Perhaps more than any other genre, pop music may be the most difficult to master. It requires you to balance powerful lows with glistening highs, punchy dynamics and precise loudness. Not to mention a myriad of sonic trends to keep up with. However, a high-quality master can be all that separates a radio-ready hit from a dingy garage demo. In this blog, we’ll share some of our favorite tips for mastering pop music to help you dial in the perfect sound.
Sound As Good As Chart-Topping Hits
One of the most important parts of mastering a pop record is making sure you’re keeping up with the current sonic trends. (Listen to a chart-topping hit from within the last 2 months and compare it to a hit from 10 years ago and you’ll hear what I mean). In addition to the typical challenges of sculpting the frequency range and dialing in the dynamics, you have to worry about staying competitive. Trends move fast with pop music, and if you don’t keep up, your song may sound dated.
Use REFERENCE to compare your mix to some of your favorite new tracks. Listen closely to the balance between each instrument and try to identify common themes between the songs. For instance, some sub-genres like Bedroom Pop or Dark Pop have a darker, more lo-fi sound with the highs rolled-off, while other genres like K Pop and Power Pop have a bright, shiny aesthetic.
Make note of which type of sound you want to achieve, and use the Trinity Display (the readout at the bottom) in REFERENCE to identify where your mix needs tweaking. The Trinity Display shows you how your tonal balance, punch, and stereo width compared to your reference track, guiding you on the changes needed to sound more like your target.
Check for Technical Problems
Pop mixes are all about professional polish and flawless edits. That’s why one of the first things you should do when mastering a pop mix is to listen closely for technical errors in the recording.
Try to eliminate any excessive noise at the beginning and end of a song by creating fades. Make sure there’s absolutely no distortion or digital clipping at any point in the track. And listen closely for any other issues that you may not be able to fix in mastering, like poorly level or frequency balance.
One quick way to check your mix for issues is to use LEVELS. With peak, LUFS and dynamic range meters, you can quickly tell if your mix is clipping or over-compressed. The Stereo Field meter makes it easy to see if your mix has phase problems, while the Bass Space section identifies if there are channels eating up your headroom by outputting low-frequencies where they shouldn’t be, such as your vocal. (Note: you’ll need to be stem mastering to use the Bass Space feature).
EQ for Clarity
Most pop mixes have enhanced lows and highs with a balanced midrange. The lows accentuate the kick and bass, while the highs help add shimmer and make the mix sound “expensive.”
Just be careful; too much low-end can make your mix sound muddy. Remove any low-end rumble with a high-pass filter, or zero in on problem frequencies with BASSROOM. With custom low-end filters, BASSROOM makes it easy to achieve clarity and transparency in the low-end of your mix.
To tame aggressive midrange frequencies, it’s best to use a parametric EQ, while analog-modeled EQs are best for adding high-end to your mix. Just remember to keep your EQ moves subtle—anything more than 3 dB and you should consider revisiting the mix.
Finally, mid/side EQ can be a powerful tool for adding depth and dimension to a pop mix. Use MIXROOM to boost frequencies above 8 kHz in the side channels to enhance the stereo image of the mix with super transparent filters that won’t muddy your sound.
With both BASSROOM and MIXROOM, you can create a ‘target tonal balance’ by importing your own reference track. These plugins will then help you shape your own song to sound more like your reference track. It’s an effective and fast way to dial in a great sounding EQ for your master whether you’re working in a pro studio or a bedroom studio. Learn how to do that here.
Use Serial Compression
The secret to a punchy, up-front mix is compression. It’s the way engineers are able to push instruments to the front of the mix so you can hear every detail. But slashing your transients to shreds with an aggressive limiter isn’t going to do the trick.
Excessive compression tends to suck the dynamic range out of your mix and make it fatiguing to listen to. Even worse, it could cause your mix to clip or distort.
To achieve a punchy, polished sound without sacrificing quality, use serial compression. Instead of applying large amounts of compression all at once, apply small amounts of compression gradually.
Use multiple compressors in succession to increase the perceived volume without truncating transients, causing clipping or distortion, squishing the dynamic range or creating harsh sounds.
Avoid high ratios and fast attack times—instead, stick to subtle ratios like 1.5 or 2:1 with slow attack speeds to prevent pumping. Use a fast release speed for a natural sound. Personally, I prefer the auto release setting.
Most engineers recommend setting the threshold to give a gain reduction of 3 dB or less, but every mix will require a different approach. The goal with compression is to make your mix sound more cohesive—you’ll know you’ve gone too far if the mix starts lacking punch or low-end.
There’s something about the mastering process that makes a song sound like a record. Back in the day, mastering engineers would print the final mix to a 1/2” tape machine for reproduction and archiving. This added a fair amount of harmonic distortion to the mix, giving it a warm, rich sound.
Thankfully, you don’t have to purchase a vintage tape machine to get the same effect. IGNITE is a dynamic harmonic distortion plug-in that allows you to increase the perceived loudness, power and presence of a track without the pumping effects of a compressor.
Add IGNITE to your mastering signal chain and lower the threshold to generate distortion only during the loudest moments of the song. This will help simulate the effect of driving a tape machine.
Limiting for Loudness
The loudness wars may be over, but your mix still needs to sound competitive. Pop mixes tend to be mastered louder than most tracks at -12 LUFS and higher. However, it’s also important to preserve the dynamic range of the track and prevent any unwanted clipping or distortion.
It’s also worth noting that most streaming services will reduce the level of a loud song to around -14 LUFS, meaning all songs play back at an equal loudness whether they were mastered loudly or not. The drawback here for louder songs is that over-compression may have destroyed the dynamics and punch.
For best results, make sure you’re happy with the way your master sounds at the designated playback level for your streaming service of choice. LEVELS makes it easy to quickly check if your mix is too loud with professional presets and target loudness curves for different streaming services.
Follow these tips when mastering your next pop mix for a slick, polished sound!