How to Produce Pop Music

Recording Connection grad & now mentor Ryan Venable aka Ryan Mellow with Justin Bieber at Studio 713

A Little about the History of Pop, the genre.

The genre of music that we call pop music today has its roots in the early 1950s. Bill Haley and the Comets’ 1954 hit “Rock Around the Clock” is widely accredited with launching this genre which at the time was a fusion of country, R&B and folk music and given the name “Rock ‘n Roll.” Today’s Pop Music has evolved from early Rock ‘n Roll, with many sub-genres including K-Pop, Power Pop, Bubblegum Pop, Adult Contemporary, Soft Rock and Electro Pop and many influences ranging from Disco to Hip Hop, to Punk. While logical, it is incorrect to state that Pop music is just an abbreviation for popular music. Prior to 1954, popular music artists included the Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole, Mitch Miller, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and who can forget Eileen Barton and her hit “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake”. With the exception of a song or two, none of these artists would be considered pop artists.

Before you Jump into Production, Know This.

Before you can produce pop music, it’s probably a good idea to understand a few common traits about the genre which have held true over the years. Pop music is, above all else, commercial music. This usually translates into a pop song being short to medium in length (2-4 minutes which is a carryover from radio days where DJs wanted to fit in as many songs as they could between commercials); usually written in a basic verse – chorus structure; and containing a memorable chorus or hook. Additionally, pop music is generally written to appeal to teenagers-both because they’re a lucrative market, and a market that has great potential to “go viral” thanks to their hyper-connected socializing and the collective gathering that takes place in school.

Know Thy Library.

Preparation is the key to being a successful pop music producer. Be a sponge when it comes to learning everything in your library. For instance, let’s say you want to use Omnisphere to create many of your sounds. Ominisphere’s library includes over 12,000 sounds. While you can’t be expected to know all of them, you should have a very good idea of which ones you are likely to use in the song you are going to produce. Since we’re talking about pop, it’s very like that the song you’re going to produce has drums, bass, and some type of instrument. In addition, you are going to want to add one or more sounds that will make your song special—it could be a lead guitar, a vocal, or anything else that fits the bill. Once you have all this very clear in your head and written down on a list, it’s time to hit the studio.

Build Your List

As a producer the abilty to use your time wisely is expected of you. If you’re bringing players in to record, or have a whole band you’re producing, it’s up to you to know what needs to be tracked, how much time you’re allotting to tracking what, and to know when it’s time to move on. Hence, before you set foot into that recording studio and start accruing time on the clock, it’s wise to have a full list or spreadsheet worked out listing all the various tracks you will be needing.

Assemble the Pieces

In the studio, you start by laying down tracks—usually you’ll start with the drums and bass—and arranging the song by putting verses together and figuring out how they lead into the chorus or pre-chorus. Your job as the producer is to understand the studio’s capabilities, know how to work with the audio engineer, be able to take charge of the band (if you’re using one)and get them to focus. When it comes to working with musicians, make sure everyone involved is on the same page in terms of what you’re looking to achieve and how the final version of the song will sound. At the end of this phase you should have a skeletal version of your song that has verse, chorus, repetitions, and the all-important hook.

As a general rule of thumb, if you are prepared, you should be able to complete a song in around four hours of studio time. If you’ve been in the studio for a couple of days and there’s no end in sight, then it’s time for you to rethink your strategy, see what got you off-course, and take the necessary steps to get everything you need to restruture and record those tracks without blowing the budget.

Flesh it Out

Next you want to flesh this skeleton out by looping certain sections or adding additional instruments and the vocals. Once you’ve gotten your loops set, it’s time to vary some of the effects on the tracks or add a few instruments in certain places to keep the song interesting for the listeners’ ears. Like many other genres, you also want the energy of your song to rise or, at the very least, change during it’s playtime. Many pop songs do this by doubling up the tempo of the drums, adding some electronic music elements, or boosting the vocals. If a the pop song you’re creating deals with a theme of lament, like lost love, for instance, it may make sense for the song to slow down, perhaps end with a vocal refrain that fades to close. And remember, even though this is a pop song, it should have something real about it, something soulful which most listeners can identify with. The words of that infectious hook should grab them just as much as the beat and catchy melody.


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