Your audience shouldn’t have to guess when the chorus arrives—it should hit listeners right in the chest, prompting them to dance, sing, or cry along. We’ve already provided tips for improving choruses with music production and songwriting, and now the focus is on mixing. Here are five mixing tips for a better chorus.
If the verse and chorus sound too similar, use a low-pass filter to darken instruments in the verse, or thin them out with a high-pass or bandpass filter to make the transition between these two sections more dramatic. Programmed drums, synths, and string pads typically take well to filtering, so try with these instruments first, then with acoustic elements like guitars or keys. Acoustic sounds can get unpleasantly muffled when filtered heavily, so you will need to pay close attention to avoid this.
As the verse progresses, open up the filter to let in the brightness or low-end, which will signal to listeners that something is about to happen, getting them excited. Lifting the resonance at the same time will create a rising pitched effect, a trick that sounds best in dance and EDM-infused pop.
A subtle but effective technique to improve the chorus is to saturate it with a distortion module (like Neuron’s Exciter, or our Trash 2 distortion suite). If the song starts out with a neutral tone, trigger a gnarlier tube-style plug-in on the master or a main instrument for the duration of the chorus to introduce new colors into the mix. Using a plug-in like Neutron’s Exciter in Tape mode, you can select specific frequencies to saturate so as not to overdo the effect. You can also try saturating the verse for warmth and opt for punchiness in the chorus.
A classic trick in hip-hop and electronic music is to start a song off with a vintage-sounding verse or introduction that’s been thinned out with EQ and mangled with a vinyl emulation or distortion plug-in. Once the chorus arrives, these effects are removed, filling out the frequency spectrum to pleasantly surprise listeners.
Widening one or two instruments slightly for the chorus will help to deliver the emotional impact of the section. Like many mixing decisions, the instruments chosen here depend on the genre—rock will usually go with guitars, while pop and trap will focus on the vocal.
Another idea is to place a stereo widening plug-in (like Neutron 3, Relay, or the free Ozone Imager) on the master output and widen a specific set of frequencies across the entire track. I’d warn against widening the deep lows since bass does a much better job when kept to a narrow field. Instead, try the low mids or mid-range frequencies. These areas give songs a sense of fullness when widened and can trick listeners into thinking the bass has become more powerful. Making these adjustments may adversely affect the overall balance of your lows or low mids, so it might help to check with Tonal Balance Control to make sure you aren’t pushing things too far.
This tip is for mixers who already have a solid verse-chorus transition, but want to add a little ear candy to push things over the top. You will find numerous mix tip articles that suggest raising the level of the chorus (which can be totally valid) to make it pop, but another approach is to lower the level of a couple of instruments for a bar right before the chorus. Pairing this move with an automated bandpass or high pass filter that thins out the instruments will make the mix sound like it's being swallowed up—when things return in full force for the chorus, you get a nice jolt of energy.
Read 7 Creative Automation Tips for Music Producers on the iZotope blog.
Be sure not to use all your tricks in the first chorus! Adding something to the second chorus to make it slightly different than the first will deliver the hype needed to keep listeners around for the rest of the song. The last thing you want is a lazy, repetitive feeling.
If there is nothing different in the recording itself, it's up to you, the mixer, to create the change. Using any of the techniques listed here will serve you well, though you can also try different reverbs, layering in new drum samples, compressing in parallel, or automating the level up half a dB or so.
You may also have the MIDI supplied from the producer—use this to enhance the articulation and tonality of instruments in the second chorus. A common trick is to stack an 808 bass with a plucky acoustic bass or vice-versa. You don’t want to change the overall sound, but bring out what is already in it.
Though you might think this is not your job, it is your job to better the mix. If this does the trick, and you explain the reasoning behind it, your client should be happy.
When we think of our favorite songs, the chorus is usually what comes to mind. The techniques listed in this article are simple, but proven to make this important song section all the more memorable.
If you go back and listen to your top playlist, or just make a mental note going forward, you will find that most songs, regardless of genre, are using some combination of the tips here. Try them yourself and your mixes are sure to improve.