The Ultimate Guide to Remixing: 19 Track-by-Track Tips from Disco Pusher
December 11, 2011 by David Sisko
MIDTOWN, MANHATTAN: On Tuesday, November 29th, 2011 Disco Pusher released our new mixtape Now You Know How The Story Ends. It’s a 19-track selection of our remixes, productions and songs that features artists that we’ve worked with and, hopefully, demonstrates our musical style.
The artists range from the international to local, pop stars to street kids, the past and the present. As the producer, remixer and engineer of the mixtape, I’d like to share a few thoughts and tips about each track, and you can listen along to them all as we move along. Each song was worked over in our midtown NYC studio, Min Max.
TIP 01: ISOLATE & LOCK IN ON THE VOCAL RHYTHM
Track 01 THEOPHILUS LONDON: “STOP IT” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on Timez Are Weird These Days (Warner Bros.)
THEOPHILUS LONDON – Stop It (Disco Pusher Remix) full by DiscoPusher
The first thing I do with any remix (or song for that matter) is to simply solo the vocal and listen to it multiple times (even after music has been written): The point is to lock into various rhythms and overall flow. At this point I am better able to choose a rhythmic direction for the song (or alter that direction).
In the case for “Stop It”, Theophilus’ flow is extremely unique (and the original rhythm track has a particular personality) and I ended up building the entire track around the kick, a clap and the elastic (bouncy) synth line.
TIP 02: MAKE IT MORE OF WHAT IT IS
Track 02 JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: “LOVE STONED” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on “FutureSex/LoveSounds” (Jive) -
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE – Love Stoned (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
JT’s original (produced by Timbaland) was both popular and potent. There were also a few remixes already out there. It’s a bit intimidating approaching tracks like this. I attempted to come up with a variety of musical style options (i.e. techno, house, etc…). None of them seemed to work.
Instead I really listened to what was going on with the original: it was kind of an ode to old dance-floor disco (with a Timbaland twist). So I decided the best thing for me to do was to make it “more of what it was:” disco – but updated. My nod to reference the vintage disco sound: use the 70’s flanging and phasing techniques on the drums with the WAVES Hybrid series effects.
TIP 03: TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN A PIECE OF GEAR REALLY WELL
Track 03 KENNA: “CHAINS” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on “Land 2 Air Chronicles I: Chaos And The Darkness” (Godel)
KENNA – Chains (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
After sessions late at night, I would stay up and simply make patterns: I learned this 10+year old piece of gear inside and out maximizing all of its (somewhat limited) parameters. By taking the time, I was able to tap into the uniqueness of a particular instrument – as it related to me – instead of just dialing up some presets.
Interestingly, Kenna is a Grammy-nominated artist with extremely high artistic standards (he’s also worked with Chad & Pharrell of the Neptunes) and this fairly inexpensive ($200 used) piece of gear served as the rhythmic basis (inclusive of its sounds) for this track.
TIP 04: HOW TO OPEN THINGS UP
Track 04 CUT COPY: “HEARTS ON FIRE” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on “In Ghost Colours” (Modular)
CUT COPY – Hearts On Fire (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
Again, I was dealing with a brilliant original version of the song. In addition, I really enjoy Cut Copy – on album and live. In that position, sometimes you don’t even want to touch the music (it’s just fine the way it is). On top of this, the manager of Cut Copy has some of the best ears in the music industry — he really knows his musical references (read: you can’t turn in sub-par remixes).
So I was in a difficult spot — I had to determine the direction of the remix. Keying off the main lyric, “reach out to you tonight” I took a risk and decided to change the key from minor to major and, luckily, it really opened up the song. After a little bit of patchwork (I may have tuned a note or two of the vocals), I coaxed everything into place and got approval from both the band and the manager.
I was fortunate enough to record & mix Zakee’s “Assimilations” for Ben Bronfman’s Green Owl record label earlier this year. Zakee is a formidable multi-talented artist: he produces, sings, raps, writes & programs beats.
The problem I faced with this remix was that the original version had a particular laid back character: I was having trouble taking this song to the dance floor (the 4 on the floor beat) and I was not about to bring Zakee back in to re-record the verses to match the new rhythm. Instead I moved the entire vocal performance ahead to match the new beat – and fortunately, everything lined up nicely.
TIP 06: BE READY
Track 06 NINJASONIK: “WINTER IN MIAMI” Also appears on Ninjasonik’s mixtape No Swords Or Masks
NINJASONIK – Winter In Miami (Produced by Disco Pusher) by DiscoPusher
Jah Jah and Telli from Ninjasonik are not the types of chaps that sit still in any situation (on top of that, they have skateboards). Earlier this year we worked on several songs for their outstanding mixtape No Swords Or Masks.
What I learned quickly with them: have beats ready and have the session up and ready to record (with their favorite vocal settings). I made the beat back in 2007 (I think I imagined Pitbull doing an indie Latin record on Hester Street in the L.E.S.) and the vocals were recorded in about an hour. The mix took several days.
The end result seems quite effortless, but without being ready with the beat and the session, the track may not have ever happened.
TIP 07: THE RIGHT COMBINATION OF PERSONALITIES
Track 07 DJ KALKUTTA VS. SCRAMZ: “HEROINE”
DJ KALKUTTA vs SCRAMZ – Heroine (Produced by Disco Pusher) by DiscoPusher
This is collaboration between DJ Kalkutta (who’s now on tour as the DJ for Karmin) and Dreaming In Brooklyn’s very own Scramz. I’ve recorded Scramz mixtape and working on his solo project with him: he can rap over nearly any beat imaginable (I’ve heard him rap over 30 Seconds To Mars).
Kalkutta is just getting started on the production game (and singing): but she knows exactly what she wants and is sharp as a tack (and I can’t wait to work with her further). Both artists are extremely nice, cool and easy to work with. We all communicated extremely well and knew our roles. We finished recording all the vocals in about 2 hours stress-free.
Moral of the story: never underestimate the power of actually enjoying the people you work with.
TIP 08: REAL PHASING
Track 08 DRAGONETTE: ”PICK UP THE PHONE” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on Fixin To Thrill (Dragonette Inc)
DRAGONETTE – Pick Up The Phone (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
I needed certain elements of this remix to sound “vintage” – specifically the 1970’s television-theme inspired synths. There are a number of plug-ins that create “vintage” effects: i.e. tape saturation, space echoes, etc. – but sometimes they really aren’t that satisfying.
Sitting next to me in the studio: an old cassette deck. Yup, played some of the tracks through it – with it’s timing issues and all (i.e. real phasing). The deck also compressed the tracks in it’s own unique way. I then added EQ, etc when I ran the tracks back into the computer. Again, the solution was 2 feet away.
TIP 09: DON’T FORGET ABOUT OLD SCHOOL SAMPLERS
Track 09 GOLDFRAPP: “RIDE A WHITE HORSE” (DISCOPUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on Supernature (Mute/EMI)
GOLDFRAPP – Ride A White Horse (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
To my ears, the original version is quite slick. To create a darker, less slick version, I thought it would be a good idea to load the parts (both theirs and the new ones I wrote) into an old-school sampler and “play” everything (a la the 1980’s and early 90’s). In this case I used my Kurzweil K2000R.
Three reasons an old-school sampler helped me achieve this:
1. It provided many positive compositional constraints (flaws in timing, few options, etc)
2. I used the outstanding sound engine of the K2000 (which, because of the character of its V.A.S.T. engine, is quite dark) and
3. The sounds passed through another layer or two of analog circuitry (adding a bit more noise to the track). It took a good half-day to load the samples, but it was well worth my time.
Tip 10: BEING MINDFUL OF MOODSWINGS
Track 10 CHIDDY BANG f/ Dee The Don: “ALWAYS” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on Peanut Butter And Swelly mixtape.
CHIDDY BANG ft. Dee The Don -Always (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
“Indie + Hip Hop + Rave” = always seemed so appealing to me. Chiddy Bang = open to anything. “Always” remix = let’s put them all together. Within pop music, context has been nearly thrown out the window due to remix culture & digital technologies – anything style can be accessed at any given moment.
The aspect to be mindful of now is “mood” = the mood at any given moment and the transitions between those moods. For the Chiddy remix I wrote three separate pieces of music, at separate times, in the same key, at the same tempo, with separate moods – and then combined them like mash-up DJ would doing a remix. Definitely moody.
Tip 11: KNOW WHAT TIME OF DAY (OR NIGHT) IT IS
Track 11 BRYAN FERRY: “ALPHAVILLE” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on Olympia (Virgin/Astralwerks)
BRYAN FERRY – Alphaville (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
Ideally, when working on a song, I like to determine what time of day:
1. The action is occurring within the track and
2. you (the listener) would listen to the song.
In the case of “Alphaville”, I thought the answer to both was about 3-4am: coming off the high point of the evening, yet still on the dance floor.
I keyed off on not only Bryan Ferry’s vocals, but the synths of Brian Eno & the guitar of Nile Rodgers. By determining the time of day, it may give you, the producer, a better sense of what sounds to pull-up before beginning to write parts.
As an aside, I used the exact same technique when I remixed “To Turn You On” by Roxy Music a few years back (in that case the song occurred at dusk). P.S the pulsing sound heard throughout “Alphaville” was made with NI’s Massive.
Tip 12: WAVETABLE WITHIN A WAVETABLE
Track 12 PASSION PIT f/ Scramz: “LITTLE SECRETS” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX). Passion Pit appear courtesy of Columbia Records, Original version appears on Manners (Columbia)
PASSION PIT feat Scramz – Little Secrets (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
I approached this remix thinking I’d like to make a “new-jack indie gospel” tune. I keyed off of the preacher-like approach of Michael Angelakos, singer of PP and the gospel-esque “higher & higher” section of the song.
In order to create a patch that evoked a “high” I programmed my Waldorf Q arpeggiator to play incredibly fast and out of sync – so fast that, instead of hearing the individual notes of the arpeggiation, you hear more of an airy wash (almost like a wavetable within a wavetable). It worked out well.
Dreaming In Brooklyn’s Scramz hopped on after I had worked out the basic arrangement (PP is one of Scramz’s favorites) and did his awesome thing.
Tip 13: IPOD GENERATION
Track 13 MIGS f/ Matches: “BUMP” Migs mixtape STFUxIDGAF, out now
MIGS feat Matches – Bump (Produced by Disco Pusher) by DiscoPusher
Migs is the sh*t. From Brooklyn. Anything goes. He does not give a f*ck. He’ll eat up any beat. Matches is lovely. A beach girl from Orange County, CA. She had a rap DJ show in high school. Will sing anything from electro pop to sweet country. They’re both young and grew up during the era of the iPod: any song from any time in history is fairplay.
I love approaching albums like this: every song sounds different. With both Migs & Scramz (and this mixtape), this is the approach: create a different sound for each song. The fact is, that’s the way people listen to music. For this = electro dancehall.
Migs has a mixtape out now. Matches’ will be coming soon.
Tip 14: KNOW YOUR LISTENING ENVIRONMENT
Track 14 KREAUX: “GIRLS ON PARADE”
KREAUX – Girls On Parade (Produced by Disco Pusher) by DiscoPusher
Kreaux is the project of Solomon Cortes. I had this beat and Solomon had the lyric idea. Once I heard the two together I knew what my goal was (but don’t tell Solomon): Make a track for a strip club.
Every element of the song from that point on was intended to work in that environment. One technical tip on this track: I relied heavily on auto-panning because I wanted the song to take over the club environment (the speakers are placed everywhere).
Currently “Girls On Parade” is being played at The Hustler Club in NYC.
Tip 15: THE SINGER OR THE SONG?
Track 15 FERRARI SNOWDAY f/ TELLI of NINJASONIK: “BUTTAFLY EFFECT”
FERRARI SNOWDAY feat. Telli of Ninjasonik – Buttafly Effect (Produced by Disco Pusher) by DiscoPusher
Throughout the Ninjasonik sessions (for the mixtape mentioned above), Telli and I collaborated on over 25 songs. One result was “Buttafly Effect”. Telli had laid down about 50% of the song and we decided it was probably not going to be on their record.
Concurrently, I had been working with Ferrari Snowday (the rap/singing pop duo of Slim Willy and Lee Wilke) and suggested we bounce the track off them. It’s important to know that not every song suits every singer (and vice versa). Ferrari resonated, laid down their parts, shot the track back – we kept Telli’s verse & refrain.
The result is a potent pop song where it was both the singer(s) AND the song.
Tip 16: DRIVING POWER = PAN UP THE MIDDLE
Track 16 DANGEROUS MUSE: “TAKE CONTROL” From the forthcoming LP Take Control
DANGEROUS MUSE – Take Control (Produced by Disco Pusher) by DiscoPusher
I began working with Dangerous Muse about three years ago. The first track I worked on with them was “Take Control”. It was originally a remix but now has turned into one of the actual mixes for their forthcoming record.
DM’s first few tracks were quintessentially electro pop – this was their first foray into something that resembled a “stadium jam”. One of the compositional prerequisites of a “stadium jam” is power. Although I wanted to make an extremely wide & lush mix (with strings, pianos, synths, etc) there were certain elements that I knew must remain panned in the middle to provide power: the kind of power that can drive a song. Listen closely to the elements that remain in the middle.
As a side note: “Take Control” is currently being used by the Occupy Wallstreet movement. A “powerful” coincidence.
Tip 17: DON’T MAKE EVERY NOTE COUNT
Track 17 SALMAN AHMAD f/ Valerie Geffner: “NATCHOON GI” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Also available on the David Lynch Foundation Music compilation
SALMAN AHMAD feat. Valerie Geffner – Natchoon Gi (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
Salman Ahmad is not only a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN but he was also a member of two of South Asia’s most successful bands (Junoon & Vital Signs).
His intent was to collaborate on a “cross-over” track where “East meets West” (Madonna was originally slated to sing the lead but was unavailable and the brilliant Valerie Geffner more than filled her role.). He also sings in Urdu.
The difficulty I faced was that the western pop scale is a bit different than Sal’s “Sufi rock” scale. In this case, I was having a very difficult time incorporating the 3rd. What did I do? Dropped it out where I could (or where it really conflicted with Sal’s parts) to highly effective results.
David Lynch ended up selecting this track for a compilation for his Foundation (along with tracks from Peter Gabriel, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Special Beat and others) and no one (including me) misses that note!
Tip 18: MAKE A DESIRABLE MESS: DON’T QUANTIZE
Track 18 KODOMO: “FROZEN IN MOTION” (DISCO PUSHER REMIX) Original version appears on Frozen In Motion (Kodomo)
KODOMO – Frozen In Motion (Disco Pusher Remix) by DiscoPusher
Accomplished Composer & Electronic Musician Christopher Child’s (“Kodomo”) studio is a meticulous work of art: Every vintage analog synth, Compact Disc, Japanimation figurine & cable are in their correct position – and dust free. For this I only have admiration & respect: I have a hard time remembering what day Sunday is — let alone to dust.
What to do with “Frozen In Motion”, the original being just as pristine & meticulous? Answer: go in the opposite direction and make things a bit of a mess – but in a desirably musical way = I slowed the track down, took it apart, chopped things up, threw parts out, etc. But the most important thing I did was to not quantize anything – even the drums.
David Greenberg and I have worked for over 12 years together as “Disco Pusher”. David is an extremely accomplished and talented poet, writer, singer and art critic (go to his blog and read his work – it’s worth your time.)
He and I have written hundreds of songs together. We release music occasionally but predominantly work for/with other artists. My job for “Begin Again” was very simple: I had to, essentially, score David’s poem.
Like scoring a film, I first put an entire palette of patches, sounds and beats together that matched the tone of the story (i.e. his lyrical intent). Since the key lyric is “begin again” – I used reverse sounds heavily. I then, similar to a film composer, “spotted” the rest of the song by creating a narrative arch (including writing the bridge chords under the “let’s pretend like we never met” line) and, well….now you know how the story ends.