How to Record Dream Pop in Your Home Studio

Like its close cousin shoegaze, dream pop is a pseudo-psychedelic genre of indie music that’s enjoyed a popular revival in the last decade or so. While dream pop solidified itself as a millennial favorite with the explosion of Beach House in the late aughts, its roots date back to the late 1980s, when the term was first coined by the band A.R. Kane in describing their sound.

The genre’s definition can be as blurry as its production, with some fans claiming that it bleeds into slowcore and some purists hanging onto the shoegaze label. But while shoegaze is characterized by walls of guitars and washes of echo, dream pop takes a mellower approach—it’s pleasantly hazy, but nothing gets lost in the clouds.

In fact, the label itself betrays what the genre is about: “dream,” in reference to its lightly psychedelic production style and “pop” indicating thoughtful songwriting, simple yet emotive chord progressions, and upfront vocals and melodies.

Whether you’re an old-school fan or have just discovered the style on a Spotify playlist, you might be wondering how you can capture those sounds in your own recordings. Below, we’ll lay out some tips and recommendations for dipping your toes into the slightly murky yet pleasantly warm waters of dream pop.

Guitars

Guitar tones in dream pop are typically very clean, giving off an almost “beachy” vibe. Fender guitars like the Jazzmaster and Telecaster and clean amps like the Fender Deluxe Reverb or Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120 have been popular choices among players in the genre, but nearly any guitar paired with a tube amp with decent headroom and a spring reverb tank will get you there.

Chorus, tremolo, reverb, and delay can be heard all over dream pop records. If you're looking to make an addition to your pedalboard, the DL4 Delay Modeler by Line 6 is definitely worth checking out, capable of delivering tons of flavors of delay and also featuring onboard looping, which is great for laying washing dreamscapes.

The EarthQuaker Devices Avalanche Run is another dimensional choice, packing both a reverb and delay circuit with tap-tempo. Overdrive and fuzz tones may make occasional appearances—consider picking up a Big Muff Pi from Electro-Harmonix—but add too much of that, and you’ll stray into shoegaze territory.

When it comes to playing style, almost anything goes as long as it’s fairly chill. Strumming, arpeggios, legato leads, and even slide playing are all viable techniques. Subtle manipulation of a whammy bar, Bigsby system, or careful neck-bending will give you a warbly, off-kilter sound that can adds to the music’s dreaminess.

While dream pop does contain the occasional guitar solo, it’s never about flashiness—keep it classy and make sure it serves the song. Bass isn’t crucial to dream pop, either, and is sometimes replaced with an organ or baritone guitar. Other times, it's better not to use it at all, as the absence of that anchoring low-end can add to the dreamy vibe of a song.

If you do include bass in your arrangements, let it sit comfortably in the background with a nice, round fingerstyle tone. Passive basses with flatwound strings are a good choice, and something like the Fender Mustang can be a solid choice that won't break the bank.

Synths and Keyboards

Nothing screams (or, should I say, whispers) dream pop like a powerful chord progression on a lush keyboard, and there are so many good options out there that it’s hard to go wrong. Older analog devices are usually preferable, as their quirks and idiosyncrasies can add a certain charm to their sound, but certain modern keyboards and even virtual instruments can still do the trick.

The easiest way to get ahold of some analog flavor is to hit up a thrift store or browse through Reverb—cheap CasioTones and transistor organs are widely available and offer a palette of simple voices which can be combined for rich, layered tones. Other great options include string machines like the ARP Solina or ‘80s polysynths like the Roland Juno-106, but pretty much anything with sustain and a thick sound will get you headed in the right direction.

Digital synths aren’t a no-no, but some sounds may clash with dream pop’s characteristic warmth. FM synthesizers like the famed Yamaha DX7 can produce some of the juiciest sounds, but be selective: Certain patches may be a bit too new wave/new age. And, of course, you don't always have to opt for the real thing—there are plenty of great software emulation plugins available on the market from companies like Arturia that can fill in.

Drums and Percussion

Rhythms in dream pop are often simple, repetitive, and hypnotic, keeping time with a mid-tempo 4/4 or 3/4 beat. On their earlier, more stripped-down records, Beach House famously made liberal use of “cheesy” rhythm machines, like those found on old combo organs. These early beat boxes featured a selection of generic jazz, soul, and latin rhythms with rudimentary analog sounds. (To learn how these first drum machines evolved into a dominant instrument in today's music landscape, check out Reverb's new documentary, Electric Rhythm: The History of the Drum Machine.)

When it comes to acoustic drum kits, it’s best to keep it simple. A standard four-piece kit with a mellow ride cymbal should be all you need in most cases, and you may not even find yourself using the toms or hi-hats. A slightly boomy kick and a moderately tight snare tuning is a good place to start, and placing tea towels on the snare and toms can further mellow out your sound.

Auxiliary percussion such as shakers, tambourines, and even sandpaper can add a little spice while keeping the rhythm simple. Feel free to experiment with almost anything—even household objects can create interesting sonic textures. Drum and cymbal overdubs with brushes or mallets can also be a very cool addition if done tastefully.

Production and Mixing

Once you have a good song written and some dreamy tones dialed in, the recording process is a matter of balancing tight pop production with just the right amount of loose, carefree playing.

If you can get your hands on a reel-to-reel tape deck or a cassette 4-track machine (like the Tascam Portastudio 414) in decent shape, the limitations of those formats and their analog mojo could be a major benefit. Analog is not a requirement, of course—just be careful not to kill the vibe with unlimited DAW tracks and digital editing.

Tascam Portastudio 414

When it comes to the mix, dream pop calls for a balance of clarity and cozy warmth. The tracks should meld together smoothly, yet each instrument should stand out just enough to be heard. Unlike the muffled, echo-soaked vocals of shoegaze that serve almost as background ambience, vocals in dream pop typically take center stage. Compress lightly to keep a steady level, and use gentle EQ to bring out the body of the voice and avoid any high-end sibilance or harshness.

By definition, dream pop calls for some spacey reverbs and echo effects, but it’s easy to get carried away and end up with a muddy mix. A good rule of thumb is to turn up an effect until it sounds good to you, then back it off just a bit.

Pre-reverb EQ and compression can help sculpt the sound going into the effect, filtering out harsh highs, muddy lows, and inconsistent levels for a cleaner sound. Cool effects to consider include spring and plate reverbs, tape echoes, and even rotating speaker cabinets (in plugin form if you can’t get the real thing).


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