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A few years ago I started doing music technology lectures for HE and FE students, where one of my most popular sessions was, ‘The Anatomy of a Remix’. During these sessions I would start with a blank Logic 8 arrange page, and take the students (over a two hour period) through the significant stages of a remix (usually of a recognisable track so they really could feel/see/hear the difference). So this is my personal approach to doing a remix.. it may well/does differ to others.
1> A Basic Drum pattern – Most of my studio output is dance music related with electronic/synthetic rhythms (programmed not ‘acoustic’ so to speak) – and is produced first for a dancefloor, secondly for radio, and thirdly, and hopefully, TV. The track I get to remix usually has a vocal, whether it’s a hook line, basic lead and bv’s or full on layers of harmonies etc. Also available may be the original song’s instrumental parts (it may for example have a killer synth riff which most listeners would associate as the ‘hook’ ). The aforementioned vocal may need to be time stretched from a faster tempo to a lower one, or of course the reverse – it depends on what ‘style/flavour’ I need to give the remix.
So.. Having time-stretched the vocal to the required tempo (let’s say: 127bpm), I’ll keep that file to one side, create a 4 or 8 bar cycle area, and start to work on a basic groove. I’d start with a kick drum I like which has the flavour, intensity, and clarity I want and lay down a basic 4/4 rhythm. Then I’d add some simple eighths hi-hats just to get a bit more movement followed by some sort of snare or clap to emphasise the 2 and the 4 or just pick up the groove.. At this point, I’d add maybe a snatch of the lead vocal, either verse or chorus hook which will provide more of a foundation to start, metaphorically speaking, hanging the branches on.
2> The ‘killer’ bassline and additional percussion.
The remix may be based on a simple vocal hook, OR, a complex song and musical work with chord and bassline changes necessary. I’d start by bedding underneath the above elements, a bass preset that has the right sound, ADSR content, dynamic feel, power and presence (or if necessity dictates, programming my own sound from a raw sine, square or sawtooth shape) . This, in priorities, needs to be ‘felt and heard’ in a club, and ‘heard and felt’ on the radio, if that makes sense? With the vocal running and the basic groove, I can then get a clearer initial indication of how busy, or not, the bassline should be, and whether it should be of a ‘normal’ representation or utilise some sort of (currently in-vogue) side-chaining effect. I’d call this basic simple bassline, a ‘carrier’ line which will be the one that the track ‘returns’ to after the more musical content has passed (of course, 1, 2 or maybe 3 other bass parts may be written later on if the track musically demands it).
As the track will have an arrangement content where parts (whether musical or percussive) will develop and increase or decrease in intensity during the tracks ‘start to finish’ development. This is where the programming of additional rhythm parts will come in. At this point I’d copy the entire midi and/or audio parts to another 4/8 bar cycle area where I would inject other ‘groove’ samples, loops or flavours to be used as enhancement to either the general rhythm track or as ‘lifts’ or sectional dividers whilst the remix moves through the timeline. Also, thereafter, I’d write the bass parts for say a chorus or middle 8 here, maybe copying the 4/8 bar sections so I’d see maybe three or four ‘chunks’ of parts which I can see (or label) as eg: groove 1, groove 2, verse, chorus, break etc – this way you start to get a visual as well as audio indication of a developing structure (albeit not ‘glued together’ yet).
3> Musical part and full vocal placement
As mentioned earlier, if I have a musical hook/performance on which to hang this whole remix, then that’s a great help.. If, however, I had a song that in its original version, is good but has nothing that could be called a killer riff, then perhaps this is where I’d look to create one, alongside other supporting parts, which will ‘bed’ underneath or suggest sections of a ‘departure’ flavour. These new parts could be for example, stacatto chords, dreamy pads, gated synth beds, percussive piano stabs, guitar riffs, anything that I feel will be beneficial to the track. Great care must be taken though to try and learn to KNOW WHEN TO STOP – that is, not to layer line after line, riff after riff, layer after layer.. usually, less is indeed more – the simple general rule of thumb recognised by many is, “..when it sounds right, it IS right!”
4> The Arrangement
With an armory of ‘what does what’.. I would then look at ‘what goes where’. I could have some great parts programmed, which, when looped/cycled are sounding great, but most of this effort could be in vain if the actual laid out ‘arrangement’ isn’t doin’ it! Although most dance tracks would kick off with some sort of gradually intensifying percussion/rhythm vibe, let’s put that to one side and look at ‘the meat’ of the track. Here’s a standard example (and not definitive nor ‘the rule’ by any means) of sections within a contemporary dance/pop track (and this I reckon could apply to R&B too..).
- INSTRUMENTAL (chorus flavoured) INTRO
- VERSE 1
- CHORUS 1
- BREAK (for a few bars perhaps)
- VERSE 2
- CHORUS 2
- REFRAIN or DEPARTURE BREAK
- MIDDLE 8/INST.BREAKDOWN
- CHORUS REPEAT X 2/3 to DEAD STOP OR FADE
- VERSE 2 Repeat (or VERSE 3)
- CHORUS REPEATS TO DEAD STOP OR FADE
5> FX, Hits, Bleeps ‘n Sweeps
Now I’d have the full arrangement on the Logic 8 arrange page, here I would look at the ‘fairy dusting’ which could be such things as crash cymbals or FX to ‘punch-in’ new sections or indicate the end of a previous one plus maybe flitered effects sweeps or periodic percussive elements such as ‘fill’s or ‘hits’ – I’m sure you follow my drift here – this sort of stuff just adds subliminal content sprinkled throughout the piece…
6> The Mix!
With all of the above accomplished, the penultimate step is to mix the track to sound dynamically as good as possible. I will tell you that I’m an advocate of pretty much getting the balance right from ‘the off’. I will take the time to effect, process and manipulate every element to ‘work’ within the overall balance of the mix as it progresses and grows, so, I have the dynamics of everything more or less right at the end of the session. This philosophy developed the more I got used to mixing ‘in the box’, and moving away from ‘flattening’ the faders of a physical mixing desk after days of programming to then put my ‘mixing’ head on. At this point, I will engage Logic’s powerful automation functionality to add any additional delay, reverb, and other effects hits where necessary, and also to do any form of volume ride or filter manipulation perhaps.
Simple, if the track is going to be commercially available, it will go to a professional mastering engineer so I would just delicately EQ the two track output, dialing in some gentle compression, and that would be it. If it’s destined for performance on radio, in clubs or on peoples CD players and is not going to get a commercial release, I will most likely use the mastering plug-ins I have available to do the best job that my ears can be satisfied with (I try and take a compromise of maintaining dynamic range, allowing the track to ‘breathe’ properly, but also recognising the need for it to stand proud next to all the ‘overly squashed, loudness war’ victims out there…)
The above just represents the basic and major steps of how I approach a remix – the intricacies of detailed programming, sound design, automation, mixing and creative expression are all individual topics in themselves, but that’s my domain just as much as how you express/perform them, will be uniquely yours!