Any budding audio engineer should have a firm understanding of the fundamentals of mixing pop music. Mastering pop mixing provides a strong foundation for mixing just about any genre, even those outside the genre's characteristically crisp sound.
Below, we'll explain how to build pop mixes from start to finish. From organizing your multitrack to bouncing out the final mix, we'll detail the process every step of the way.
What Should I Have Before I Start Pop Mixes?
Like any other part of the recording process, mixing is an art. Here are the essential elements you'll need before you start mixing a pop track:
A Great Recording
Mixing can only do so much to polish the source files of vocal stacks and instrument tracks that were recorded improperly. Make sure you know how to record a song without bringing unnecessary noise or imperfections into your session.
An Organized Project
Every track in your session should be labeled and near other similar-sounding instruments. Remember that your target output master level before handing over your mix to the mastering engineer should sit somewhere between -3 and -6DB. Adjust your levels so that you can mix accordingly.
Guidance From the Vocalist
If possible, work with your vocalist upfront to comp vocals before you sit down for a full mix. Singers tend to have strong opinions regarding the reflection of their voice, so you'll want to work with them directly to find the right fit for their voice and determine their creative vision around pitch correction, expression, and other effects.
Mixing Pop Music In 7 Steps
Are you ready to mix some pop music? Here is exactly how to approach the engineering process.
1. Find a Reference Track
Your mix is only as good as your references. Before you touch any faders, find an audio example that captures the sonic character you're searching for. You can refer back to this song sound whenever making creative and technical decisions throughout various points in the mixing process.
2. Aim To Clean, Tune, and Balance First
When it comes to approaching your mix, you'll want to start with subtractive processes first. This means prioritizing any methodology that aims to take away unnecessary or excessive noise. It's key to process your tracks like this upfront during the mixing stage since every effect or adjustment builds on top of itself across a signal chain.
For instance, this is the mixing stage where you may adjust your EQ settings to cut down on sibilance, or too much low end in your vocal. This is also the time to tune up tracks and apply pitch correction. From there, you can balance your mix in terms of volume - you'd be surprised how much just balancing levels affect your mix.
Generally speaking, when you mix your own track or a section or group of tracks, you'll start by cleaning them up, then balancing volume levels, and finally adding any additional effects. For a more in-depth explanation, check out this video on mixing philosophy:
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3. Work on the Vocal Mix First
In a pop song, the lead vocals are the standout star of the track. So much of pop music revolves around the vocal layers and the listener connecting with the message of the song. A lead vocal in pop music is typically front and center, crisp and clear.
To build this, start by scanning your vocal track for any imperfections. You might have to apply light gain reduction, even out harsh sounds in the mid-frequency range, of cut down on sibilance from a de-esser. Total techies might utilize tools like The Fletcher Munson Curve to help optimize the listening experience for the human ear.
Take time to listen to adjust the ratios of the background vocals to the lead vocal, using your reference tracks as guidance. Once you've found a good ratio, you can start with additive mixing processes.
In many cases, you might hear music that might apply pitch correction, compression, and volume automation along with spatial effects like reverb or delay throws.
4. Work On The Drums and Bass
Mastering pop music revolves around building that trademark vocal sound-- the next most important aspect is keeping the upbeat rhythm and feel. Therefore, the drums and the bass are the next on your priority list, particularly in the ways they interact with each other. These sections tend to share a lot of the same low-end frequencies, so it's key to make sure you leave a healthy amount of room for both to shine in the sonic space.
Your drums will likely be processed individually and in a group or bus where they are compressed at high ratios to create a more cohesive sound. Your bass should help keep rhythm and groove in your piece. Be careful not to let the bass cloud your overall mix - experiment with techniques like sidechain compression to create extra space in the low mid range of the frequency spectrum.
5. Add in Other Instruments
Finally, slowly but surely introduce other instruments into your pop mix. Your ears are your greatest guide at this stage in the process. Remember, start by cleaning up the track, then adjusting its level in relation to the rest of the mix, and then finish off by adding effects or processing.
6. Automate and Adjust
Mixing pop music requires plenty of dynamics. Oftentimes, pop songs are built on a foundation that's repeated over the course of a song. Pop mixing engineers can experiment with panning , volume automation, filtering, and more to keep the listener interested without overcrowding the simplicity of a song.
Play with the placement of each track within the stereo image of the session. Your pop song should feel cohesive yet dynamic to keep the listener engaged over time. Let yourself experiment and make good use of the bypass button. Sometimes you have to go too far with an effect or processing to learn where it's truly meant to sit.
7. Test Your Work
No mix is complete without testing the field. Test your pop mixes using studio monitors, your headphones, your car speakers, and anywhere else you can think of. Compare your pop mixes with your reference tracks to see if you built the stereo mix you're looking for before handing it off to a mastering engineer.
This is also a good time to check for mono compatibility, phasing errors, or anything else that you'll need to prevent before sending off to mastering engineers.
It's very common to go through several iterations of a single pop mix, so don't feel discouraged if you have to go back and repeat the steps. This is normal and to be expected when mixing pop music, or any genre of music, for that matter.
Pop Mixing FAQs
Are you ready to start mixing pop music? Review these commonly asked questions to help expand your understanding:
What does a pop mix sound like?
A mix sounds crisp, polished, professional and well-balanced. The whole song tends to revolve around the pop vocal, with lyrics and vocal melodies propelling the sound of the song forward.
How do you mix pop songs?
Pop mixing engineers know to pay special attention to mixing pop vocals, as these are often regarded as the heart of a song. In this guide, we'll detail this and other essential tips for mixing pop music.
What makes a pop hit?
A pop hit has infectious melodies, relatable lyrics, and a sound that makes you want to replay and hear it over and over. Pop hits naturally vary widely in nature, as modern pop music sounds completely different from what was created just a decade ago.
What tempo is pop music?
Pop music usually sits between 90 and 120 BPM. However, the sound of pop music is constantly changing (as the genre name simply refers to "popular music"), so there aren't any set-in-stone rules.
The best way to learn how to mix pop music is to do it yourself and learn through trial and error. These mixing tips should serve as a foundation for your learning, but be sure to experiment with your own mixing template to craft a signature sound that works for you. Happy mixing!