There are two types of Pop Secret.

The first is popcorn. Mmm…popcorn…

The second has to do with pop music. Mmm…pop… (Wait, wasn’t that a Hanson song?)

Okay, stick with me. There’s actually a really cool lesson here. Last week I was critiquing mixes for my VIP members (which I do once a month). There’s always a wide variety of songs submitted. One song (submitted by Dustin) got me thinking.

He decided to write an instrumental track using all MIDI instruments (meaning he didn’t record any audio tracks, just virtual instrument tracks). It was a synth-pop type of song.

When I listen to songs like this, something becomes very clear to me.

I call it the “Pop Secret.”

I talk a lot about mixing, but what a lot of people don’t realize (myself included at times) is that the mix is only as good as the arrangement.

Think about it. When you’re writing a song using all virtual instruments, the tracks themselves all sound pretty good. Whether you’re using a drum sampler, a synth, or maybe a bunch of realistic-sounding instrument samples, the sounds themselves already sound good.

I find that I usually don’t do a lot of processing (EQ, compression, etc.) on virtual tracks. Oftentimes they sound like they’ve already been tweaked to sound fairly “mix-ready.”

So…does that mean if you use all virtual instruments that your mixes will sound amazing?

Nice try.

It all comes back to the Pop Secret: Arrangement.

When you’re writing a synthy pop song, you’ll spend a lot of time choosing the right sounds for your song. You may audition a couple dozen different synth pads for one part. Then you’ll pick a different sound and come up with a different part, and so on.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Even if you NEVER use virtual instruments. Even if you’re like me, and you prefer to slap up a microphone and record real instruments as much as possible, you still need to utilize this Pop Secret.

You see, it’s really easy to get so focused on recording a bunch of tracks that you forget to focus on arrangement. Good arranging means coming up with the right PARTS and the right INSTRUMENTS to play those parts.

Imagine you’re writing a huge synth pop track. You would spend a ton of time writing the parts and choosing the right sounds, right?

Then why don’t we do this more when we’re recording “real” tracks?

A dozen guitar tracks playing the same part WON’T sound nearly as good as a handful of guitar tracks playing the right parts.

There’s a great example of this on the song we’re mixing this month inside Dueling Mixes. It’s a great pop/rock tune, with lots of well-chosen parts and tracks.

Go give it a listen (and polish up on your mixing skillz) here:

  • Dan Updegraff

    When I started mixing, I worked on my own synth-pop songs and they didn’t turn out too well. Every instrument was great on its own, but layering a bunch of wide stereo tracks produced a masking nightmare.

    So I moved on to trying some mix projects from the internet that had mono tracks (vocals, guitars, drums). This let me learn about the power of panning and delays/reverbs.

    I have yet to return to my own songs, but looking back now, they probably need better arrangements, with narrower stereo tracks, and panning instruments that compliment each other to opposite sides.

    • Yeah, that’s a good point. All those stereo samples can eat up space. One thing I’ll do is just force them to be mono tracks and pan them to a specific spot in the mix.

  • The real reason why all those lovely, pristinely sampled virtual instruments sound like shite when they are mixed together is that old chestnut you usually go on about Joe…! They is stepping all over each other in the frequency spectrum & not giving each other space in the mix! After all, what is Hi Fi exactly? Why, it’s a sound that has a full spectrum ov response to it. Let’s face it, some ov those pads etc are pretty phat! Put lots ov those together and what do we get? Mud.

    TBH the biggest challenge I find with virtual instruments is not making them good, it’s making sure they don’t sound like perfect plastic. hehe