How to Remix a Song in Three Easy Steps
Want to make a remix of your own? Ever wondered how to remix a song at home?
I guess you’ve found yourself here at this page because you’re into music, and would like to try your hand a creating your own remixes of your favourite tracks. Some of you may be here to find out how to make a pop remix so that you can post it on YouTube and look cool. Others may just be interested one of the many ways remixes are created through some other inspiration.
Creating a remix isn’t as difficult as it would first seem, you just need to use the right software or equipment in the right way – once you get the hang of the 3 basic steps you’ll soon be hearing exactly how other remixes were made without even thinking about it, and certainly able to create your own of virtually any song you like.
It's actually quite fun to take music from one genre and mix it into a completely different one - a country vocal part might fit superbly in a trance song if you're clever enough to choose the right vocal phrases and style, and equally a dance-floor club hit might make for a wonderful mellow trip-hop style track.
If you find this article useful you might like to check out a studio production guide website I am a regular contributor for where you will find excellent advice and articles on producing a professional sound for your own music:
So - let's get on to making a remix!
What is a remix?
The Basics – What are the elements that make up a remix?
- A remix is just a generic term for any song that has been re-worked and given a new angle to it and usually a new sound entirely. In most cases a remix will consist of a vocal pop / dance song that has been made into another style of music and keeping the theme and vocals. For the purpose of this article it’s this that I’m focussing on – a remix of a vocal pop song.
Different types of remixes – build from scratch or use loops / existing instrumentals
- There are many different ways to produce remixes and many ways to achieve the end result, but here we shall talk about two of the main ones – building a new mix from scratch or simply replacing the music with loops from an already established song, much in the style of a ‘mashup’. Any DJs reading this will probably be familiar with the mashup style remix already as it’s a common way for mixing between tracks in a live DJ set.
Exploring the different types of software that can be used
- I don’t wish to get too embroiled in the virtues of one bit of software versus another – there are so many different audio editing apps available that it can be confusing for a beginner. Each has their own merits – some are better at handling & manipulating loops, others are better beat makers, so I’ll concentrate on just a few select programs that I use most of the time.
Right – on to the nitty-gritty and how it’s actually done:
What you will learn...
I've divided this up into three steps that carefully explain the process of making a new mix of an existing song. These are:
Step 1 – Choosing your track and extracting the vocals
- Identifying a suitable song to remix – is it too jumbled?
- Different methods for extracting vocals.
- Cleaning up the vocals to get a suitable vocal track to work with / cutting up vocals into individual phrases for better timing, or to alter the vocal line entirely.
- Replacing the vocals with a new voice.
Step 2 – Creating a suitable new music-bed for the vocals
- Defining what musical key the new track is going to be.
- Using loops from existing tracks.
- Building beats & instrumentals from scratch.
Step 3 – Arranging & Mastering the complete song
- Taking a music-bed & vocal track and arranging them to be interesting.
- Using effects creatively to produce a new twist to the same song.
- Mastering with effects and getting a good overall balance.
Step 1 – Choosing your track and extracting the vocals
One of the most important aspects of creating a successful remix is choosing the right song to remix and finding a version that you can work with comfortably. What is considered suitable? Obviously music is subjective – what is one person’s meat is another's poison, particularly when we talk about music, so let’s be clear about this – it doesn’t matter what genre of music you are remixing from and to, there are certain distinctive characteristics that make a good choice for a remix.
Throughout this article I am going to be using the style of popular music with vocals but really it can be any vocal song you like. The fundamental quality to look for in a vocal song to remix is the ability to be able to extract just the vocal track without the rest of the song – it’s vitally important to get this stage correct and as tight & tidy sounding as can be as it will have enormous impact on the rest of what you do during the remix.
The best source is an actual acapella version of the original straight from the master. A great website to check for acapella versions is Soundcloud. We’ll call this 100% perfect as you really don’t have to do anything more to the vocal track apart from use it! More commonly we won’t be able to find a source for the original material so we have to extract it from the release version.
This sounds more tricky than it is – there are a few solid ways to go about this, and I’ll explain in detail the process of each and it will entirely depend on a few factors, but essentially for the purpose of this tutorial we’ll stick with the basic and most common methods which are:
a) cancelling the music bed with its direct instrumental counterpart.
b) using centre channel extraction tools found in good quality sound editing software.
Cancelling the music bed with its direct instrumental counterpart
Common in modern music releases a CD single or download is accompanied by an instrumental version of the song (usually for DJs). These are exactly the same as the release version with vocals note for note, but obviously have no vocals in. Although this sounds like the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve (having the solo vocal track) we can use it to directly play against the original but in a ‘phase inverted’ state.
The easiest way to do this is to use sample editor software that has an “invert” function, such as Audacity (free). Load the wav file of the instrumental version, highlight it and “Invert” it. Then get the vocal version and add it on top of the inverted instrumental and the result is the instrumental inverted version will cancel out the instruments on the vocal version leaving you with just the vocals… Great – exactly what we need!
You will probably find you have to do some tweaking and eq’ing to really kill the background noise, and in some cases you may have to zoom right in and do some careful manual editing to remove beats such as snare drums or kicks.
Using centre channel extraction tools found in good quality sound editing software
My mainstay for this is Adobe Audition CS6. It has built-in a tool which will do all of the above steps for you and includes a preset specifically for creating an acapella. No software is perfect and often will require adjusting the parameters until you get the desired result, but the great thing about it is that you can make these adjustments in real-time so you can hear exactly what you’re doing.
You may find certain awkward songs that require you to further eq or carefully edit out certain plosive sounds such as kicks and snares, but software like Audition really cuts out a whole load of time by doing all the phase inverting for you. It also has some excellent eq’s for killing bass & drums – again which you have full control over in real-time, so you can hear what you’re doing and not work “blind”.
Both methods work
Regardless of which method you use to get the vocal track extracted you’ll inevitably have to do some cleaning up to the wav. This is usually straight-forward enough: look at the wave file and you’ll easily identify where the vocal parts are and where there should be silence. Select just the ‘silent’ parts and zero their volume using you sound editor software. In Audition I tend to cut it right to zero in the gaps, but use the “smooth fade out” at the very tail of each vocal phrase to give a slightly more natural sound.
What I often find is a good way to manage the individual vocal ‘phrases’ is rather than just silencing the gaps, I’ll copy just the tidied-up phrase and save it as a new sample. You end up with a number of samples (depends on the song, but I find it’s about 20 or so usually) each with the next line of the song. I then assign each sample to a key on the keyboard and set the root key accordingly. I start with C3 for the first line (making sure the root key is C3) then load the next sample onto C#3 (root key C#3) and so on. You can then trigger the individual vocal lines by playing the respective key on the sampler. By doing this you can help keep your vocals in time with your BPM (although you shouldn’t need to if you’re working to the exact same tempo as the original) or you can mix the lines up and create a whole new vocal part!
An example of this a remix of Disclosure's – "You & Me" where I took selected phrases from just the first verse and used them to repeat over the new music throughout the track, leaving the song sounding completely different from the original.
Re-record the vocals with a new singer!
The final option that you have is to actually re-record the vocal line entirely using a new talented vocalist. While this isn’t strictly speaking a ‘remix’ but more of a ‘cover version’ it could be classified as such if your vocalist sounds very much like the original. You can find many good quality vocalists online – people tend to like to publish themselves singing on YouTube, Soundcloud & Looperman websites, so a polite message to a user / vocalist who you think fits the bill will often be met with a positive response, but always be wary about the recording quality they can produce – the more background noise you introduce to your track at this stage will very much ‘muddy’ the overall sound later on because a vocal part always sits quite high in the mix.
Step 2 – Creating a suitable new music-bed for the vocals
Defining the musical key for the remix
I always start by playing along to the original version either on guitar or piano / synth to establish what the key should be to begin with… its pointless building a whole song only to discover that the vocals are in an entirely different key altogether. That said – as a musician & writer who studied music theory I am able to determine ‘relative’ keys – each minor has a relative major and vice versa, but this isn’t something to worry about right now - that’s music theory.
So let’s start by looking online to see what the chords of the song are and working from there. There are hundreds of websites that will tell you this and a simple search for “band name, song title, chords” in Google should present you with enough information to get started. It’s entirely up to you if you want to copy the original track or be musically creative with it and use a different but complementary chord structure (my Disclosure example above is actually in a relative key from the original hence why it sounds so very different!)
There are no hard and fast rules to this stage and I encourage you to load up a decent sound and play along with your now naked vocal track – often just ‘jamming along’ reveals some of the most creative and interesting music. I often will load up a bass sample and start with writing a new bassline around just the vocals and looping that, then go to my trusty piano sounds and play the original chords over the top.
Using loops from other tracks
You can of course always pick up another entirely different instrumental track or part of a song without vocals and loop it. Always make sure you have the tempos matched though – and this is the part where any of you who DJs will find easy and you’ll hear an entirely new song already!
It is very much how a DJ will mix two tracks together in a live set, and you’ll find a good deal of people work this way with Albeton Live where it’s made extremely easy to load up sample loops and play around with them until you find one that works. Drum loops work brilliantly if you’re remixing into an entirely different style, but using a loop means you will have to work out the tempo difference and match it accordingly… if you’re not a DJ this can be a quite frustrating process.
Making beats & music from scratch
Far easier than working with loops is to build your beat from scratch. This may sound like it’s a lot more work, but really it’s very easy. A fantastic beat maker tool that I use called BTV Solo is ideal for this as you can very quickly build up a new beat using either the inbuilt sounds or your own drum samples that you’ve taken from another song. You can also load an entire loop (say 4 or 8 bars) and it will spread the loop across the keys and it will already be the correct tempo for you vocal track, so it works great for both creating new beats or using drum loops.
Let’s say we’ve got our vocal line that we’re happy with. Now fire up your beat maker or drum machine and start building a beat. Start with a simple kick drum, add in some hi-hats and snare, and maybe a bass line. This can all be done either standalone or using the software as a VST instrument for use inside your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) where you have the vocal track. There’s a good tutorial for how to build beats here.
Finally, now that you have your new ‘music bed’ and vocal tracks at the same tempo and same key (or chosen complimentary key) it’s time to load them up together in your chosen DAW software. Albeton is an excellent tool for this – but I’ll often use either Audacity or Audition as they are both great sound editors, but for the purpose of this article I’m going to stick with Audition.
Step 3 – Arranging & Mastering the complete song
The very last stage of creating a remix is the arrangement, production & mastering of all the tracks. It's usually for me the most rewarding part as it truly brings together the whole thing into one nice mix.
Production & Mastering like a boss
So – on track 1 you have your vocal line, and on tracks 2 and more you have your music bed. What you now need to do in order to create the really well mastered sound is to add some effects here and there.
In Audition I will always add compression to the overall track and often this is just a simple as selecting ‘pop master’ or ‘broadcast’ presets found within the Multiband compressor and adjusting it accordingly, tweaking where I want the high frequencies ‘squashed’ and where I want the bass or kick to be more pronounced. There is a whole science behind using compressors, but just these effect alone can achieve some excellent results, and again you can monitor the whole thing in real time.
Since you’re running this in multitrack mode – your vocals are still on a separate track – you can play around with other effects such as reverbs & delays on the vocals and in just certain places. For example – the vocal phrase at the end of a verse might trail off with an echo before – boom – into the bouncing chorus, or you may have a huge reverb at the end of the song to give it that final touch. Either way – it’s entirely a musical creative decision and not something that can be explained easily, but more something you will have to find out yourself by playing around with the multitude of effects found in nearly all sound editors available, but one thing is almost certainly essential is that you apply compression to the final mix to level the sounds.
This is the very technique professional recording studio engineers use to create the ‘quality professional’ sound you hear on chart releases, so I strongly encourage you to spend time reading up on the best methods, but to give you an overall idea of what compression does – it’s limits and squashes the levels of certain instruments so that they don’t take over the whole audio spectrum when they play. A kick drum can be extremely loud and completely drown vocals out, but a compressor will limit the sound of the kick for just the very fraction of time required allowing the vocals (and other instruments) to be heard clearly and as they should. The same goes for bass and other booming instruments, and when used subtly will give your entire track an overall polished sound, without too many peaks & troughs in your final mix.
"It's been a pleasure to write this guest post for my esteemed colleague and friend, and will gladly answer any questions you have about this article or your own remixes. I encourage you all to give it a try - it's really not very difficult at all, and once you're producing some good results, upload them to Soundcloud or YouTube and post a link here!"
DJ BLoG / Beat Maker
Credit where it's due for producing a far superior remix to the one I created for this article - This remix is immense!
It's also a great example of creating a completely new 'soundbed' by using elements from the original in an entirely different way.
Pat Lock "Homies Wear" remix.
Much thanks to Shut The Font Door (STFD).