What is a “remix” anyway?
I was talking to a good friend recently about my latest remix project. While this friend (who shall remain nameless) is a dance music fan, I’d mentioned that I needed to wrap-up the project and get it into the label soon. He got this glazed-over look in response that said “Huh?” far louder than anything that could have come out his mouth. I realized that this friend, despite being a dance music lover, and despite being fully aware that I’m a DJ (and I thought being aware that I was a producer too) was actually clueless when it came to understanding what it was I was doing when I said, “I’m working on a remix.” This might also explain the nodding and smiling and glazed-over looks I get from my family sometimes, so I thought this might be a good time to take a stab at explaining this.
First, it’s important to understand how dance music releases work. Unlike the glory days of the music business, when artists would record and release full albums of different songs, in this digital iTunes / AmazonMP3 age, the world is a pretty singles-centric place. But while that’s new to pop and rock, it’s really the way it’s always been in dance music for whatever reason. An artist (which in dance could really mean vocalist and/or producer and/or songwriter and/or “band” or “group” and/or other things) generally records and releases a single at a time.
Each of these singles generally includes remixes from a range of producers (a/k/a “remixers”). That’s why on iTunes, AmazonMP3, and other places, you see track listings on releases that look something like this:
It’s the same song, in multiple versions, by different producers (remixers). Same artist, same song… But different “takes” on that song. More on that shortly.
In any case, when you see the list like this, those subtitles in parentheses are the remixer credits, usually with a mix type (e.g., radio edit, club mix, etc.) with the remixer name. So, here we see a VisionX mix, a Wesley King mix (that’s me!), a Groove Police mix, etc.
Taken as a whole, these are “maxi-singles” or sometimes “remix packages” for a specific, single song release. Obviously in the digital stores, you can buy and download individual mixes, or you can buy the “album” (the full set of remixes). Most people, I assume, download the individual mix or mixes they like best.
Most dance music releases work this exact way. Sometimes there are fewer mixes, often times more. But the fact is that most dance releases are put out with multiple “remixes” to suit multiple audiences.
Which is a good segue to the second point, different remixes are designed to suit different audiences. There are different styles of dance music, some softer and lighter, and some hard-edged and aggressive sounding. Some are house, some trance, some techno. By having producers create different remixes in different styles, an individual release has a better chance of commercial success. Kids who like techno don’t like the same music as 40-somethings who like filter house. And what works for radio may not work in a club (or vice-versa). And what works on the east coast may not work on the west. But if you release the same song in multiple styles, it’s entirely possible that track will find an audience with all of these people.
And now for the third point, what actually is a “remix” anyway? The term comes from an earlier time, when an artist would record a song on tape. Those recordings had multiple tracks… For example, there would be a vocal track, a drum track, a bass track, a synth track… Each distinct sound would generally have a track all to its own—all of which, when taken together (or “mixed,” literally, using a hardware mixer), form a finished song. A producer could then take that tape, and adjust the levels of each track in the finished mix. Perhaps some tracks would be removed entirely; perhaps new tracks would be added with new sounds. Depending on what the producer wanted to achieve, the finished result could sound entirely different from the original.
These days, everything’s digital. And when it comes to dance remixes, generally speaking, none of the original tracks—other than the vocal—are retained. A producer (a/k/a remixer, such as me) will take the vocal (acapella), and create the rest of the song around it from the ground up. In my software (Ableton Live), it looks like this, visually:
What you see here is time unfolding from left to right, and tracks from top to bottom. (I’m just trying to give this some visual context, not teach you about Ableton; if you want to know more about that, go here.)
In any event, there are still multiple tracks, and so it really is an exercise of adjusting levels, manipulating sound, adding tracks, taking them away… It’s just that the original recording isn’t the source of the work, it’s all rooted in the vocals.
Essentially, being a producer/remixer is being part audio engineer, part musician, part artist and part songwriter. In times past, these were all separate jobs, but with the advent of such powerful music technology for the masses, it’s all rolled-up into a single person when it comes to dance music remixing.
Anyway, I don’t know how other remixers work, but in my remixes, everything you hear other than the vocal is something I created, either through programming or performing. The drums? I programmed those. Synthesizers? I played and recorded them. Piano? I played and recorded that. Bass? Same thing. Some remixers use pre-recorded loops, which is perfectly legitimate, but not how I choose to work. In many cases, I re-arrange the vocal elements, playing songwriter in essence, structuring the parts of the song how I want them. I might retouch the vocal recording… I might create harmonies for those vocals… I might speed it up or slow it down from the artist’s original version. What I do to a track depends on the song, how I feel about it, what inspires me, what hits me in the moment.
I’m sure some remixers work quickly; perhaps many use templates, recycling stuff from older remixes. To date, I don’t do much recycling, and I don’t tend to work that quickly. Each remix is started from a blank canvas, and it usually takes me several weeks to get a foundation put together with the song parts arranged, percussion roughed-in, and other common elements (like the bass) roughed-in. From that point, it’s an exercise of polish… Fixing vocals, adding filters (manipulating sound), adding pads (which are flowing, ethereal sounds), adding other new synthesizer elements, trying things, adjusting levels, adding effects, or pulling things back when I take them too far.
In some ways, it’s like a painting… It takes time to get things roughed-in, and then it’s an exercise of cleaning-up, embellishing, and adding details, and taking it where you want it.
When that’s done, it’s time to get it released. This is where my friend comes back into this discussion; I honestly don’t think he understood that the end point here is making these available for sale. But once I get commissioned to do a remix (by the artist, the label, etc.), yeah, the point is to get it where it needs to be and then hand it off so it can get released to iTunes, AmazonMP3, and other places.
So, the next time you see “Wesley King Mix” (or something like that) attached to a dance track in a digital download store? You now know why it’s there, and what I did to make it happen.