Genres do have conventions; that’s what makes them genres. You know what makes a country song sound country when you hear it: the style of singing, the instrumentation of the arrangement, and other signifiers have instantly impressionable effects.
Not so with pop music. I remember distinctly what Dave Pensado told me about pop music during an interview for Forbes.com—he called it the only genre of music that wasn’t a genre; strictly speaking, it’s the music that’s most popular at a given time. It’s hard to believe now, but “A Fifth of Beethoven” is just as much a pop song as anything the Chainsmokers will ever produce.
Still, there are things to keep in mind when mixing pop music and working on a record intended for a pop audience—that is, a listenership which might encounter the song on a radio, in the supermarket, or some other place outside of their expressed control. When you’re not going for niche, but instead are attempting to achieve the universal, here are some pop mixing tips and tricks to keep in mind.
1. Edit flawlessly
Some styles of music allow for a devil-may-care approach to the editing. Some old records are beloved for their accidents and unpolished timbres. And while the occasional happy accident might make it into a pop track, that must be a choice. In general, you should be extra attuned to your editing when mixing pop music.
No guitar buzz should be heard as the guitar’s region ends: find a way to kill that noise. No out-of-time bass or out of tune vocal—not without a specific intention or hook to it. No drum off-time for the sake of authenticity: everything must be perfectly positioned for maximum impact.
That isn’t to say you should grid instruments, by the by, but that the feel needs to be calculated and expressed consistently throughout the song; nothing that takes you out of the proceedings should slip past your radar.
Yes, all professional mixes call for judicious editing. The difference, when considering pop, is that frequently you should aim to be far more conservative in your editing. If the choice is between something safe and something off-kilter, it’s probably better to go with the safe bet, and save the off-kilter choice for an element truly worth it. More on that later.
2. Hide your edits
As you are judicious with editing, so too must you be fierce about hiding your edits. Now that you’ve chopped up a vocal to time it perfectly, make doubly sure the regions don’t hiccup into existence or cut off drastically. If you’ve done a bit of audio restoration to fix an issue, check to see if the processing has accidentally added a click, pop, or other artifacts.
This is a mix intended for a mass audience, not for a niche listener: nothing that distracts from the pristineness or clarity of the mix should make its way to the final product.
3. Listen to the top 10 references
This tip, and the one that follows, are the best pieces of advice I can give you for mixing pop music: listen to current pop references on important charts (Billboard, iTunes, etc), to get an idea for your context.
The listening here isn’t so much for musicality as it is for sound design. The track you’re given could have a hundred differences from its competitors in instrumentation, harmonic progression, and other facets. Still, you should reference the timbres evoked in the mixing process. This stems back to the introduction of this piece: pop music constantly evolves, so you want to make sure you fit the current context.
Do you notice a certain fullness to kick drums in today’s crop? Or have they been rather anemic in the past few years? Once you’ve determined a consistency to kick elements, ask yourself where the commonalities are in terms of EQ, likely compression, harmonic saturation, and ambience. Where does the kick fit, given the context? Make these judgment calls for all the elements in the track—the drums, the harmonic information, the melodic drivers, the vocals, and the apparent effect chains.
In 2013, for instance, engineers were on record saying they employed more 1 kHz and 5 kHz than in other years—sounds crazy, but it’s true. If you can iron out your own connections to today’s current offerings, you can build a bridge to sounding more like the others—to playing in the sandbox of your peers.
4. Do one thing differently from those top 10 references
Now here’s the complement to the proceeding suggestion: find one thing to do that’s different from the competition in your mix. It might already be nestled in the tracks given to you—a part played slightly more ahead of the beat than the others, or a synth sound not quite in line with the current aesthetic. Or, you might have to fashion such a difference yourself, based on your own inspiration and inclination. But the importance of this cannot be overstated: while pop music can sound quite homogenous, often it’s the tunes with one standout element that cuts through.
As way of example, analyze the song “Don’t Let Me Down”—no, not The Beatles’ classic, but that hit from The Chainsmokers. Each chorus builds to what sounds like an EDM-style drop, except the lead synth sports a droopier, simplified, and less-glitchy quality when compared to other, now-dated material. It’s not quite the bombastic EDM pop of yesteryear, but it does feel like a cousin, a cousin with something distinctly different in its genetics.
Give yourself something that stands out, and you’re far more likely to make an impression. However, you can go to far: make too many things stand out, and you’re in the realm of the niche. That’s why I’m recommending emphasizing one element.
5. Keep mono compatibility in mind
Some engineers have stated that we don’t need to worry about mono compatibility as much as we used to, but I’m not sure I agree, especially when it comes to pop music. Why? Because the venues for pop are often outside the listener’s control. A 70V sound system in a store, a supermarket, the back of a taxi, the dancefloor of a club—these locales are common places to encounter pop music.
These places also cannot account for your position within their confines. You could be anywhere in a supermarket, a restaurant, or a club. In fact, think of your latest run-in with T-swift in the Price Chopper or Foodtown: did you feel like any one element of the tune overwhelmed you whilst you were perusing breakfast cereals? Probably not.
This isn’t to say that you should eschew directionality altogether when working on a pop mix. Again, it’s a matter of being somewhat conservative. Consider that anything overwhelming one speaker might be detrimental to the listener’s experience, if that listener happens to be on the far left of the dance floor—or if that dance club has a mono sound system, and has suddenly changed the musical balance of your mix with their monaural fold-down.
So, while you’re mixing your tune, frequently monitor in mono to make sure every bit of what you’re doing is as sumptuous, gut-punching, and full as it would be in stereo.
6. Do something to distinguish the chorus from the verse
The hook of a pop song usually resides in its chorus—or sometimes, just after its chorus, with some sort of musical (vocal-free) refrain. Lavish heaps of attention on these sections, and differentiate them from the verses in some way or another.
You can do this within the mix by fostering feelings of width, height, or frequency-fullness.
Take frequency fullness for example: perhaps you could mix the verse vocals with a little less added top end; maybe the subbiest kick could sit the verse out. That way, when the chorus hits, you have more silk going on in the 15 kHz and above region, and more oomf hitting you at 60 Hz and below. This is a psychoacoustic way of bolstering the chorus without necessarily sacrificing level in the verse (the technique goes back to what Julian King told us about manufacturing level changes in a dynamically-restricted world).
Playing with frequency-fullness contributes to a sense of height as well. Often, the lower frequencies feel as though they’re coming from a physically lower place than the higher frequencies. You can use this effect to create a virtual sense of tallness when the choruses kick in.
Width is another plaything: perhaps the verse plays the stereo field quite conservatively, and opens up drastically for the chorus, with bevies of synthesizers on the hard right and left that weren’t present before. Just be sure to check mono compatibility when using width to this effect; make sure that the apparent width you’re adding in the chorus becomes apparent fullness of arrangement when summed in mono.
7. Chuck out parts of the arrangement that don’t work
Sometimes a producer throws everything they have into the arrangement, with the idea that pop music, by nature, should contain every track you can cram and more. As a mixing engineer, you do have a bit of freedom to mute an unnecessary sound—especially if it’s so outside the realm of today’s pop that it would instantly detract from the mainstream experience.
A classic example: you could be given three samples, and really, one of them should be muted. With careful referencing of charting material (and with a solid understanding of what eccentric piece of audio you’d like to exaggerate for your attention-grabbing sound), you can make the decision to mute detritus with some authority.
Furthermore, you can choose to mute an ongoing sound for some part of the arrangement, and bring it back in for others, thereby creating the contrast that sets a chorus apart from its verse. All sorts of options are on the table for massaging what you’re given—just make sure to clue the producer in every step of the way.
8. Forego natural for over the top
I could be wrong about this, but the last era during which a pop song sounded remotely natural to my ears came around the early 1970s, when dead drums were often popular. In many of the hits around then, the instruments sounded as though they could be coming from a live source, right in front of you, at a concert, or even a rehearsal space down the hall.
But soon thereafter—again, in my estimation—pop music began to seek a more hyped sound most of the time. Sure, you began to hear programmed elements, but even natural instruments began to change. Drums, guitars, and more began to resemble the platonic ideal of what an instrument should sound like.
Hence this piece of advice for the foreseeable future: do what you can to get any acoustically occurring instrument—a piano, a guitar, a drum, a bass, a brass element, a woodwind; anything that isn’t programmed in other words—to sound like that ideal version of itself. This might mean sample replacing/augmenting drums. This may mean editing the heck out of guitars and basses to sound as tight as possible.
This might mean—and I hate to say it—taking a badly recorded piano, running it through polyphonic pitch-detection software like Melodyne, and replacing it outright with a library. To get the congruity of a perfectly-recorded sound across, it might be a better use of your time to replace the piano, as the pop ear is far more forgiving of a sampled piano than a badly recorded one. Again, it’s all about not distracting from the mainstream experience.
This of course is not a hard and fast rule; every tune has its bit of distinguishing color. So when in doubt, go with your references: if there’s no way to get your piano in the ballpark with whatever Bruno Mars is playing, you might have to find a library that will get you there.
9. Don’t be afraid to add elements from supplied MIDI or triggering
This is similar to the previous tip, only we’re talking about MIDI. If you feel like you know what the producer is going for with a synth sound, but you could do it better with your tool, don’t be afraid to ask for the MIDI (if it’s not provided), or to fashion MIDI yourself with polyphonic pitch-detection software.
Perhaps you think a sample-based synth like Iris would do the job where the producer clearly just used something from the DAW. Maybe you’d like to use macros in your favorite third-party synth to accomplish sonic effects in a more natural manner. Whatever the case, don’t be afraid to take the mix to the next level with some appropriate sound design.
You might think this is outside of your wheelhouse, or it violates the producer/mixing engineer relationship. Understandably, you might also think this is a different job entirely and should require more money for your labor. I’d like to encourage you not to think this way—instead, consider the work as sound design rather than composition. You are doing what you can to make the timbre of the mix more in line with its intentions. As someone who mixes tunes on a day to day basis, you’re valued for your ability to bring the rough mix to a polished level, something considered a viable pop mix. That’s why this tool falls within your expertise, so don’t be afraid to flex this muscle, as long as it’s okay with the producer.
10. Make yourself a pop mixing template
Some engineers like to work with extensive templates and others don’t. When working a pop mix, it might be worth your time to use a template, simply for the philosophy of it: you are operating in a very tricky sphere. On the one hand, this is art, and should be approached as such, yet on the other hand this is a craft—the craft of making the sound fit its pop context.
You’re not reinventing the wheel over here; you’re doing what you can to get this production to play nicely with the charts. Marshalling your mix through a ready-made template—one chock full of your usual EQs, compressors, delays, submix routing, bus-processing options, and more—is a quick way to get your mind on this path. You’ll have all the tools for the job on hand. This gives you the cold efficiency of a shark. However, unusual decisions are just a menu-dropdown away, so you can break the mold when you want to.
You may have noted there are few concrete tips here related to actual mixing practices. Here is no treatise on parallel compression, implementation of delay, or any of the usual subjects. Plenty of tutorials exist online for that, and I encourage you to seek them out.
Why didn’t I go that route? Because the tools are the same: what I’ve previously told you about rock mixing and country mixing applies to pop. Parallel compression doesn’t suddenly become a different technique because the genre’s changed.
Again keep the thesis in mind: pop music changes constantly; it’s one of the few dependable aspects of the genre. Why would I tell you how to mix a pop kick drum when the sound of the kick will change from year to ear?
So instead, use these tips like Jedi mind tricks to focus yourself for the task at hand. If you’re a beginner, this is especially necessary, because how you build your own bridge to today’s pop sound is quite difficult; it is an inherently personal endeavor. You have to figure out for yourself how to move the knobs and sliders to make your mix sound like the context of your times.
Soon you won’t have to think so consciously about your one distinguishing element, or your template. But for now, these pointers will lead you in the right direction.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to make it pop.