Remixing requires the same technical skills as producing your own tracks - but a different mindset and methodology
Remixing is a vital part of the culture of electronic music, and many a career has been kickstarted by delivering an on-point remix at just the right time. And even if youre not propelled to international stardom, the first time you're asked to remix someone else's work is a major milestone in any dance music producer's career.
So we're approaching this article from the hypothetical vantage point that you're an artist who's being offered their first remix. Below are some ideas and points for consideration that, while not all technical, may help you through the process. Do bear in mind that none of this is intended to be prescriptive: these are just some ideas and points to consider. Break the rules as you see fit (except the one about the deadline).
To remix or not to remix: that is the question...
The most important question on being offered a remix is, should you take the job? When considering a remix, your musical intuition will have to be at its sharpest in fathoming what you can bring to the table. Will you be able to infuse a re-imagined take on the original with your own identity? Will you be musically compromised by working on a project you are not particularly keen on? Do you feel that the project offers enough scope to both push the creative envelope and deliver a great and respectful version of the original?
It’s a good idea, at this stage, to discuss the artist or label's expectations for the project. For example, is it a slower track that needs to be revamped for the dancefloor, or a vocal-heavy track that would benefit from a dub mix? You should definitely have a clear idea of what they're looking for before you commit to the project.
Nothing motivates like a deadline - and nothing excites the chagrin of a label like having to rearrange their release schedule due to a leisurely remixer. Even if you have what you consider bags of time, get down to work on it ASAP. That way, if you get stuck, you'll still have time to come at it from another angle without feeling like the clock is ticking.
Be prepared to take some creative criticism, and don't be surprised if you're asked to rework your first or even second attempt. Working on a remix is working under pressure: you don’t have the luxury that you have when working on your own material, and some producers find this a tough nut to crack.
It would help to have an idea about your direction before you start your arrangement. Take some time to listen to and deconstruct remixes that are load-bearing pillars of your genre, and find out what makes them work and why.
Lastly, don’t worry too much about what equipment you have or don’t have: the best tools are your creativity and your imagination.
Break it down
A technique that can work well when remixing is splitting audio tracks to MIDI. This splits up your audio into smaller samples and automatically puts each sample on a different key across your keyboard. In Ableton, click on an audio track and select Split To MIDI. In Logic, select Convert To New Sampler Track in the audio drop-down menu. This unleashes a lot of creative potential: for example, you now have your vocal automatically ready to be rearranged and reprocessed. Try assigning random MIDI data to your newly chopped-up vocal to kickstart some ideas. You can of course do this to multiple parts (keys, drums, bass etc.) and effectively have the entire track broken up into small samples that you can start to reassemble, collage-style, with your own personal aesthetic. With these functions there are a number of different ways to split up the sample, so if you're not familiar with them have a play around - it’s great fun!
Identify the elements of the track that make the track special or recognisable and use these. A good place to start is with the vocal if you have one. You could perhaps put some different chords under it, giving the track a very different harmonic feel, or you could put the vocal front and centre, stripping the track right back to your own signature drum grooves, and then evolve the FX over the arrangement.
Or perhaps the bassline is such a great hook that it really needs to be the star of the show. Changing the key of the track can have a drastic effect on the feel: a dark sounding track can be made to sound bright and summery by shifting it from a minor to a major key. The possibilities are manifest. Conversely you may find that little needs to be done other than speeding the track up, muting a few elements, adding a powerful rhythm section and dubbing it out.
Try looping a section of the track - perhaps the last third - and start to play some of your own sounds over it that work well. These sounds could be chord hits, a bassline or perhaps a reworked main part from the track. Build up some layers and then remove the original track. We now have a loose framework which we can start to build upon. Record long jams of your main lines, drums and vocals with filters, delays and reverb. Really stretch the limits of where you can go with it. Then edit the parts you're really feeling and use those.
Load all of the stems that you were given and take time to get intimate with how the track works. Listen to everything. Try looping sections (try half-bar loops for added urgency) and muting parts in and out to get a really good feel of what works. You will likely start to see various directions suggest themselves. If you are going to shift BPM, now would probably be a good time to warp or time-stretch your audio. While doing your practical BPM-based warping and time-stretching, why not try some experimental audio stretching too? For example, stretch one bar of audio over eight or 16 bars.
In order to bring your own aesthetic to the remix, try loading the parts that you have decided to use from the original into a pre-existing DAW session that's loaded with your own sounds, FX settings and grooves, then using this as a starting point to sculpt around. The great thing about this is it gets you up and running quickly and you don’t need to load in drum kits, map functions to MIDI, etc. It’s already done, and it’s all your own work.
Keep the focus clear and crisp: don’t overcomplicate matters with parts that distract from the main idea. Less generally is more. Take time out to listen to those classic remixes again: chances are you'll notice they haven't cluttered their mix with 100 different sounds and more twists and turns than a 70s prog rock album. If two vastly opposing directions appear, save one under a new name and come back to it later.
Try to work in short sessions. If you're in the groove and everything is going great, then by all means keep going, but when you get to that stage when you feel a touch of fatigue creeping in, stop! Working when you're past your creative best can be counter-productive. What's required is distance and objectivity to successfully evaluate your work.
Ultimately you have been asked to re-imagine an existing piece of work, so you can’t really go back to the label having only used a conga loop from the original. The real art of the remix is being respectful to the original and shining a light on its strongest features, while bringing your own voice to the project - on time!
Words: Chris Lyth