The Importance of a Reference Track, by Mark Marshall
There is a powerful tool that can take some of the guessing game out of any session. It’s called a reference track.
It’s not a plugin. It’s not a piece of hardware you can buy. It’s an audio “Look Book” for your song. A aural compass to send everyone in the right direction.
Ok, enough with the suspense. What is a reference track? A reference track is a song by another artists whose sound or phrasing inspires the creative direction you’re going in.
Right about now, alarms are going off. Some of you are going to say, “I don’t want my song to sound like anybody”.
Let’s clear up some mis-understandings of what reference track does. The point is not to copy from someone else. There will be no copying! Simply, a mental note of the selection of colors for your musical painting.
Let me give an example: It’s not uncommon for me to work with artists I’ve never met before. This means I have no real understanding of their background or tastes.
All the World of Options
Laying a track down for someone can be a lot like being thrown in the middle of NYC and deciding where to eat. There are so many options that you immediately need to break them down into cuisines. You keep narrowing them down until you have a reasonable number to choose from.
A reference track gives me a manual of the parameters. It helps me decide what cuisines you like.
Upon listening, we’ll have a discussion about what you’re responding to. Is it the whine of the slide? The growl of the tone? The subtle phrasing that’s supporting the vocal?
It’s not about licks. In-fact, I never actually learn the reference track. I absorb it. I listen to hear what you’re inspired by so it can influence my performance and recording choices.
A Lesson from the Masters
This is not a new technique. I’ve worked with many successful producers who use the same technique. I recently did a record with Anthony Resta (Collective Soul, Elton John). During a session for one song, we took a break and started listening to “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.
There was a sparseness that was lacking in our session. He wanted us to hear the nuts and bolts of what was making “Dreams” work. The locked drum groove, the solid bass line and the ambient guitar phrases all sat below a mystical vocal.
We noted whether the bass drum and bass were playing exact rhythms or off each other? Was the guitarist insistent on defining each chord change immediately when it happened? How processed were the sounds? How layered was the song?
You’ll notice the guitar lines are long and fluid. They take a while to steep. Sometimes the drum fills don’t finish until beat 2 of the next bar.
These are subtle things that can send a musician on the right path for your recording.
Three’s Never A Crowd
It’s not uncommon to get more then one reference track per song. Here is an example: I’ve received one reference for tone and another for feel. It’s up to me to sew those two ides together.
It’s much more clear then someone simply saying, “add guitar to this”. What kind of guitar? For example: Slide guitar has thousands of variations. The difference between a Bukka White inspired performance and a Duane Allman performance is great.
Even within some artists careers there is broad variation. The words Clapton aren’t simply enough for a man who has over a 50 year career.
Afraid of the Dark
I bet that some artists will still have fear of sending reference tracks. I have never had an experience working with a top session musician where this hasn’t helped the end result. NEVER!!
I also encourage artists to stop being so nervous about sounding like someone else. Nobody lives in a vacuum. We’re all a sum of our influences. It’s ok to embrace them, just don’t intentionally copy them. There is a clear distinction there.
That artist that you think is completely original and revolutionary? If you do your research, you’ll find a long line of influences.
When producer Nathan Rosenberg and I started producing Abby Ahmad’s last record Curriculum, she made a reference album for us. A collection of songs to be inspired by. We listened quite a bit to take in the palate of sounds.
It’s simply saying, here are the colors we have to paint with. Some paintings only require shades of the same color. Some paintings call out for big splashes of color.
Reference tracks help me choose guitars, amps, mics, pedals, guitar picks and playing techniques.
Consider this next time you’re about to start a session. It will help to develop communication between artist and musician.