Magic AB: Setting New Standards for Referencing

Every now and then a tool pops up that revolutionizes the way you work (or some aspect of it), and after a while you’re thinking “How did I ever manage without this before?”

I recently bought this plugin by Sample Magic called Magic AB. This plugin has been nothing short of a revelation for me.

This post is more an introduction rather than a review, because truthfully it’s a very straightforward plugin to use and works like a charm. (And just so you know, I am not affiliated with Sample Magic in any way. I just wanted to let you know about this tool.)

 

The Magic of Referencing

The Sample Magic Magic AB is built around a simple, but ingenious idea. You load the plugin (VST/AU/RTAS/AAX) directly to the master channel inside your DAW. Within the plugin there are 9 slots for loading up reference tracks. Once you have a reference track loaded and playing, you can quickly switch between your reference track and the mix you are working on. You just hit play in your DAW as you normally would, and use the A/B buttons in the plugin to switch between sources.

Here’s how it looks like:

magicab1

 

Just this simple A/B functionality alone would have been enough for me to buy this plugin. But they’ve packed in some other features that make this a killer product:

  • You can load up 9 reference tracks at a time, and you can save different sets and recall them very quickly from the preset menu.
  • You can save your favorite reference tracks as a default preset so that they are ready to go as soon as you load the plugin. Sweet.
  • Zoomable waveform display and loop controls.
  • Peak and RMS level meters for both A and B tracks.
  • Toggle action for A/B buttons (you can keep clicking on either button and it switches between sources). This is great for when you want to close your eyes and focus on listening.

Sample Magic Magic AB
There is even a mini A/B mode for saving screen space. I also found it useful for when you just want to focus on listening and not get distracted by looking at waveforms or the interface.

I used to have a reference music playlist in iTunes and I would hop in there to play something, then hop back to the DAW to compare. Sometimes I would load up reference tracks directly into the DAW as audio tracks. But this little plugin just beats both methods in so many ways. Very very useful and I can honestly say: Because it is so quick and easy to use I am doing a lot more of referencing, which has improved the quality of my mixdowns. Perhaps even more importantly, I also now have more confidence in my mixes holding up against competition. That’s huge.

Tip: I like to use a spectrum analyzer and a loudness meter after Magic AB in the chain, especially in a mastering situation when I want to get really precise. It’s very cool to flick between A/B and see the differences.

 

Feature requests

There’s no hard critique towards this plugin that I can think of, but I do have some feature requests:

  1. I would love to see an automatic RMS level matching option in a future version. Because level matching plays a crucial role in referencing (always remember that).
  2. The peak/RMS metering is great to have, but the meters are quite small. I’d love to have nice big metering to see things really precisely (and then possibly support for a few different metering standards for the folks who need that).
  3. It would be nice to have the ability to rename reference tracks in their slots. Because the artist name usually comes first in the file names and then you just see that instead of the actual track name. And if you have several tracks by the same artist, it gets confusing. I know I could rename the files itself on my drive, but that goes against the whole ease of use of the plugin which I love. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to give nicknames to your reference tracks?

Sample Magic, if you’re reading this… How about it?

The plugin sells for £34.90 at the time of writing this. Check it out, here’s a link to the Sample Magic website.

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  • Mark Bionic

    There’s also an easy way of doing this in ableton. Create an audio track and deselect it. Then on the i/o bar change the output from ‘master’ to ‘Ext. Out’. This bypasses the master channel completely and sends straight to your audio interface. Drag any tune you want to this track and anytime you want to compare just solo it. You can of course create as many of these tracks as you like!

    • That’s a good tip, thanks for sharing. You could set up this reference audio track for your template so that it’s there whenever you start a new track.

      I could be wrong, but I don’t think there is a way to recall a pre-made track like that into a project that you already have going though? In those cases are we forced to create the reference track from scratch each time?

      Where Magic AB really shines I think is the interface and the fact that there is no setting up beyond loading up ref music for the first time and saving your presets. Then it’s ready to go as soon as you load it up on the master. Plus because it always comes through the master, you can have additional metering plugins to help compare both tracks.

      • Eugene Eugene

        Having prepared folder with several references would solve the problem. Dragging reference to the sequencer is not terribly slower than loading a present in AB, I guess

    • Eugene Eugene

      Exactly that

  • Eugene Eugene

    I’m not that good to think about RMS and stuff, but I use references to compare frequency charts. So in my case it’s no better than simply having a separate reference track and soloing it from time to time. Fortunately Voxengo Span helps here

  • lambdoid

    I think the lack of referencing other tracks is where my earlier tunes fell short. Have you got any tips on how to select a good reference tune?

    • Yeah – referencing is hugely important for developing your ear and mixdowns. I think a good reference track is anything that you think has things nailed mixwise.

      It’s a good idea to keep your pool of reference tracks relatively small though. Because when you are always comparing your mixes to the same things, in time you will learn the reference tracks inside out and you’ll be able to instantly know if something isn’t correct.

  • Michael Mann

    The basic functionality of the plugin is great and welcome.

    However, the plugin doesn’t address a serious problem with using reference songs. Transients of reference songs usually have been squashed by excessive brick limiting and therefore have a minimal dynamic range (-3-5 dbFS). This means that you are not going to get a truly accurate comparison between your unfinished mix and a reference song. Your mix doesn’t sound as loud as the reference song and you are not satisfied because it lacks something in comparison to the reference song. Human psychology is a tricky thing – a quieter track won’t make as big impact on you as a louder track does. Does it mean automatically that the louder track is necessarily better? Not at all.

    Worst workaround is to insert a limiter into the stereo bus (in order to imitate the sound of the finished mix). This won’t work unless balance between tracks is honed to the perfection at first. However, this also means you destroy mastering engineer’s chances of improving your mix because there’s no headroom whatsoever left. So, mastering and mixing *must* never be done at the same time.

    Another workaround is to calibrate the output level of your unfinished mix and reference songs by using K-14 metering – any decent limiter plugin (Elephant, Pro-L etc) allows you to do this – and by normalizing loudness of the reference songs to -23 LUFS / -14dbFS (by using replaygain algorithm for example). This won’t sound necessarily convincing but it frees from the loudness war temporarily.

    http://www.digido.com/how-to-make-better-recordings-part-2.html
    http://www.fabfilter.com/help/pro-l/using/metering.html
    http://www.ehartmusic.info/music/bob-katz%E2%80%99s-k-system-in-monitoring/

    I apologize for being a killjoy but I hope you guys understand what I tried to explain here.

    • Thanks for bring this up Michael, this is very important stuff to recognize!

      Most of the time if referencing during mixing, I just use a limiter to temporarily knock off a few dBs of the mix while I am referencing in order to bring it roughly into the same ballpark with reference material as far as transients go. Of course as you said, level matching is crucial. When I am done referencing I put the limiter back on bypass.

      It’s probably not ideal, but I have certainly got great results from working this way. I trust my ears to make right judgements (good enough judgements anyway) and I am usually pretty conscious of the kind of sound I am after.

      One option would be of course to use unmastered mixdowns (premasters) of your own as reference material. In fact I should probably put together a Magic AB preset with a few of my favorite mixdowns!

      On the mastering topic, I fully agree that mixing and mastering should not be done in the same session, and also that you should not be sending a limited premaster for the mastering engineer to work on.

      In my case my music always gets professionally mastered before it’s released, but sometimes it can take a long time (years, sometimes). So I always do a DIY master for playing out until I have the proper master. Magic AB has been very helpful here too. Certainly much better than playing music from iTunes in order to compare!

      • Michael Mann

        I kind of understand why you prefer the workaround I mentioned at first. I also worked in that manner for long time. I just got fed up by being forced to turn volume knob up and down all the time and I’ve never been fond of the idea of someone squashing my mixes with brick limiter in the first place, you know 🙂

        However, if you want to try the workaround #2, everything you need is Reaper (you can download and use it for free) and the latest beta of SWS extensions (also free) that has a feature that allows to normalize loudness of a track down to -23LUFS. When you’ve normalized reference tracks, you bounce them one by one and then drag them into Magic AB. This shouldn’t take more than couple of minutes when you learn this thing. When I started working in this way, my mixes became more dynamic, less crowded and groovier. Recommend warmly (y)

        • Great info – I will definitely give that a go. In fact I am buying Pro-L today anyway so this is a perfect opportunity to start making use of it’s K-14 metering! Thanks Michael.

          • Hey a further question… Since I just tried installing SWS extensions for Reaper, but it did’t work out (the installer takes me to terminal and says “cannot execute binary file)…
            Wouldn’t it be the same if I simply bounced all my reference tracks through the Pro-L at -14dBFs? Or is using the SWS extensions normalizing method you described somehow different?

          • Michael Mann

            The problem with the installation can be solved by opening Terminal and typing chmod +x after which you drag the installer file into Terminal screen and press enter. Before you press enter, it should look something like this in the window:
            chmod +x /[somehing here]/[something here again]/..

            After this, it might work.

            The alternative way of setting playback level of a reference song so much down that the volume is in the K14 range should not be a problem either. It just takes a bit more time.

            Good luck! Btw, Pro-L is a wonderful tool that you should try in parallel compression too (with Pro-L’s punch mode especially). When your mix is pretty near finished you could try to group tracks into stems and adjust parallel compression into them separately by creating multiple instances of Pro-L with different settings. Drums sound wonderful with Punch mode while Dynamic mode is better for vocals and Transparent mode is better for bass. This might work better than squashing of transients with brick limiter. Don’t forget to play with attack and release settings Your mix might sound a lot more dynamic while it still stays loud.

          • Thanks a lot for the tips. It only now occured to me that in Magic AB you can actually adjust the volume of each reference track separately, and this volume setting can be saved with the preset. So it is as simple as adjusting the volumes of each track to match zero at K14 and saving the default preset.

            I took the time today to calibrate my monitoring to the K-system. We’ll see how it goes! My first impression is that monitoring at 83 dB is too loud for me (and my neighbourgs). I’m used to monitoring 5-10 dB quieter. I might measure and go for a lower volume that is ideal for me. Will have to think about it.

            I guess the most important thing is at least I am now being more conscious about the level thing, so thanks.

            Great tips about the Pro-L, will definitely try that. I also bought the Pro Q 2 and must say it’s pretty mind bending! Happy times 😉 Thanks for the great input Michael, very helpful.