Chapter 3: Approach & Mindset
“A good remix keeps some aspect of the original composition, but offers a personalized twist on the presentation. For a vocal track, it’s easy to take the acapella and write an entirely new instrumental around it, but a good remix of an instrumental track where the original track can be recognized yet recreated in an entirely new light is always impressive.”Monoverse
As I mentioned in the intro, when planning this guide I sent out an email to my list (you should join it by the way if you haven’t already) asking what they’d like me to cover.
Several people asked for me to explain what a good remix is. Which is incredibly hard to explain and describe, largely because it’s completely subjective.
Remixes differ too much – you could argue one remix is good because it’s completely different to the original, but you could also argue another remix is good because it keeps key elements of the original and the vibe stays intact.
So, rather than try and describe what a good remix is, I’m going to analyse 3 of my favorite remixes which I believe to be great remixes. They all have different traits, which make them great for analysis.
Let’s get into it.
Analysis of 3 popular remixes
Dinka – Elements (EDX 5un5hine Remix)
Obviously to judge the quality of a remix, we need to hear the original first.
Every now and then, a remix will gain more popularity than its original version. This happened with Felix Jaehn’s remix of Cheerleader which reached number 1 in 20 different countries. But EDX did it before that with his remix of Dinka’s Elements.
The original version is a well-produced progressive house with some nice glitchy parts scattered throughout. Here’s an overview of its structure.
It features a 40 bar intro before leading into the first bass-driven verse section. After 16 bars, a techy pluck sound comes in which lasts for the following 16 bars and is then removed again.
It builds in to the breakdown which features a serene vocal and a beautiful melody. So beautiful, in fact, that EDX took it and made it the key element of his remix. In the original, this chord progression/melody only appears in the middle of the track.
The track then builds into the familiar verse pattern heard during the intro of the track.
So, how does EDX’s 5un5hine remix differ?
The track stays at the same tempo of 127BPM, but is noticeably longer (a solid 8 minutes compared to the 6.5 minute length of the original).
We hear hints of the bassline coming in early on during the 48 bar intro, which then builds into a verse.
The verse is essentially a restricted version of the chorus. Unlike the original, where the chorus is featured in the breakdown, the remix stays the same in terms of instrumental structure throughout.
We hear the extended chord progression during the first chorus starting on bar 95, which lasts 16 bars before transitioning into the breakdown (via a tag/tension-builder).
The 32-bar breakdown brings the energy down a little before leading into the repetitive build-up. We hear a familiar chorus with a few changes (there’s a supporting pluck in there playing a melody alongside the main chords).
You’ll notice that EDX uses a techy pluck after 8 bars in each chorus, which sounds similar in style and rhythm to the one used in Verse (C) in the original version. This is a great example of taking a small idea and introducing it in a much different remix.
In summary, what does EDX do differently in the remix?
- He extends the track by well over a minute, giving the ideas more chance to develop.
- The chord progression/melody comes in at least 16 bars sooner.
- The chord progression is the core of the track, rather than an idea that features only in the breakdown
- The chord progression features a different rhythm
- He adds a supporting melody (pluck) to the main chord progression for the final chorus
- He turns it from a club track into a beach track (personal opinion)
Porter Robinson – Flicker (Mat Zo Remix)
Porter Robinson kicks the track off with an extremely short 4-bar intro (I’m sure there’s another word for this) that leads into a 16 bar A/B verse section.
The A section features a simple drum beat with a guitar, some FX, and distinctive Japanese vocal chops. The B section is similar but includes some highpassed strings and a different vocal chop rhythm.
We hear a breakdown earlier on, at bar 21, before the chorus. This lasts for 16 bars, with the second half providing huge contrast to the heavy chorus.
The chorus leads back into a brief verse before transitioning into a completely different bridge. This then leads into a shorter 8-bar build/breakdown before moving back into the final chorus.
What does Mat Zo do? Let’s see.
Note: trust Mat Zo to make a completely unique structure that’s incredibly hard to analyze. Ah well, enjoy!
Mat Zo’s remix features a similar intro the original, and even keeps the stuttered fill, but instead of the fill leading into the verse it leads back into the intro (the first time. The second time is builds into the chorus).
The chorus itself is a lot different to the original. Growly bass sounds accommodate the bottom end in its B section, while synth and pluck sounds move dynamically over the top.
The first chorus lasts for 16 bars (or 32 bars if you want to perceive it as double-time at 174BPM instead of 87).
It then moves into a short breakdown that builds into a complex breaks section. This lasts approximately 8 bars before building into a mellow, melodic build.
This is the part where you realize how much of a genius Mat Zo is, and how completely different this remix is to the original. The mellow build lasts for 16 bars, and you get the impression that it’ll build back in to the familiar chorus we heard earlier during bar 17.
Except that doesn’t happen, and it transitions into a much more aggressive build. Alright then. So it builds over 8 bars and you expect it to go back to the chorus, except you get this massive BRRRGHGHGHHGHHH sound instead.
The first time I heard this I felt a mix of about 5 different emotions. This growl section progresses and we hear a variation of the chorus played at the beginning.
So, other than almost everything, what does Mat Zo do differently?
- He keeps a similar intro/verse section during the beginning, but instead of transitioning into a breakdown, he builds into the chorus straight away.
- The chorus melody is different (as is the instrumentation)
- He adds a chill breaks section after the first breakdown (I’ve called this the bridge)
- He technically uses a 24 bar build-up compared to an 8 bar build-up before the last chorus.
- He uses a drum n bass rhythm for the long outro. Outro probably isn’t the best descriptor of this section as it lasts for a good 16 bars.
- Uses a slightly slower BPM
The Magician ft. Years & Years – Sunlight (Darius Remix)
Now, I made a mistake and got the extended club mix, but it doesn’t really matter as it’s basically a longer version of the actual original mix. The club mix will herein be referred to as the original.
The original kicks off with a 49 bar intro before transitioning into a minimal 16 bar verse that features the catchy vocal.
A 32 bar chorus follows before moving into a much longer 40 bar breakdown (second verse). The familiar chorus follows.
Despite being a “summery” song, this track has quite high energy which is caused by the contrast between verse and chorus.
Let’s have a look at the Darius remix.
The remix is much different to the original in style. At 109BPM, it’s a chill-out track instead of a house track, and naturally is going to sound a lot different as a result.
The first 25 bars slowly build into what could be considered the chorus, but it’s really just the drums coming in. You can look at the Verse, Chorus, and Tag in the image below as one section almost.
The vocals feature a lot more reverb than the original to suit the vibe of the track better.
- The tempo and genre
- Composition (bassline and chords are different)
- Arrangement – the verse and chorus don’t contrast
“Don’t have to use everything in the remix pack. Find one (or two) of the major elements in the original that really resonates with you and use that as a major element in your remix. Either the vocal, or a synth hook… Something that will remind people of the original in a big way. But after that, make the rest of the track in your own style. That’s how you develop a signature sound.”Noah Neiman
Remixing for a purpose
One could argue that remixes were born because people wanted to make popular music more “club-friendly.”
If you’re remixing a chill-out track and you play a lot of gigs, then it might make sense to turn it into something that has a dance groove. If you’re remixing a popular trance track and want people to listen to it while sipping on a glass of red by the fire, then you’ll remix to suit that purpose.
If you’re stuck for ideas, then why not try remixing for a purpose? You can turn a standard pop track into a dance track, or turn a dance track into something else. Think about what’s needed, what people want, what you want.
How to approach a remix
It’s important to understand, before looking at approaches, what the key difference in workflow are between working on remixes and originals.
Differences in workflow
1. You’re not starting from scratch
Perhaps the biggest difference between producing a remix compared to an original is that you’re not starting from scratch. You have some source material, some audio, maybe a vocal.
Now, obviously when you’re working on an original you have access to this stuff too, in the form of samples or loops. But they’re completely abstract in form and separate from a larger whole. When you’re working on a remix that contains a vocal, you’ve already got guidelines such as:
- The key of the song
- The tempo (more or less – you can change the tempo of the vocal)
- The overall vibe
Let’s unpack these.
If you’re working with an acapella, then the key of the track has basically been set for you. You could transpose it down a few semitones, and producers have done that with remixes in the past, but most of the time you’re going to leave the vocal untouched which means you’ll remain in the same key.
When you’re working on an original, you’ll normally come up with a key by yourself. You might default to your favorite key, or come across a certain preset or sample that works best at a certain note.
Most producers will keep an acapella at the same BPM or around the same BPM. You can change this – it’s not set in stone, but you have to have a good reason. If you’re a drum n bass producer that wants to remix a deep house track, then you’ve got some work to do.
I’m all for optimistic thinking and exploring possibilities, but you cannot turn a screamo track into a mellow, chillstep song. It just isn’t possible.
A vocal may fit multiple different genres, but there are certain genres and styles it will work better in. If you have a female trance acapalla at 132BPM, then making a dark techno track will likely sound dissonant. On the other hand, a slower progressive house track will probably work well, as would a melodic dubstep track.
2. The ideas are already there
Unlike an original, where you have to compose everything from scratch, when you’re remixing you’ve already got some ideas.
You can keep the original melody and chord progression yet still have a unique remix. The EDX remix of Elements is a good example of that. But you can also edit the melody and general composition.
The point is, you don’t need to start from scratch. If a chord progression exists, why not build on it? You don’t always need to rewrite from nothing.
3. You have a point of reference
A lot of people think that remixing inhibits creative thinking, but that’s simply not true.
One thing remixing offers that original production doesn’t is a point of reference. If you have an acapella, you can try out a ton of different ideas (melodies, chords, samples) and get immediate feedback. You might write a few notes of a melody, play it against the acapella and realize it doesn’t work, so you change the notes.
It’s much harder to do this with an orginal unless you already have something in place. Again, you’re starting from scratch.
I know I’m making it sound like remixes are a lot easier than originals, and in some respects, they are. But at the same time – it’s really as hard as you want it to be. You can make a very simple remix that just changes the drum pattern – that’s not hard. Or you can pull a Mat Zo and change almost everything while keeping a few elements intact.
8 Creative Approaches
1. Rewrite chords and melodies
As mentioned above, when you’re remixing you can keep the core musical elements – melody and harmony – exactly the same. Plenty of people have done it successfully, and if it’s a remix that doesn’t have a vocal and relies on the melody as the defining element, then changing the melody too much can be risky.
However, if the melody and harmony are supporting elements for a vocal, then keeping them the same simply means you’re going to have to be more creative in other areas like sound design, arrangement, and instrumentation.
Take EDX’s remix of Elements for instance. He kept exactly the same harmony/melody, but instead of having it play once in the middle of the song, he had it play throughout. He also used a different instrument and rhythm with different surrounding elements.
If you’re working with an acapella or other key defining element, then it can be worth rewriting the melody/harmony. Keeping in the same key, but writing something completely different.
2. Change genres
This one seems obvious, but it’s easy not to do.
Changing genres forces you to be creative, because you normally have to solve a few problems.
For instance, if you have an acapella sitting at 130BPM that you want to use at 120BPM, you can warp it, but it might sound a bit strange. One strategy people use, especially drum n bass producers is to cut up the acapella without changing the tempo so that it plays on the beat.
The Darius remix of Sunlight is a good example of changing genres.
3. Take elements away
Sometimes, the best thing to do is strip the elements of the original back and start with less. If you’re given a remix pack containing 10 different stems and 15 MIDI files, why not pick a few instead of trying to include everything?
This goes with acapellas too. You don’t have to use the whole thing. You might want to make a remix that only features the chorus section of the vocal. Don’t feel obligated to include every single word.
4. Build on ideas
One approach I rarely see used is to build on ideas presented in the original.
Let’s say you’re given a 4-bar chord progression – you could turn it into an 8 bar chord progression by changing the last chord and making it lead elsewhere, or you could repeat it but add variation during the second bracket.
This is a compromise between sticking with the original ideas and completely rewriting them. You’re using the original ideas as inspiration or as a “base” to work from.
5. Work around the key element
All good tracks will have a key element.
Normally, this is a vocal, and if it’s not the vocal, it’s either the bassline or the lead melody.
Typically when you’re remixing, you want to keep this key element present. It’s what defines the track, and if you get rid of it your remix might sound too much like an original. In other words, it won’t contain enough of the original track for people to identify it.
So, if you’re given an acapella or strong melody, use that as a basis for the track. Work around it instead of trying to fit it in to an existing template.
6. Reverse the structure
Don’t literally reverse the structure, but try to do the opposite. If the original track features a breakdown at bar 16, make your remix have a drop at bar 16. If it has a drop at bar 32, your remix has a breakdown at bar 32.
If the original has a 32 bar chorus and 16 bar breakdown, make a remix that has a 16 bar drop and 32 bar breakdown.
You get the idea. This is another way to reduce the likelihood of making something similar.
7. Make something that contrasts in energy
It’s easy to make a progressive house banger remix of a progressive house banger. What’s more challenging and requires more creativity is turning a progressive house banger into a mellow deep house track.
Try to make something that contrasts in energy to the original. Labels typically love this as it allows them to cater to more than one audience or listening platform. If an original has high-energy, make a low-energy remix, and vice versa.
8. Copy the style of another track
If you’re really struggling to come up with ideas, then why not copy the style of another track (remix or original)?
I don’t mean copy it identically, but stealing the structure and general instrumentation is fine, and a great way to avoid making something too similar.
This isn’t cheating, by the way. Musicians have been copying each other for centuries.