Fancy remixing other people’s music, or having your own tunes reworked? Here’s everything you need to know in the ultimate MusicTech guide…
Sitting down with a guitar or a computer and trying to create something from scratch can be one of the hardest things for a musician to do. Everyone has good days, of course, when the music flows easily.
Other times though, the pressure we put on ourselves to write music can make things tougher. This isn’t as often the case with remixing, that long-established technique of re-interpreting and reworking music made by others to create something new and sometimes even radically different.
When you remix, the building blocks are handed to you and it’s up to you to turn them into something. In a way, much of the legwork has already been done and all that’s left to you is to interpret it in your own style.
This is why remixing is so popular and why some people even prefer it to writing original music – although some remixes depart from their source material so radically that they could arguably be described as new compositions. As well as being great fun, some remixes even end up being more commercially successful than the original song.
Setting the left and right markers with snapping active is essential when exporting stems and importing at the other end
Starting the Remix
You might tentatively suggest that bands playing covers of other bands’ songs were the original remixers, but it wasn’t until the advent of electronic music that the concept of the remix properly entered popular consciousness.
True, early hip hop sampled a lot of funk and disco records, and dub music in the 1970s blended a lot of instrumentals with new vocals, but that wasn’t quite the same thing. Official remixes really started to appear in the 1980s along with the rise of MIDI-capable equipment, early sequencers and 4/4 dance beats. These factors made syncing elements of different tracks together much simpler, and so remixing grew in popularity.
As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, computers and DAWs were becoming more powerful than anyone could have imagined in the 1980s. As it turns out, these are the perfect tools for remixing.
There’s no loss of quality when swapping digital files, everything can be synced precisely, and virtual instruments mean a much wider sonic palette than had ever been possible before. With the rise of the internet, remixing was no longer even constrained by where you lived. It became big business, not just in the dance world but in pop too.
Getting remixes of a track can be a great way not just to pad out a single release but also to broaden the appeal of your music, to take a great acoustic song and translate it to the dancefloor, for example. If you are a remixer, re-imagining the tracks of other artists gives you great creative freedom and also the possibility of a payday if things go well.
Remember, remixing doesn’t necessarily just mean sticking a 4/4 dance thud under something, even if that’s still common. With the tools available to you in almost any DAW, the sky is the limit when it comes to reworking tracks for a remix. We’ll show you how it all works over the following pages…
Part One: Preparing for a Remix
Whether you’re handing over your stems or receiving material for a remix, here’s what you’ll need to do.
he ground rules for sending or receiving material for a remix are really two sides of the same coin, and rooted in basic good practice for producing music in general.
They begin with the really core stuff like setting a project folder for your material, knowing what sample and bit rate your project is going to be at, recording to a click track, and setting markers correctly when exporting. Computer-based recording and DAWs make both ends of the remix process considerably easier than it would once have been, but you can help yourself by following the correct procedures.
Let’s begin with a look at how you ought to be working if you are planning on having a track remixed after you have finished it. Actually, you should always work to these rules because you never know if you might need something reworking or changing down the line.
While it’s possible to remix or overdub a track that’s not been recorded to a click, for example, it’s far easier if it has been in the first place. This is really the key: make sure you’re locked to a click. Having a solid time base is essential both to editing inside your DAW since they all work on a grid system, and to someone else adapting your project to their setup.
A beat calculator can help you sync up stems when you don’t have tempo information
Your tempo doesn’t even have to be sensible, it just has to be consistent. Most DAWs will allow a decimal point in the BPM, like 117.6BPM, for example. And while there’s no real reason not to go for whole number values most of the time, you can use any tempo as long as you stick to it, make a note of it and tell the remixer so they can set their DAW to the same tempo. The same goes for formats. Pick a setup like 32-bit, 48kHz WAV files for example, and convey this to the remixer.
Files can be converted on import but it’s better not to have to. In the event that your track contains tempo changes, you’ll want to be using a DAW that can export a tempo track or map if the change is gradual, or simply make a note of the tempo changes and where they occur so they can be recreated at the other end.
This assumes that you are both using different DAWs, though you may not be. Indeed if you are both using the latest version of Logic, just as an example, you can send a project folder with a raw project file and audio files.
You’ll still need to account for any difference in plug-in collections of course, as the likelihood of your having absolutely identical systems is small. In most cases you will be using different DAWs and have different plug-in collections, so it’s better to take the ‘all in’ approach of providing properly formatted material.
Rules for Exporting
As the person providing the material for the remix, you have certain responsibilities to make your remixer’s life easier. The major one is to export stems in the correct format. Begin by setting the left and right locators precisely over bar markers, either starting at zero bars, 1 bar, 5 bars or wherever as long as it’s snapped.
If your stems begin at 3.75 bars into a project it’s going to take the other guy ages to get everything lined up, and it’s an easy mistake to avoid making. If they have project BPM and stems that start on a bar marker, your remixer should be able to import everything easily and have it immediately in sync.
The easiest approach to exporting stems for remix is to just export every track as a separate, continuous stem. Yes, you might have a horn part that only comes in on the chorus, but trying to cut the stem up can just create confusion. The remixer will be quite capable of chopping that horn part out to move it around if they wish. Working with simple stems, one for each track, is the most straightforward approach.
Embrace the new! Use a service like Splice to upload, collaborate and remix tracks
Of course you can export loops and individual MIDI files if you prefer, it’ll just take longer than batch exporting. Or, export a bunch of stems and also provide MIDI files, which gives them extra flexibility to rework your parts in MIDI. For the maximum number of options, your DAW might let you export both dry and wet versions of stems, pre and post-fader. Removing your effects processing from one version gives the remixer the choice to use dry or wet stems.
If you choose to send project data instead of stems, be sure to include all the samples and source audio files. If plug-ins aren’t identical between systems, suggest an alternative to re-link to the MIDI tracks or mixer channels.
Some DAWs also allow the use of OMF or AAF files for export and import. These are special file formats originally developed for moving between audio and video post production facilities, to cope with the different software in use.
They hold certain information about a project like the positions of audio events and clip names, though they’re far from comprehensive. These can save you rendering everything out, but are better suited to audio-only projects without tons of special timestretching or automation involved.
A more recent solution is to use a cloud service like www.splice.com to upload and collaborate on raw project data, removing the need to render out. At present this supports FL Studio, Logic Pro X, Ableton Live and GarageBand and it’s limited, but definitely one to consider when it comes to sharing your raw material with others for them to work on.
There are other online services that let people remix your music with your consent, though they tend not to support really heavyweight project data at the moment, usually just stereo mixes or loops. As things stand you’re still as likely to get a DVD or a link to a cloud service to download a few gigabytes of WAV files, hopefully with some tempo information to help you set up correctly.
The OMF standard
The OMF 1.0 format could cope with audio clip position, project tempo and some other basic concepts, and OMF 2.0 added volume settings and fades for events as well as clip names.
OMF doesn’t support MIDI files (though these can be exported separately) or plug-ins, because DAWs work so differently. As such, OMF is fine for exchanging audio-based projects but certainly has its limits. Most ‘full’ DAWs support OMF export and import though things like advanced mixer settings, scores, surround and so forth are well beyond the scope of these kinds of file formats. OMF has been succeeded by the AAF format which is more advanced and can include more information but this is currently not as widely supported, though Logic Pro X and Pro Tools among others do support it.
There’s also the Mxf format for audio and video interchange, though this hasn’t made much headway in the audio world yet. Different software supports different formats so it’s worth investigating this before you start, as it will save you messing about later.
Part Two – How To Approach A Remix Coming Soon!