How to Remix a Song: Learn to Isolate Vocals and Add Your Touch
Learn how to remix a song and create vocal stems, plus download a free trial of iZotope RX to help.
So you want to learn how to remix a song? Great! It’s one of the best ways to get into music production. Today we’ll cover tips on how to remix a song and isolate vocals when you don’t have vocal stems available. We’ll also outline how to set up your project efficiently, how to figure out which parts of the original track to include or reference, and how to put your own unique spin on a track.
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How do I set up a song for remixing?
Workflow is a very personal aspect of production. Some like to be super organized while others just like to get ideas into their DAW without a thought of organization. But when you remix there are a few organizational steps you can take to make the process a little easier and speedier.
Ideally, you should have the stems of the original song. Stems are audio files, each of which representing a musical element—drums, instrument, vocal, etc.—from the original. Sometimes stems are separated so that each channel in the original project is exported as its own file, other times stems are grouped. For example, all the drums could be given as one stem. If you’re doing an official remix or a remix contest, you should be given a folder of stems.
Don’t have stems? No problem, you can easily create your own.
Organizing your remix
The basic idea is to organize your project as if it’s an original track, and exchange some original parts for your own. This makes sure that nothing from the original track gets lost in the shuffle of creating a new project, and allows you to easily consider including anything from the original track.
If you normally group instruments or send them to submasters, this is a good time to do that. Do whatever color-coding and naming you need to do to feel like this is your track. Even if you don’t normally do this, try it out. The time it’ll save you will be worth the 20–30 minutes it takes to organize at the outset
It’s also a good idea to delete any silences in the stems, separating each stem into multiple regions in your DAW. While doing so doesn’t impact the sound, it will help you easily find specific elements in the project quickly, and will reveal the original track’s song structure.
How can I create isolated vocals?
If you don’t have the stems, that’s ok—there are still options available for remixers. In the following examples, we’ll be isolating a vocal ourselves to create an acapella. Generally, these DIY options don’t yield studio-quality stems. But considering most remixes build off the vocal, and considering the sounds you add will likely mask any artifacts in the acapella, a DIY stem like this is usually enough to work with.
Isolate a vocal with Music Rebalance in RX
The first method for isolating the vocal uses the Music Rebalance feature in RX. Music Rebalance allows you to adjust the volume of various elements in a mono, stereo, or multichannel export of a single track. Voice, bass, percussion, and other instruments all have their own adjustable level, and sensitivity can be adjusted to determine what audio is identified as each type of element.
Here are the settings we’ll use to isolate the vocal in “Saltwater.”
Listen to how much quieter the instruments and drums are now. Some EQing and additional processing can remove most of what’s left over. This vocal could now be used in a completely new track.
For more info on how to use Music Rebalance, check out this video.
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Isolate a vocal with phase cancellation
The next method involves the idea of phase cancellation, which we briefly cover here. We also covered constructive and deconstructive interference a bit in our article on chorus, flangers, and phasers, and the same concept applies here.
Theoretically, if we can find a way to eliminate the instruments, we should be left with just the vocals. One way we can do this is using phase cancellation and an instrumental version of the song.
What we’ll need is the original track and an instrumental, both of which need to be at the same sample rate. Thankfully, Fytch provided me with these files for the sake of this article.
All you need to perform this phase cancelation is some way to flip the phase of an audio file. Many DAW’s have a way to do this, but we’ll use the Phase module in RX to do so.
First, I bring one of the two files into RX. Here we’ll phase-flip the instrumental. I apply the Phase module to it, and rotate the phase for the left and right channels 180 degrees each. This flips the instrumental’s phase, where peaks in the audio become troughs and troughs become peaks. You can also just select the “Invert the Waveform” preset to do the same thing.
Then, export from RX to get a phase-flipped version of the instrumental. Look at the original instrumental and the phase-flipped version below to see how the audio file was affected:
Next, bring the phase-flipped instrumental into my DAW. On another channel, insert the full master. Make sure that the two files are exactly lined up (zoom all the way in for this one).
Ideally, the phase-flipped instrumental and the instruments in the original will have completely opposite phases and will cancel out due to perfect destructive interference. As you can hear, the instruments are mostly muted, leaving the vocal nearly untouched. Listen to the phase canceled version compared to the original:
We can even use these two methods together. The audio example below is the phase cancelled version run through Music Rebalance.
Keep in mind that this isn’t an exact science. This method, even if done in the most optimal way, will likely leave some artifacts in the new “vocal stem.” This can include some digital garbage caused by phasing, or some instruments still bleeding through.
However, since you’ll be adding new sounds around this rough stem, these artifacts may end up getting masked in the final mix, not affecting the track. While not as nice as working with the completely isolated vocal stem from the original project, this DIY technique can definitely suffice.
What are the benefits of remixing?
If you’re a beginner music producer, remixes are your best friend. Making original tracks can be daunting, especially if you’re not yet confident in your composition abilities. As we mentioned, remixing a track takes a lot of the original compositional work off your shoulders, allowing you to focus on giving the remix your own artistic aesthetic.
Additionally, remixes are a great way for you to develop your brand as an artist. Listeners are naturally drawn to remixes of songs they already like, which could lead to new people listening to your music. Many successful artist-producers began building their audiences by remixing popular songs that people were already listening to.
And finally, remixing is just a great way to practice your skills as a producer. With so many compositional choices already made by the original artist, remixes are easy to start and generally take much less time to complete than an original track. This accessibility can allow you to dive into the project and continue honing your craft.
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What to leave, what to change?
Now that you have everything set up in your DAW, it’s time to actually start working on your remix!
Obviously, if you’re trying to set yourself apart as an artist, you’re likely going to put your own spin on the original track. Staying too close to the original can be like stepping on the toes of the original artist. Danger Mouse didn’t add a ton of new material in his infamous The Grey Album, mostly leaning on how awesome of a concept the album was (and still is).
Today, artists in Jay-Z’s or The Beatles’ positions might’ve frowned at this approach to a remix, but Jay-Z and the two living Beatles at the time loved the album.
On the other hand, enough material from the original song needs to stay in your remix for it to sound related to the original. This is much easier when you’re remixing a track with vocals, as those vocals will serve as a stamp for the original track regardless of the rest of your remix.
But vocals aren’t the only element that can give that stamp. Skrillex’s remix of Travis Scott’s hit “SICKO MODE” uses elements like the main pad sample and low bass hits to reference more than just the vocal in the original track.
It’s this balance that you’ll have to negotiate when making your own remixes.
The best way to start is often to decide which signature elements from the original track you want to keep. Think about why you want to remix this song in the first place. What makes you like the original? These sounds can serve as a great foundation for everything else you do.
These original elements can be left mostly unchanged or can be completely edited and warped; the choice is yours. Skrillex doesn’t change the main pad much in his “SICKO MODE” remix, but he completely mangles Drake’s vocal in the middle section, starting around 02:40.
Next, decide on a rough song structure. This will give you a blueprint to follow when starting your remix—if you know what your signature elements will be, you’ll be better prepared to focus on filling the gaps left by what you decide to take out.
If your remix is a specific genre, there may already be standard structures to follow. In the case of many genres of dance music, the length and order of sections is almost predetermined (mix-in section for DJs, 16-bar intro, 8-bar build, 16-bar drop, etc.), meaning your main goal is to find how the original song can be adjusted to that structure.
If you’re going for a non-formulaic structure, it’s still a good idea to set up markers for yourself to follow the structure you want. You can even leave the song structure exactly how it is in the original, but having a plan will allow you to work quickly, effectively, and creatively without feeling lost.
With your starting elements and song structure fleshed out, you can build around the original elements to complete your remix. Your foundation is likely to change, but it’s easier to give yourself a block of marble to chisel at than to try to create the remix out of thin air.
Pro tip: Try not to delete any of the original stems while you work. If you’re stuck trying to fill some space or need to add something, it’s always great to have the option to check if other original elements can work.
Instead of deleting a stem, group your unused stems and mute the group, or separate the stems into clips and deactivate sections that you're not using. This way, the stems will still be in your project if you need them, but will be out of the way until you do.
How do I make my remix stand out?
The way you decide to go about remixing a song is entirely subjective. To justify adding the words “( ____ Remix)” to your track, make sure it’s an expression of your own musical identity, not just a production cover of the original song. That “( ____ Remix)” phrase essentially serves as your artistic signature, so you should be happy with both how you present your own artistry and how you reference the original track.
The more you can take the listener out of the world of the old track and into yours, the more yours will stand out. This can be done with any musical choices you see fit, and your ability to do this is only limited by your imagination.
Only use the vocal and create everything else
One option is to use only the vocal and create an otherwise entirely new track. As mentioned before, the vocal is the most characteristic element of most songs, so a remix built around the vocal will both reference the original and give you the most room to express yourself.
Recontextualize elements from the original track
Another way to set your remix apart is to use elements from the original in new ways or a new context. In this scenario, the way you frame the original elements is your artistic expression. For example, a support instrument from the original track can be repurposed to have a more prominent role.
Check out Oliver Heldens’ remix of “Attention” by Charlie Puth. The tempo is sped up, but Oliver Heldens keeps the clean electric guitar from the original. With the claps and low synth added, the guitar serves a new role here.
Completely warp elements from the original track
Original elements can be edited and processed so that they’re almost indistinguishable from their counterparts in the original song. This obviously references the original track the least, but can be a strong demonstration of your creativity.
In the case of an official remix, this route could be positive or negative. The original artist or label will probably want the remix to sound related to the original, but doing this can also set your remix apart from other remixes that may sound overly related to the original.
This is definitely an interesting option for remix contests, in which you’ll have to break through the thick layer of entries in which remixers kept things mostly the same. Setting your remix clearly apart from the rest can help you have a better shot at standing out, winning, and reaping the rewards ($$$).
Whether you’re tasked to do an official remix, you’re entering a remix contest, or you’re just learning how to remix a song to work on your skills, remixes are a quick and—relatively—easy way to continue developing as a producer.
With all of these points in mind, you should easily be on your way to making remixes in no time. They’re simple to start thanks to all the work that’s already been done by the original artist, and simple to complete if you approach them intentionally. Plus the numerous opportunities remixes present for learning and growth make them worth any producer’s time and energy.
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