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Tips and Tricks for the Modern Remixer

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Remixing seems to be one of those things that seems to have been around forever and a quick glance at just about any music chart will reveal that it’s not going anywhere yet! Regardless of genre the remix is still a powerful marketing tool.

During my career I’ve been lucky enough to remix some pretty big artists for both major and independent labels. In this tutorial I’ll share some of the techniques myself and other remixers use to get the job done.

Step 1: Understanding the Remix Concept

Ok, so there maybe some of you out there that have never completed a remix or others who aren’t 100% certain about how the process works. It will certainly work in your favour if you are aware of the basics when the opportunity strikes.

Essentially remixing is taking an one artist’s project and reproducing it, to give it a fresh sound and new perspective. The difference between the original project and the remix can vary hugely depending on the remixer but in most cases the original project is still clearly recognisable.

The process usually starts with the record label or artist finding suitable producers for the project, the chosen remixers will then either be commissioned or offered work ‘on spec’. Commissioned work will usually be paid for on delivery, whereas ‘on spec’ remixes will only be paid for if accepted by the label.

With the remixers selected, parts or stems will be sent out. These are the individual recording from the original project and usually represent key elements. If the project in question features a vocal line then you can bet that will be in there. If it’s an instrumental then it’s much more likely that the parts will include top lines and melodic elements.

Along with the parts you may or may not receive a brief. This usually goes hand in hand with the on spec work and is usually more relevant for the less experienced remixer. A brief may attempt to coach you a little and suggest certain styles or genres for you to work in.

With everything in place the remixes are then completed and delivered to the label. Fees are then paid, on spec work rejected or accepted and the results are then released with the original production. Simple!

For the purpose of this tutorial I have constructed a ‘virtual’ remix package. This is only meant to represent a typical group of individual parts you may be given by a label or artist. For copyright reasons the pack is made up of samples from royalty free collections. I’ll use this remix pack to construct an alternative mini mix as we go.

Our ‘virtual’ remix pack, including the parts from the original production

Step 2: Organising the Remix Elements

Throughout my remixing career I’ve found that workflow is a hugely important part of producing successful remixes. Obviously this has to go in hand with creativity and musical ability but it still pays to be organised from the outset.

Some remix packs can contain huge amounts of files and splitting them into instrument types is often a good move. Once in your chosen DAW be sure to name the tracks and colour code the parts if possible. Choosing what you plan to use and what you don’t is a critical process and this will definitely help.

The remix parts are imported in the DAW, named and coloured.

The parts are treated to a quick mix so we can hear what is what.

With all your parts imported in your DAW you will need to separate the wheat from the chaff. You should be brutal here and only keep what you intend to use, I find that keeping things simple and relying less on instrumentation from the original project forces you to be creative and often results in a more original mix.

Step 3: Beats, Beats, Beats...

My students often ask me the best way to start a project and my answer is always... drums! Laying down a rhythm track gives you the backbone of your project from the get go and gives you a solid frame from which to hang all your musical ideas.

When programming your initial drum track you may find that you have to alter your projects tempo to match that of the parts supplied. This will allow you to hear your parts in time with the new beats.

Of course you should have an ideal target tempo in mind, very occasionally you will be happy to work at the same tempo as the original project but often there is work to be done! Let’s take a look at the process of marrying all your parts together next...

Step 4: Timing is Essential

One of the most important aspects of a good remix is locking down the timing between your new elements and the remix parts from the original production. Once you have identified the original’s bpm and chosen your target tempo this is a pretty straight forward task.

First up we need to get a rock solid bpm for the original project. If you were lucky the label or artist will have supplied this but if they didn’t let’s think about the best way to tackle this.

So you have a few options here, you can use a bpm counter (such as the one included with Logic), or you can use the more time consuming manual method. This involves taking a rhythmical element from the original production (or an actual clip of the original master failing that) and looping it in your DAW until you find the exact bpm.

Logic's BPM counter can be a very useful tool to the remixer.

Once you have this magic number you can move onto altering the parts to fit with your target bpm. This will involve using time stretching to change the tempo of the original parts. Most DAWs now have this feature, although some do make it easier than others.

Cubase and Logic now both feature real time ‘in line’ time stretching that can be performed right inside the arrange window. With your new beats at your desired bpm and your remix parts trimmed to size the audio regions can simply be dragged out to fit their new surroundings. Numbers are then crunched and algorithms applied and voila! Your remix parts should sync nicely with your new elements.

If you find that there are some of your groove based elements that are not as tight as you would of hoped, there are other methods you can try. Using applications that slice your audio can achieve tighter integration. Propellerhead’s Recycle is an excellent example of this.

Recycle has always been the remixer's favourite beat slicing tool

You can also try using your DAW’s built in groove based audio solutions. Logic’s ‘Flextime’ and Apple loop editor are both excellent tools for the remixer as is Cubase 6’s advanced hit point editor.

Whichever method you use, make sure that you spend some time on this part of your mix as it’s nothing less than critical. If your timing is tight then all you have to add are some great new musical parts and a killer arrangement. No pressure!

Step 5: Building Your New Composition

I always feel that with my beats down and all my chosen parts running perfectly in time the majority of the work is done. Although the process of adding new instrumentation and building a solid arrangement can actually be more time consuming, I find it the most fun.

The main thing to remember here is to keep everything as tight musically as you did with the timing of your parts. If you are using a vocal part that features plenty of changes and musical movement, try to respect these and mirror them in your instrumentation.

I hear so many remixes that overpower the original project’s parts with music that contains a completely different melody. This usually does nothing to compliment the parts and instead is often difficult to listen to. Remember if you are submitting your material to a label you want them to choose your mix over the others submitted, this means making the original artist's work shine.

The new instrumentation has been added

So whether you are producing a full vocal remix or a minimal stripped down dub, remember to let at least some of the key remix elements take centre stage. This way your mix is much more likely to be noticed.

An example of a finished remix arrangement

Step 6: Mixing, Mastering and Submission

When you finally get to the end of the writing process and all your parts are in place you’ll need to think about preparing your mix for submission. This process really starts are mix down and ends with uploading.

Mixing your remix should, on the most part, be very similar to mixing any other project. The only thing’s you will have to take into consideration are any instructions you received as part of your original brief and ensuring the original track’s parts are clearly distinguishable.

I can’t count the number of times labels have returned mixes to me with a simple request to ‘turn the vocal up’! Remember this is their project so some sacrifices may have to be made here.

The same can be said for the mastering process. For the most part it will be just like any other mastering session but remember—if the label have asked you to max out the volume, you can ignore them but the likelihood is that they will only ask you to rectify it. Not an ideal situation for many of us but welcome to the world of remixing! Of course this process may very well be out of your hands if the label is completing the mastering for you.

Hopefully this has shed a little light on the whole remixing process for those of you new to area. If you plan to try remixing I wish you all the luck in the world, and remember not to take any record label’s or A+R man’s criticisms too seriously. Most of them don't know what they are talking about anyway! ;)

The remix is bounced ready to be submitted to the label
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