What Makes Commercial Pop Songs Sound So Good?

Ever wondered why commercial releases sound so good? Why is it that you’re not able to reach that kind of quality? Well, the truth is that a lot of work goes into each song to be produced, and a lot of it happens after the recording is over! 

Getting a commercial quality for a song demands attention to detail in every step of the song production, which includes composing the song, creating the beats, recording, mixing, and mastering.

The backing track for a song is the foundation for the vocals. If the track is well produced, the vocals will automatically blend inside without much effort and start sounding like a finished product. A smooth-sounding end result is one of the marks of a well produced song.

Choosing the elements, instruments and sounds for the track is usually what separates the amateurs from the pros. In case of a pop song, clean and punchy drums are important. Having a big bass to take care of the low end automatically makes the track sound large, but the bass and the drums shouldn’t clash in terms of frequency or arrangement.

 Before trying to force sounds to blend together by tweaking the EQ, compressors and other things, it’s better to find/create samples and sounds that already blend together. After getting the right sounds and patterns, process the drums and bass in such a way that they sound like one big layer. This is the bedrock for all the other layers to build upon.

 Having few but effective elements in the song will create a bigger impact than having several layers doing very little. They can be guitar, piano, electronic plucks, or any other element which gives the chords and rhythm for the vocals. Minimalism in layering helps to make the production sound modern. Even if you decide to use lots of elements make sure that each element is doing something useful in the song and not unnecessarily consuming sonic space. Spending time on recording instruments properly, and/or designing the sounds on a synthesizer will make them shine in the song.

 Recordings are done in a studio using professional microphones and sound gear. Sound absorption and reflection characteristics of the room have a certain influence on what the recorded music would sound like in its raw form. This is the reason for several singers preferring certain studios, as the characteristics of the room go well with their voice.

 The type of mic used and position of the mic creates a significant impact on the vocal quality of the recording. Different microphones have different frequency response curves, and these should effectively be put to use based on the voice characteristics of the singer. Placing the microphone close to the singer (2-3 inches away) at mouth-level makes the voice sound intimate and upfront, so pop vocals are often recorded this way . Placing it 6-8 inches away from the singer makes the room tone of the recording studio more apparent. Changing the height and distance of the microphone from the singer and experimenting to find the desired vocal tone is important for good quality vocal production. In many cases, recording the vocals loud, i.e., asking the artist to sing loud results in a better vocal performance.

An important factor in making the vocals sound larger than life is recording multiple takes of everything, as well as vocal harmonies and background fills. A typical commercial pop song has huge vocals in the chorus. This will almost always consist of duplicates, harmonies in different octaves, fifths, thirds, or any other based on the song. Background vocals like Oohs and Aahs are the secret ingredient to massive sounding vocals. However, simply having multiple vocals doesn’t do the trick. Processing them in the right way is just as important.

 Vocals is one of the main things that people focus on when listening to a song. Good vocal processing is key to make it blend with the track. The right use of compressors, EQs, reverbs, and delays sets the soundscape for the voice in the track. In modern music, the compressors settings are tweaked in such a way that every word sounds the same in terms of level. Changing the clip gain levels on words and phrases to make them all sound the same will make the compressor more effective. Using the same reverbs and delays on other elements in the track helps in gluing them together.

 A very common vocal processing technique is tuning the pitch of the vocals, which, when overdone, gives the well-known “Autotune effect”. More complex processing, such as adding robotic synthesis-based filters, sampling, and more are also being done as per requirement of the song.

 The music producer takes care of coordinating all the instruments that are present in a track, which include bass, rhythm, backing, fillers, etc. This can be done either electronically, acoustically, or a combination of both. The electronic part is usually taken care of by the producer himself, but for the acoustic sections, musicians are often hired to record those parts.

 The musicians hired for this purpose specialize in studio recordings. They are capable of playing extremely accurate and on time to the beat/metronome. This saves a lot of time for the mix engineer to later quantize the recordings to time, which may or may not always get the best results. It is equally important to make sure that the instruments are tuned properly. Even a slight mismatch can distract the listener, and spoil the mood of the song. Many studio musicians have a wide variety of instruments with different tones. For example, a studio guitarist will have many guitars with different tones. The instrument is chosen for the song based on the requirement.

 Another key component in song production that separates the professionals from the amateurs is the mix of the song. This is the job of the mixing engineer. He takes in all the instrumental and vocal layers, carefully sculpts the sound so that they fit well together, and makes sure that the overall mix sounds homogeneous. Use of high quality gear, digital or analog, adds sheen and polish to a performance. This gives it that extra edge which makes the production sound great.

 Mastering is the final link in the chain of music production. The mastering engineer takes the mix file(s) from the mixing engineer and makes sure that there are no irregularities in the mix, and takes care of the loudness part of the song. The boost in levels also magnifies the errors in the mix, if any, and thus must be taken care of the mastering engineer himself. Testing it on hi-fi and lo-fi systems to ensure proper playback on all kinds of devices is part of the job.

By making sure to meet talented people concerned with each stage of the production of a song, one can be assured of a final output of professional quality. In real world situations, there are cases where multiple aspects of the production might be taken care of by the same person or group, but one has to make sure that they are capable of doing the required tasks.

In the end, music production in itself is very subjective. Guidelines are there for everything, from making the track to mastering, but in the end it comes down to the precision in the level of judgement of the music production team. Small differences in quality of the individual aspects add up to make big differences in the final output.