A comprehensive guide for creating beats, chords, and a hyper-produced sound to make K-Pop songs that slap
NOVEMBER 14TH, 2021
Style and feel
In K-Pop, your default must be to dial the energy up to 11 in every chorus and drop, and even maintain a solid intensity throughout the verses. There’s never a dull moment, and every bar is carefully engineered to deliver maximum impact, typically with a joyful, bubbly feel-good vibe. This is the nature of K-Pop: over the top, high-impact and larger than life. It represents a stark contrast with other mainstream pop music such as from the United States, which often emphasizes a breathy and intimate quality versus K-Pop’s hyper-produced, tidy style.
The genre has a ton of movement, using a wide variety of percussion behind the standard kick and snare combo. With tons of synth layers, background harmonies and huge leads, K-Pop arrangements quickly get dense — especially when you add in the front-facing lead group vocals, which occupy a large majority of the mix! When you produce K-Pop, you’re signing up for a ton of detailed automation and effect tweaking to get everything in the perfect balance, which is exactly what we’ll cover throughout the rest of this article.
Chords and harmonies
K-Pop gets many of its chord progressions from a mixture of Western EDM and R&B, repurposed and given its own unique twist. Even for “minor” songs, the genre is typically still very bright and energetic, with rapid chord changes that never seem to sit still. This is a big part of the genre’s charm — there’s an innocence to it, and it never takes itself too seriously. It’s often chaotic and leaves little time for the ears to rest, and that’s part of what keeps it so engaging!
If you listen closely, you can often hear direct influences on the styles of some of the most popular songs. Take Children by BVNDIT, for example — do you hear an Ariana Grande influence in there? Or a Chainsmokers influence in Miso’s ON N ON? It’s never the exact same, of course, and this even goes beyond the difference in language alone. Since there’s so much variety across different songs, let’s look at a few specific examples:
YES or YES by TWICE is a fun example in that it combines chord progressions from 00s big room EDM and classic J-Pop with 80s-style glistening, reverb-heavy leads. There’s clearly a ton going on here, but the chorus centers around a very simple IV - V - IIImin - VImin progression that’s rare to find in Western pop music today. However, parts of the verse have a very summery, rebellious teen pop vibe that was popular in the early 2000s. If you know a variety of genres quite well, you’ll be able to find new nuggets of gold on every listen-through... and this is just the tip of the iceberg of K-Pop’s musical diversity!
One more example: SOME (You’ll Be Mine) by NATURE. The initial bassline hearkens back to an old KC and The Sunshine Band light funk feel, though in the chorus, there’s very little chord movement at all as a simple motif is repeated with little variation — that is, until the classic R&B chord progression in the last minute of the song. Despite all the variety in the chords across different sections, everything flows seamlessly together unbelievably well. That’s because the various sections are consistent in other ways, effortlessly bridging heavily contrasting styles. One of those points of consistency is the heart and soul of K-Pop: the beat!
Beat and rhythm
It would take far too much space to describe all the different types of beats you’ll find in K-Pop, so again we’ll cover a few different examples. You’ll find most adhere to some version of 4-to-the-floor kick and snare beats, but there’s a lot of variety between individual songs in the sub-rhythms and percussion used.
First, Dramatic by BVNDIT: from almost the very beginning, the song launches into a heavy reggaeton rhythm with the classic delayed dry, whip-like offbeat to break up the monotony of simple straight eighths. At times, you’ll hear snare fills and broken rhythms in the backing percussion. All of these elements support the main kick and snare pattern, and the chorus snare is layered with a hefty, wet clap to give it a nice smack.
BIM BAM BUM by Rocket Punch, on the other hand, follows a standard trap pattern in the drops with a tight, bottle pop-like snare on the offbeats after each main snare hit, blended with a standard 4-to-the-floor EDM pattern for a nice hybrid beat. On the other hand, the chorus follows a chaotic breakbeat with light trap drums in an unusual but very fun combination overall. The verse is quite different, however, again following a reggaeton pattern that contrasts with the other sections. Here’s the important takeaway: none of this ever feels disjointed or out of place! And that’s in large part because of the consistency in the production style.
If you want a hand making full K-Pop beats instantly, try out UJAM’s Beatmaker IDOL — it’s specifically engineered to make this style of drum production easier than it’s ever been, complete with samples, tweakable loops via the MIDI Drag & Drop feature, and the unique “Juice” algorithm to mix and punch things up on the fly. Laying down the beat first is one of the easiest ways to get in the flow and let inspiration run its course, and IDOL is completely optimized to get you there as fast as possible (even if the genre is still new to you!).
Getting a big sound
Part of K-Pop’s larger-than-life sound comes from the tails of its synths, snare hits and other instruments. Rather than being super tight and dry, these parts tend to be explosive with a gradual fall off, creating a huge feel and a massive wall of sound. If you choose to emulate this approach, be careful not to make things too ‘splashy’ — you run the risk of the tails getting in the way of other instruments in the mix, especially with the broadband noise of snare and claps (which gets in the way of everything if you’re not careful!). Volume automation and proper compression settings are key: short release on the compressor to bring up the tail, but automating the volume down to keep it from ballooning too much. Whenever possible, “bake in” this processing by rendering out all your snare layers as a single sample; that way, you only have to design the automation once.
On the topic of compression, if you decide to produce K-Pop, you’ll need to use a lot of it, so be prepared — otherwise, the mix will sound weak when you don’t exert hyper control over everything. If you’re confused as to which settings to use, here’s a simple set of rules you can follow to get reasonably close to the settings for each instrument and synth track:
Overcompress first so you can hear exactly what the compressor is doing (every plugin is a little different, and which one you use largely comes down to taste). Set the attack and release to medium settings, and make the attack shorter and shorter until you hear it messing with your transients. Back off from there until there’s a nice shape to the beginning of each note or hit, and then turn to the release. If you want to bring up the volume of the sound’s body, shorten the release; if you want a grooving curve with a cut in volume after each attack, stretch out the release until you get the shape you want (if the release is too long, it will interfere with the attack — when in doubt, convert the bpm to the number of milliseconds between beats and keep the release less than that). That’s usually enough to get close to the sound you want!
You’ll also want to employ a ton of reverbs to control your space heavily. Most front-facing parts like vocals and drums usually get treated with shorter reverbs, but you’ll do well with longer ones for background instruments like synths and flutes to fill out the space. This contributes further to the ‘wall of sound’ feel, and given that silence is something you typically want to avoid in the more intense sections like the chorus and drops, long reverbs on tonal instruments are an easy way to fill up any remaining space.
Be liberal with your EQing, too — since K-Pop has so many elements occurring simultaneously, you’ll need to cut out a lot of frequencies you don’t need in various instruments, especially lows and low mids in non-bass instruments. The drawback of conventional EQ with K-Pop lies in maintaining balance while the relationship between instruments is constantly changing; that’s where dynamic and sidechain EQs come into play.
One of the most effective plugins for this is Wavesfactory’s Trackspacer, which allows any audio track to listen to another and duck a specific frequency range in proportion to its volume. For example, say you want to make sure nothing gets in the way of your vocals, but EQing conflicting audio tracks makes them sound too thin. You can use Trackspacer on all of those tracks to “listen” to the vocals and duck out of the way as the singers become more present, saving you tons of time and effort in the process.
As a quick final note, don’t forget to sidechain compress the mix (besides the vocals) off of the kick for maximum impact — the drums hold everything together, and you need to keep the energy up when you’re creating K-Pop!
When writing K-Pop, everything you do must serve the end goal of ramping up the energy and supporting the vocals. If you don’t have a vocalist but still want to create something with a distinctly K-Pop feel, shine the spotlight on the lead synth and make it sound as big as you can! When producing in this genre, typically you will leave nothing untouched; drums, vocals, chords and everything in between will likely need some degree of EQ and compression, possibly with reverb, delay, and other effects as well.
The biggest challenge lies in the fact that you need to develop a vision for how to shape everything almost to the point of over-production and build your song around that vision — otherwise, you’ll end up with a mess! However, that’s the fun of it as well: knowing that you can produce with a heavy hand and be forgiven. No need to pursue analog warmth; just a driving, hard-hitting beat that sells the song to your listeners.
Remember, you can always give yourself a headstart with Beatmaker IDOL so you never have to worry about how to start or shape your beat — your K-Pop songs will have more punch and you’ll be able to produce more than ever and in much less time!