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9 Great Reference Mixes for Modern Pop

by Nick Messitte, iZotope Contributor September 19, 2019
Photo courtesy of Metalworks Studios

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We’ve been extolling the virtues of reference mixes recently. And why not? A reference mix can help you in all sorts of ways. Now, we’re going to give some suggestions for specific tunes to reference, broken down by genre.

This article concerns itself with the genre of modern pop, but therein lies a problem: pop is a curious music, as it’s the only genre that is not a genre by definition. Whatever is popular, that is pop. “A Fifth of Beethoven,” Frozen’s “Let It Go,” and “Old Town Road” sound nothing alike, and yet they are all pop.

Today’s pop does have its own sonic hallmarks. However, instead of selecting current chart-topping hits of the week, I’m offering reference mixes that are all at least a few years old. Why? Because all of them (for the most part) had a major impact on their own time, and furthermore, they have stood the test of time—their sound informs the sound of today.

1. “The Hills” by The Weeknd

Producers: Illangelo, Mano

Mix engineers: Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese

Mastering engineer: Tom Coyne

Look at the enduring hits right now on iTunes and Billboard and you’ll note a trend toward the downtempo, the atmospheric, and the distorted. To my ears, you can’t find a better inspiration for our current sound than this smash hit from 2015.

Much of what people seem to like about the dirty, distorted timbres of today—the stuff that seems to break all the rules of mixing—can be traced to this mix. Indeed, it’s telling that this song became the standout hit off the record, when all business-related signs pointed to “Can’t Feel My Face” as the breakout single.

So what is it about this mix that makes for great referencing? Let’s dive in. 

In the second verse, listen to how sonic flourishes create an atmosphere of dread. Observe how these elements are placed in the mix, from the weird reverberating keys in the right speaker, to the scream that presages the chorus.

As for the chorus, you can see it in the Tonal Balance Control analysis above: the bass overwhelms. And yet, the kick knocks past the bass forcefully, without sounding muddy or clouded. Somehow the vocal stays present over the fray. His voice hovers above, unaffected, largely from the distended booming of the low end bass and kick.

It would do you well, when referencing this mix, to notice how distortion is implemented on the chorus’s vocal. His tone is pure, almost Jacksonian, in timbre. Yet it is brought low by the grime. Listen to this vocal as you set above your own distortion in accordance with modern times.

2. “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean

Producer: Shea Taylor

Mixing engineer: Frank Ocean (among others)

Mastering engineer: Vlado Meller

Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” Tonal Balance Control curve

Pop of today is often a moody affair, with a ton of evocative elements mixed into the soundscape. (Think “Goodbyes” from Post Malone, for instance). So, for a great example of how to handle atmosphere in a classy and blissful way, check out this gem from Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.

Note how the drums are clean and defined in the face of distorted vocals and modulated synths. The bass drum is harmonically tuned to the song. It fills out the low end of the mix without overwhelming us. The snare element isn’t overly bright, yet still cracks.

The harmonic synths and natural instruments sit in the midrange, swirled by filters that emphasize different parts of the frequency range at different times. You’ll hear elements that hit on the left, but reverberate ever so slightly in the right, showing you how to make stereophonic space with delays as you add effects to your own projects.

Some stabbing chords are bathed in processing that belies their origin—in the third verse, are those guitars or strings? Or are they a synth of some kind? The mystery is in the sound choice, but it’s abetted by the mix.

And, of course, those vocals—so bright and clean on the verses, with the appropriate number of delay throws and discrete echoes. The chorus then brings us a beautiful falsetto, one distorted to the perfect breaking point of saturation, with a reverb hitting us on certain key phrases (“ahead,” “forever”). All of this is complemented with a judicious use of modulated delay throws.

When the vocal jumps to hard-panned distortion on the left and right, it’s quite effective, fitting in so well with our current aesthetics, yet old enough to stand as a classic, enduring example.

3. “Paper Planes” by MIA

Producer: Diplo

Mixing engineer: Dave “Switch” Taylor

MIA’s “Paper Planes” Tonal Balance Control curve

Another banger from the recent past informs our present day. Check out the thickness of the bass as shown in the above screenshot, and you can almost see what this mix will get you. Indeed, when trying to achieve the indie spirit of today’s downtempo pop songs, you can use a mix like this to your advantage. 

How? You’ll be referencing elements that inspired the hits, rather than elements that lead to copycat decisions.

Listen to the cleanness of the drums contrasted with the soupy reverb of the harmonic progression. Also, hear how space is made for the vocal, which is a good deal brighter than you’d probably leave a lead vocal if left to your own devices.

If your song has sound effects, this is a good tune to check out, as the gunshots, cash registers clicking open, and “ca-ching!” sounds have been made musical, all while remaining balanced against the mix.

4. “Genie in a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera

Producers: Steve Kipner, David Frank

Mixing engineer: David Frank

Mastering engineer: Eddie Schreyer

Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a bottle” Tonal Balance Control curve

Why the heck would I point you to this dated mix from 1999? A letter and a word: K Pop.

It’s coming for us all—if it hasn’t already. And yes, the K Pop genre borrows a lot from other styles, but K Pop exhibits a firm grounding in the RnB-flecked, kitchen-sink productions of 90s prefab pop. So a song like “Genie in a Bottle” makes for an excellent reference, especially when considering instrumentation and harmonies.

Listen to the percussive elements: there are so many drums with weird, filtered hits. They also fire at all points of the stereo spectrum. Yet, overall, they feel pretty balanced. The rolling kick which closes each phrase stays out of the way of the deeper, downbeat kick, while multiple filler elements round out the background without overwhelming our ears.

Listen to this reference if your mix has many disparate percussive elements. Judge your own balance by the balance offered here. Also, pay attention to the layering of vocal harmony against the leads. Notice how the throws and delays are always audible, even among so many stacked voices. Compare your vocals to the ones offered here when going for a slick, pro-sounding mix.

5. “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” by Michael Jackson

Producer: Quincy Jones

Mixing engineer: Bruce Swedien

Mastering engineer: Bernie Grundman

Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” Tonal Balance Control curve

Look, you can reference “Uptown Funk,” or something by Morris Day and the Time. You can check out lots of songs off Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Or you can reference the person who influenced them all.

And if you’re going to do that, you can’t do better than “P.Y.T.,” a song off Thriller whose fingerprints are all over recent offerings by Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, and Lizzo.

If you look at the Tonal Balance Control curve offered above, it’s a far more balanced mix when compared to fare like “The Hills.” But if you use your ears, you’ll note how the percussion drives us without taking up too much space—without ducking the whole mix down to its level.

Also, listen to how the guitars (distorted and clean) and basses (synth and string) are balanced within the mix. Listen to the vocoded background vocals in the chorus, how they’re spread, and how they complement the music. 

All of these elements are emulated in today’s funkier, dancier fare. When you’ve got a bouncy mix on your hands, you can’t get any more instructive than a song like this.

6. “Aura” by Lady Gaga

Producers: Lady Gaga, Zedd, Infected Mushroom

Mixing engineer: Zedd

Mastering engineer: Gene Grimaldi

Lady Gaga’s “Aura” Tonal Balance Control curve

This song is the exception that tests the rule: it hasn’t really made a mark on the times. The production is soup-to-nuts crazy, starting with a desert-tinged, bit-crushed intro quickly followed by a faux-Arabic breakdown and more lo-fi vocals. Next, a crescendo of noise that crashes into a four-on-the-floor breakdown, complete with EDM growling synth-bases. The chorus proceeds to borrow from another genre—the power pop ballad.

None of this proved to be as successful as her previous records: Artpop is regarded as a stale rehash; the thing that inspired Gaga to get out of the mainstream and experiment with more natural fare, such as "Cheek to Cheek," and "Joanne."

So why have I picked this mix? For the sheer technical mastery, man!

So many elements are handled with flare and excitement. The growly, glitchy synth lines of the first verse are especially imbued with energy, a rocket-to-the-sky feeling. If you have a mix that needs to sound this bouncy and dancy within the realm of EDM-tinged pop, Aura is an impeccable reference.

7. “Tik Tok” by Kesha

Producer: Lukasz Gottwald, Benjamin Levin

Mixing engineer: Serban Ghenea

Mastering engineer: Chris Gehringer

Kesha’s “Tik Tok” Tonal Balance Control curve

Even in 2019, we still have a fair amount of four-on-the-floor pop. To my ears, there’s no better specimen of how this stuff should sound than Serban Ghanea’s classic mixes from the last decade. A great exemplar of this style is “TiK ToK.”

Listen to the way the kick cracks in the chorus: it’s almost out in front of the song—but not quite. Even in the verses, the kick knocks us forward as the synth lines harmonize on the left and right of the mix.

Also, notice the sibilant lead vocals, which almost blister our ears, but stay just shy of harsh. This is an important element to get just right for many a pop vocal: a bright voice that keeps its sheen, but doesn’t fatigue you in the sibilant range. Here’s a good reference when trying to get your vocal to sparkle just shy of painful.

8 . “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by The Eurythmics

Producer: David Allan Stewart

The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” Tonal Balance Control curve

In today’s pop, cutting and atmospheric synths seem prevalent. You’ll also note a clearly defined kick drum, one that anyone can identify on any sound system. 

For those reasons, we harken back to this jam from the 1980s, which somehow doesn’t sound out of place on a playlist of contemporary pop. Indeed, I started putting “Sweet Dreams” on my reference radar after hearing it at a wedding sandwiched in between two more contemporary tunes. It sounded perfect in that context, and continues to inspire in the studio.

Listen to how these analog synths are mixed, both in timbre and in the stereo spectrum: they dominate the stereophonic space, yet maintain a solidity and heft. Still, they, don’t overwhelm the vocals. They stay out of the vocal leads which sing up the middle, as well as the stereophonic backgrounds.

Also listen to the high end of the kick on this tune. It has the perfect amount of “click” to cut across the rest of the mix.

For these reasons, the tune is still a vital reference, even for being older than I am.

9. “Royals” by Lorde

Producer: Joel Little

Mixing engineer: Joel Little

Mastering engineer: Stuart Hawkes

Lorde’s “Royals” Tonal Balance Control curve

We’ve noted that the pop today is inching toward slower beats, atmospheric energy, and sparser arrangements. All of these observations make “Royals” suitable for a reference in today’s pop game.

Listen to the way this tune pits its bass against the kicks: a prominent bass drum hits the downbeat, while a secondary kick knocks out syncopations. The bass instrument remains relatively sustaining against all the percussion.

Pay attention to the snare, a simple snapping sample with the perfect amount of reverb. Indeed, space in the percussive elements is handled with much aplomb. It would do you well to reference the soundbed when trying to preserve space in a mix.

But above it all, notice the complement of stacked, harmonized vocals. These voices make use of the stereo spectrum in a classy way: sometimes we get hard-panned vocals on the pre-chorus, while more mid-focused throws like “and everybody’s like” show you how to play one set of harmonized vocals against another.

Conclusion

The mixes presented on this list are varied. They come from disparate times and disparate artists. Yet they all have one thing in common: they can help us, sitting where we are today, achieve better mixes in our own pop-oriented productions. It is my hope you’ll find them useful—that they’ll help your mix truly pop. 

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