The Secret to Mastering Pop


The secret to any punchy, up-front mix is compression. Compression is typically used to help push instruments to the front of the mix and bring out the detail. This can be quite a technique to get to grips with though. You don’t want to squash the transients to nothing, with aggressive settings, but you also need tight, punchy, and loud.


This is where taking time out to get to know your tools and learn how to dial in the settings becomes your advantage in the highly competitive music industry marketplace. I suggest that you have a look at the Quick Dial Compression Series Course, where we go through both compression and limiting technique.

Here are a few tips. If the settings on your compressor are too aggressive, you will suck out the life of the mix and introduce unnecessary distortion, and your mix will be really tiring to listen to. So, the trick to achieve a punchy, polished sound without sacrificing quality, is to use serial compression. Instead of applying large amounts of compression all at once, apply small amounts of compression gradually. This will not only preserve the transients and dynamic range, but also increase perceived volume. Careful here though, you want to avoid high ratios and fast attack times. Rather look at very subtle ratio settings of around 2:1 or slightly lower say 1.6 or 1.8. Your attack time should be quite slow, so you avoid ‘pumping’ and the transients are not badly affected. To have a nice ‘natural’ rather than ‘pumped’ sound, use faster release times. It is incredibly important to watch any meter in your project, and for the compressor, you really want to keep your eyes on the GR meter. Aim for the so called ‘sweet spot’ at -3dB or so. Again though, this is completely mix dependent, and input level to compressor dependent there aren’t ‘standard’ settings for compression. The whole goal here is to ‘glue’ and ‘gel’ the mix. Use your ears. You’ll hear when the low end of the mix lacks punch, or the mix sounds ‘harsh’ or even ‘distorted’ then the compression is way too heavy. Limiting for Loudness Your mix must be able to compete in the commercial marketplace, and to sound competitive meet industry standards for levels (loudness). Pop mixes tend to be mastered louder than most tracks at around -12 to -9 LUFS. But, in aiming for loud, you must preserve the dynamic range of the track and prevent any unwanted clipping or distortion. Especially as you will more than likely have the material played back in a lossy compression format such as mp3, and across various platforms, such as Spotify and Itunes, where each have their own loudness regulations in place. So, if you over compress the mix, you could easily destroy the dynamics and punch of the track. You could also introduce unintentional distortion into your mix through the file format conversion. Make sure you leave enough headroom to anticipate those clipping potentials that will introduce unwanted audio artefacts.

It is incredibly important to use your meters as the visual cue to what you are hearing. Your ears will ultimately let you know what sounds right. However, it is professional practice to constantly watch your meters to check if your mix is too loud or too soft, check for phase and mono compatibility issues, as well as for unintentional distortion. You will probably find that you bounce out several different files that are specifically mastered for different playback or delivery platforms. Pay attention to the target loudness point, especially for the various streaming services. To give you a bit of a head start, here is a video on using your Level, Goniometer and Correlation Meters. "