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 remix a track legally, 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.
Don’t have vocal stems? No problem—try your hand at creating them with a free month-long trial of RX, and click here to learn how to create them. Don’t forget to head here to make sure you’re not pulling a Grey Album and infringing on anyone’s copyrights.
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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.
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.
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.
The first method for isolating the vocal uses the Music Rebalance feature in RX 7. 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.
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 7 to do so.
First, I bring one of the two files into RX 7. 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 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 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.
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.
Any time you spend working is time you’re improving. Gotta get those 10,000 hours in...
Before you dive right in, let’s just make sure you don’t get into legal trouble by making this remix, right? 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 from an original work. The copyright owner has the sole authority to authorize the creation of derivative works. 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 usually won’t not hesitate to take legal action.
You may initially only get a cease and desist letter, but the copyright holder may seek financial damages as well.
However, an aspect of copyright law called Fair Use can provide an exception. 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:
The purpose and character of using the original copyrighted material
The nature of the original copyrighted material itself
The amount and importance of original copyrighted material used
The effect that using the original copyrighted material will have on its value
As you can probably tell, the answers to these questions are all rather uncertain in the case of a remix. However, the copyright owner doesn't have to prove your remix isn’t covered by Fair Use to accuse you of copyright infringement. It’d be your responsibility to prove your remix is Fair Use.
So, 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. Also, larger artists and labels—those whose work is more likely to be remixed—tend to have bigger budgets than the accused, and they’re happy to put that budget toward defending their intellectual property. Overall, it’s best to make sure that your remix isn’t infringing on anyone’s copyright.
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. This can give the original artist, the label, or both 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 mutually beneficial, especially if you’re 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 high-ranking entries, plus additional prizes for the winner. 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 artist portfolio.
Now that you know 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Are you interested in evaluating new features and helping to develop iZotope software products? iZotope is seeking music producers, composers, mixing engineers, and audio enthusiasts to participate in our Software Beta Programs!