Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Remixes, But Were Afraid to Ask

It's EDM 101! MartyParty schools newbies on the difference between official remixes, bootlegs, and remakes, plus tells you how to find acapellas and avoid lawyers.

Oct 4 2013, 6:00pm

DJ/producer/purple lover MartyParty has heard a lot of misinformation being thrown around during his travels, and now he's here to set the record straight in his monthly column, where he explains the behind-the-scenes goings on and inner workings of the production game. It's Everything You Wanted to Know About EDM, but were afraid to ask.

"What is a remix?" has been one of the most confusing topics of discussion along with "What genre Is that?" since I started producing EDM music in 2006. I've decided to go ahead and author my philosophy on the subject—or rather, how I see it as a relevant producer of such things. In the internet age, everything is a moving game, so this is my take as of today, and I may change my opinion as soon as tomorrow... but here goes. 

Let's start with what makes up an electronic dance music track. These days, you typically download an mp3 file, which is a actually a "rendering" of multiple channels of audio layers (called "stems" in modern music production) together. Typically tracks are split up like drums, sub bass, mid-bass, synth melodies, synth pads or chords, analog recordings of instruments, recorded vocals, and so on. 

When a producer is ready to create the final file, all the layers are "mixed" together into one audio file. Mixing involves modifying, analyzing, and configuring the loudness of each layer, as well as where the particular sound is placed in the listening field (for instance: left, right, in the forefront, towards the back). Once that's done, the whole thing is compressed into a digital file (mp3, wav, aiff) and becomes that thing you download and play and hopefully jump around and dance to. You can only imagine all the millions of different combinations of layers that is possible. And now that there are hundreds of easily downloadable plug-ins to modify the sound of the layers—adding reverb, compression, panning, brightness, distortion—the overall "mix" becomes very subjective and depends on the taste of the person "mixing" the track.

Here we see a track and all its layers in the production environment:

Here we see all the layers represented in "mix" mode, with all their various levels and settings:

NOTE: "Mixing" is an art unto itself. Just like producing, it is an entirely stand-alone discipline. Some people are born to mix. Others are born to create. Some are great at both. Not all people that produce tracks mix, and vice versa.

Okay! Now to the question of remixes. Let's start with the basics...

What is A Remix?
Now that you understand what a mix is, you can see that different people would adjust each layer differently according to taste. In a traditional remix, the artist of the original track has another mixer or producer rearrange the audio layers however they would like. The result can range from a slightly different sounding track to something totally different. Layers can be added, removed, manipulated, turned up, turned down. The important characteristic is that the remixer was asked or authorized to do the remix. In other words, the original stems were provided to the remixer by the artist. These are often called "Official" remixes, especially when big pop artists are involved. 

In many modern-day remixes, the main vocal (the "hook") is often the only part of the track that remains the same. Very commonly, the lead melodies or basslines are retained and reused alternatively, but most of the other layers are removed. The term "remix" typically implies the remixer has chosen the elements of the original track they liked and discarded the rest. Now the remixer goes ahead and adds their own set of layers, with new beat elements, often in different tempos, and ends up with a totally new track, but with some vocal or melodic similarities.

What is An Acapella?
Stems are highly guarded, especially vocals with no beats under them, known as "acapellas." The stems of a new track typically never leave the studio or production environment, they are part of the valuable "metadata" of the track and artists want to guard you from stealing their special bassline or—in the case of someone like Beyonce—a vocal. 

NOTE: In the '80s and '90s, vocal acapellas of famous tracks were way more readily available—many vinyl pressings of hip-hop, R&B, and house acts came with an acapella track and an instrumental. These are still out there on sample CDs, for purchase on Beatport, and readily available all over the internet on BitTorrent and sites like Acapellas 4 U

With the huge flood of digital producers and widespread viral sharing and pirating of vocals, artists rarely release clean acapellas anymore, in an effort to make sure no bootleg remixes are done. On the other hand, up-and-coming or lesser-known vocalists still purposely release their acapellas, in the hopes that producers will use the vocals and provide them with a new avenue of publicity. Bottom line: modern pop artists do not release their acapella stems, handing them only to authorized remixers for official remixes But, if you know the right people or you're a great internet sleuth you can find them. Or you can make your own (see below).

What is A Bootleg?
Most remixes you have heard, downloaded, or made are bootlegs—that is, using audio layers of any song without express approval from the artist. Typically a bootleg uses a vocal acapella of a known song and a chunk of the original track's melody. The game is to find that moment in the original track where all the beats and musical components drop out for a while and the vocal or lead melodies are on their own—usually in the intro, outro, or bridge.

Here the bootlegger has grabbed a chunk of acapella audio and is duplicating in a syncopated fashion to create a whole new experience; this is common to the "trap" formula.

With a little skill and some production know-how, you can also make your own acapellas:
Some classic bootleg examples that I have made:

What Is A Remake?
A remake is my personal favorite variation on the remix—a "cover" version, if you will. When a producer wants to remix a track they love, but has no access to the artist or any of the stems, they can redo the entire song from scratch, adding their own flair. This involves more than the ability to simply edit audio chunks—it requires a deep understanding of sound design and synthesis. My favorite approach is to remake a track I like but boost the melodic parts with much more intense and penetrating instruments and patches, often extending the melodic layering and note structures across the scales and adding further harmonics to really bring that puppy home.

Remaking takes a lot of technical skill and understanding of how an original sound was made, and then reproducing it, note for note, tone for tone. All remakes are typically bootlegs, and usually made so you can pay homage to the original in another musical genre, tempo, style or direction.

Example of a remake: 

I loved this hip-hop song, but felt it could be made into a more EDM club experience. All I could grab from the original was the vocal hooks in the bridges, everything else is replayed using software synthesizers and layered drum samples.

Will I Get Sued?
In order to release a track as an "original" and sell it in an online store, or license it for a commercial application, every "reused" sample used in its composition needs to "cleared"—that is, approved for use by the original artist in writing and, depending on the sample, paid for. Uncleared samples pop up in thousands of EDM tracks. Uncleared melodic "covers" appear almost as commonly. As lawyers and intellectual property experts mature and have more knowledge of the EDM world, they are getting stricter and more prone to sue over copies and "covers". But don't take my word for it—go ahead and try and release a bootleg or remake on a major platform like Youtube or SoundCloud. You will get a nasty warning or error claiming somebody owns the rights to this vocal or melody. The software is getting really smart!

I believe all of this forces more original content and protects artist rights. Plus you get a lot more free music! When artists can't legally sell these versions, they usually give them away for free. It's a good way to build your career and get your fans, as long as you don't step on the wrong toes. 

In summary, there are official remixes, unofficial remixes (bootlegs), and remakes, so don't be misled (and don't mislabel). See you next month!

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