Daily Archives: July 12, 2009

Remixing 101

[Originally written for VF Magazine, never published.]

1) WHAT IS A REMIX?

Okay…fuck, if you don’t know this by now you should just stop reading.  Seriously.  Where the balls have you been the last 30 years?

2) WHAT’S A REMIX KIT?

(If you’ve dicked around with almost any music program for more than a few hours you can skip this.)

Here’s a good starting point.  Before you do a remix you need a “kit,” generally a CD or DVD that’s been burned and has all the essentials sound files (generally in WAV/AIFF form, not in lower bitrate mp3s) that the artist thinks you need for a kit.  It may include the vocals, drum loops, pads (aka the keyboard swells you hear in a track) melodies and any/all the instruments.  You may also receive the MIDI files for parts.  “MIDI” stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, which I didn’t know until I looked it up on Wikipedia just now.  Basically that’s a map of musical notes for your sequencer to add instruments to.  You will probably, if it’s an unreleased track for some big upcoming CD, also get the song to hear.  Whether you listen to the song or not is up to you.  Personally I give it a Winamp spin to get a feel for what was done, but I’ve heard of plenty of other artists who refuse to and just want to dive into the sound files.

Hopefully they also give you the BPMs (“beats per minute”) of the song, a.k.a. the tempo.

3) WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT IT?

More than once I’ve had no idea what I wanted to do with a remix, but giving all the vocal and music files a good listen generally inspires a direction.  I like to look for a sound, melody, or vocal hook I can latch onto.  Sometimes it’s only a quick sound, but if it sounds fun I grab it.  Having a decent sound editing program (aka SoundForge or Cool Edit Pro, but there may be free/shareware versions online) is essential with remixes, as you may get a bunch of 5 minute files (the duration of the original track) that only have 2 seconds of actual sound.

In other words, you could put each of the tracks in a multitracking program, hit play, and more or less hear the exact same song.

So you’ll want to edit them down, as in industrial/dance music most songs are just a ton of smaller loops and a few melody lines.  There’s not much “prog industrial,” is what I’m saying.

Grab the bits and pieces you like and save them all separately, because now is when the fun begins…

4) LET’S MAKE A FREAKIN’ REMIX!

Since most people seem software-based these days, I’m going to talk about software sequencers opposed from hardware sequencers like using Korg Electribes or, well, whatever other people use than me as a live sampler/sequencer.   Also, the reason I’m putting everything in the “club remix” standard is because that’s probably 70-80% of the remixes out there.

A sequencer allows you to load in sounds into different banks of beats, add effects, and out the song in an order.  Buzz is a freeware one that people sometimes use.  Others buy Ableton Live (which is used by laptop rockers quite frequently), but a nice “Fisher Price My-First-Sequencer” program is called FruityLoops.  I still use it to this day in fact, as do quite a few other artists whether they admit it or not.

Sequencing a remix is where all the fun is to me.  It’s an opportunity to explore someone else’s music and make a lazy song.  When I say “lazy” I mean that essentially all the work of coming up with the beats, melodies, basslines, and vocals are done—you just have to put it together.  What a deal, right?

When I first started doing remixes I was still teaching myself how to use the sequencer, so pals that I begged kits off of were all experimental exercises in trying to learn the ins and outs.   The more I learned with my own music, the more I brought to the remixes.  This included knowing a few basic tricks that I use for “club-intended” remixes, but even if it’s not a “clubby” mix.

Before I reveal these brilliant (yet-not-so-brilliant, many are obvious and I’m an idiot and just wasn’t paying attention) secrets I want to unload a few sad, sad truths about your first remixes:

  1. It will probably never get a “real” release (giving it away off your website does not count)
  2. It will most likely, even with a 4/4 beat, get anyone dancing in the club.
  3. It will blow worse than an epileptic monkey with rusty braces in front of a strobe light.
  4. Wasn’t that monkey simile awesome?

So yeah, it won’t be good.  For a laugh, see if you can find a copy of Gebrauche-Musik’s  Precursor CD, which features a remix I now wish never saw the light of day, but at the time (in 2003) it was my first pressed remix and I’ll never forget the amazing feeling knowing that the G-M’s extremely kind Cameron Veil chose to use it.  It doesn’t make it suck hobo sac any less, but it was a step forward, and I’ll always appreciate what Cameron did for me.

By the way, it also sounds nothing like the sound I’m known for today.

Anyway, those hints…

  • In most mixes there’s a change every 8 measures.  Sometimes it’s small—an extra kick drum or the addition of a snare every other beat, but it’s there.  Listen to almost any “hot” industrial club artist for references galore, as adding and subtracting to the track keeps it interesting.
  • Doubling the BPM and spacing out the beats twice as far gives a ton of energy without actually doing much.  Take a 120 BPM song, make it 240BPMs, and instead of placing the kick on beat one of the bar you should skip a bar and then put the kick on the next one, thus retaining the 120 BPMs (you’re only hearing 4 kicks per 4 measures technically) but any other drums not in exact 4/4 time will go faster and add lots of energy to the track.
  • EXPERIMENT!  Dammit people, you can perfect all the little things I mentioned above, make remixes as good as Sebastian Komor, and use every trick in the book way beyond what I mentioned, but if the remix doesn’t have a special hook or catch that makes it stand out then it’ll just be another mediocre remix.   You’ve heard and mostly ignored plenty of them—the elements are all there technically, but that soul and energy that would make the remix (and hopefully original song) great is nowhere to be found.
    • All I’ll say is there’s a reason certain people get paid a lot (or even a little—most remixes in the goth/industrial scene are freebies, favors, or trades) to remix.  They’ve shown again and again that they can make a better track by adding their hand to it, but believe me it doesn’t happen by accident.

    5) CLUB MIXES AREN’T THE ONLY REMIXES

    I’d be a pretty crappy artist to not point out that remixes can take an original song and change it into nearly any genre or style with enough skill.  You can speed up or slow down songs, completely warp them, record new original pieces to add to it, or add a bunch of “YEAH MOTHERFUCKERS!” anywhere you want…especially in ambient mixes, just to freak relaxed people out.  Hell, one of my favorite styles of music is breakcore, and that style is an utterly chaotic mash-ups of beats, samples, and whatever-the-hell they wanna put in, but there’s an energy to the anarchy that I love as it’s the exact opposite of most everything I talked about above for “pop” or club mixes.  Make it yours, whatever that is.  That’s all I’m saying.

So there you have it: Remixing 101.  It isn’t always easy, but with time and a good ear you’ll improve.  It’s a lot of practice though, so don’t get discouraged that it doesn’t sound like that awesome remix you heard on that podcast yesterday, but most of all try to have fun.  Sometimes getting through the frustration with a mix you’re proud of is the best part of it all.

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