The idea of a remix has been around since electronic music started becoming prominent decades ago. Because so many producers work with samples of pre-existing music, it only makes sense that they would be adept at taking a popular song — with permission from the artist — and remix it into their own creation. Just as many rising artists become famous or recognized by covering other music, whether on YouTube or SoundCloud, producers are getting their foot in the door by remixing. A popular song is released, then a budding producer gives it a new and exciting reinvention. Because the song is already popular, the remix gets a lot of attention, especially if it’s good. But since the art of remixing has become so prominent, it’s hard to stand out. And for those producers who are new to remixing, it’s difficult to know where to start. So, whether you’re a seasoned remixer or you just got your first batch of stems, we’ve outlined five smart ways to approach a remix for you to stand out.
1. Flip the mood
If the song you’re about to remix features major chords and a feel-good mood, one way to get started in making it anew is flipping that right around. Make the chord progression minor, and add some dark elements to the mix. This technique will ensure that you really are exploring your own path in your remix, not just retouching what’s already there. But if you do take this approach, be sure to keep in mind why you like the song in the first place. If you make a happy song extremely depressing, people might be turned off by the extreme change of mood. You can operate on the other end of the spectrum, but keep in mind what made the song magical in the first place.
2. Strip it down
Some of the best remixes are the most minimal ones. Let’s say you have a busy, driving rock song with distorted guitars and loud acoustic drums. Now, let’s take out all of the rock instruments, replace the chord progressions with an ambient synth, and drench the vocals in reverb — maybe even put a lo-fi filter on them. All of the sudden you have something much more atmospheric with a whole new life. While fans of the original driving song might be taken aback, others might love it for the first time.
3. Beef it up
Now, if you don’t want to take the minimal approach, you can always take the “beef up” approach. Essentially, you leave the song mostly intact, but make it louder, wider, and harder. Again, let’s say you’re remixing the same driving rock song. Add pounding electronic drums underneath the already-loud acoustic drums; double the distorted guitars; add saw synth lines to mimic the melodies; make multiple layers of the vocals. This approach will require a very good mixer to ensure the peaking doesn’t get out of hand, but it allows you, the producer, to take an already driving song and make it even harder.
4. Play with the tempo and pitch
It’s very common for a remix to be a different tempo than the original. For techno and trance music, producers almost always make it faster. For downtempo and ambient producers, they slow it down. When you are given a fresh batch of stems to remix, there are endless options to create. But one way to really ensure you’re about to make something unique is to stretch the time. For example, you could take the lead vocal stem, and pitch it down an octave, putting the song in half-time. You could do the same by pitching it up and putting the song in double-time. Both of these will fundamentally alter the original song, so you may want to carefully hover within how much you distance yourself from the original tempo/pitch. However, if you can pull off a big change in tempo and/or pitch, this will give you room to really make something original.
5. Restructure and rewrite
If you’re remixing a song that has a “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus” structure, try beginning by switching that order up off the bat. You could make the bridge the chorus or the second verse the intro. And if you really want to challenge yourself, write each movement of the song on little pieces of paper then pick from a hat your new order! You can do this with lyrics, too. Another popular effect in remixing is reverse. Have a cool lead melody? Reverse it. There’s no reason you have to keep a remix structure exactly as the original. In fact, some of the best remixes change the order in which certain themes are introduced to you. You could even base your entire remix off of the bridge.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach a remix. However, it is easy to be predictable, and if fans of the original song are going to give your work a chance, they want to be excited and challenged by your remix. You can play with all of the methods listed above. Sometimes it’s actually helpful to have more than one remix so you can really explore a song in and out. You might start with method #2 but later decide you want to pursue method #3. And, of course, mixing and matching certain methods is encouraged. For example, you can use both method #1 and #5 in the same remix. The most important part is that you’re staying true to your sound while maintaining a sense of respect for the original. Other than that, experiment as much as you want and have fun!
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Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.