How Do You Write a Radio Hit?

There are so many elements that go into a song from writing through pre-production, tracking, mixing & mastering. At every step of the process, the entire song can be derailed by simple mistakes. The reason producers and engineers with hours of practice get a better result is simple too: they’ve had the chance to learn those mistakes and avoid them at all costs.

The reward for a song that is nurtured from start to finish is huge. Chart success, whether it comes from traditional radio or streams on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, etc, means more touch points with your audience, more exposure, and can result in bigger shows, more merch sales & more publicity for your band. Seriously – what’s not to love about that if you’re serious about making a career in music?

Whether you’re someone that handles all of this yourself, or you’re wondering what to look for when building your creative team, here are the top ways you can turn your songwriting session into a hit radio single:

Write Around The Vocals

Aside from a few oddities, the majority of what you’re going to hear on the radio is driven by the vocal (and subconsciously, the melody behind it). A great vocal hook doesn’t have to be complex or push the boundaries of what the human voice is capable of. It just needs to be catchy.

The lyrics need to be relatable too. Whether you’re writing a love song or telling a story with your lyrics, you want something that’s going to stick in your listener’s ear. You want to craft something that will rattle around in their head for days. Think of the last time you got a song stuck in your head. It might drive you crazy, but it gets in there and bounces around until you inevitably go listen to the song to satisfy your desire to listen to it for a while.

By the time you get to tracking, your vocals should be locked in lyrically and melodically, at which time a great vocal engineer/producer will take that creativity and run with it. An experienced vocal engineer should be able to pair your voice with the right microphone, pre-amp and any other part of the signal chain that accentuates the smallest intricacies that make your voice unique.

Even without unlimited access to microphones and preamps, engineers should be able to sweeten a vocal in-the-box to get a radio-ready sound. Tools like Gain Reduction are used to add harmonic distortion and saturation to a vocal in a very sonically pleasing way. Don’t believe me? You must not realize how many Top 40 vocals are intentionally distorted on the radio.

Production Perfection

If your vocal is the centerpiece, the rest of your arrangement should be supporting the vocal in your spotlight. To achieve this, it requires equal parts songwriting and studio ingenuity. When you’re going into the studio, you can afford the liberty to write what sounds good, not necessarily what you’re going to be able to play perfectly live.

If we had to live up to that standard, we’d rarely have any doubled/quad tracked guitars, vocal harmonies would be limited to the number of band members able to sing live, and your production synths would be limited to what one band member can do with their two hands (assuming they’re not already playing another instrument).

Fortunately, the studio is a playground for production. Your goal in tracking should be to capture a full production of sounds, letting your mix engineer thin things out if needed. If you’ve got too many guitars in a mix, it’s easy to cut some out. It’s not as easy to add something that isn’t there.

Go ahead and use the studio to create vocal stacks from floor to ceiling. Add new percussion elements and software synths. All of these elements can be printed to a backing track for live use later if you end up needing them for your live show.

Try your best to add something new to the song with everything you record. There’s no point in tracking the same guitar through the same amp four times just for options – there are much quicker studio tricks to get sounds like that. Instead, play a few different parts through different gear. Write new parts if you’ve got the time. There’s no limit to creativity as long as all of your efforts are contributing to the vision you’ve got for the final song.

From Writing & Recording to Mixing & Mastering

Once you’ve got everything tracked, the band might be out of the woods, but the engineers and producers working on the project are just getting started. If you’re interested in what happens in the next stage on your path from writing to radio, be sure to subscribe to the JST email newsletter below.

Next week, we’ll tackle a few of the biggest things every tracking engineer should be doing in their sessions to ensure their recordings are mix-ready. You won’t want to miss it.