FIG. 1: Getting the vocal track—and any of the other tracks from the original version—time-stretched to your new tempo is an important, early step in a remix project. In this instance, the stretching is being done with Pro Tools'' Elastic Time feature.
Today''s music production process is highly technical. It takes a fluent understanding of recording and sequencing techniques to get a musical idea into the computer and then ultimately mix it back out for the world to hear. Despite all of the technical processes, the most important part of any project is the overall creative idea and how successful you are at achieving it. So where do these initial ideas come from and what creative paths should be considered? In this month''s column, I''ll discuss how I start each remix and how I explore the possibilities.
At first, I spend some time getting familiar with the original version of the song that I''m remixing. I lock in on what the song is trying to say to me as the listener and what the overall emotional feeling is. This comes into play when I decide on a new direction. I wouldn''t want to take a happy love song and remix it with a lot of dark, angry-sounding synths or vice versa. Really successful songs have a symmetry between the lyrical and musical content.
Next, I''ll continue listening so that I can break down what the rhythm, harmony, and melody are doing. For the rhythm, time signature is important as a vast majority of the remixes, especially the club mixes, are in 4/4 time. Luckily, most commercial music today is written in 4/4 so it is rarely an issue.
Beyond the time signature, I listen to what the beat is doing, especially the kick and snare, and how that relates to other parts of the song. For example, is it a straight beat or is there some sort of atypical pattern? Also, what is the bass line doing, and is it really locked in to support the beat or is it supporting more of the harmony or melody parts? For the harmony parts, I will figure out what chords and what progression(s) are being used for each song section. And last, what melodies are happening in any musical parts and what is the top-line melody of the vocal?
It is important for me, as I break things down, to identify any feature or signature parts that “make” the song. It could be an atypical drum pattern or bass line that really defines it. That''s important because I have to decide whether to retain those parts in my remix. If I choose to use a featured part from the original, it may restrict me a bit on creating new musical parts. I rarely like to simply re-create the same parts from the original. However, the benefit in maintaining a signature part is it can help the listener recognize the record and, if done creatively, add to the strength of the remix. Sometimes I will explore both paths as the project starts to take shape. In the end, I always trust my musical instincts and go with what sounds best to me.
Next, I''ll start to deal with the vocal files and any other parts from the original that I have. I tend not to use anything except the vocals for most remixes unless, as mentioned, there is just that undeniable feature that I want to keep around. In those cases, I try to somehow put my own twist on it. The best-case scenario is when I have access to the original project or at least all of the various vocal stems. When I have the ability to isolate the leads, the background vocals, and any ad-lib tracks, it gives much more freedom and flexibility when creating new arrangements and parts.
Once I have created a new project and lined up the vocals and any other original parts in my DAW, the next step is to alter the tempo and time-stretch the files (see Web Clip 1). Because the vast majority of the remixes I do are electronic/club remixes, the tempo needs to be in the upper 120s to be viable for DJs in the clubs. Even in the cases where the original song is already in the right tempo range, I will still change it even if it''s only a few bpm. Because a remix is performed to put a new interpretation on a song, a new tempo can help you turn in a new direction creatively.
For the actual time-stretching, I start with the built-in feature of whatever DAW I am using, be it Flex Time in [Apple] Logic or Elastic Time in [Avid] Pro Tools (see Fig. 1). Ableton''s Warp features are very useful, too. Even though I may need some fine-tuning later, time-stretching the vocals right away lets me get started quickly. If I have to stretch something very far or if I want to play with some new harmony parts or creative pitch changes, I will then switch over to Celemony Melodyne.
CHOOSING A PATH
Once the vocals and any original parts are lined up and time stretched, I''ll start creating tracks in the new tempo. There are several factors I consider when choosing a direction. As mentioned, the emotional mood of the song is crucial as is the musical inspiration I get from the vocals. I try to experiment with designing and choosing sounds that convey a similar musical message, but in a completely fresh way. I also factor in the direction the label/artist may be looking for and combine that with what I think would be the strongest direction.
Music is a highly subjective field, but at the end of the day this is my career and it is a business. It''s my job to be on top of current sounds and production tools that I can use to create something special and new for each project within my target genre. Even though I may make a remix that''s more “house-y,” “tech-y,” or “trance-y,” I always try to balance what the label/artist is looking for, what I am trying to say musically, and what I think will have the biggest impact on the dancefloor. It is very important for people looking to remix to not only have technical chops, but a strong understanding of the target genre.
When I''m at the point of creating new tracks to supplement whatever I''m keeping from the original, I''ll start experimenting with parts and treat the project at that point like a big jam session. I''ll write several ideas and just have fun with them until something really starts to stand out and grab my attention. I will usually mute the vocal tracks and just write as if I am creating a whole new song. Once I have something that I like, I''ll reference it against the vocals to make sure it works. If it does, I''ll tweak it some more, keeping in mind that symmetry with the song''s emotional feel. I may start with a sound and shape, something that I think is cool and build up from there, or I may just start by sitting at the piano working on new harmony or melody parts, really focusing on the musical aspect first.
When I am first arranging a remix, I focus on the song''s main sections such as the verses, choruses, and breakdowns. If the final product is going to end up in the pop/commercial direction, I''ll create sections that are in stark contrast with each other. If it''s destined for the dancefloor, I''ll create sections with only slight variations.
These initial steps are crucial to the project''s final shape. By spending the time to analyze the original song, you gain an understanding of it, which will help you explore new directions for your remix. All the technical processes of recording, production, and engineering can come in later after the initial idea is developed. But if you don''t have that great, raw musical spark, no production trick can make up for it. As always, the bottom line is to stay in the studio and stay creative.
Vincent di Pasquale is producer/remixer who works out of his project studio. He has remixed songs for Madonna, Nelly Furtado, Mariah Carey, and many others; and is the author of The Art of the Remix, a comprehensive interactive remixing course available at faderpro.com.