Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Computer Music's Pro Remixing Tips Discussion Part 1

Computer Music, the UK-based magazine about computer music, has released a comprehensive article on how remixes are done. I don't receive CM at my current address so I haven't been able to read the full article yet, but luckily MusicRadar has digested the essentials for us.
I thought it might be fun to quote the ideas they present and offer some thoughts of my own on them, and enable some discussion on each tip by numbering them. You can read the original article here.

1. Chop and choose
If some ideas from the original song aren't working, try leaving those bits out. You'll have to make a real effort to decide which parts you can truly afford to lose, but if you've chosen the right genre for your remix, you should be confident that the main elements of the original will work in your new style. Typically, a modern dance remix of a heavily vocal-lead track will discard most of the vocals, only keeping a key phrase or chorus.
 This is something that I think everybody that listens to the radio more than once a year will know, but it's always useful to have it written down so you don't forget about this idea.

2. It's not the right time
Sometimes you might want your resulting remix to work in a genre that dictates a whole different time signature. If, for example, you were to try to force a waltz-like 3/4 ballad into a trance track, you'd be in trouble. Rather than forcefully superimposing one time signature onto another, try keeping the approximate melody and changing a few notes to adapt it to the new time.
From my own limited experience remixing tracks, I found that things with different time signatures lose a large part of their charm when they're put into another time signature. This doesn't mean it can't be done, but it requires you to use the original material in new way that's not apparent to everyone.

3. Breakdown cover
Although you've got to remain faithful to the genre you're remixing into, you can use breakdowns as an excuse to make more liberal statements. These are also useful places to respect the original content. For example, an electro house track needs its drop, but there's nothing to stop you from breaking down to a completely different tempo in order to wedge in a sample of a metal or hip-hop record (or whatever you happen to be remixing).
I guess this is all true, but just like changing a song's time signature, changing its genre, especially half-way through the song, is something that should be done with great care. You might discover a new genre altogether, but there's a greater chance that you'll have a song that's just not right.

4. Speed kills
Statistically speaking, dance remixes tend to be a lot faster than the original tracks. If you're working with a particularly slow song, remixing into a super-fast genre or both, try running the sample at half-speed, relative to the genre you're doing. For example, it might be easier to use a 110bpm hip-hop sample in a 200bpm breakcore remix by first slowing down the hip-hop sample to 100bpm.
I hope you knew this was a good idea before you saw it written here? One note I would like to make; Nowadays you can change a sample's tempo without changing its pitch (or vice versa), but be aware that you will often get the best results if you accompany stretching with lowering the pitch (if possible) to some degree, and compressing with a higher pitch.

5. Out of concert
Is your sample in concert pitch? If you've ever struggled to find the right tuning of a sample - ie, you're never able to find the same key with your sequencer - you might have a recording that's not in concert pitch. Essentially, this means that the pitch is offset by less than a semitone and thus will always sound detuned against in-tune instruments. The solution is to fine-tune it using cents. Make sure you tune all samples so that they're in concert pitch before you start your remix.
If you start working with a sample and realise only halfway through the remix that it isn't in key, you have worse problems that the fact that you need to tune your sample.

6. Timing is everything
If you're having trouble with a loosely timed sample, try cutting it up into sections first. Once you have the sample in manageable chunks, you can experiment with a range of different methods to tighten the timing up. For example, timestretching can sometimes be appropriate, but other times it just won't sound right. You might find certain phrases can be cut into sections that can be sequenced into time, or that brushing up just a few dodgy edits with timestretching does the trick.
This is a good point, but as far as timestretching is concerned I like to leave my samples in one piece if at all possible. All the clutter that comes from chopping them up too much and its implied strain on your CPU just disturbs my workflow. I generally do it when polishing a song that's nearly finished.

7. Love the big picture
Be careful not to lose the charms of the original mix. It's easy to get excited about a remix or become fascinated by a particular aspect of the original track - just don't get completely fixated with the most obvious elements. Often it's the very fine subtleties of the mix that make a song work in a certain way. Spend some time getting intimate with the original version and all of its parts, and pay close attention to how they work together to make a remix that's really special.
Here I would like to point to a song that you probably already know, We No Speak Americano. If you notice the electronic part of the song, with the straight 4/4 beat, it might sound like a simple synth blasting a note on every beat. Listen more carefully, and you'll notice it's a trumpet sampled from the song, where they've found just the right balance between making it sound electronic and authentic. I don't like the song too much, but I thought this was very well done.

8. Identity crisis
Try to put a part of yourself into the mix. Sometimes you know whose remix you're listening to from the moment it starts, because it's inherited some of the remixer's personality. Merge your signature sound with that of the original track, bringing your ideas and vibes together into a unique musical cocktail. Just don't go too far!
Not much to say here, other than that I always love it when a remixer does this. Good examples are remixes done by Chase & Status and Noisia.

9. Bang up to date
If you're using a lot of old-fashioned sounds, it's easy to end up with a mix that sounds dated. If this is a problem that plagues your remix, make it a high priority to spend time experimenting with modern production techniques - particularly when it comes to processing audio. Also, make use of the audio restoration tools at your disposal. These days it's totally possible to transform a scratchy old sample into something new and vibrant.
I personally don't agree here. Let's refer back to We No Speak Americano. Where would that be without it's authenticity? I think capturing an old sample's vintage charm is something that adds to every sample-based song. But maybe, they're right, maybe too much will make your song lose its appeal. I guess this is something you'll have to judge for yourself when you're in this situation.

That's it for part 1 of this discussion, come back tomorrow for part 2! And remember, thoughts go in the comment box!


  1. Gonna give this a full read in a few minutes, I tried remixing once but failed lol.

  2. I'm still on Vinyl decks, this is all to advanced for me :P

  3. alot of info in here man. doing good with the details.

  4. love the blog. can't wait to see some more stuff on remixin'

  5. I suck at mixing, but I'll give it a shot.

  6. Wow great information, it makes a lot more sense to me now.