may take some getting used to, it displays tiny dots across the spectrum, which either move away or towards the central line to show that the region is more or less dynamic. The dots will be less visible where the dynamic range is relatively similar. With this information, you could use a multi-band compressor to rein in some transients in the top end or to reduce compression around the kick and bass to make it punchier.
You can choose to view the level line, stereo width and Punch Dots meters individually if you prefer but they’ve been designed well and are easy to read when displayed together.
All in one
The new visual feedback and Refsend plug-in improve an already excellent design. Our only major gripe here is the lack of mono button to compare mixes in mono, which can help focus the ears on purely spectral differences. Hopefully, this can be added at a later date. You can’t save presets with track lists directly into the plug-in, but this can be done by saving a plug-in preset in your DAW. If you’re looking for a good-value referencing plug-in, this is an excellent choice. It’s easy to use and sports multiple useful features to help you get the best from your tracks. Owners of Mastering the Mix’s Reference 1 also get the update for free.
- Load up to 12 reference tracks
- Expanded level-match and track-align features
- Peak, true peak, short-term and integrated LUFS meters
- Updated Trinity Display shows EQ, width and dynamics
- Improved UI and workflow
- Improved EQ balance algorithm
- New Refsend plug-in
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