Remixing is hugely popular in the electronic music world. And yet, like most artistic aspects of making music, there isn’t a clear-cut path to pulling it off well. If you’re wondering how to remix a song, here are eight of the top tips to help you in your production endeavors.
What Does It Mean to “Remix” A Song?
A remix is simply a reimagined, fresh interpretation of an existing song. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it; sometimes a producer will just make a new beat or backing track behind an acapella, and in other cases they might change the arrangement and structure altogether.
It obviously helps if you’re a fan of the song you intend to work with. You know it inside-out, and can put a new spin on it while retaining the heart of the original piece.
Is Remixing Songs Legal?
If you intend to remix a song by a major artist, you would need to acquire permission/license either from the artist or their label/representation. Copyright strikes abound in the post-DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) world. At best, your song would quickly be pulled from platforms, and at worst, the owner of the recording could pursue legal action or compensation, that’s pretty unlikely.
Remixing a song by an artist you know personally would make it easier to get permission, and you could safely upload it. It’s also probably a tad easier acquiring permission from an independent artist or smaller artist versus reaching out to a label to remix Dua Lipa.
In any case, there’s nothing that says you can’t remix your favorite songs in your own time for fun and practice — just don’t be surprised if a platform like SoundCloud or YouTube pulls it down right away should you ever upload it publicly.
How Does Remixing Songs Work?
Well, in a best case scenario, you’d be starting with the original stems. That lets you lay out the song as it currently exists, add/remove elements, and build around the foundation. You may only want an acapella (vocal stems) so you can produce a new instrumental around it. This ultimately depends on your goal for the remix.
Once you have the proper material to work with, a remix is limited only by your imagination. Feel free to chop, edit, rearrange, add new effects, add more instrumentation, and see where it takes you. You’ll only figure it out by experimenting and practicing.
How To Remix a Song (8 Essential Tips)
1. Start With a Clear Plan
Any good song starts with a good idea, right? The same can be said of remixes. One analogy is that the remix is to an electronic producer what a cover is to an artist/band (even though the remix uses many pieces of the original performance).
A solid question to ask yourself is what you can inject into the original tune that will make it fun and “new” in a way that stays at least partially true to the source. When you listen to a song you love, can you picture what you might have added if you were in the room with the artist at the time? What ideas you’d present to take it over the top? That’s all part of the planning and approach.
2. Make Sure You Have Good Source Material
Source material refers to type and quality of the files you’ll be working with. For example, you could rip an MP3 of a popular song from YouTube — but that isn’t great source material. You’d naturally be limited by the quality and the fact that you only have a stereo mix to build from.
If you can source the stems for the song you want to remix, that’s fantastic. That would give you the most flexibility for remixing, though again, it might be a challenge finding stems from major artists. Check out resources like XTRAX STEMS. This one in particular splits a stereo audio file into vocals, drums, bass, and instruments.
3. Know What Key & BPM You Will Work With
One hallmark of a good remix is not deviating from the original tempo too much. Some producers will tell you that the sweet spot is normally around ±10-20 BPM from the original. The farther your remix deviates, the harder it will be to warp the existing audio in a way that still sounds good. So make sure one of the first things you do is identify the BPM.
Equally important is knowing the key of the material. That way you can start layering in your own instruments in key with the original music. Key and BPM give you essential forensic information to help you with your remix.
4. Find Acapella Vocal Tracks
If you were able to split a song into stems including vocals, then you should already have the acapella. This is probably one of the single most important elements of a remix, so you can keep that awesome verse and that ear-worm hook as part of your reinterpretation.
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Resources like Acapellas4U offer vocal tracks, though you can always rely on your own resourcefulness if they don’t have what you’re looking for; and we’ll leave it at that.
5. Prep Your Stems
Stem prep is crucial. Go back to step 3 and punch the BPM/key into your DAW. Now import the stems, make sure they’re labeled correctly, and do some full-mix and some solo listening. Part of preparing the original song’s stems involves going through the parts of the song you want to keep for your remix, and the parts you plan to discard.
6. Keep Your Chord Progressions in Mind
Every producer has their own approach to remix. We find that an inspiring place to start is by writing your own chord progression underneath the existing melody and vocals. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. One easy way to get started is to write a chord progression in the song’s relative major or minor depending on what the original key is. That will instantly give you a whole new vibe to work with that shares all the same notes.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Warp & Modify Vocals to Fit the New Track
Custom drums are another hallmark of a quality remix. Sometimes the groove changes, but the original vocal cadence starts to drift away from your newly remixed drum groove. There are tons of approaches to shaping vocals to a new groove. Ableton provides a really easy way to extract a drum groove from a MIDI file and literally drag/drop it onto the vocal audio file for it to match in timing and rhythm. If you don’t use Ableton, feel free to get your hands dirty in other ways.
And without directly condoning it, we’ve all heard the popular “chipmunk” voice in remixes. The point is, this should be a fun creative exercise, and in some cases the vocals need the most work.
8. Don’t Forget to Master Your Mix
Last but certainly not least, put that final polish on your remix just as you would with any other song. Mix it, and master it. Depending on how much of the stems you used, those might require less work than any custom tracks since they’ve already been mixed/mastered. If you’ve done good sound design and mixing, then any custom content hopefully jells around the existing stems. Do a bit of light mastering for more cohesion, and you should be good to go!
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Closing Thoughts: Treat Your Remix & Sources Respectfully (But Have Fun With It)
Remixing, by and large, should be a fun exercise, whether it’s just for practicing your production chops, for submission in a remix contest, or perhaps even for major label release. That said, remixing is usually an homage to the original, and certainly not a demonstration of what someone “could or would have done better.”