“Pop” is an all-encompassing term for music that generally appeals to a wide listener base. Under the pop umbrella, there are countless sub-genres from pop/punk to pop/trap that bring in diverse instrumentation and production. Regardless of sub-genre, pop mixes need to appeal to a diverse audience and sound solid in many different listening environments from streaming to the radio...even in the supermarket!
So how do you mix pop music? Here are 10 tips for mixing pop that will help you get the signature pop sound you’re looking for.
Before we dive into this tutorial, watch this video on how to mix pop and rap vocals with iZotope Video Content Production Manager, Geoff Manchester.
Try these tips yourself
All of the plug-ins used in this tutorial can be accessed with a free trial of a Music Production Suite Pro membership that also includes sample packs, courses, and more curated to help you get the sound you want.
1. Remove background noise with edits
When mixing music, sometimes you need to go back to basics. Many producers might supply you with stems with edits and tuning already completed. If not, editing all audio with extreme precision can be the key to making a song sound like a hit.
When you listen to pop songs on the radio or streaming, you will very rarely hear any excess audio that is unnecessary to the song sticking out in the mix. Sounds like guitar buzz, excess mouth noise, or headphone bleed are removed to increase the clarity of the mix.
While guitar buzz and odd mouth sounds can be intentional noises that add to the vibe of the track, you should remove any unwanted noises or excess audio, and diligently edit performances for timing and vibe. You should also make sure that you cross-fade every edit point to remove any clicks and pops that will be emphasized in mastering. Make sure you don’t remove all of the breaths in a vocal performance though, try turning them down slightly instead if they are too present.
iZotope’s RX Pro for Music can handle these edits easily, with plug-ins including Mouth De-click, De-hum, Breath Control, and more.
2. Use pitch correction on vocals
You may receive vocal stems with pitch correction completed, but if not, you should make sure you find the right style of tuning for the vocalist and the song itself. If the artist has released music before, listen to some of their previous repertoire as guidance. If not, evaluate the song, sub-genre and the performance for the right approach to tuning.
Real-time tuning is a great effect for the wobbly, overly-tuned and deliberately artificial tuning effect popularized by trap and mumble rap, but it can also be used as a generalized pitch correction plug-in without giving specific attention to individual notes. Using iZotope’s Nectar Pro, you can use the Auto Detect function to identify the song key, and adjust the intensity of the tuning using the Speed and Strength parameters. The software will identify the closest pitch sung within the chosen key/scale and tune it perfectly. To achieve an extreme tuned effect, turn the Strength to 100% and the Speed to 0.0ms.
Here is an example of a vocal processed with real-time tuning to achieve an extreme tuning effect:
Example of Real-Time Tuning with Nectar Pro
Graphic tuning is more appropriate for vocals that need to sound more natural, or where individual note attention is required. Using a plug-in like Melodyne 5 essential included in Music Production Suite Pro will allow you to edit notes individually, and have more control of parameters like vibrato and transitions between notes.
Here is the same vocal processed with graphic tuning, aiming for a more natural tuning effect:
Example of Graphic Tuning in Melodyne
3. Use a reference track when mixing pop music
Reference tracks are incredible tools when approaching a pop mix. They give you perspective on what types of mixes work for a pop audience, and they can help give you a starting point when beginning your mix.
Identify a song that has a similar sub-genre, vocal production, and/or overall sonic character to your song that you really like. Download the song and import it into your DAW onto its own track. Keep it muted while you mix, and A/B to double-check your mix against the reference track.
Remember, reference tracks are usually already mastered, which as a result will make them louder than your mix. Adjust the volume of the reference track so it’s more in line with the volume of the mix, so when you compare, you won’t be distracted by a drastically louder volume.
4. Create a pop mixing template
Templates are useful throughout the music production process, but mixing templates can save you a lot of time, especially if you tend to use the same types of effects over and over.
If you can save entire channel strip settings in your DAW, create some go-to channel strips for certain instruments. For example, a vocal channel strip could have your favorite EQ, de-esser and compressor ready to be loaded up for the mix and adjusted for the specific instrument you’re mixing. You can also create full templates with your choice of effects and submixes pre-routed.
I recommend having at least a vocal reverb, ambient reverb and delay bus set up and labeled in your template. When else you include is a personal choice, but try to find the right balance between preparedness and spontaneity with your template. It should make your life easier, but not keep you in a box!
Looking for your own mixing template? Download free DAW-specific mixing session templates.
5. Mix the vocal before other instruments
Every engineer has their own approach to how they begin a mix. A popular method is to start with the kick drum, the foundation of the song, and build up the mix instrument by instrument. However, in pop music that is very vocal-focused, sometimes it’s a good idea to produce and mix the voice before anything else.
Mixing the vocal first can give you a different perspective as to how the other elements of the mix will fit with the voice. It also helps you focus on getting the right sound for the main feature of the song.
Start with the vocal solo’d, and add in your EQ and compression, paying close attention to how you want the tone and dynamics of the voice to sound. Then, add in your reverb and/or delay to complete the produced vocal sound. Then, start adding in the rest of the mix around the vocal, making changes to each instrument so they support the voice as the main element.
Here is an example of a vocal production created first without the instrumental, and the resulting mix built around the vocal:
Audio Example of Isolated Vocal Production
6. Try something new and creative with your pop mix
When using a reference track, it can be tempting to try to recreate the hit exactly. However, your reference track already exists! What can you do to make your mix different?
Part of what makes really great pop music is the combination of something familiar with something new. In the mixing stage, you can add these “new” textures with the use of different effects or automation.
Use the song itself as a guide to your experimentation. For example, If the verses are really intimate and close, try using barely any reverb, and automating it up in the choruses. You can also try putting saturation on the lead vocal to give it a different texture, or a slap delay to give it a very obvious ambience. Try side-chaining your guitar, or a wide-panning tremolo on your synth. I encourage you to experiment freely!
Here is an example of Nectar Pro on a lead vocal to add some crunchy, retro saturation:
Audio Example of Vocal Saturation in Nectar Pro
7. Make your choruses pop
Choruses, hooks and drops in pop music are the high moments in every song. In your mix, do something to differentiate your choruses from your verses and really draw the listener in.
One of the simplest and trusted tips for making choruses pop is to just increase the overall volume of the choruses by 1–2 dB. This boost really emphasizes the climax of the song without changing too much of your mix.
You can also make choruses more impactful with your panning. If the chorus has many more layers than the verse, make sure you use the entire stereo spectrum when the chorus hits to open up the left-right stereo field.
Adding other effects that only exist in the chorus can also be really impactful. Try adding a stereo delay on the lead vocal in the chorus only, while having a simple reverb in the verse.
8. Incorporate "larger-than-life" pop energy into your mix
Pop music can be “over-the-top” sonically, and that is part of what makes pop music sound the way it does. Extreme compression and bright, airy highs can be hallmarks of the pop sound.
If you want your mix to compete with other pop songs on the charts, try going to extremes. Push the compressor a little harder, and try mixing the kick sub higher than you normally would. Give an EQ high shelf to the percussion to create some ear candy.
Here is an example of percussion with and without the exciter:
Percussion with No Exciter
Percussion with Exciter in Ozone Pro
9. Check your pop mix with mono compatibility
Because pop music will be played in so many different locations and on different systems, it’s important to make sure your mix works in mono as well as stereo. For example, when you hear music in the club or in a store, you don’t necessarily have a clear stereo image depending on where you’re standing in the space. However, you’ll notice that you can still make out the important elements of the song, even if you’re hearing it out of one single speaker.
In Ozone Pro there is a “mono” button to double-check how your song translates into mono. Any stereo mix will not be perfect in mono, but you shouldn’t lose any major elements in your mix when you collapse into mono. If you do, check your phasing or any extreme panning between left and right that could be creating the issue.
Here is a mix in stereo, and checked in mono:
Pop Mix in Stereo
Pop Mix in Mono
10. Sound check your pop mix on as many systems as possible
A classic piece of studio gear is a pair of Yamaha NS-10 monitors. The reason these monitors are so coveted is because of the theory that “if you can make your mix sound good on these, it will sound good anywhere.”
Even if you don’t have a pair of NS-10’s, you can still do your best to ensure your mix sounds good on as many systems as possible. Mix on your monitors and studio headphones, but test your mix in your car, on your laptop speakers and your AirPods. It might take a few revisions, but the more systems you can try, the better!
Start mixing pop music
Pop mixing can feel overly rigid at times, but really great hits always have a little something special about the mix that takes the whole song to the next level. Trust the tried-and-true methods, but don’t be afraid to experiment and add your own sound and style to your mixes. And if you haven’t yet, try all of these mixing tips with a free trial of Music Production Suite Pro membership.