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How to Produce: The Complete Guide to Making Pop Music

March 11, 2024 — Explore the world of pop music production with our in-depth guide. From songwriting to mastering, discover the step-by-step process for crafting hit pop tracks.

Woman singing in the studio with headphones on

Pop music is an intriguing genre, but what is pop exactly? Unlike heavy metal, it's not defined by a specific sound or standard instrumentation. You might find a pop band with real musicians, or other could be a DJ and vocalist combo using synthesized elements.

However, pop music does have universal features. When you make pop music, it needs to capture audiences worldwide with simple yet catchy melodies and relatable lyrics. Remember, it should appeal to people who may not speak the language. So, the melody must work on its own, even if the listener doesn't understand the lyrics.

Another constant in pop music is change and adaptation. It always adapts to new tech advancements and consumer preferences. To create pop music for a modern audience, think of it as a musical philosophy rather than a specific genre.

Effective Pop Music

First off, pop music needs a solid, memorable, and singable melody. It's not the place for technical jazz improvisations. Pop music usually has simple, catchy melodies with repetitive structures that stick in the listener's head. Often, these tunes come with simple chord progressions. Many pop songs only need 3 or 4 chords.

That said, some pop music gets more complex with harmony. Take The Beatles, one of the biggest pop groups ever. They sometimes used more complicated chords but always kept their melodies simple and catchy.

Sometimes, pop music harmony is so basic that you can play a band's whole record with just one chord. The Ramones are a prime example. Their guitarist, Johnny Ramone, stuck to major barre chords, and that's it.

When you produce pop, avoid complicated jazz chords like diminished 7ths or augmented chords. Stick to simple major and minor chords and maybe throw in some advanced ones for flavor.

Read more: Chord Progressions Explained - How to Write a Song With Instruments

Pop music stays fresh by borrowing elements from different genres. As music technology evolves and new genres emerge, pop music can appropriate new sounds to keep things interesting.

For example, dubstep started as an underground electronic genre in London clubs but soon became part of the pop landscape. For a while, it seemed like every pop artist incorporated dubstep into their songs at some point.

In the future, emerging genres like Drift Phonk, or Jersey Club might be picked up by pop producers.

In Soundtrap, you can produce pop songs from premade loops and samples in the studio. Check out the Riverside project below to begin creating your own pop song from the demo template.

The Role of the Producer

In some music genres, the producer's role varies. Some may suggest changes to songwriting and instruments, while others just record the band without much creative input. But in pop music, the producer greatly influences the record's direction. They're like a movie director, shaping the sound and guiding the song.

Pop music producers provide creative guidance and help artists realize their vision. They handle technical aspects like recording, mixing, and mastering but also know the pop industry's ins and outs. So, they must create a great pop song that works technically but also understand what sells.

Unlike other genres focusing on artistic expression alone, pop music aims to sell. Thus, the pop music producer must ensure the artist doesn't stray from this goal.

Read more: How To Produce Music - 9 Steps to Get Started in Music Production

Songwriting and Composition

Songwriting is the backbone of a great pop song. It's crucial to focus on relatable themes. Writing about the civil war in Yemen may be emotionally powerful, but it's not something that appeals to the mainstream. So, pop songs stick to themes like love, friendship, and personal struggles.

Relatable lyrics need a catchy melody. Some of the best pop melodies are simple, but creating a memorable tune without being annoying is tricky. In pop music, structure is key. You won't find many songs straying from the verse-chorus-bridge format, though there are a few notable exceptions.

For instance, punk band NOFX isn't known for mass appeal, but their most popular song "Linoleum" (that achieved heavy radio play) lacks a chorus or hook. Still, a pop song should generally use a verse-chorus-bridge structure with a catchy chorus.

Vocal Production

In some music genres, vocals are treated like just another instrument in the mix. Take Electric Wizard, a Doom Metal Band, for example. Their vocals sound like the singer's battling to be heard over a wall of ear-splitting guitar cabinets.

In pop music, it's a different story. Vocals are the centerpiece and carry the main melody. They're front and center, setting the song's emotional tone. Pop vocal production is polished, using background vocals and harmonies to enrich texture and amp up the emotion. In rock music, listeners might appreciate imperfections and strain in a singer's voice. But in pop, they expect polished vocal production.

This is why pop productions often use auto-tune, correcting pitch to ensure everything sounds perfect. Critics argue this takes away from the performance since imperfections can create an emotional impact. Yet, the best pop music productions now have pitch-perfect vocals without any noticeable flaws.

Beats and Bass

Nowadays, to make pop music hit hard, it's all about the beat and bass. Modern pop is heavily influenced by electronic dance music (EDM), so listeners expect solid beats and hypnotic bass grooves. You might hear traditional drummers and electric bass players, but electronic drum machines and synthesized basslines are more common now.

Drum machines and synthesizers offer simple yet effective sounds. One big plus in pop music is their ability to produce tons of bass frequencies. So if you want to shake the club, drum machines and synth bass are the way to go. Pop music needs impact, and tracks with human drums and electric bass might lack bass compared to earth-shaking 808 kicks.

Listeners want emotionally impactful music, but they also want to dance. A solid drum groove and bassline are essential for making people move. Neglecting drums and bass in a mainstream track is risky. Sure, there's a market for simple, stripped-back pop songs with acoustic guitar and vocals, but they lack the universal appeal of a solid, bassy groove.

AmaZane making a Pop ballad in Soundtrap.

Make Pop Music With Technology

Pop music is a tech-savvy genre, always reinventing itself with the latest gadgets. Remember when singers had to be pitch-perfect? Not anymore! Pitch correction software, like Soundtrap's Vocal Tuner, lets even the tone-deaf top charts.

Digital audio workstations (DAWs) have also changed the game. Before, artists and producers needed face time in the studio, and after that, files needed to be exported and sent back and forth between studios. Now, with online music studios like Soundtrap, music collaborators from anywhere in the world can work together on the same project, instantaneously.

Sampling has also become a crucial part of pop. Once controversial, it's now widely accepted and often goes unnoticed. Take Britney Spears' "Toxic" - its string sound came from an obscure Bollywood film!

However, when sampling, proceed with caution. Uncleared samples can cause legal headaches.

You could lose all your music's commercial rights. Remember the viral trap song, "Harlem Shake"? It was by American producer Baauer. But it turned into an internet meme and a global phenomenon. Sadly, Baauer couldn't make money from it because he used a small vocal sample he hadn't cleared with the original artist.

The Mixing Process

Music mixing is crucial, especially in pop music. Unlike punk or noisecore, where raw sound is appreciated, pop demands a polished mix. DIY idealism won't cut it here.

A pop mix needs balance and clarity, using compression and gating to control dynamics. It must also appeal to everyone and sound good on any system - from tinny radios to high-end headphones. That's where skilled mixing and mastering engineers come in.

Mastering pop music means considering loudness. Masters are typically loud with little dynamic range for a strong impact on all playback systems. This helps tracks compete on radio and streaming platforms like Spotify.

Read more: Pro Guide: Mix Your Songs Online

Marketing and Distribution

The hardest part of making pop music isn't just knowing how to write pop songs that are mixed and mastered well. In fact, many artists and pop producers can do just that, but they never make it big. Often, it's because their marketing and distribution efforts don't meet today's digital standards.

In modern pop music, marketing and distribution are just as important, if not more, than the production process itself. To ensure a pop track or album succeeds, make sure the artist has a strong social media presence and promote the track on platforms like Spotify and YouTube.

To generate attention, consider creating a visually appealing music video to complement the music. This increases the chances of getting clicks on platforms like YouTube. While there are success stories of producers who started in their bedrooms and found mainstream success, it's tough without major label backing.

Read more: Music Promotion: How to Distribute and Promote Your First Release

Now You Know How to Make Pop Music

It isn't easy to make pop music. You need solid songwriting experience, knowledge of the latest trends, and technical proficiency. Plus, you've gotta know how to market and distribute your work. It's clear you can't do it all yourself - successful pop music thrives on collaboration. Just check the production credits for top songs, and you'll likely find many different producers working on a single track.

Great pop music comes from collaboration, and seamless teamwork like this increases your chances of producing a smash hit. Soundtrap can help your workflow with other musicians and streamline the process. Sign up to Soundtrap for free today and try it out for yourself!

Get started with Soundtrap today!