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Remix Clinic: What Is a Remix?

July 14, 2010
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A remix is so much more than what its name implies. It incorporates virtually every aspect of music production—from pre-production to the final mixdown, and even mastering. Many remixers, myself included, do every single step themselves. In this month''s column, rather than explore a particular technical aspect of remixing, I wanted to discuss the overall process. Through many conversations I have had with people both inside and outside the industry, it''s become clear to me that the name remixing is not only misleading, but does a pretty lousy job of defining what is done during the process.

INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
When I started remixing, it was out of a love of electronic music and a desire to work with the biggest artists and songs on the charts. Back then, electronic music sounds and styles were outside the pop realm, and remixes were more of an afterthought by the labels to get added attention from the DJs and clubs. Today, however, not only are remixes getting more and more mainstream, but dance/electronic music has finally infiltrated the pop charts in a major way. From Timbaland to will.i.am to Lady Gaga (with RedOne) to David Guetta and his many collaborations, hopefully dance music is finally here to stay.

So where do remixes fit into this progression and why are we still calling them RE-mixes? I would argue that the explosion of the DJ culture and clubs has brought the club sound front and center on the radar of many artists and labels. No matter what genre—hip-hop, pop, or dance—everyone is gunning for what works on the dance floor. Now, many of the musical and production elements that used to only be in dance remixes are being heard on a daily basis all the way up the pop charts.

DRILLING DOWN
Let''s look at the production process of a modern remix. It plays into my original argument that the term remix leaves out most of what the process is actually about. In fact, a vast majority of today''s remix projects, and certainly all the ones I do, encompass nearly every part of music production. Ironically, the actual remixing aspect is only a small part.

Arranging and recording the elements that surround the vocal are similar processes to what is done during the original song production.

Arranging and recording the elements that surround the vocal are similar processes to what is done during the original song production.

Take for example the common songwriting process for most contemporary pop, hip-hop, and dance songs. The producer works to come up with the song''s beat or musical foundation based on what he/she is trying to express. The track is then given to the artist or songwriter to add the vocal melodies and lyrics. It then comes back for any final tweaks musically and is sent off to the engineer for the final mixdown. A remix features the same steps, just in a different order. The producer starts with the original lyrics and melody, and then works to find completely new musical parts that go in an entirely different direction, virtually making a completely different record.

The actual mixing part of a remix is only a small portion of what you end up doing.

The actual mixing part of a remix is only a small portion of what you end up doing.

Below is a brief overview of each step of the remix process and how I approach each one. Even though every project is different, I do approach each remix in a similar way in terms of process.

PRE-PRODUCTION: STARTING WITH THE VOCALS
The first steps of a remix for me are always the same and more analytical. I start with a few technical things that help me get organized and I analyze the original song. I will do such things as organize the original vocal files, find the original tempo, and do any time-stretching necessary to get it into the tempo range I want. (For specifics on time-stretching, see “A Stretch in Time” from the May 2010 issue of EM, available at emusician.com.) I will also explore the key of the song and get a general sense of what the music is doing.

PRODUCTION: FINDING THE RIGHT MUSICAL PARTS
This is the most creative and time-consuming part of any remix project. In a perfect world, inspiration would come with the flip of a switch and we would have as much time as we need to make everything fit perfectly with the music and original vocal. In the real world, you can sometimes struggle a bit to find the right music to match the vocal, and, of course, the label always needs the mix yesterday. This constant balancing act is what makes music production one of the most challenging and most rewarding jobs.

I tend to work very fast, especially at the start of a project, exploring many musical parts and ideas. It''s like one big jam session that may start with a melody line that works with the vocal, or a bass line that drives the whole record, or a beat that defines some sort of signature element to the project. It''s really no different from any other music-production process: You get an original idea that inspires you to create something different and memorable.

In some cases, it''s even more challenging from a music-writing perspective to work with a pre-existing vocal/melody because you are restricted to that key and certain notes, along with other aspects that must be maintained from the original song. After getting the musical parts in place, the arrangement comes next. I will typically focus on the chorus and hook sections as those tend to be the most energetic and biggest-sounding part of the record. After I get that section to where I want it, I''ll go back to the verse and see what sort of contrasting parts work best, keeping in mind that they must ultimately lead back to the chorus and hook. Last, I will work with a bridge or, more often, a breakdown section.

MIXING: NOTHING RE ABOUT IT
Once the arrangement is pretty much there, I finally get to the mixing part of it. Considering that there is only the vocal remaining from the original song, there is no RE-mixing in this step. Although I save most of the final processing and engineering until I am done with the music production, there are still a lot of the elements and parts that end up being processed and pre-mixed along the way. If I have a particularly large session, I will take some time to get basic levels and blends as I go before I move on to the next section. This helps me ensure everything is working well together from a musical perspective.

MASTERING: DON'T ASSUME ANYTHING
As most remix projects are released as a single or an EP of several remixes, I never assume that my projects will get any kind of mastering once they leave my studio. Even though some do, it''s usually done just to ensure that there are even playback levels between the different songs in the project. I always make sure that once they leave my studio, they are ready to rock.

In the end, the other thing that I love most about remixing is having creative control. The freedom to create whatever I''m hearing for a particular project is great, especially when everyone loves the finished product. The flip side is when people aren''t so crazy about the new sound and direction. But that''s true with any aspect of music production, and the key is to stay creative and inspired.

I am curious to hear what you think. Please use the Comments section below to participate and give me your two cents.


Vincent di Pasquale is producer/remixer who works out of his project studio. He has remixed songs for One Republic, Madonna, Nelly Furtado, and many others; and is the author of The Art of the Remix, a comprehensive interactive remixing course available at faderpro.com.

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