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How to Remix a Song

by Griffin Brown, iZotope Contributor April 4, 2019

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Learning how to remix a song is one of the best ways to get into music production. Much of the songwriting and song structure work is already done, and it’s enjoyable to put your own spin on a song you love. Remixes can even go viral due to the original song’s success, so can sometimes be the gateway for producers trying to move up in the industry.

In this article, we’ll be covering a few tips on how you should go about remixing a song. This will focus on how to legally remix a track, how to set up your project to be most efficient, how to figure out which parts of the original to include or reference, and how you can set your remix apart from others.

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 with 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 original track 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.

Any time you spend working is time you’re improving. Gotta get those 10,000 hours in...

How to remix a song—legally

Before you dive right in, let’s make sure that you don’t get into legal trouble by making this remix. For the sake of this article, we’re discussing legality based on United States copyright law.

A remix is technically defined as a “derivative work,” meaning that it has been created based off an original work. Because of this, the copyright owner for the original track (often the artist or releasing label) has the legal ability to grant or deny you permission to make a remix.

If you make a remix without the consent of the copyright holder, or if you are denied permission and make the remix anyway, this is an example of copyright infringement. We won’t go into the bloody details, just know that big artists and labels take infringement of their copyrights VERY seriously and do not hesitate to take legal action.

However, an aspect of copyright law called Fair Use can provide an exception to the necessity for permission. Fair Use exists in order to prevent copyright holders from stifling innovation and parody.

If an unofficial remix is claimed as copyright infringement, the infringing remixer can claim Fair Use on the basis of four main points:

1. The purpose and character of using the original copyrighted material

2. The nature of the original copyrighted material itself

3. The amount and importance of original copyrighted material used

4. The effect that using the original copyrighted material will have on its value

As you can probably tell, these are all rather uncertain questions in the case of a remix. Additionally, if you were accused of copyright infringement, you would have to prove that your remix is Fair Use; the accuser would not have to prove it isn’t.

Therefore, while Fair Use exists and can be used to defend a remix done without permission, it isn’t a good idea to assume Fair Use will be proven. And larger artists and labels (those whose work is more likely to be remixed) tend to have bigger budgets for lawyers and legal action than the accused. Overall, it’s best to make sure that your remix is not infringing on anyone’s copyright.

“So how can I actually make a legal remix?”

The best case scenario is to get permission from the copyright holder. This can be done through a variety of ways, most commonly through an official remix. A remix (or even an EP of remixes) can extend the shelf life of an expiring song, giving the original artist and / or label an incentive to grant permission to create a derivative work.

If you’ve gained some traction as a producer, artists and labels will see the opportunity to tap into another market and may approach you to create a remix. This is a mutually beneficial situation, especially if you as the potential remixer are a smaller artist than the original.

Otherwise, directly reaching out to artists and labels isn’t necessarily a bad idea if you hear a track that you’d like to remix. Keep in mind that cold-calling like this can be inconsistent, especially if you’re approaching bigger artists and labels who likely receive plenty of similar requests.

However, one email back saying “yes” could completely change your career, so asking is worth a shot if done in a respectful, professional, and non-intrusive way.

Apart from official remixes, another great option is to enter remix contests. There are plenty of these contests available through several platforms online, all of which can be big opportunities for growing producers.

Remix contests generally have prizes for the winning and / or high-ranking entries. This can include official releases on record labels, conversations with the original artist, equipment and software, and more. All of these reasons alone are enough to make entering a contest worth your time, as they’re just potential bonuses on top of practicing your production and having content for your running artist portfolio.

Our partners over at Splice offer plenty of resources for remixers, as their library of samples is a helpful tool for any producer.

Splice remix contests

How to set up a song for remixing

Workflow is a very personal aspect of production, and as a producer, you probably know the best way for you to work. Some like to be super organized while others just like to get ideas into their DAW without being bogged down by organization.

When remixing, however, there are a few additional organizational steps that we can take to make working a lot easier and a lot quicker.

The basic idea is to organize the project as if it is an original track, and then 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.

Ideally, you should have the stems of the original song. Stems are audio files, each of which being an element (drum, instrument, vocal, etc.) from the original. Sometimes stems are separated so that each channel in the original project is bounced 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 stems. This is often just a folder of audio files, so the best first step to remixing a song is to arrange all the stems in a project to recreate the original song.

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 that you’re working on.

Even if you don’t normally do this, try it out. The time it’ll save you over the course of working on this remix will be worth the 20–30 minutes it will take to organize at the beginning.

It’s also a good idea to delete any silences in the stems, separating each stem into multiple regions in your DAW.

While this doesn’t have any impact on the sound, doing this will neatly visually divide the project. This allows you to find specific elements in the project quickly and will reveal the original song’s song structure. Knowing this will help when making decisions on how to change the original track.

If you don’t have the stems, there are still a few options available for remixers. These options will generally only yield an acapella vocal, not each individual stem, but for many remixes this is enough to work with.

I’ll be using Fytch’s “Saltwater” for demonstration:

The first method for isolating the vocal uses the Music Rebalance feature in RX 7. This tool allows you to adjust the volume of various elements in a mono, stereo, or multichannel bounce 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.

Music Rebalance parameters

Here are the settings we’ll use to isolate the vocal in “Saltwater.”

Music Rebalance example

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 can now be used in a completely new track.

For more info on how to use Music Rebalance, check out this video.

The next method involves the idea of phase cancellation. We 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 instrumental tracks.

What we’ll need is the original track and an instrumental, both of which need to be at the same sample rate.

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 RX 7’s Phase module to do so.

First, I bring one of the two files into RX 7. Today, 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.

RX 7 phase flip

I export from RX 7 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 is affected:

Phase invert

Next, I bring the phase-flipped instrumental into my DAW. On another channel, I insert the full master. I make sure the the two files are exactly lined up.

Phase-flipped instrumental and master lined up

Ideally, the phase-flipped instrumental and the instruments in the original will have completely opposite phases and will cancel out. 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 still leave some artifacts in the new vocal stem. This can include some digital garbage caused by phasing and / or some instruments still bleeding through.

However, since you’ll be adding new sounds around this rough stem, these artifacts may be masked by everything you add. While not as nice as working with a completely isolated vocal stem from the original project, this DIY technique can definitely suffice.

What to leave, what to change?

Now that you’re aware of how to legally remix a track and 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. And it’s important to do so, as staying too close to the original can be like stepping on the toes of the original artist.

On the other hand, enough material from the original song needs to stay for your remix to sound related. This is much easier when the track you’re remixing has vocals, as those vocals will serve as a stamp for the original track regardless of the rest of your remix.

It’s this balance that you’ll have to negotiate when completing your remix.

Often, the best way to start is 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. But these characteristic elements can serve as an anchor to the original track, allowing you to explore other musical and sonic possibilities without straying too far from the song you’re remixing.

Next, decide on a rough song structure. This will give you a blueprint to follow when starting your remix, and with your signature elements chosen will allow you to focus on filling the gaps left by what you decide to take out.

If the remix you’re making is going to be 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, 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 figured 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 away than try to create the remix out of thin air.

It’s worth mentioning that, if possible, try not to delete any of the original stems while you work. If you’re stuck trying 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, just group your unused stems and mute the group. This way, the stems will still be in your project if you need them but will be out of the way until you do.

Making your remix unique

The way you decide to go about remixing a song is entirely subjective. To justify adding the words “( ____ Remix)” to the track, this should be an expression of your own musical identity, not just a rendition of the original song. That 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.

One option is to only use the vocal and create an 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.

Check out R3HAB’s remix of “One Kiss” by Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa for an example:

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.

Or, 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 and / 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 others can help you have a better shot at winning and reaping the rewards.

Conclusion

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 “easy” way to continue developing as a producer.

With all of these points in mind, you should 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, simple to complete if you approach them in an intentional manner, and the numerous opportunities to learn and grow make them worth any producer’s time and energy.

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