We've all heard tracks that just beg to be taken further. A haunting vocal that cries out to be paired with a filthy wobble bass; a tune t hat would work so much better if it was playing over a more inventive chord structure; a metal track that could live a new life as an old·school rave anthem. This desire to appropriate the music of others and take it to new places isn't a new thing: even early classical composers would create new arrangements of existing compositions, sometimes merely re-orchestrating but at other times going as far as adapting the ideas in order to include a significant amount of original material.
Remixes have been around ever since the dawn of recorded music. Early producers and engineers stripped down multitrack recordings, either to transform them from one genre to another, or to rescue a well-written but not so well-produced track from the bin. These days the definition of a remix has loosened somewhat as technology's raced towards the powerhouses that are our modern DAWs. Technically, a remix could be as small a change as a new mono or surround sound-compatible version of an originally-stereo recording, or as wild as a scarcely recognizable new track with a few subtle elements derived from the original.
So why would anybody want someone else to remix their carefully considered productions? Well, there are a wealth of business-based reasons for starters. A record label might want to breathe new life into back-catalog tunes in order to capitalize on their legacy, or to cross them over into other markets - typically dance music. DJs often favor remixes because they keep their playlists fresh and up to date in genre terms, but still deliver a level of familiarity that they can be confident crowds will respond to. It's also a great way for a more obscure artist to get propelled into the limelight- either by having their original material remixed by a recognized name, or by producing a remix of an already popular track by someone else. Taken to another level, many forms of music flourish through copious remixing, attracting interest from wider audiences and forcing a degree of stylistic crossbreeding.
In this article, we're going to focus on that most extreme form of remixing: changing a track from one genre to another. By the time we're done, your music won't know what's hit it...
First things first
Before you get started, you'll save yourself a lot of hassle by taking the time to get organized. Before you even decide what direction your remix is going to take, gather your resources and carefully consider exactly what you've got at your disposal.
If you've been asked to do an official mix, you probably have it easy. You can request MIDI parts, audio stems and whatever else you feel is relevant. However. if the original track is very old or if you're doing an 'unofficial' remix (see the Legal issues box), chances are you won't have much in the way of individual parts to work with. You'll need to study the source material in question to figure out where key elements are from, or how certain sounds were created. You'll be surprised at how much information you can find online pertaining to the production of particular tracks, both speculated by enthusiasts and divulged by the original musicians. Try to find out specifically what instruments were used in the original production.
Hunt help down
If you're low on resources, you might find it useful to look for alternative versions of the track that already exist. Lots of singles include an acappella mix (vocals only), and labels occasionally release acappella albums, so it's by no means impossible to get hold of a vocal track by itself. Other versions might also leave elements exposed that weren't available to sample in the original mix.
The ability to read sheet music is a handy skill for a remix producer, because the scores of many songs re available to buy. They should help you figure out what's going on in any complicated sequences you might want to reproduce. Failing that, there are numerous resources online for downloading MIDI files, which you should be able to load directly into your DAW's sequencer and get going. Just be aware that a score or MIDI file might not necessarily be presented in the same key as the released recording, so be prepared to transpose your sequences up or down if they don't fit with the samples you're using.
The golden rule is to always make sure your resources are working together as you collect them. If anything isn't working,fix it now before you get to work on the creative stuff. It'll make things much easier in the long run.
Improvise to win
If there's a particular trait of the original that you'd like to retain, but you don't have that element to hand, ask yourself what it reminds you of. Improvise with what you do have available, then experiment with replacing missing parts with similar substitutes. By the time you've got the substitute ingredients into your remix, the fact that they're not the authentic parts might not matter. If you can achieve the right flavor regardless then you're on the right track. Remember, your aim is not to simply produce a carbon copy of the original track - so using different components to achieve a similar vibe might turn out to be beneficial to your remix. A remix that doesn't feature anything new doesn't real ly deserve that label.
Clocking the beat
Once you have as many parts as you can feasibly get your hands on and you're confident that they're all in tune with each other. figure out the tempo of your track. If you're remixing a modern recording, the original will likely be strictly timed to an integer BPM (beats per minute). You may find that much older recordings drift in and out of time (there were no click tracks back in the day), but it still helps to have an approximate idea of where the tempo lies. The simplest way to do this is to watch the clock for one minute and count the beats as you go along- that number is the approximate BPM.
Conceptualize your remix
Having gone to the trouble of pooling and studying your resources, it's time to make some firm decisions as to exactly what's feasible, so that you can start to conceptualize your remix. We're going to be using samples from an original live song demo (on the DVD), reworking it into a rave-ready drum 'n' bass remix. For this to work, we're going to need to get everything up to drum 'n' bass tempo, and we'll have to make tough decisions about what we can keep, what we can adapt to make compatible with our new genre and what we'll ultimately have to leave out altogether. It's important to identify which elements fall into which categories before starting production. If you're struggling to find any elements that will work with the new genre, you should consider choosing a different one. rather than forcing the track to go somewhere it doesn't want to.
It helps if you can find a reference track in the style you're producing that shares traits with your original track. Listen to how different elements are used and imagine how the elements you have in your pool will work in this new context. Think about what original parts you're going to have to add yourself to make the track work in the new style. If you're making a significant tempo leap, try listening to a timestretched version of the original song to help you decide which elements work at the new speed.
Remember to also think about how you can bring a new twist to existing elements. Many would argue that there's little point in a remix that isn't fresh and up to date, so consider how you can adapt ideas from the original track to make them compatible with the latest trends and musical fashion. You could consider your remix an opportunity to demonstrate how creative you can be, revitalizing the original tune. A lot of the time, simply cleaning up the original samples can work wonders. Ask yourself what you can do with them that couldn't have been done in the original style.
Get your samples up to speed
When it comes to getting your samples at the right tempo, there are three basic approaches. First, you can adjust the pitch, which is known as repitching or resampling. This works much like an old tape or vinyl deck - the familiar sounds of high-speed chipmunks and low-speed Darth Vader. This method isn't going to be the right choice for all types of material, but for a small change in tempo the pitch difference might not be noticeable on atonal parts such as live drums. Also, depending on the nature of your remix, the repitched character might tum out to be suitable.
The second method is to use your DAW's timestretching function. This should give you plenty of range In terms of tempo adjustment, while maintaining the original pitch. The leading software packages are very good at this, but you'll nonetheless find that some material suffers from subtle artifacts. This tends to be particularly problematic with drum tracks, where the essential transients caused by the striking of the drums end up losing their bite and sounding unnatural.
Perhaps the most effective method for tightening up a rhythm track is to slice it into small samples. The pattern can then be rearranged into new loops, the pitch remains the same and there are no timestretching artifacts-you only lose a bit of the tall, and chances are this will be unnoticeable or will sound fine anyway. This Is the method we're using here.
Respect the original track
While it's theoretically possible to rework: the elements of an existing track so much that the remix seems to have nothing in common with the original, it's important for a remix to be recognizable for what it is. We're all for creativity and bringing new ideas to the mix, but at some point you have to stop and ask yourself whether what you're doing can still be considered a remix - particularly if the track has become original enough that it shouldn't in fact be complicated by the presence of fragments of someone else's work.
Many of your decisions in this area will depend on the purpose of the remix. If you're doing an official remix, or maybe entering one of the many remix contests online these days, you might want to have a serious think about whether you're going to offend the original artists or put off their fans by going too far. You might decide that this isn't an issue that concerns you, but it's certainly something you should take into account if your aim is to get your name out there, win over a new audience and/ori impress a record label. Is your mix still commercially viable if it lacks the benefits of playing on what people are already familiar with?
Placing vocals over an 'alien' track
Think about the experience that you're creating with your track in general, too. If you tease audiences with parts of a verse but never reach the chorus, for example, you'll likely upset their expectations and leave them feeling frustrated and disappointed. If you have no intention of using the key elements from a track, maybe your efforts would be better suited to remixing something else. Ultimately you'll have to work carefully in order to strike the balance between being original and doing your own thing versus being respectful to the original track and its fans or your intended new audience.
Sometimes your remix concept might require you to strip away the original song's backing track and lay the vocals over a different instrumental. Another possible scenario is that of adding vocals to a track that didn't previously feature any. Whatever your reasons, it's likely that you'll need to marry an acappella vocal to an alien instrumental track at some point. The timing and tuning of this marriage is crucial.
Some basic musical knowledge will help here. As far as timing's concerned, it 's not just the tempo you need to watch. You should also listen out for incompatible rhythms. In Ideal circumstances, an instrumental should be written underneath the vocal so that they support each other as much as possible. Understandably, this might only be possible to a certain extent when doing a remix. As an extreme example of something to avoid, a triplet-based beat will clash really badly with a rapid 16ths rap lyric. In this case you might be better off ditching one or the other, or cutting the rap up into bite-sized phrases.
With tuning, it's not just the root keys that you need to match. A major-scale vocal forced on top of an instrumental based on a minor scale of the same root is a recipe for disaster. However, it's possible for some melodies to sit on a transposed backing track, that effectively slips into a relative key. If you're comfortable with making heavy-handed changes to the vocal, lt might be worth using retuning software to fix the odd clashing note.
Remix deals most often come about when a party with an interest in the original track (usually the artist or label) wants another version to sell. In this case they'll usually look to commission someone to produce a remix, typically paying a one-off fee and keeping the resulting income from the track to themselves. On other occasions, musicians have submitted unauthorized remixes to labels as demos, and had them either accepted or declined based on how useful the label deem each particular mix to be. However, producing a remix without first seeking permission is a risky business. The usual copyright infringement laws still apply to a remix, so don't assume that you're free to sample and reproduce elements from someone else's piece for this purpose. You might get away with doing it privately for your own entertainment or education, but the minute you decide to air the track publicly, you could potentially get yourself into hot water.
Incidentally, acappellas are sometimes released to encourage people to produce remixes. The simple reason for this is that the copyright owners can later license and profit from them. lf you're using an acappella version, try approaching the copyright owners: they might ask to hear examples of your past work and give you a chance at doing your remix officially. Better still, a good demo could score you a place on a remix roster, where you'll be offered work that's fully above board in the future.
Complete the puzzle
Once you're confident that your remix concept is working and your reincarnated versions of all the elements are usable, you need to patch all the pieces together, gelling the planned sections and integrating your own original material.
As with many other aspects of a remix, you have a decision to make regarding the arrangement design and structure: will it lean towards the original track, or must it be radically reformed to keep it relevant to the style you're producing your mix in? There might have to be some degree of compromise here, as you either adapt the original track's ideas to your form, or bend the rules of your chosen genre so as to do justice to the musical elements you're working with. Even the snobbiest of dance purists would agree that a little extra creative license is allowed for a remix. So long as you don't disregard the authenticity of your target genre, loosening traditions and breaking down conventions to get a remix to work is considered perfectly acceptable in the dance music world.
For example, you might want to make heavy use of live instrument parts in a pop trance track. It's not completely unheard of, but it's fair to say most music in that style wouldn't do that. If it sounds out of place and really isn't fitting in, you can address this issue by working those sounds into your synths. This is one area where a score or MIDI file might come in handy, saving time and trouble.
Multiple instruments playing in unison tend to merge into one and produce some really unique textures. In the context of a remix, this could be the perfect excuse to mix in some flavors from the original song. Don't underestimate the power of including even the subtlest hints of the original material in your track: these will help to indicate what the remix is and will probably excite fans of the track to boot. Getting creative with the inclusion of elements of the original song is the best way to bring a unique take on it to your remix.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
CHOP AND CHOOSE
If you're having troubles with a loosely timed sample, try cutting it up into sections first. Once you have the sample in manageable chunks, you can experiment with a range of different methods to tighten the timing up. For example, timestretching can sometimes be appropriate, but other times It just won't sound right. You might find certain phrases can be cut into sections that can be sequenced into time, or that brushing up just a few dodgy edits with timestretching does the trick.
IT'S NOT THE RIGHT TIME
If some ideas from the original song aren't working, try leaving those bits out. You'll have to make a real effort to decide which parts you can truly afford to lose, but if you've chosen the right genre for your remix, you should be confident that the main elements of the original will work in your new style. Typically, a modern dance remix of a heavily vocal-lead track will discard most of the vocals, only keeping a key phrase or chorus.
Sometimes you might want your resulting remix to work in a genre that dictates a whole different time signature. If, for example, you were to try to force a waltz-like 3/4 ballad into a trance track, you'd be in trouble. Rather than forcefully superimposing one time signature onto the other, try keeping the approximate melody and changing a few notes to adapt it to the new time.
Although you've got to remain faithful to the genre you're remixing into, you can use breakdowns as an excuse to make more liberal statements. These are also useful places to respect the original content. For example, an electro house track needs its drop, but there's nothing to stop you from breaking down to a completely different tempo in order to wedge in a sample of a metal or hip-hop record (or whatever you happen to be remixing).
OUT OF CONCERT
Statistically speaking, dance remixes tend to be a lot faster than the original tracks. If you're working with a particularly slow song, remixing Into a super-fast genre or both, try running the sample at half-speed, relative to the genre you're doing. For example, it might be easier to use a 110bpm hlp-hop sample in a 200 bpm breakcore remix by first slowing down the hip-hop sample to 100 bpm.
LOVE THE BIG PICTURE
Is your sample in concert? If you've ever struggled to find the right tuning of a sample - i.e., you're never able to find the same key with your sequencer-you might have a recording that's not In concert. Essentially, this means that the pitch Is offset by less than a semitone and thus will always sound detuned against In-tune instruments. The solution Is to fine-tune It using cents. Make sure you tune all samples so that they're in concert before you start your remix.
Be careful not to lose the charms of the original mix. It's easy to get exited about a remix or become fascinated by a particular aspect of the original track -just don't get completely fixated with the most obvious elements. Often It's the very tine subtleties of the mix that make a song work In a certain way. Spend sometime getting intimate with the original version and all of its parts, and pay close attention to how they work together to make a remix that's really special.
BANG UP TO DATE
Try to put a part of yourself into the mix. Sometimes you know whose remix you're listening to from the moment it starts, because it's Inherited some of the remixer's personality. Merge your signature sound with that of the original track, bringing your ideas and vibes together into a unique musical cocktail. Just don't go too far!
IMPROVISE AND INNOVATE
If you're using a lot of old-fashioned sounds, It's easy to end up with a mix that sounds dated. If this is a problem that plagues your remix, make It a high priority to spend time experimenting with modern production techniques - particularly when It comes to processing audio. Also, make use of the audio restoration tools at your disposal. These days it's totally possible to transform a scratchy old sample into something new and vibrant.
PUSH THE LIMITS
Can't find that critical sound? If you haven't been supplied with a part that you feel is necessary to retain some of the original vibe, you have nothing to lose by setting out to create something similar. It might seem to compromise the integrity of the remix, but you've got to be realistic about your circumstances and do the best you can. Who knows-you might end up with something that works better than the original sound would have.
Rejuvenate the original track's musical ideas by extending or hyping up the existing parts. Play with faster rhythms and new variations on the main theme. An unexpected element can really help your mix to stand out. Reinvent parts that didn't formerly sound exciting enough In your new genre. Push every Idea as far as you can take it and see where you end up. On a practical note, when working at a faster tempo, It might be necessary to extend a loop to prevent grating.
PUSH IT REAL GOOD
When you're stuck, look to the original track for inspiration. You should always consider abusing the original elements! Try completely changing the context of a part. Why not make a string motif your new bassline, or the original bassline your new synth riff? There are no limits to the potential of any idea if you let your imagination run wild. Something that might have seemed useless on first glance could turn out to be your savior when you need a quick idea later on in the mix.
CUT AND EXTEND
Play to the strengths and weaknesses of the original track. Ask yourself what you can fix that was lacking In the first version. What can you improve? Does it sport an extremely funky bass riff? Find ways to go even funkier. Do the drums lack power? Work out a way that you can create powerful drums that do the job. It's good to be ultra critical of the original version when deciding how to approach your remix.
HIDE AND SEEK
If you're forced to cut a sample short and it sounds abrupt, extend it artificially with the crafty use of a little reverb and/or delay. In some cases, a 100% wet version of the end of the sound can be cross faded with the abrupt tall of the original sound to create a seamless extension. At other times, a gentle, tempo-synced delay will do the job.
THE SIMPLE LIFE
If you find there's a bad sound you can't get rid of in a sample that you need to use, try masking it with new sounds. Drown out unwanted ambience with a huge wash of reverb on another part. Strategically place clicky, percussive parts to distract the ear from annoying crackling in a loop lifted from vinyl. While it might be difficult to eliminate a particular sound from them ix, It can take little effort to hide it behind something else.
WHAT'S YOUR GOAL?
Keep it simple. Simplicity is pure, bold and memorable. Don't overcomplicate your remix with too much random stuff going on. H's OK to intricately work In a lot of elements, as long as you keep in mind how they all work together In tandem. That takes skill and a lot of patience, but It's definitely better than confusing the listener or distracting them with Inappropriate things going on all over the mix.
FREE AND EASY
Be creative. A remix doesn't have to mimic its original in every way. If you happen to have an idea that's not particularly relevant to the original but that you love, why not just go for it? Sometimes you have to ask yourself where your values lie, though - do you specifically want to produce a good rework of that particular track, or are you using the remix as an excuse to use those parts in your usual quest for the perfect production?
Look out for free plug-ins and keep them all in a folder where they're easy to access. They need not be the most commonly used effects, nor of the highest sonic caliber, but when it comes to processing sounds beyond recognition, sometimes quantity saves the day where quality falls short. You never know - you might be surprised at how high-quality some of them really are.