In this post, you will discover the best reference VST plugins of 2023 for A/B comparison purposes.
Reference plugins are very intimidating to many producers. And understandably so. It takes courage and a lot of dedication to sit down and listen to your music side by side with professional records by top-level producers.
Referencing your tracks to professional records is a great idea because it will help you better understand what you are lacking in your production and mixing. For example, you can see what frequency areas your song is weaker compared to a professional tune and how your dynamics hit compared to songs you love.
Choosing a song that is in a similar style as yours and by an artist, you admire and are influenced by is a good place to start. Try looking at things like frequency response during various sections of your song and compare them to the professional song.
Then move into dynamic range, loudness, and overall tone. You can also get many benefits as a producer by studying the structure of other songs you love with reference plugins. There’s really no limit to what you can gain. With that in mind, let’s dig right into our list!
Top 6 Reference VST Plugins 2023 (Best A/B Tools For Your DAW)
1. Sonnox ListenHub
ListenHub is an audio toolbox and monitor controller by Sonnox.
ListenHub is a CoreAudio device that functions as a virtual audio interface. It has four stereo input channels that send the incoming signal to several tools for analysis and then onto one of two stereo output channels. Unfortunately, being a CoreAudio device means ListenHub is available only to Mac users.
- Four stereo inputs
ListenHub has four stereo inputs to help you gather songs and signals from different sources. The first input is always configured to carry the system sound, which means you can use this channel to route songs from YouTube, Spotify, Apple music, or whatever platform you use straight into ListenHub. After this, you could set one of the other inputs as your DAW’s output channel. This way, you can keep track of your song and the reference clearly and neatly.
- Plugin format
If your DAW does not offer the feature of routing your output to a different device, then don’t be alarmed. Instead, you can use ListenHub’s plugin version and insert it into your mix bus. This way, ListenHub, and your DAW will share the same hardware outputs (monitors or headphones).
ListenHub automatically listens and analyzes the loudness of the input signals, which it then matches. This provides automatic level-matching to ensure that you compare your song with a professional song at the proper levels for maximum benefits. ListenHub also helps you with the output volume level and the interpretation of volume levels to an actual acoustic dB level. By doing all of this hard work, ListenHub provides you with a consistent normal monitoring level which you can get used to over time and mix better.
The toolbox is where you can start having fun with ListenHub. This is where the loudness meters are located. You get short-term LUFS and PSR dynamics metering options to help you get your song at the right loudness level. There is also a big spectrum analyzer that offers visual feedback on your song’s frequency response. It has different frequency bands, which you can isolate to focus on. There are sub, low, low-mid, high-mid, and high bands. Furthermore, you can solo different channels of the stereo image, like mid, side, left, and right. This is extremely helpful in achieving rich stereo spaces that are similar to the song you are referencing.
ListenHub is available on macOS 10.13 or higher only in VST3, AU, and AAX formats.
ListenHub is a great tool to use while mixing and mastering your music. It makes comparing your song to reference songs easy and straightforward by taking care of all the tedious and technical work behind the scenes. The features you’ll play with the most are the loudness meters, frequency bands, and stereo image channels, all of which will help you understand what your song lacks compared to a professional record.
2. Mastering The Mix REFERENCE 2
REFERENCE 2 is a reference and comparison plugin by Mastering The Mix.
This plugin uses intelligent technology that will level-match your song to the reference and help you by offering guidance during your mix’s EQ, compression, and stereo widening process.
Level-matching is crucial when comparing tracks. As humans, we naturally perceive loud songs as better-sounding songs. REFERENCE 2 helps with its level-match switch. Once you click it, your song and the reference tracks will be brought to the same level, so you can start analyzing and comparing without any bias.
- Loudness controls
In the center of the interface, you’ll find volume meters. These will display the loudness of the audio in your choice of peak, short-term, true peak, or integrated LUFS. There is also a helpful button for switching back and forth from your song to the reference.
- EQ match
At the bottom of the interface is the trinity display. This is where a few useful tools are located that help you get your song closer to the chosen reference. Firstly, you get an EQ graph which, as you play through the two tracks, will listen, analyze, and show how your song is louder or quieter in certain frequency bands. If you want, you can select the EQ match mode, which will adjust the onboard EQ accordingly to match the reference. If you select the right reference song, this can be a powerful feature. You also can isolate certain frequency bands.
- Width and compression
The second tool in the trinity display is the stereo width tool. This tool shows you how wide your song is on selected frequency ranges compared to the reference. It can also help you match the reference by making relevant adjustments. Finally, you get Punch Dots, a tool that helps you identify how dynamic your song is on certain frequency bands. By understanding the information it projects, you can then use a multiband compressor to adjust your dynamics accordingly.
REFERENCE 2 is available on Windows 7 – 10 and macOS 10.8.5 or higher in VST2, VST3, AU, and AAX formats.
REFERENCE 2 is an excellent reference plugin. The interface and workflow are things I haven’t mentioned yet but are easy and clear to use. All you have to do is load REFERENCE 2 as your first plugin on your master chain.
Then you can drag and drop one or more reference tracks in its interface. You can loop a certain section (for example, the chorus), saving up a lot of your time. The trinity display is extremely powerful, especially the EQ match-mode. Overall, this is a great tool for all producers to have.
3. ADPTR AUDIO Metric AB
Metric AB is an A/B comparison plugin by ASPTR AUDIO.
Its purpose is to make an A/B comparison between your song and a reference track effortless. It achieves that through a workflow that feels intuitive. Once you load the plugin on your master chain, you can set up to 16 different reference tracks.
Then it’s a matter of switching from one to your song, listening, and paying attention to the visual cues Metric AB offers.
- Level-matching and filters
Metric AB starts things off with an automatic or manual level-matching process. You can set the levels yourself or click the loudness match to get an automatic result. Another great feature of Metric AB is the filtering. The filters section enables you to isolate specific frequency ranges in high pass, low pass, or band pass modes. You also get access to five pre-set frequency bands in low-mid, mid, high, bass, and sub. These are handy since they help you understand how your frequency content stacks up compared to your reference tracks.
- Stereo image, correlation, and spectrum
Metric AB offers a few more tools for metering and comparing in its spectrum, correlation panel, and stereo imager. The spectrum helps you visualize your song’s frequency content through a spectrogram, while the correlation panel helps you identify any phasing issues you may experience in your mix. The stereo imager sums up your track’s panning and stereo width across a spectrum. All of these tools are presented in a chart with a dB vertical axis and a Hz horizontal axis. You can zoom in or out of the chart or select different ballistics like peak and average hold times.
This is a place where you can analyze and measure your song’s PSR (Peak to Short-Term Loudness Ratio) to achieve an ideal dynamic range. You get to specify a target line which is visualized on the graph as a red line. If the PSR drops below the red line, the signal has a lower dynamic range than the ideal target. It’s a very handy tool if you need guidance when compressing your master chain. For example, a lot of beginner producers over-compress or don’t compress hard enough. This tool could help you identify how much compression you need at your song’s final stage and how to get a good dynamic range.
- Loudness metering
One of the most crucial steps in mastering and referencing is the loudness metering. Metric AB does an excellent job with its LUFS targeting and metering setup. You can set your target LUFS manually or select from a list of presets which cater to the biggest streaming platforms on the market (YouTube, Spotify, Broadcast EU). You can view short-term, integrated, or momentary LUFS values. The values can be showcased in meters or graphs. The interface is very well built, so you will instantly understand how to use these and when your song is over or under the desired loudness limit.
Metric AB is available on Windows 7 – 10 and macOS 10.11 – 12 in VST2, VST3, AAX, and AU formats.
Metric AB is an excellent comparison and referencing tool for modern producer. It offers a wide range of tools in its spectrogram, stereo imager, filters, correlation panel, dynamics reader, and loudness reader.
Due to its extensive arsenal and higher price point, I’d recommend this plugin to professional producers and engineers who need a top-of-the-line tool for their metering and referencing.
4. Mastering The Mix EXPOSE 2
EXPOSE 2 is an audio quality control app by Mastering The Mix.
Mastering The Mix created an application dedicated to helping you identify common issues that occur while mixing and mastering a song. EXPOSE 2 will analyze your song and let you know if it suffers from true peak clipping, over-compression, or phasing issues.
The interface is simple and easy, where the user simply drags and drops a song and a reference, sets a list of goals and aims, and EXPOSE 2 listens and presents the results.
- Straightforward interface
I think one of the biggest strengths of EXPOSE 2 is its straightforward interface. Since it’s an app and not a plugin, all you have to do is open it and start working without needing a DAW. Then, you can drop a song of yours and choose where you intend to play your song (Spotify, YouTube, CD). Afterward, it’s a matter of setting a tonal balance profile, meaning a set of rules based on which your song will be judged. This could be one of the genre-specific presets or a reference track which you can also load in. Once you load a reference track, EXPOSE 2 will analyze it and tell you how your song stacks up against it in dynamic range, EQ balance, loudness, and stereo imaging.
- Expose your song’s issues
It can be disheartening to find out at the last stage of a song’s production that there are issues, but that’s why plugins like this exist to help you learn from your mixing mistakes and improve them in the future. EXPOSE 2 will detect any issues that show up in your master regarding loudness, phase cancellation, EQ balance regarding your reference song or genre, and dynamic range. If an issue arises, the corresponding section will light up in red. Then, EXPOSE 2 will guide you through what you need to do to fix it. For example, if your song is slightly peaking during a certain part of the chorus, the app will show you exactly where the peak is and how loud it is. Then you can go back to your DAW and fix it.
- EQ balance
One of the best features in EXPOSE 2 is the compare EQ feature. This is where your song will be compared to either a reference song you load in or a genre-specific preset. There is a spectrogram with an EQ line drawn. The app will shape the EQ line throughout the frequency spectrum to match the reference’s. If the boost or cut is less or more than 3dB, then you are on the right track. However, if the difference exceeds 6dB, you must go back to your mixing or mastering stage and tweak your levels. This is a great opportunity for producers who feel like they’re missing that 5% of finesse in their music since EXPOSE 2 will shake up your mixing and mastering process and allow you to push your mix to its limits.
- All about guidance
Finally, EXPOSE 2 guides you to the ideal finished product. The notes button is insanely thoughtful and powerful. This button will show you a list of directions and advice to follow depending on what issues arise in your song’s analysis. For example, the loudness section will tell you how much you need to tweak your limiter during mastering to get the right loudness levels. Or, in the dynamics section, it will explain whether the song is over-compressed or squished. This is why EXPOSE 2 is so useful. Instead of just flashing red warning lights to you, it thoroughly explains why you need to tweak certain parameters and how to approach fixing the issues.
EXPOSE 2 is available on Windows 7 – 10 and macOS 10.10 or higher as a standalone application.
EXPOSE 2 is a very useful and powerful tool for the modern beginner producer. I’d suggest it to beginners because the knowledge and discipline you can gain from it would be extremely powerful to a producer in his first steps.
Imagine knowing early on why certain technical issues appear in your mix. Then, you can start fixing them straight away and build strong foundations for your future music to stand on.
5. MeldaProduction MCompare
MCompare is a reference tool by MeldaProduction.
MCompare can help you judge your mix objectively without letting your ears fool you. It provides a simple and easy workflow that can help you get useful information with the press of a button.
You can check your audio levels and details during different stages of your mastering chain but also get true level feedback through the automatic loudness compensation feature onboard.
- Automatic loudness compensation
Automatic loudness compensation is a feature that works similarly to level-matching, which I discussed earlier. The idea is that since you are comparing a mastered reference song to your unfinished one, naturally, the reference will be louder, therefore raising objectivity issues while comparing. MCompare helps you with the ALC button, which, once pressed, will bring the level of the reference track down to match yours. This means you can now judge the mix or master objectively by focusing on the sonic qualities of the two songs, not just volume. What’s even better is that this happens in real time and will be updated constantly as you progress through your song.
- Multiple versions comparison
If we’re being honest, most comparison plugins do many of the same tasks. However, MCompare manages to stand out with a function that’s extremely useful and unique. You can compare your song to a reference during multiple stages of your mastering chain. For example, you can compare the dry mix of your song with the reference thanks to the automatic loudness compensation technology, but also a version of your song after the master EQ or after the master compressor. You can pretty much compare your song to a reference every step of the way while mastering for ultimate control over the final product. This is helpful because you won’t need to master a song only to find out afterward something you did ruined it early on in the process.
- Blind test
This is another unique feature MCompare offers. Our egos always get in the way of objectively judging a mix. The idea here is that you can compare multiple song versions without knowing which. You only get a selection of numbered panels that you can listen to and choose your favorite. After you choose, you will discover which version of the song you prefer. A good example of this would be using different types of compression on your master track, maybe by different compressor plugins. Then bouncing them down as unique versions and loading them into the interface. Then, by listening to all of them in a blind test, you can objectively choose the most appropriate one for your song.
- Utility controls
MCompare offers a few utility controls for advanced monitoring and comparing. You can trigger the mid or side buttons to monitor your song’s and the reference’s mid and side information. The diff buttons are intended for checking the difference between the input and compared signals. Finally, there is a filter section with a lowpass and highpass mode. You can monitor your song’s low end or high end so that it matches that of the reference as close as possible.
MCompare is available on Windows and macOS in VST, VST3, AU, and AAX formats.
MCompare is another excellent reference tool that manages to offer some unique and refreshing features. The blind test feature has to be my favorite for comparing and judging your mix, while the automatic loudness compensation is one of the smoothest on the market.
The interface is clean and easy to use, while the standard loudness meters and readings are also available.
6. ADPTR AUDIO Streamliner (Referencing / Metering Suite)
Streamliner is a reference plugin by ADPTR AUDIO.
It’s a plugin used for analyzing how your song will sound on all major streaming platforms. This tool can help combat the loudness normalization penalties modern producers face every time a streaming platform decides to change its minimum LUFS target.
Apart from this, it helps read your true-peak loudness value, compares your song with references, and automatically level-matching them.
- Understand normalization
When you upload your song to your distributor, it’s sent to all the major streaming services. Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and Tidal have their own rules regarding how loud a song should be before it gets compressed. This is so that all songs are on a relatively similar loudness level for the user’s convenience. However, if you send in a song with completely different loudness levels than the usual modern -14 LUFS, this comes at the cost of loudness, and the worst cases, audio quality. To combat this, Streamliner lets you audition your song through the same algorithms all these streaming services use. This way, you’ll know if your song will be simply turned down by a dB or compressed to reach the right level, sacrificing this way your song’s life and balance.
- Loudness readings
Streamliner comes with all the necessary meters and readings for loudness monitoring. You can monitor your song’s short-time LUFS, PSR, and PLR values. The meters are beautifully designed, just like the entire interface, which makes for a smooth experience for producers of all experience levels. Once your song reaches a loudness level over the intended streaming platform receiver, you will be notified with a red value and a clip line showing how many dBs you have exceeded the limit.
- Handy referencing
Apart from letting you know the fines streaming services will apply to your song’s loudness, Streamliner functions as a great modern referencing tool. You can load a song in the interface and click the AB button to switch between that and your song. An automatic level matching algorithm will bring your songs to the same level for objective comparisons.
Streamliner is available on Windows 7 – 10 and macOSn10.11 – 12 in VST2, VST3, AAX, and AU formats.
Streamliner is a simple referencing tool that offers something different to the modern producer: the ability to understand how his song will be experienced on every major streaming platform before he commits to uploading it.
The interface is easy to understand and minimalistic enough for everyone to comprehend.
1. iZotope Audiolens
iZotope’s AudioLens Reference plugin is a tool that allows audio engineers and music producers to analyze and compare the sound of different tracks or recordings.
It features a visual representation of the frequency spectrum and the ability to synchronize multiple tracks and perform A/B comparisons. Additionally, the plugin allows for detailed measurement of the stereo field and phase correlation, which can aid in the mixing and mastering process.
- Frequency Spectrum Display
The plugin provides a visual representation of the frequency spectrum of the audio, which can be used to identify and address issues such as frequency masking and imbalances in the mix.
- Comparison Metrics
The plugin provides detailed measurements of the stereo field, which can be used to ensure that the sound is properly balanced and positioned in the stereo field. It also allows you to analyze the phase relationship between different tracks, which can be useful for identifying and addressing phase issues in the mix.
- Target Library
The plugin’s target library is a collection of audio recordings that can be used as a reference when analyzing and comparing other recordings. The library is designed to provide a wide range of different sounds and styles, including popular music genres such as pop, rock, hip-hop, and classical, as well as various instrument types and recording environments.
The library is intended to be used as a tool for you to compare the sound of your own recordings to that of professionally produced tracks.
- Ozone compatibility
The AudioLens plugin can be integrated with iZotope’s Ozone mastering software, which allows you to analyze and compare the sound of your recordings in the context of a mastering workflow and in the context of a mastering chain, which can be useful for identifying and addressing issues in the sound of a recording before it is finalized.
Additionally, Ozone includes a mastering preset, which is already tailored to the industry standards, and you can use it as a reference while mastering their tracks.
- Neutron integration
Integrating the Reference and Neutron allows you to perform a detailed analysis of their recordings and adjust them in a single, streamlined workflow, making it a powerful tool for audio engineers and music producers. Neutron also includes a Mix Assistant feature that can analyze your track and provide suggestions for balancing the mix.
It is compatible with Windows 10 and macOS Big Sur (11.0) and later and is supported by almost all popular DAWs.
The plugin provides a wide range of features and tools, including a frequency spectrum display, A/B comparison, stereo field analysis, phase correlation, and synchronization. Additionally, it can be integrated with iZotope’s mastering and mixing software and used with industry-standard references in the target library.
2. sonible true:balance (Referencing, Metering, Analyzing)
true:balance is a plugin for spectrum analysis, frequency balancing, stereo balancing, and referencing your mixes.
The plugin gives you the real-time frequency analysis of your audio, divided into three ranges: low, mid, and high, for each of which it gives separate decibel (dB) ratings, width ratings, and correlation meter ratings. Further, you can load up presets of genres like Rock, Jazz, Hip-hop, etc., for which you can compare the different frequency ranges and their energies.
- Great referencing
The plugin allows you to load up custom references. You can load reference song(s) on the plugin and compare their lows, mids, and highs, in terms of amplitude and stereo width, with your mix. The plugin will inform you about the range by which you’re close to the reference track. Then, you can adjust your tracks according to those suggestions and get a better-sounding balance.
- Flexible metering
The plugin shows you a decibel meter, a correlation meter, an advanced spectral balance meter, and a meter for stereo width. Further, there’s also a “Mono Check” feature in the plugin that lets you check the mono compatibility of the mix.
- Intuitive Interface
The plugin has a beautiful GUI and is overall easy to use and intuitive. The suggestions that the plugin gives make it even more intuitive. You can easily load up genres and references, and the plugin allows multiple windows. Hence, you can simultaneously target spectral balancing for an EDM song, Pop song, reference song, etc.
The plugin is designed for experienced professionals and determined bedroom producers/engineers. You may not have the highest-grade equipment, but with true:balance, you can achieve the highest-grade references and spectral monitoring. The hints and insights you get with the plugin can be the missing link in your mixes.
true:balance requires a minimum of macOS 10.12 or Windows 10 operating systems, 4 GB RAM, Intel DualCore i5 processor, and is available in VST2, VST3, AAX, and MultiRack Native plugin formats.
true:balance is one of the most advanced and easy mixing plugins, and it can help you get your balances just right, ensuring that the output is compatible with most devices and systems. It’s especially great for bedroom producers with limited monitoring resources and systems.
Referencing and comparing your song with other professional records can be intimidating, but it is something that will help you grow and evolve your mixing and mastering skills. If you choose the right reference song, you can learn so much about what elements your song is missing and what technical areas you are weak at.
This list is meant to help you familiarize yourself with what to look for when looking at referencing tools. Use it as a guide to finding the most appropriate and ideal referencing tool to help you step up your mixing and mastering game.
Alvinos Zavlis is an artist/producer from Cyprus based in Bristol, UK. With three albums under his belt and plenty of singles, his catalogue covers a wide range of sounds, from hip hop and trip hop to IDM and experimental electronic styles, all fused together to create unique blends of sounds. He works as a freelance mixing and mastering engineer in Bristol for artists of all styles.