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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6 responses to “Remixing 101

  1. Digging that empty extra bullet point there!

    Also, Audacity’s an amazing multitrack recorder, works well if you can’t afford an interface but still want to record using the inputs on your computer!

  2. Pulse State Mike

    Hahaha, in my case it took me about 15 remixes or so, and about six years, before even one of them got released, and then I had two that gained release (or will be very soon, specifically in August).

    The first remix I did that the artist knew about (heh) was for Syrian in 2002. I thought it was awesome at the time, I made my friends and at-the-time girlfriend listen to it, and I even had it played in a couple of local clubs. Guess what, it blew worse than an epileptic monkey with rusty braces in front of a strobe light. Precisely. It was in the VNV Nation style, but without anything that actually makes VNV, well, good.

    I guess where I’m going with this is, no one should give up unless they’re really REALLY not cut out for that sort of thing.

  3. I’ve done remixes for contests mainly, and a few for friends, or from public remix kits. I’ve done a couple of what I consider “edits” where I don’t have a kit and just add/subtract from the album version.

    I usually end up coming up with a bunch of new techniques while trying to mangle the original tracks that I can use on my own music later. It wasn’t until messing around with some “unofficial” remixes that I realized I could do some really awesome things with sampling (I know, I’m slow).

    “It will most likely, even with a 4/4 beat, get anyone dancing in the club.” <- typo, I think this is the opposite of what you meant :)

  4. Oh, and make sure you’re doing it for fun, and not trying to produce is because you have to “remix”

  5. great tips man. i go by many of those myself.

    my first ‘official’ remix [third ever remix] was for a contest human factors lab had, where the winner ended up on the ep with artists like bile, kmfdm & 16 volt.

    long story short, i was shocked to find i was a finalist, ballistic whipped my ass on that one. i have no idea how it was chosen to begin with, my mix on recent listening was terrible. truly terrible.

    i had to laugh, as i remember my first ‘released’ remix i did for hazmat a couple years ago – i thought it was the shit, and now hearing it, i think the idea was there, but i just didn’t have the skill or knowledge of my progs to do it justice… and it was also about 3 minutes too long.

    i tend to move between mixes that sound similar to the original, using many elements in the kit, but giving it a different vibe, and others i keep the vocals, maybe a synth/bass line and write a whole new song around those pieces, or just write a song with the same/double/half BPM and integrate the vox into them around the end of the process.

    i still flow between cool remixes and utterly horrid ones, usually depending on the mindset i’m in when mixing them, the sound of the songs in general, and whether or not i’m being inspired to create upon hearing those sounds.

    i’ve actually learned a hell of a lot through remixing for others, as i’ve discovered new genres, different approaches to songwriting, and figuring which gear works for which projects and which just suck.

    creativity and fun should always be the first intention with remixing, especially for others, as when you start to worry if the band will dig it or if it’ll get a release or airplay, then focus is lost and it’s not just about making an interesting few minutes of sound anymore.

    i’ve been lucky enough to have certain bands/artists like my mixes for them and had them out out on albums & ep’s, some great friendships have come out of them and plans for future collaborations, so all up, i think getting airplay really isn’t the focus for me at all.

    there’s so much more fun to be had when it works out, even if little cash is coming my way…

    /rant.

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