I advocate checking a reference CD while you mix, to keep your ears honest. The concept works for more than just balancing your final mix, however. Along with my collection of reference CDs, I have a small collection of drum breaks and instrumental sections that I’ve lifted from songs with great drum tones. While I track and mix drums, I check my progress against one or two of these passages, those closest in sound to what I’m trying to achieve.
To illustrate what I mean, here’s a short piece from my drum reference track:
The songs I used are, in order, Indigo Girls Gone Again, Television’s Marquee Moon, Zepplin’s Fool In The Rain, The Hold Steady Hot Soft Light, and the intro from John Mayer’s Waiting On The World To Change (though 3 or 4 of the tracks on Continuum have excellent drum passages.)
Notice that I captured only the parts of each song where the drums are prominently (or solely) featured. In fact, I chose the songs above precisely because they have such sections. Other instruments mask drum tones in a mix. So to build a good drum reference collection, it’s important to find songs that have clear drum intros and breaks. The best references come from tracks with good separation between the kick drum, snare drum, and cymbals.
Also, not all songs with drum breaks lend themselves to use as a drum reference. You should choose drum parts from songs you enjoy, with sounds you’d like to emulate. The drum solo in Moby Dick will be a great reference for many people, as it’s 3 minutes of drums and nothing else, but I avoid it because I find the compression and distortion on the overhead mics, and the off-center kick drum, distracting. And I can’t play like Bonham.
One final note: You’re welcome to use the section I posted above as your own reference. However, remember that it’s an MP3, so the sound quality is somewhat degraded. Ideally, your reference sounds should be taken directly from the original CD.