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8 steps to producing a pop record
Sneer all you like, but the truth is that the majority of us would love to produce a record that gets put on heavy radio rotation. There's not just the commercial aspect to consider - to a large extent, pop music is where the money is - but also the satisfaction that comes from knowing that you've been able to tap into the musical desires of a large cross-section of the public.
What's more, when you consider that pop music often draws inspiration from 'underground' genres (dubstep being a prime contemporary example), you might start to realise that you already have many of the skills required to create a hit record.
Crafting a pop smash isn't easy, though, so here are eight essential pieces of advice for anyone who wants to try and make it happen.
1. Don't overdo it
These days, a big, full sound is absolutely essential. It might seem somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but the fewer elements you use, the easier it is to achieve a huge sound. The theory is that each sound can be mixed extra loud when there's little for it to compete with in terms of headroom and frequency space. This has the advantage of making everything supremely bold and clear.
Instead of pouring your efforts into adding more sounds, try to be economical, with as few instrument parts as you can reasonably get away with. Above all, leave plenty of space for vocals to sit on top of everything else.
2. Get the vocal right
Pop vocals don't need to be performed by exceptional vocalists. In fact, the vocal performance no longer needs to be impressive in the traditional sense - but it does still need to be impressive generally. Producers are always looking for new ways to process and treat vocals in order to add interest to the listening experience, so make a habit of experimenting with your recordings.
However, no amount of processing will save a truly awful performance. Ignorant critics might suggest it can, but it's simply not true that any random bod off the street can sing a pop track. Without meaning to play down the role of technology, good vocals still require talent, just as they always have done.
3. Look further afield
Keep your finger on the cultural pulse, and regularly check out advances in technology. Sometimes a new piece of software heavily defines what will be heard in the pop charts. Also, popular culture influences all forms of media, not just music. When retro '80s fashion came back in a few years ago, so too did the sounds from that era in popular music. Such clues should help you to tap into the trends of today's society and get a headstart on the next big thing.
4. Feel the music
Stylistic choices can be tough to call, so let your tastes guide you. It's all well and good listening to other artists' music and analysing it, but the most useful information will always be your own emotional response to the music itself. Ask yourself what you find exciting about it and consider what might work that hasn't been done yet.
You don't need to reinvent the wheel, either. A lot of modern pop tracks are the result of the crossbreeding of different genres. Experiments in this area are likely to lead you to unique sounds that have their roots in tried-and-tested formulas. The perfect pop song sounds both new and familiar at the same time.
5. Mix for all ears
For a song to stand any chance of being successful as a pop record, it needs to boast a spotless and exciting mix. A good mixdown will sound great on playback systems of all kinds, which is exactly what's needed. It needs to sound good in a club, so make sure the low end extends low, like a dance or hip-hop record. It also needs to sound good through headphones, so a carefully considered stereo image will earn you bonus points with the listener. These are common-sense mix suggestions that should always apply, but the pop industry is becoming increasingly intolerant of sonic shortcomings.
6. Work that mass appeal
You've got to be sensible to a degree and keep in mind that in order to appeal to mass audiences, the overall aesthetic of the song should be highly accessible. This is the same theory that dictates that decorating a house in neutral colours will increase its rental prospects. While production elements within modern pop can be gritty and brash, the song and the overall production is almost never harsh, challenging or overbearing in any way, because those qualities are generally repellent to the music-buying public.
On the flip side, the danger of being too neutral is that you risk being boring. Easy to listen to doesn't necessarily mean lacking character.
7. Listen around
Listen to lots of music to expand your taste. Music appreciation is a skill in itself. The more diverse your tastes are, the better you'll be able to grasp what turns a sound into music at the most fundamental level. This has the knock-on effect of increasing your musical palette, which can only be a good thing.
Similarly, the more music you understand, the more potential you'll see in your own ideas, and the better equipped you'll be to develop a simple idea into a full-blown song. Dip into music's history, but make sure you prioritise modern music to get an idea of what turns on the current generation.
8. Trust your instincts
Feel free to ignore everything you've just read! Well, sort of. It's best to be aware of all of these things at some level, but there is something to be said for innovation and originality. If you strongly feel that breaking convention is going to work in a specific case then don't be discouraged from launching forwards - just make sure you take these ideas into consideration. If you're right, you could be on to something huge.
On the other hand, while it's OK in principle to disagree with what everybody else is doing, there's no excuse for just getting it wrong because you wilfully ignored the reasons things are done the way they are.