Creating own tracks from a scratch is a hard task. It is much easier for a beginner to remix or mash-up someone else’s music at first. This exercise improves level of skill and self-confidence.
What You Need to Know before Start
Though remixing seems easy at the first sight, it isn’t. Creating a worthy remix takes much time and effort (not as much, as making an original track, but still). So, here is some basic terminology you need to know before getting started.
Definition of Remix
Remix is a re-worked version of song or musical track. The person, remixing the track should follow at least one of these goals:
- Transferring a song into another genre. The most popular example of this is making electronic dance music out of pop or old jazz songs. The main theme and vocal stay, while all the other sounds should be created from scratch.
- Showing different side of song. Sometimes it just feels that a track is way too serious or way too fast. The author of remix re-works track to the condition, where it sounds perfectly in re-mixer’s opinion.
Usually both goals are being completed simultaneously.
Types of Remixes
There are actually two types: remix and mash-up. While the first one means completely re-working track, second is simple replacing of some parts with new sounds. It is easier to start mashing-up first, as it requires only the basic skills.
It is possible to make a simple mash-up, using an audio editor only (just cut off and add some parts), however, for doing the full work, you’ll need the following programs:
- DAW. Digital audio workstation is the most important thing. It is where you do all the job, like creating new sounds, changing rhythm, equalizing, compressing, etc. There are up to fifty workstations on the internet, but the most popular are Ableton Live and Fruity Loops Studio.
- VST. Virtual instruments for creating sounds. Workstations have some basic instruments built-in (quite enough to replace some sounds), but they do not provide an opportunity to create completely new ones. That’s why you’ll need to look for synthesizers, drums and, if you have any other ideas, some different virtual equipment as well.
- Audio Editor. Just a convenient tool to finish the work.
Make a Plan
Arranging the planned things has always been easier than doing something that you have no clue about. There is a stereotype that planning makes a less creative person. Professional DJs all claim that it is wrong. Planning makes you a well-organized creative person.
So try doing a little (probably even a big one) brainstorm. Listen to track and write down ideas that come in your head. They might be silly. There might be only one. It is still important to have them all written down, so that when you start working, you already have something to start with, not just the blank page.
Also think about the audience in advance. Is your work going to be a remix-contest member? Do you want to attract the author’s attention or just have fun? Will it be radio- or club-friendly? Having these aspects thought about in advance, you’ll have clear understanding of what you should do.
This was it for the basics. Let us immediately dive right into tutorial.
Remixing a Track
Part one. Pre-Remix Stage
Now it’s time to talk about non-basic things that have to be done before making a remix. First things first – you need to pick a track. There are two requirements: it has to be a vocal track (remixing a non-vocal one is either creating a completely new melody or copypasting already existing one), and, not so necessary, there must be an acapella version.
The best place to find out if such version exists is to check SoundCloud. Artists usually post all the song materials there. If acapella isn’t available, you’ll need to extract the vocal by yourself like a surgeon. Having a vocal-only version of track is really important, because this is what you need for perfect timings and proper remixing.
Though cutting the acapella part off sounds difficult, it isn’t the most complicated thing in creating music. It can be compared to a small surgery operation. There is no risk of making critical mistake, but you still will be happier if everything is done perfectly from the very first time.
Ways to Extract the Sound
There are three main ways to extract the vocal. Let us take a look at each of them:
- Using the reversed counterpart. This strategy looks like something a spy would do. When the tracks are released, they do have instrumentals released as well. Unfortunately, instrumental is directly opposite to what you really need (acapella part), but it can be used to kill the background sounds.
Simply put the instrumental into Audacity (or any other editor with “invert” option) and invert it. Then put the original version on top of it. Direct and inverted sound will neutralize one another, leaving you with clean vocal version only. However, some beats will “survive”, so you’ll have to “kill” them with your DAW.
- Using premium tools. Some payed software, like Adobe Audition, has the built-in function of removing instrumental part. It is basically the same process, but automatized. There is no need to do all the manual stuff, like moving tracks here and there, adjusting the progress.
Of course, it has some sweets, like built-in equalizer, compressor and real-time cut, so tracking how clean the acapella part already is, is much easier and takes less effort. So, if you have software of this kind or an opportunity to purchase it, rather do things this way. It will save a lot of times and nerves.
- Re-recording lyrics with another musician. If it seems stupid, but it works, than it is not stupid. If you’re looking forward to creating something really unique, try singing yourself or ask some of talented people you know help with the project. Though it’s not that easy. The process is much more fun and requires less technical skill and knowledge.
It might look like something hard, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Here is what a professional says.
Joseph, 30, producer
- I’ve been working with remixes for five or six years. After such a long period you stop noticing some things. The process of cleaning the vocal from excessive sound has become something I was doing on subconscious level. Putting the track into a program. Pressing several buttons. Finishing it in my workstation.
Finally, have a year ago, an opportunity appeared to make a remix, using the voice of live artists. It was an amazing experience. Felt like recreating the original process. I even tried singing a little by myself after it, but my voice isn’t that great. It was still funny though.
If you choose one of the first two methods (regardless which one), you’ll have to do the “cleaning”. The process is not hard but requires a lot of patience. You just upload what you got in the DAW and look thoroughly through the track looking for vocal parts and opportunities to separate them from leftover sound. Pick the zone that should be silent and reduce its’ volume down to zero.
Another useful technique here is to separate the vocal into smaller parts. After having a phrase cleaned up cut it and save in individual folder. Depending on the length of the song, you’ll have up to 30 lines (but usually around 18-22). Then adjust every phrase to a key and save the project. Now you’ll have an opportunity to play each line with just a single click. It makes managing and remixing much easier.
Another Side of Remixing
All the technical part is dry and easy-to-do on the paper, but when it comes to real business, some things show up. It feels like you’ve done everything correct, but just don’t know what to do next. How to remix or what to do. Here is the piece of advice you in such situation:
- Think of the first time you’ve ever heard the track you are remixing. What was it like. Why you enjoyed. How the decision to make a remix happened. Usually, the first thing that comes in your hand is the best one to use.
- Listen to the track once more. Write down your opinion on it once more. Think of it is lacking, what is OK, what is probably too excessive. It is even useful to try being skeptical and critical, as you want to replace as many things as possible to make the remix unique.
- Avoid overthinking. Overthinking is the root of all evil. Analyzing the track once is good. Doing it twice is acceptable. Looking through what you’ve written out is nice and cool. Analyzing your own analysis is already the thing that should be avoided. It can simply be explained from psychological point of view. When you were making your first conclusions, you were fresh and ready to work. In the end of the day it is hard to keep head clean, so most likely all the ideas you’re coming up with will be bad.
So, the tip is to do decent job, but never to overwork. Even the experienced DJs can confirm:
John, 24, DJ
- I am a DJ for five years already. My start wasn’t anything special. A couple of live-sets were played in a local club. Then I had won a small competition and was invited to work in a bigger club.
I’ve read a lot about the creativity crisis and was always afraid of it. And, well, recently it had come. The ideas for new tracks or even mash-ups were not there. I made myself think about it, nut everything only got worse. Luckily a friend of mine had already been in a position like this. His advice to me was to relax for a while. I spent two weeks doing almost nothing. The result isn’t yet there. But at least I don’t feel sick thinking about making new music anymore.
Keep the Track Individual
Making some trendy remix might look like a nice idea, but it indeed, isn’t. Remixing track means showing everyone your personal vision of track, not another trendy thing. It is the individuals that create the trend, not the trend that creates individuals.
Pick your path and move along it. Don’t try the genres you don’t know. Don’t choose the tracks you don’t like only because they are popular. Pick whichever thing you personally like and make the changes that you yourself believe should be made. That is the way the masterpieces are born.
Part 2. Basic Remix Things
Define the Key
It is nice if you have a musical instrument and know the way to play it. Than you might start playing along to the lyrics in order to define the key. However, this method is not the most accurate ever, as it is easy to mash up some minors and majors in your head or to forget something. Would be a pity to compose some melody and make a bit only to find out that vocal is made in a completely different key.
This where the technology comes in handy. It is possible to google the song you need. Internet usually has all the information you need, including the keys and bpm.
Tip: if you are remixing an electronic track, go to beatport. Most of DJs store their works there, along with all the whitepapers.
It is all your choice whether to save the original chords or to make the new ones. The advice here is to open your workstation and start composing a melody or looking for bass that comes to your head when you hear “naked” vocal. After playing along for a while you’ll have a base pattern for the new track.
Sam, 29, DJ
- I never really had issues with technical part. It was all easy for me, but I simply could not decide what I should do. The decision had appeared by itself. Looking for inspiration I started listening to another remixes. That did really help a lot. I was writing down the things I liked especially on other musicians’ works and pretty soon I had the whole list of stuff I enjoyed. With notes like that it turned to be pretty easy to find out what I personally want to change in tracks and what kind of music it is easier to work with for me.
Adjusting the Tempo
Now you are free to choose again. It is possible to simply pick instrumental from another track, mash it up a little and adjust the result with a vocal. The most important thing here is to match the loops you have with the existing lyrics.
It is easy for the people having DJ experience (this part is similar to how to mix two songs together in a smooth way). For the others this will be quite a hard work, as working with drum loops requires skill and time. So, if you are not eager to spend several days in equalizer, there is the second option.
Creating your own Music
At the first sight it seems like a harder task, but in reality everything turns out to be pretty easy (for sure easier than adjusting the tempo and rhythm). This is where VST should be used. Here is what you need to do:
- Open your drum machine or beat-maker program. Professionals recommenf using EZ Drummer or BTV Solo, but it is completely up to you. Just choose the most convenient one.
- Start with kick-drums. Kick drums are the best tempo defining instruments, so it is reasonable to start the whole melody with them.
- Add other drum parts. Use hi-hats for smoothness, snares for more action, maybe even some cymbals. Alltogether the drums will perfectly define the tempo and the rhythm.
- Compose a melody. Depending on the vocal and the mood you want the listener to have pick an instrument and make a nice piece of music.
- Finish the topping. Now, that the base is complete, the time has come to add some “sweets”. Bells, whistles, snaps, sound effects, etc. Don’t overextend with this part though, because it is easy to spoil the track with some unnecessary sounds.
Idea: It would be nice to include parts of vocal from other artist’s tracks. This will take more time, but the result will be better as well.
When all the job is finished, unite parts of your work into the remix. Audio editors are OK for this purpose, but DAWs are more suitable and convenient.
Don’t try to differ too much
What I am saying here is that you should not make thing that nobody would recognize listening to. It is completely OK to change some things, not all of them. The idea of remixing is replacing the original elements of song that you don’t like, with those that in your opinion would be more suitable, not to create new instrumental with the old lyrics.
Developing this idea further, it is even possible to say that you need to leave at least some parts of original track as they are. For example:
- Bass and melody. Writing a new theme could easily kill the track. Instead of it try adding a new flavor to the old sounds. For example, change some pitches, increase or reduce the range, write a small motif inside the whole melody, but do not replace it completely. The same statement could be related to bass. It’s OK to reverse it, to write a new party, to replace particular parts, but completely changing or removing it you’ll kill the mood of song.
- The vocal. You can cut it, filter it, sing it by yourself, but the vocal part of the track has to remain where it was. It is exactly the vocal, that makes song original and unique.
Here is what DJ Taska says about his experience:
I once decided to remix a track. It is really a nice one, still one of my favourites in fact. The only thing that could’ve been better in my opinion is the bassline. Said – done. I chose a week when there was not much other business and composed a new original bass. First, I didn’t even share it, because it seemed like a really little change. However one of friends of mine had heard it occasionally and insisted on posting it on youtube. I didn’t even expect, that such a simple thing would be accepted in such a warm and positive manner. This was where I understood, that you do not need to change everything to make track sound great. It is the things that you like the most, that you need to work with.
All these pieces of advice are just mix of personal experience and recommendations of professionals. Remixing is a field for experimenting, so, honestly, feel free to do whatever you want. Probably, after trying for a while you’ll come up with a fresh idea of your own track or even some original content.
Stage 3. Finishing the Track
Now, that everything is situated in one place, the time has come to polish the brilliant. Mixing and arranging is quite a hard part for a beginner, so your first results will probably not be perfect, but don’t be too disappointed. The skill comes after a while, so just keep trying your best:
- Use equalizer and compressor. This tools have pretty straightforward names. Equalizer will equalize the volume, range, length of sound and other things. Imagine it as a lawn-mower that makes an old garden nice, clean and straight. Compressor will compress the unnecessary stuff and make the sound clear.
- Play with track on different “roads”. Since the track has not yet been finished, all the parts of the project should be still stored in different tracks. It widens the range of opportunities. You can try reverbing vocal, cutting of the bass or changing some separate parts. Don’t forget, that it is the finishing part, so you only need to fix things a little, not rework the whole piece.
This is it. The technical part is over and you have your new brand remix ready for sharing and publishing. Enjoy your results and keep up doing what you love.
Not the End Actually
Your first tracks may sound really awkward. It’s OK, as everyone had passed through the stage of feeling uncomfortable, sharing personal materials with other people for the first time. Keep creating multiple remixes or improving your chosen one up till the point, that you’ll feel like sharing it with the World. Gathering an audience is important as you’ll have both a lot of feedback (positive or not, it gives you opportunity to develop) and meet new people. Collaborating with other DJs is a lot of fun and as really effective in terms of learning new materials and creating fresh tracks. Here is the list of places you should check, when you are ready to start sharing:
- SoundCloud. The biggest free online audio platform, that “gave birth to” many modern stars. The policy of SoundCloud is really to nice users, as it provides an opportunity to post music for free in the place, where people will see it for sure. So, if your content is great, the audience will appear for sure.
- YouTube. Another free to use platform with tons of users. YouTube should definitely be your pick, if you know how to create the visual content. The better the clips you film or draw the more attention your works will receive.
- Sound Producers’ forums. There is a lot of them, so it is hard to name one exact. You should probably use all of them, that have topics devoted to remixes. They are not providing that much feedback or audience, but the responds that usually arrive are more than a couple of words. Forums are the place to go if you’re looking for some rational critic and advice.
Looking for opportunities to share your work is only great when you feel confident and comfortable about it. If you think that your remix needs some more improvement than rather finish it, because otherwise one bad comment can kill all motivation and self-esteem.
Once you find out the great world of free samples, it is hard to stop downloading packs. This one is especially true for remixes, because you don’t feel a necessity to be that original when making your own track, as when remixing something. The tip here is that you do not actually need to stop. Continue downloading material for as long as you want. There is nothing wrong with storing several gigabytes of samples on your computer. Just follow these simple steps to make things even easier.
- Place things properly. Bass to bass, kick to kick, and so on. Create subfolders, when there is more than hundred samples in one of your storages. This type of organization will make managing the archives and looking for information easy and convenient.
- Separate what you need for remixing. When you already have a general idea of what your track is gonna be like, start thinking of how to make the sound better. Whenever certain instrument or audioeffect comes to your mind find it and copy in a new folder, created for remix. That will save a lot of time.
It might also be a good idea to save all the vocal parts from previous remixes. Once you’ll have enough material to mash-up all the tracks, you’ve ever worked with. That will feel great.
Leave your Signature
Despite the original was created by another person, remix is completely your job. Make sure that every person, that will ever listen to it, will be able to recognize the author (or at least understand, that several remixes were made by the same person). Here are some ideas for it:
- An original intro. Make a short sequence of notes. This doesn’t have to be too melodic honestly. The main purpose is to surprise the listener with unexpected sound in the beginning, so that the next time the person hears your work, he or she will realize, that it is the same author’s job.
- Saying your name or nickname. Make a pause before drop and say your nickname while it lasts. This will not only let people memorize you, but will increase tension as well.
Interesting fact: One of the most famous musicians, having own musical signature is Pharell Williams. All his songs start with four-count. Check it out by yourself.
You now know all the basic theory and are acquainted with some life-based pieces of advice. The opportunities and perspectives are more clear, as well as realization of how much time and effort it will take. So, the last thing remaining is to sum things up:
- You’ll need a DAW, a pack of VST, some samples and audio editor to get started.
- It is important to pick exactly the song you like and would personally love to remix, not the popular one.
- You should think in advance of ideas you are going to use and the purposes you follow.
- The process itself contains of three parts: separating acapella and instrumental, creating new background instrumental, mixing and arranging all sounds.
Good luck with your remixes!