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How to make a remix

  • Martina
  • 02 September 2022, Friday
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Remixing has become easier and more popular with the technological advancements in the music industry. Remixes have become almost a norm in contemporary dance music but you can also listen to them on the radio or the music streaming services. Would you want to remix a song on your own and are looking for effective tips on how to do that? Check out this article!

What is a remix?

In music, a remix (also a reorchestration) is a song or a track that has been altered or contorted from its original version by adding, leaving out or changing parts of it. The final version of the remixed song is reminiscent of its original (it uses parts of the original recording) yet it has been changed so much that it stands as a new, separate piece of music. In other words, the purpose of a remix is to take someone’s musical material and to adopt, alter, and recombine it in order to create something new. Songs can be remixed either by the owner or the recording artist of the song, or some other artist.

The level and the extent of the alteration of the song may vary and range from simply changing the tones and the structures to completely recreating or re-imagining the harmony, rhythm and the lyrics.

Remix-iMusician

What is a remix by iMusician

The difference between a remix, song cover, mashup and edit

It’s important not to confuse a remix with other types of tracks, namely an edit, mashup and a song cover. To begin with the last one mentioned, a song cover too refers to a new version of a previously recorded song but needs to be made by a musician other than the original composer or recording artist. More importantly, unlike a remix, a cover song doesn’t allow for bigger changes to the song, in terms of the arrangement, genre, lyrics or lyrical order.

This means that a cover song could be considered a recreation of an original recording, while a remix only uses certain parts or elements of it. A cover song should therefore share a similarity with the original version in terms of the structure, which is a rule that a remix doesn’t need to follow. You can learn more about a cover song in our guide about what a cover song is and how to release it online.

While it’s rather easy to distinguish between a remix and a song cover, it may be more confusing to compare a remix with a song edit or a mashup. The letter one refers to a song or a composition created by mixing two (or more) existing songs into one song by blending parts or elements of both (or all) of them. Often, a mashup is created by a record producer or a DJ by taking a vocal track of one song and overlaying it over the instrumental track of the other song.

The last term, an edit, is used to describe a modification of a final stereo master, made for length, obscenity (usually swearing), subject matter, form or instrumentation. A song is usually edited, most often cut in length, with the aim to be more suitable for marketing or broadcasting purposes, such as advertising or airplay.

Remix-cover-edit-mashup-iMusician

Why would you want to remix a song?

There might be many reasons why a musician would decide to make a remix of a song. Generally speaking, making and releasing a remix is considered one of the best ways for DJs and music producers to increase their reach and visibility off the popularity of an already existing hit.

Additionally, as a creative process, remixing may be intended for artistic purposes or, with the aim to grow their fanbase, it may allow musicians to use and present some of their song’s material in different concepts and so target different audiences. Some musicians may also turn to remixing to enhance the overall state of their music - either to improve the song as whole, or to improve its first or demo mix, usually in order to establish a professional product, or to boost the fidelity of an older song, of which the master is not available anymore (lost or damaged).

More often, however, a song may be remixed to suit a particular music style and genre. Especially in the case of electronic music, many songs are altered, adapted and revised so that they can fit the culture and environment of nightclubs or various electronic and dance music festivals. With the magic of remixing, almost any song can become a boogy song!

Additionally, remixing can allow musicians to create a special connection with other artists (especially their favorite ones). Getting the chance to work with the stems from experienced and successful producers may not only improve your mixing and production skills but can potentially give you unique opportunities. These can include becoming part of someone else’s project or winning a remix competition, which can open many more doors, particularly to independent labels or bigger artists in your field.

Top 10 tips for remixing a song

Now that you’re more familiar with what remixes actually are, we can have a closer look at our top 10 tips that can help you become better at remixing a song on your own.

1. Pick the right song for you

The whole process starts with finding a track to remix and it’s therefore fundamental to find the right one. The first important element about the song is how exciting it feels to you. Should you hear a song and think to yourself how much you would change it, then it’s not the right song for you. The track you choose should already excite you in its original version. Additionally, look for a song that has some memorable hooks, mostly catchy vocals, basslines or synth leads.

The general, worldwide popularity of the song may also play its role. If your goal is to remix a song, release it and distribute it, a ‘classic track’ may not be the song to go for as it may have already been remixed multiple times before. Your remix may get more or less lost among either versions of the song and you may be less profitable than you thought. On the other hand, classic tracks are a great choice if you’re aiming, as a DJ, to get more attention and exposure at the club.

It’s also important to consider the success of the recording artist of the song in terms of master licensing. You can definitely ask anyone for permission to use their song and the worst they can say is no. Picking a song from an artist that’s rather small and independent or just above your level of exposure may increase your chances of getting your license.

Note: There are many websites that offer plenty of remixing opportunities, including official remix competitions. These include: SKIO Music, Meta Pop, Kreasound, or Spinnin’ Records Contests.

2. Get your stems (source material)

We’ve already mentioned stems in our guide before and that’s because they are the essential asset that you need for your remixing. Stems refer to a grouped collection of individual audio tracks mixed together (such as drums, bass, piano, guitar, vocals, etc.) from the original project file. The easiest, and legally allowed, way to get your stems is to contact the recording artist or their manager/the label and ask for them. That, naturally, goes hand in hand with you purchasing a master use license to commercially use the track (we will talk more about this a bit later).

If you are about to enter a remixing contest, the official stems will be provided as part of the competition. Sometimes, stems may also leak to the internet and you may find them by searching. However, we would rather recommend getting them officially from the artist.

3. Choose an editing software (DAWs) that suits you

Once you pick the song and receive the requested stems, it’s time to choose the right music editing software, also called the digital audio workstation (DAWs). The DAWs refer to electronic devices or application softwares that allow artists to record, edit and produce their audio files and so create and polish a full song from start to finish.

As there is a wide variety of DAWs to choose from (all with a great number of functions and effects), it may be rather difficult to pick the one that suits you the best. It may therefore be a good idea to try some of them out! For example, Ableton Live, having originated in 2001, is considered one of the best DAWs as well as performance instruments for live DJ shows but is rather costly and perhaps more appropriate for advanced musicians and producers.

On the other hand, BandLab, Audacity as well as GarageBand are completely free digital audio workstations that are perfect for those that are just starting out with their remixing journey. Additionally, Bandlab and GarageBand are available as both desktop and mobile apps, with the difference that GarageBand is only accessible on IOS devices.

You may learn more about DAWs in our article about the best songwriting tools in 2022.

4. Figure out the key and the right BPM

After you get the stems, you will have to do some digging and researching for the key and the BPM of the track of your choice. If you’re working on a remix for a competition, it may be easier as you will be provided with that information by the organizers of the remix contest. If it’s a solo project of yours, it may take some time to figure it out on our own.

While it’s not necessarily a must, knowing the key of the track may well make your remixing process faster. It will help you find the samples and chord progressions and create melodies that will align with the hook of the song. This will, as an outcome, prevent you from ruining your micing by using sounds and samples that are out of the key.

Sites like TuneBat, AudioKeychain, SongData, SongBMP, or the digital store Beatport (targeting only tracks of electronic music sub-genres) are great places to find valuable information regarding the keys and BPM.

Beatport-key-BPM

Information about a song on Beatport, including the key and BPM

5. Create a game plan and arrange your remix

Having a clear sense of the direction of your remix is essential for you to actually finish the mix (even if you get stuck on the way). To do so, it’s important to first create a general game plan beforehand. Try and brainstorm some key steps to follow before starting out with your remix, such as: cut the lead vocal in the hook; remove the guitar stems (or add a different instrument); etc. The plan will highlight your general intentions and objective and you can later refer to it in case you’re experiencing any struggles with future development of the song. Some DAWs, such as Ableton, will allow you to add your ideas directly to the project.

It can also be handy to ‘sketch’ an arrangement of the track as soon as you get your stems. The arrangement will work as some kind of structure and a foundation. Throughout the process you can then compare the arrangement to your developing remix and see if you’re actually heading to where you’ve originally intended to with the track. Naturally, you can always change your arrangement in case creative strikes and you get new ideas but it’s always good to have some solid base when starting out.

6. Choose your material wisely

Once you have your ideas written down and your arrangement sketched, the next step is to have a look at your stems and decide what material you will use and what you will leave out. You definitely want and need to preserve some parts and elements of the original song. Distinctive parts, powerful instrumental hooks or important, recognizable lyrics may be some easy choices of elements to keep.

However, choosing what to cut from your stems is just as important. You can highlight the most important parts of the mix by removing particular elements that may be too distractive. Or, you can, on the other hand, get rid of a more important part that can allow your remix to move into a completely different direction. Let your creativity play and choose your materials carefully!

7. Give the remix your own sound

One way to make your remix stand out from others is to give it your own sound, meaning to use your signature sounds, melodies and elements. It’s therefore always a good idea to create your own sample and sound pack or file where you can save all your sounds that you’ve particularly liked and have used in your previous compositions. Any unique tunes that you work with regularly or have used multiple times, like an easy-to-catch snare drum sound or signature bass line and transition effects, can become characteristic of your music.

Another way to make your artistic talent shine is to actually show off your skills, particularly to play various musical instruments. Don’t hesitate recording a cool piano or guitar solo that you can then incorporate into your remix. Just think about what great qualities you have as a musician and try to mirror them into the track.

8. Don’t be afraid to keep it similar as the original

Although creating your own sound is eventually crucial for your (entire) artistic creation, it’s a long-term goal, which may take time and shouldn’t be pressured. Therefore, especially when it comes to remixes, you shouldn’t be afraid to sound too similar to the original version.

Generally speaking, there’s no formula for remixing a song. So, even if you’re just at the beginning of your remixing journey and you don’t change the arrangement of the song much (e. g. you keep the same melody and the key, but change the drum pattern of the drop and add different bass lines), it’s still a valid remix. Additionally, even small changes may turn the mix into an energetic tune that will be great to dance to in a club.

Below, you can check an interesting take on a popular song - it keeps the same key and melody but changes the beat and the drop.

9. Get creative and don’t hesitate to experiment

Going back to our two previous points, even if you have your signature sounds or, on the other hand, are just a beginner, developing their skills, there’s always room for getting creative and experimenting.

One way to get inspired is to do research on remixes that have already been done by some of your favorite DJs and producers. You can study the elements and sounds that are present in their tracks and try to do similar things on your own. This may not only help you develop your skills but may also bring you some more ideas that will get you out of your comfort zone. Things that you can try include: putting a unique twist on your mix; chopping the lead vocals; reversing sounds in order to add complexity; coming up with different percussion sounds; or featuring another song from the same artist.

Below, you can listen to a remixed version of another popular song by Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding.

Note: If you’d like to feature another artist’s song, meaning you would use a sample of it, be aware that you need to request additional permission. This permission will be given to you in the form of a mechanical license, which will be provided by the holder of the copyright of the composition or the musical work.

10. Make sure that your remix is mixed and mastered well

Creating a smashing remix is naturally key. However, in order to reach a certain quality and allow your track to stand out from others, you need to mix and master your remix. That applies especially if the remix will not be sent to any label and you will release it on your own. Nevertheless, even if the remix does go to a label and will therefore be mastered there with other remixes in order to have similar sound, you still need to provide them with a clean and polished mix.

If you’re not confident about your mixing and mastering skills, you have the choice to send your mix to a professional. It may be more costly but can help to bring your remix to a different level, which, in result, may give your track more exposure, reach and streams and so generate more revenue.

Tip from us: To easily master your track, you can turn to Instant Mastering feature from iMusician, which is a quality online mastering option for amateur and independent musicians and record companies. The AI-driven Instant Mastering tool uses machine learning to mimic the same processes and sounds used by studio mastering engineers!

Legals aspects of remixing a song

The complicated thing about remixes is that they are based on someone else’s intellectual property. That means that they are a derivative of the original work - or, as simply said, an altered or edited version of the original recording of the song. Remixes are thus subject to copyright, even if you use just a split-second of someone else’s track. Therefore, if you want to make commercial use of your remix, meaning you want to publicly share it and make money out of it, release it as a piece of music and/or play it in public venues, you’re obligated to ask for a copyright permission from the copyright holders (or also known as ‘having the track cleared’).

Any track that you’re about to remix traditionally consists of (at least) two copyrights - the master recording copyright and the song authors rights (or copyright in composition of the musical work). A master recording refers to the original sound recording of a song and the owner of master rights is whoever finances the recording, which is either an independent artist or a record label. Composition of musical work, on the other hand, refers to the composition of the song, meaning the arrangement of individual notes, melodies, chords and lyrics in their specific order. The song copyrights are usually held by the songwriters, composers and writers (or the recording artist if they write and/or compose their songs on their own), or by the publisher/publishing company (or at least managed by them).

What permission do I need to release and distribute my remix?

In order to be able to release and monetize your remix (for worldwide distribution), you need to receive permission from the copyright owners of the particular song in the form of a so-called master use license. Such a license will give the licensee the right to use a copyrighted sound recording in a new project.

As we mentioned previously, a remix is derived from the original, ‘master’, sound recording, using its elements but altering its melody, arrangement or even the lyrics. Therefore, unlike in the case of samples or cover songs (under certain circumstances), you don’t additionally need to obtain a mechanical license, which refers to the agreement between the music user and the owner of the song copyright.

Note: If the remix is done by the author of the original work, they are fundamentally free to do so. However, it is important to note that they still may need the permission of their co-authors, if the original work was written by several people and, if the original work was released by a label, he needs their permission to use the sound recording.

How to purchase a master use license

As said before, a master license is obtained from the person that owns the master recording copyright. The first step in acquiring the license would therefore be to identify the owner of the respective master; the second one would be to contact them. If the original song comes from a rather big artist signed with a major record label, most likely the master copyright will be held by the label. However, in some cases, multiple parties may share the ownership of the original sound recording, including the recording artist, too. In such a case, it’s important to remember that all owners of the master copyright need to approve of the master-use licensing. If the song is of an independent artist, they will be the owner of the master copyright.

Probably the easiest way to discover who the owner of the sound recording is, is to check the liner notes of the recording, in most cases showing the corresponding record label. Most record labels have the contact information of the licensing department listed on their website. If you’re not successful with finding the owner through the liner notes or credits, you can turn to numerous sources and databases available to public search. For example, the ASCAP is a major Performance Rights Organization (PRO) in the US, which has a large database - ASCAP Repertory - with important composition rights information for you to find. Often, they also include the contact information to the copyright owners.

ASCAP-repertory-search-Heroes-David-Bowie
David Bowie-Heroes-Writers-Publishers

The ASCAP Repertory Search

Similarly to ASCAP, PRS for Music is also a PRO but operating in the UK and thus providing a database for searching the copyright owners of songs registered in the UK. You can find more about other PROs and what they do in our guide about music licensing.

Another source of information regarding the master copyright owners is the ISWC Network that provides relevant data considering musical works based on their International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC). In a nutshell, the ISWC is an internationally approved number that operates as a unique identifier for musical works (similar to ISBN for books).

ISWC Network Search

ISWC Network Search

Furthermore, you can search the United States Copyright Office Catalog, a database showing all copyrights registered with the US Copyright Office since 1978. Here, you can find who registered the copyright and is therefore the copyright claimant.

US-Copyright-Office-Public-Catalog
US Copyright Office David Bowie All The Young Dudes

US Copyright Office Public Catalog

Lastly, AllMusic, mostly a reviews site for music, also includes a credit section for each release specifying who the publisher as well as the label are. We would, however, recommend exploring the databases of PROs and the Copyright Office as not all information provided by AllMusic may be necessarily correct and/or accurate.

Important note: It’s essential to remember that not being able to find the copyright information, including who the master owners are, doesn’t mean that a master use license is not required anymore for you to release your remix. In such a case, you can use the services of companies that can be hired to search for the needed information, or, which may be less costly, choose a different song to remix. Releasing and commercially distributing a song of which you don’t have the permission to do so will, if detected, be considered as a copyright infringement and may even be taken to court. Generally speaking, getting permission from a smaller and independent artist may be rather easy, especially in comparison to big labels that may be more protective of their works.

The cost of master use license

To purchase a master use license, you may first be requested to pay a flat, one-time fee, ranging anywhere from tens to hundreds, to even thousands of dollars. The price may depend on the popularity and success of the original song and the artist, as well as the negotiation between the licensee and the master owners. The rate of the fee is then stated in the licensing agreement.

The contract usually further outlines the terms and conditions for compensation, credit, representations and warranties. Key is the rate of royalties that will be generated from the remix and will be split between the copyright owner and the remixes (aka you). Just like the flat fee, royalties are also to be negotiated between the two parties and stated in the master use agreement.

Benefits of getting a permission

As we mentioned before, requesting permission to be able to release and distribute your remix is an absolute necessity and not doing so will be taken as copyright infringement (and can be taken down from wherever you’ve published it). In such a case, your remix would be considered a bootleg recording, meaning that it hasn’t been officially released under a legal authority. When it comes to selling music, bootlegging is illegal. On the other hand, by purchasing a license, you’ll make your remix sellable, meaning you’ll be able to publish it, publicize it, share it through your accounts, and, most importantly, monetize it; all doing so in a legal way.

Contacting the master copyright owners and receiving their permission may additionally mean that you’ll be provided with the stems of the original song. Stems refer to a grouped collection of individual audio tracks mixed together (such as drums, bass, piano, guitar, vocals, etc.) from the original project file. As we already said, stems are a crucial part of your remixing process and having them provided directly from the original artist may certainly simplify the entire experience.

Performing a remix live at a public venue

While you may receive the permission from the respective copyright owners to release your remix, it doesn’t allow you to perform the remix live in public venues. To do so, another permission, public performance license, needs to be obtained. Luckily, the responsibility to acquire the permission as well as pay the performance royalties typically falls with the venue, e. g. club, bar or event, owner or operator.

However, we would definitely recommend checking up on the performance rights situation with the responsible persons before your performance. Performing the remix for money without having the official permission to do so is once again illegal and involves you putting yourself through the risk of being sued for infringement (which may be very, very costly).

Conclusion

Remixes, which started being much in demand in the 1980s, have become an essential part of the electronic music industry due to technological advances and development. Therefore, in this guide, we have listed the top 10 tips that can help create your very own dope remixes and improve your overall skills.

If you decide you’re more interested in covering someone else’s song, check out our guide about how to make a song cover. Additionally, for those that are generally interested in electronic music, we may have some engaging content for you in our guide about the development of electronic music and its genres or an article about the best global electronic music festivals for independent artists.

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