Simply listening to music is the best way to improving your ability to record, mix and master. In many conversations over the years with my mentors or peers the one consistent piece of advice is purely to listen to as much music as you can. When discussing audio with new generations of audio engineers I often point out the only aspect I hold over them isn’t some technical prowess, critical insight or knowledge. There are no secret skills or dark arts in audio - all theory can be learnt and skills practiced.
The reality is simple, I’ve been on the planet longer hence listened to more music hence developed a more sophisticated sense of average. The nature of familiarising yourself with good sounding music will enable you to comprehend what makes a great sounding track. Not the music itself but it’s tone and dynamic.
This sense of overview is critical. A song that translates in all environments whether played in a bar on the beach, mobile device, massive club system or a beautiful sounding hi-fi is a song that has the composite parts of balance required in both tone and dynamic thus making it a great reference.
We should not overlook the part the song writing and voicing has to play in a songs good tonal balance. If all the instrument registers pocket with each other and the riffs interplay and wrap around each other there is a natural density and balance within the songs construction. This gives a positive balance to the mix and hence master.
References are highly personal, what makes great music is definitely in the ear of the beholder but what will become obvious the more genres and eras you digest is good tonal and dynamic balance is a consistent average throughout.
In my opinion a reference should be a piece of music that 'you' feel sounds amazing where ever or however you hear it. A great musical translation on all systems.
J P Braddock Mastering Engineer