January 26, 2014  

How to Remix a Song / Track Pt. 1

Remixing is the process of taking an existing song or track and putting your own unique spin on it. There are no rules on how to remix a song, some people simply put extra beats and synths on top, some people create an entirely new backing from scratch, whilst others might just reduce the original elements to something totally unrecognisable.

We’ve all heard the stories about remixing – big name producers earning big time money by re-interpreting songs by famous artists. It is a lucrative business for some and for those who are lucky enough to sustain their career it’s a great way to earn money, particularly if they can knock ’em out quickly! First off lets take a look at the questions we commonly get asked.

Is a re-edit a remix? Strictly speaking – no. A re-edit usually uses the original song or track and re-arranges its order into a more DJ friendly format. Some people will tighten up loose beats to make them easier to mix – DJ Dimitri from Paris for example is famous for creating tighter versions of disco classics. Others will add filtered or processed sections to put their own spin on things.

Will I get paid?  Traditionally, remixing involved a fee for the job – without writing royalties and these payments were one-off, meaning that if you were to make a track a hit as a result of a mix all you would get is kudos, not the cash. These days however it is definitely worth trying to negotiate royalties.

How do I get experience? Getting a remix when you are starting out is difficult as the labels will be reluctant to invest unless you’ve proven yourself already. So what do you do? Some labels are willing to give people a chance with a ‘spec’ remixes. You’ll get the parts of the track and you’ll do the remix but there’s a catch, which is that you’ll only get paid if they like it. Many producers start with this route and it’s a great way to get experience, particularly if you are into the artist that you are remixing. Do a good job and you might be on your first step of the ladder in the remixing world.

Is it worth entering a remix competition?  Labels have realised that there are many hungry producers out there looking to flex their sonic muscles – and at a price too. Many of these competitions involve the entrant ‘buying’ the parts to the song. Cynical marketing ploy or genuine opportunity for up and coming producers to get noticed? Only you can really decide, but if the competition is for free and you’ve got no experience – what have you got to loose?

A bit of remix history
Dub/Club Mixes – The average 7inch single was three and a half minutes long and the fidelity of the audio was suited to radio – ie focusing on the song itself. This short length didn’t suit the club audience and neither did the audio quality in a time when sound systems were becoming more powerful. Tom Moulton created the 12inch single by accident – he discovered that not only could the larger cut play louder but also that he could get extended low and high frequency energy. This new technology was championed by bands such as Chic who started to cut their previous hit songs again – specifically for the club.

Other luminaries such as Francois Kevorkian and Larry Levan were able to get access to the multi track components of the big club hits and started extending them to work better in that environment. Vocals were taken out or stripped back and effected with feedback delays to create ‘Dub’ mixes. These special club mixes were indeed the early template for contemporary club music. It was also Tom Moulton who pioneered the idea of the ‘breakdown’ going against the grain and stripping down then rebuilding the track element by element.

Francois Kevorkian is still working today and is in great demand as a DJ. Check the video above to see him working his magic. Over the years, the remix took on a multitude of different forms – and not always used for the club. Let’s take a look at the common classifications and what they mean.

Radio Mix. This is usually the original song mix, or perhaps your remix shortened to three and a half minutes. It will have the full vocal/hook in is structured in a song format.

TV Mix. This is the same as the radio mix but with no vocals (or sometimes just the backing vocals) – it is generally an instrumental that can be used as a musical bed on television shows.

Club/Extended Mix. This is the extended version of the radio mix – designed for club DJs so typically just has beats added to the beginning and end of the radio mix

Dub Mix. This is a variation of the extended mix with sparse vocals – often with plenty of effects added to ‘dub’ the track out. It will often feature the removal of musical elements and a different arrangement.

Reprise. This is usually without beats and more of an ambient version of the track. It is designed as a tool to give creative DJs something to play about with. For example, the DJ could have a track with heavy beats playing on one deck and then bring the reprise in on top – forging a new track in the process.

Beats/DJ Tool. This will usually be just the beats and perhaps a vocal stab or single musical element on top, once again designed for creative DJs to play around with in the mix.

Classic Remixes
To get some grounding on the range of possibilities when it comes to remixes let’s now take a look at some of the more famous remixes, often featuring huge commercial megastars, flipped upside down by underground producers.

 

Tori Amos ‘Professional Widow’ – Remixer: Armand Van Helden
This is the perfect example of how to remix a song, where the original track elements are taken totally out of context and sent in a new direction. In this huge club track from 1996 Armand Van Helden took a depressing harpsichord driven song and rinsed it into a club banger. Incorporating just a few words from the original (‘it’s gotta be big’ being one of the more catchy phrases) this remix was all about that bassline groove – simple but very effective.

Mariah Carey ‘Dreamlover’ – Remixer: David Morales
In the 90s, Def Mix were at the height of their fame and the quality was simply dripping from this polished remix. Morales was privileged to get Mariah to actually re-vocal the song – avoiding the obvious time-stretch artifacts that would have occurred had he used the down-tempo original.

Everything but the girl ‘Missing’ – Remixer: Todd Terry
The original track was a relaxed and melancholy song that was far removed from the dancefloor. With his trademark beats and heavyweight production Todd Terry gave the track a sonic lick of paint that appealed to both the underground and mainstream dancefloors. This remix was HUGE for a very long time.

The 90s – The Golden Years
Many of those ‘classic’ remixes we’ve looked at were created in the 1990s – truly the golden decade for the remix craft. In those days it was common for record labels with big releases to do ‘double packs’ – gatefold sleeved 2×12 inch singles with up to eight different remixes on them.

If you consider that the big name producers will have been paid anywhere between five to fifteen thousand dollars per remix you’re talking about a huge investment by the label. Bear in mind however that potentially the same producer will have created two or three of those remixes. These were the days though when most of the big tracks sold tens of thousands so the spending was easily recouped. And what about CD’s? Their dominance as a format was secured in this decade and with them even more opportunities for the labels to ‘exploit’ their catalogue to different markets. After all this was the core reason why the concept of the remix existed – to make more money!

UK vs US
It was in the mid 90s that the UK Producers started to rise in credibility and each major release would feel like a competition between the British and their American counterparts. This competition led to an increase in quality of remix on both sides as each attempted to outdo each other.

Technical Restrictions created a style
If you didn’t have reel to reel tape and you wanted to remix a vocal track of a song, the only option was to sample sections of the parts provided. Hardware samplers didn’t have much room however and unless you were lucky and had an expensive memory upgrade you might have seen yourself trying to make the most of 2mb of RAM! That’s just about two minutes of 16bit 44,100Hz sampling.. certainly not enough to get all of your vocals in there. This led to the ‘cutup’ vocal effect where syllables were triggered from the keyboard in time with the beat – Nightcrawlers ‘Push the Feeling’ being a big example of this. We’ll be recreating this technique later on in the course as it is still a valid approach.

All change!
In the UK big changes came about after Gallup (the chart people) decided that CD singles could be no longer than 20 minutes. This meant that there was less space for remixes and competition between remixers hotted up – many gave up the fight too. As we entered the late 90s the internet came to the foreground and with it the concept of digital distribution, something that would turn the industry inside out and upside down.

Remixing in the digital age
Contrary to the conspiracy theorist predictions it wasn’t the arrival of ‘The Devil’ or ‘Jesus’ in the new millennium that brought a worldwide revolution, it was the mp3. Physical formats had been the lifeblood of the music industry, and were practically a licence for them to print money – money that was quite possibly snorted up the noses of label execs and spent on a decade of industry excess. Was the mp3 the new messiah? Cleansing the evils of the music industry and teaching them a lesson they’d never forget? Had Nostradamus mis-interpreted the premonitions he had? One thing is for certain, once the mp3 took hold there was no stopping it, spreading itself virus-like around the world.

Peer to Peer file sharing tools such as Napster brought with them an abundance of illegal free music. The industry was reeling, caught off guard by a format it had no means of protecting itself from. Sales dwindled, customers disappeared, even the shops started dying off – Tower Records, once one of the World’s most influential music store disappeared.

Is there any point anymore?
You might be thinking to yourself now why am I here then? What’s the point in creating a remix if the industry seems so set against me? The good news is that all is not lost, things have just changed. There are still people making a lot of money from remixing but there are less opportunities at that high level. It’s worth taking a look at the benefits that are not immediately financial that come from remixing in 2013 and beyond.

Profile – first and foremost this is the biggie. If you are not known yet a good remix can get your name planted in front of the major players on your scene. Each time a record company puts out a release it will send a reasonably large list of credible DJs the mixes. Your mix could end up being their favourite and played to death to audiences all over the world. If you are a DJ this means your chances of getting gigs has just gone up – your stock is hot!

Royalties – yes it used to be that remixes just paid a straight up fee for the job. In today’s world though it’s very likely you will be able to negotiate a cut of writing on the remix in exchange for a lower (or even zero) fee. If you are a member of a collection agency such as the PRS you will see the money appearing from public playback of your mixes in your quarterly statements.

Acapella’s & Bootlegs. Many producers these days start off by grabbing an acapella from somewhere and creating their very own bootleg remix of a released track (more on this on the next page). It’s been known for many DJ/Producers to make a name for themselves from remixes and gigs and hardly put out any tracks of their own. It’s easier to learn how to remix a song than compose a tune from scratch so really it’s a no-brainer. The bootleg mixes show the labels what you can do, all you need to do is wait for them to call!

Remix Swap. Whether you are new to the game or an experienced pro you’ll come across somebody asking for a remix swap. This is where you do a remix for someone else and they do a remix for you – with no money exchanging hands. The key here is to make sure you get a cut of writing royalties on your mix, otherwise it’s all a bit pointless financially. If money is not an issue for you and there are promotional benefits from the swap then you could decide that you don’t need writing credits – after all, if the other name is bigger than you they might not even offer a split! Weigh up the pros and cons and make an informed decision before committing.

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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂

For more information head over to the Point Blank Music School website to learn the very latest about our school.


This post is included in Tips & Tricks