Lesson 2: Introduction to Remixing

1. Definition of Remixing

Remixing is a broad term used to define the act of taking an existing recording and recreating it into a new work. The technical term remixing can apply to making subtle changes to volume, length, pan, and pitch changes to an existing recording. Ex. you can “remix” a track to create a surround sound version instead of a stereo version. Or you can “remix” a track to take out or change the volume of certain parts of the song.

However, the pop-culture definition of a remix (which is the one most relevant to this course), involves taking key elements of a song, such as the original recorded vocals or main instrumental riff, and building a new recording by adding new elements either created or found by the remixer. The end result is a new sound recording that is still “recognizable”, but has a new unique style and sound created by the new elements that the remixer has added.

For example, oftentimes remixers take only the original vocals (the a capella), and then build a new instrumental around the original vocals. The new instrumental usually contains a new drum beat and instruments. Sometimes, the new instrumental follows the original chord progression of the song, but often the instrumental is re-harmonized, meaning that the chord progression that occurs underneath the original vocal melody is changed to create a new harmonic structure for the song.

TERMS: Remix, Instrumental, A Capella, Re-harmonize

2. History of the Remix

While the idea of remixing and editing recorded songs has been around since practically the beginning of recorded music, the birth of the modern electronic remix as we know it occurred in the dance-club DJ culture of the 1970s. With the rise of nightclubs and electronic dance music, DJs used editing techniques that would allow the “beat to go on”, so to speak, by looping sections of songs to keep people dancing in the groove.

With the rise of house and club music in the 1980s, the modern electronic remix as we know is was invented. Building on elements of earlier dance styles, such as disco, funk, and hip hop, house music relied electronic elements, such as drum machines and synthesizers, and steady 4/4 beats at a medium-to-up tempo.

House music producers began to take the vocals from existing songs and lay them over a completely new, separate instrumental in the house style. As much of today’s pop, EDM dance music is built upon the house style, modern, popular remixing has likewise evolved from this original concept.

3. Modern Remixing Techniques

“Remixing”, defined in a modern sense, has expanded its scope immensely from its humble two turntables and a mixer roots. In a sense, you can trace the beginnings of “modern remixing” to the development of electronic production. In the 1980s, there was a surge in available synthesizers and drum machines, and their sounds can be heard throughout the timeline of modern electronic. Some iconic devices like the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum synths, the LinnDrum, the Juno, and the TR-303 bass synth have distinctive sounds that continue to make their way into modern music. These sounds in conjunction with the development of sampling machines like the Akai MPC line and the Ensoniq ASR-10 made the ability to create a record possible without the need for a multi-million dollar studio.

Modern remixing really took off when personal computers were powerful enough to handle audio editing and the first DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) were introduced. Working with audio digitally allows a certain flexibility that until the advent of the computer, was simply impossible. For example, when tape was king, if you wanted to splice together two takes, the engineer would have to lay out the tape, slice it with a knife, and fade it back together on a new piece of tape. With digital editing, the stress of editing audio was eliminated completely with the simple addition of the command: Undo.

In the next few sections, we'll dive into some common modern remixing techniques.

4. Sampling

Sampling is the technique of finding a sound or a section of already existing audio, isolating it (or taking a sample of it), and placing it into your own original work. Most early Hip-Hop music is a good example of sampling. Producers would, and to some extent still do, take an old record (generally an old soul record), find a piece they’d want to use, and record it into a device made for sampling, usually an MPC or an ASR-10. From there they would create chops, or pieces of the recorded section, and rearrange them into a new beat. Some important producers who have used sampling to create iconic music are Large Professor, J Dilla, Kanye West, The Neptunes, and Dr. Dre.

Today, most sampling is done in the DAW, as you’ll see in the arrange window of the Surface, and the basic concept is the same. Take a piece of audio you’d like to use and isolate. Then, drag it onto the grid and place it wherever you think it works best musically. There are a plethora of already sampled one-shots both pre-loaded and downloadable on the Surface already, but you should also experiment with trying to sample your own audio from the loops and stems.

TERMS: Sampling, Chops

5. Sequencing and Arranging

So you’ve created your samples and you’re ready to start making something. What you’ll want to do now is some sequencing. Sequencing is the technical term for placing items of audio onto a grid and creating a new arrangement of a song. When you drag, for example, a kick drum, a snare drum, and a hi-hat into your arrange window and place them into a rhythm, you’re creating a sequence.

Early drum machines like the TR-808 and current DAWs like FL Studio are built around what’s called step-sequencing. On a device where you’re step-sequencing, the pattern is played in a loop, or a repeated section of music, and you can assign samples/sounds to different “steps”, which are either beats or sub-divisions of beats. Producers like Avicii use step-sequencing to great effect.

However, other devices like the MPC and the Surface Music Kit rely on a more human form of input via tactile pads. In the Surface Music Kit software, the numbers of each sample correspond to the numbers on the hardware pad. To sequence audio, all you have to do is press record and play the pads.

TERMS: Loop, Sequencing, Step-Sequencing, Beat, Sub-division

EXERCISE: Creating Your First Remix

Open up the Surface Music Kit app on your Surface device.

Navigate to the Templates section. Songs in the Template section either have “(Original)” or “(Remix)” at the end of the song name. Original templates contain only audio elements from the original recording of the song. Remix templates contain elements of the original song along with custom “companion” remix material. This companion material consists of audio elements created by producers that are designed specifically as remix elements for the specific song.

Original templates are great if you would like to build a remix or mash-up from scratch. Remix templates are ideal if you want to quickly work with material that you know will fit well with the original song. In addition to the (Remix) at the end of the template name, Remix templates also have a banner across the left corner that indicates a Remix template.

For your first remix using the Surface Music Kit, we will be working with a Remix template. However, in order to get a sense for the original song, let’s first take a look at the “Original” template.

From the Templates section, open up the Template Bosley - Boogie Dancing (Original).

With the session open, you can see that there are already some notes that have been recorded to create a simple arrangement. Hit the play button to play this demo song.

All of the elements of this template are from the original song. Tracks 1-6 are loops from the chorus of the song, and tracks 9-16 are short “one-shots” from the original song.

Take a few minutes to play around with the different elements, both loops and one-shots, to get a sense of original song elements.

After spending a few minutes playing around with the original elements, hit the Left arrow at the top left of the screen to go back to the Templates section. From the Templates section, open up the Template Bosley - Boogie Dancing (Remix).

With the session now open on your screen, you can see that there are already some notes that have been recorded to create a simple remix arrangement. Hit the Play button on the blade to play this demo arrangement.

You can immediately see and hear some differences between the Original and Remix templates for Boogie Dancing. While some of the elements are the same as in the original (such as Boogie Vocals Chorus and Boogie Guitar Chorus), there are new elements that have the word “Remix” in them (such as Boogie Drum Remix and Boogie Remix Lead Chorus.

In Surface Music Kit templates, original elements of a song have the name and instrument only, while companion remix material always has the word “Remix” somewhere in the element name. If an element has Remix in it, you can know that it was specially produced to work with the song in the file name. This applies both to the stems, or “loops” of the song, which are typically placed in templates on tracks 1-8, and one-shot samples, which are usually placed on tracks 9-16.

Take a few minutes to listen to the remix arrangement and notice how the new drum beat and instrumental parts change to overall feel, style, and general mood of the song.

Next, lets clear out the demo arrangement so that you can build your own, unique remix. To do this, click on each track name that has notes (tracks 1-8). All of the notes on that specific track will become “highlighted” and you’ll be able to see the waveform. With the notes highlighted, click “Clear notes” at the bottom left of the screen. Repeat this for all tracks that have notes on them.

Now that you have a clear session, it’s time to start building your remix. First, let’s rename and save the session. To rename the project, click on the title at the top and change the filename to Bosley - Boogie Dancing - My First Remix”. To save your new project, click the three dots at the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Then Click Save.

Now that we have a fresh project, lets get started on our first sequence. First let’s lay down the a capella, or vocal track.

There are two ways of creating a looping part in the Surface Music Kit. One way is to place the location maker at the bar where you would like to start the note. Then, hold down the “Record” button on the blade while at the same time pressing the numbered pad on the blade that corresponds to the track you want to record (in this case, it’s Track 1). The entire note will then appear in the session. Next, move the location marker to end of the note (in this case, track 9, as it’s an “8 bar” loop). Repeat the same process here, of holding Record and the Track number. Then repeat this on bar 9, 17, and 25. Now we have a “loop” of the vocal part that continues until bar 33.

Note: Sometimes it seems hard to get the location marker exactly on the beat you want to start the note. It’s easier if you zoom in a little bit in order to get it right on the beat. Remember, to zoom in and out, you pinch the Surface touch screen in and out. Alternatively, you can get the note “close” and then select it and move it on the bar after “recording” it in. This technique is very useful in speeding up your creation process in the Surface Music Kit.

Next, let’s add the remix drum beat to our creation. To add the drum loop, we are going to use a different technique than we did for the vocals. Because the Boogie Remix Drums Chorus loop is shorter (only 2 bars) it would be tedious to add them one-by-one in using the location marker and the record + pad #. Instead, we will be recording the drum loop in real time. This will also give you a chance to practice your timing while you “perform” the drum loop into the session.

First, hit the Play button on the blade twice to return the location marker to the beginning of the session. Next, make sure that the Click function is turned on, by pressing the two small circles on the top right hand corner of the screen so that the circles are filled in. This means that a click will sound on the beat during your recording.

If you’d like to practice with the beat before recording, hit the Play button and play along with Pad 6.

In order to get the beat started, lets add just the first note using the method we used for the vocals. This will let us know the length of the note, and also give us a little lead time before we start recording. First, Hit the Play button twice to get the session back to 0. Then hold down the Record button and Pad 6 to add the first note. The note will now appear in the session. You can see that it only goes to Bar 3.

When you are ready, hit the Record button on the blade. When the location marker gets to the end of each note (ie. at bars 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc.) hit Pad 6 as close to the beat as you can. Continue until you get to the end of the vocal part. Because this is a stem and the “Use pressure on pads to control volume” in the editor is off, it won’t matter how hard you hit the pad each time - the volume will stay the same.

The important part here is to try to get record note as close to the beat as possible. This will take some practice, but fortunately, if you make some mistakes it’s easy to go back afterwards and line up the notes to the grid. In order to do this, first zoom in a bit so that you can get more precise. Then select the note you want to move so that it enlarges and the waveform appears. With the note selected, drag it so that the beginning starts exactly on the beat.

After you have finished this process, your session should have a looping Vocal part and looping drum beat, the basics of an electronic remix.

Now, it’s time to be creative and add new harmonic elements to the arrangement and create a unique remix. First let’s add some loops, (tracks 1-8).

Hit the Play button on the pad two times to return the location marker back to the beginning of the song. Then hit Record. Play around with adding different sounds to the remix. First, start with adding a bass line. You have two bass lines to play around with, Pad 5 and Pad 7. Choose whichever one you like better, or switch back and forth between the two. They won’t sound very good if played at the same time, however, as they with overlap harmonically and make the mix sound “muddy.”

After you’ve added some bass parts, play around with the other elements and add them in at various point of the arrangement. Don’t worry about making mistakes, you can always Undo, delete notes, or move notes around. The idea right now is to just get some material up there and use trial and error to find a sound you like. You can try hitting two pads or more pads at once to record multiple parts at the same time. The parts will only sound good if they are exactly on the beat, so as with the drums, move any “missed notes on the grid after recording.

Once you have added some elements, you may find that the vocals and drums get a little repetitive because they repeat over the entire arrangement. Play around with deleting a vocal note or drum note here and there, and notice how dropping out the vocals or beat can make the arrangement more dynamic and exciting.

Once you are happy with you main “stems” (tracks 1-8), play around with adding various “one-shots” to the mix (tracks 9-16), to spice up the arrangement and make it even more unique. And if you make any mistakes, remember, you can always hit the Undo button on the blade.

After you’ve added some elements and edited them to fit the grid, your remix may look something like this:

Congratulations, you have created your first remix. At this point, click the three dots at the bottom left corner of the screen and Save your remix. Next, click the Export button to create a WMA version of your remix that you can listen to any time!

In future lessons, we’ll learn about creating your own beats from scratch, taking elements from other songs, and more advance features.