Introduction: Mixing and Remixing: the Ultimate Guide to Digital Music Production
Music: The Power of Redux
Chances are, if you've listened to any amount of music for a period of time, you're probably familiar with small thoughts such as: "That's not the note I expected." or even "That was okay, but that's not what I would have used if I were the artist." Perfect! You have a mind for music!
But what is this? You object! "But I'm not even a musician, much less a great one!"
This may be true - becoming a talented musician takes time - but what you do have good taste, and taste is all that is necessary. Develop that taste, and others who have similar tastes will follow.
This guide is designed for beginners, hobbyists, amateur composers and everyone in between to start creating their own music digitally, and it will give you all of the necessary tools to create both original music and remixes. To help illustrate some of the tools and resources found in this guide, I'll be working on a remix as an example in Step 5.
Remixes are a wonderful way to become familiar with the writing process, and there is no real downside to working on a one. In the best case scenario, you can win prizes or earn royalties for your work, and in the worst case, you get valuable experience working with possibly unfamiliar music techniques. In total, remixes promote creativity, show new artists techniques that may be unfamiliar to them, give artists the chance to win contests, and allows chances for public promotion of your music. My examples will be focused on helping you create a remix, but you can also start producing your own original music as well using the same techniques. Coming up with catchy tune will be up to you though!
In this guide, we'll cover:
Resources for digital music production.
Specifically, we'll get set up with:
Step 1: A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for you to edit the music in.
Step 2: Finding VST plugins to create new sounds.
Step 3: Finding recorded samples to use in your DAW.
Strategies for picking the right type of songs to remix.
Step 4: What to look/listen for, and where to to look for them.
Entering remix contests.
Step 5: Playing with music for prizes, publicity, and perhaps even a paycheck!
An example of the music production process.
Step 6: An example of deconstructing a song, adding to a song, and tips for creativity.
Advanced tips for writing music and the mastering process.
Step 7: Getting down to some of the finer details. These won't be necessary, but there are a few tips and tricks that will put make your remix far more professional than others.
The Dictionary: Words, terms, and technical jargon.
Step 8: Lost in the definitions? Do you keep seeing "ADSR" on your plugins, but don't know what it means? Look no further!
Lets get started, shall we?
Step 1: Finding a DAW
The most basic thing that you will need to write music digitally is some kind of audio software, usually in the form of a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). The DAW is where you'll be writing new melodies, editing existing recordings, and exporting your finished product. Alongside your DAW, there are a few other tools you'll need to download to aide you in the editing process. The three big things you should look at are as follows:
- DAW's, or Digital Audio Workstations. DAW's are digital environments where you can make live edits to music, or synthesize new music entirely. You can import virtual instruments, create loops, echos, fade ins, fade outs, and almost anything else you can think of. Your DAW will ultimately be the piece of software that exports your final creation to a usable MP3, WAV, or other audio file.
- VST's, or Virtual Studio Technologies. VST's are plugins (outside pieces of software that can be imported and used within a DAW) used to create your own new sounds entirely. The uses of VST's vary wildly depending on their design, but there are two main groups of VST's: instruments and effects. Instruments are designed to let you have a high amount of control over waveforms to create entirely new sounds, while effects are designed to edit already-existing instruments by creating echos, mimicking the reverberation of large rooms, optimizing stereo output, and more.
- Samples. Samples are recordings of sounds that can be pitched, retimed, modified with effects, etc. Samples are commonly used to create drum loops, but can also be tossed into a sampler plugin to create piano melodies and so on.
Keep in mind: it's not all about what you have, it's about how you use what's available to you. All of the software in the world won't help you if you don't know how to use any of it.
For Windows/Mac/Linux users: LMMS (Linux MultiMedia Studio)
Taking cues from many of the popular DAWs, LMMS is a free piece of software that strives to replicate the feel of professional workstations. It was developed for native use in Linux, but recent improvements have produced a Windows build and OSX build that are still being improved upon. Notable features include a piano roll (a visualizer to help you see/"draw" your music notes on a virtual keyboard), VST support for 3rd party instruments, and even the ability to import project files from other professional DAWs such as FL Studio, Logic Studio, Beat Machine Pro, and more.
It's worth noting that LMMS comes with relatively little in the way of built-in instruments and sound samples for use, but this problem can easily be remedied by downloading free sample packs and some free VST plugins from the web.
For Apple users: Garageband
Well known as a default piece of software for Mac OS's, some very good pieces of music have come out of Garageband. It comes with a decent number of virtual instruments to play with, though newer versions of Garageband won't support either VST's or AU's making it much harder to get new instruments to work with. All of that said, it's still a very streamlined program, especially considering that it's free to Apple users.
For Windows/Mac/Linux users: Audacity
Audacity isn't technically a DAW at all - it's a program that specializes in recording and editing recordings. This is a program you should have anyways, period. Even if you're not looking to record music at any time, Audacity makes it dead simple to record, cut, splice, and tweak sound bits to your liking. Incredibly helpful for taking an already-existing track and speeding it up/slowing it down, while keeping the pitch the same.
I won't go into full detail on all of the DAW's (we'd be here all night), but here is a brief overview of some of the more popular DAW's for sale. Which one you pick will ultimately depend on your preferences for layout, workflow, and budget, but most companies have a trial version that you can download for a limited period of time to help make the decision process easier. Make sure to check and see whether future updates are free, or whether you will have to purchase them. FL Studio is one of the only ones to offer free lifetime upgrades, so be sure and do your research on the others. This list isn't comprehensive by any means, but it covers most of what the pros use:
- FL Studio (formerly Fruity Loops): $99 (Fruity Edition), $199 (Producer Edition), $299 (Signature Bundle)
Well rounded and easily one of the best in terms of "bang for your buck". Free lifetime upgrades to new versions.
- Cubase: $99.99 (Elements 7), $299.99 (Artist 8), $549.99 (Pro 8)
Another powerful DAW that artists swear by. Future updates must be purchased.
- Ableton Live: $99 (Intro), $449 (Standard), $749 (Suite)
Focused on live events and resampling, Ableton was created with the intent for artists to play around with the software while using MIDI controllers up on stage.
- Logic Pro X: $199
Designed by Apple, Logic Pro X was developed to fully utilize Mac machines for audio work. Note that it is only available for Apple products, and the lack of PC support means that VST plugins aren't supported either. (Logic utilizes AU's, or Audio Units, instead of VST's as it's primary instruments.)
- Reason: $399(updates to future versions must be purchased for at a discounted rate)
- Sony Acid: $59.95 (Music Studio 10), $149.95 (Pro 7)
- Avid Protools: Varies between editions, $899+ for one time purchase, but subscription based options are also available.
- Cakewalk Sonar: $9.99 (Artist, per month),$99 (Artist, one time purchase), $19.99 (Professional, per month) $199 (Professional, one time purchase), $49.99 (Platinum, per month), $299 (Platinum, one time purchase).
- Adobe Audition CS6: $29.99 (per month, student discounts available).
Focused on editing recordings. Note that there is no current one-time purchase for Adobe Audition unless you decide to purchase the entire Adobe Master Collection CS6 (~$2499).
Author's recommendation: If you're looking to purchase a DAW, I would highly recommend FL Studio (Producer Edition or Signature Bundle, not the Fruity Edition). Between the large amount of included content, the free lifetime upgrades, an easy to understand work flow, and having a relatively low price tag (even for the most expensive version), FL Studio is hard to beat.
Now that you have an idea of some of the workstations, it's time to find some instruments to use!
Step 2: Expanding Your VST Library: Virtual Instruments, Effects, and More
Now that you have some ideas for a DAW, we can start adding some instruments and effects to your plugin library. VST's can be anything - echo effects, a punk rock guitar replicator, ambient sound generators - if you can think of it, it has probably been created. The nice part is that VST instruments allow you write your own music without having to worry about copyright issues, since you composed the notes yourself! (You don't have to attribute the plugin creators either.)
As with DAWs, there are free plugins and paid plugins, and the commercial plugins can create some absolutely jaw dropping sounds. Don't be mistaken: there are some fantastic free VST's as well, but buying a few commercial plugins is highly recommended for those who have already purchased a professional DAW. For right now, I'll focus on the free plugins; commercial plugins may be added at a later date.
Remember that VST's work for most DAW's, but not all of them. If you happen to be using GarageBand or Logic Pro X, the process will be similar, but you'll have to search a little harder to find your AU's (for Logic) or extra download packs (for GarageBand).
Free VST Directories:
KVR is the ultimate plugin database on the web. Their search function allows you to sort by operating system, developer, DAW, format, and more. Start by scrolling down to the "Pricing" tab, and select "free". All that's left after that is to start browsing! As of 3/24/2015, KVR had 3128 results for free VST plugins.
Bedroom Producer's Blog
The Bedroom Producers publish an annual list of the best free VST's of that year, and have developed/maintained this handy guide to help you find all of the plugins that you could possibly want. Unlike KVR (which tosses you a massive list of both good and bad results), the guys over at BPB have weeded out the bad ones and leave you with a list of solid, stable plugins.
Designed to sell plugins rather than actually give them away, the Boutique adds a few freebies every once and a while. Most of what they offer is effects, but there are a few generators in there as well.
In summary: Google is your friend. Seriously. Just do a Google search for "free VST" or "best free VST" and look through the results. The sheer quantity of freeware will amaze you. Here are a few links that summarize some of the best freebies currently on the web:
Let's face it, lists can be long - and it's difficult to determine which pieces of software are good, and which are lemons. Effects are rather easy to come by, and you'll have to be the one to decide which flavor of echo/delay/etc. is right for you. For now, I'll briefly list a few of my favorite instruments/generators for you to look at:
MastrCode Music's T-Force Alpha TS V1.03 and T-Force Alpha Plus
NOTE: the original MastrCode Music website is down indefinitely, but T-Force Alpha Plus can be downloaded here: http://www.vst4free.com/free_vst.php?id=1426
T-Force Alpha Plus is the king when it comes to making dance leads/chords. With an impressive array of options, built in effects, and gorgeous preset sounds for you to use right out of the box, T-Force is one of my favorite VST's of all time. The following video goes through some of the preset sounds included with the instrument, so sit back, listen, and relax.
MastrCode Music's DB-Force The Amen
NOTE: the original MastrCode Music website is down indefinitely, but DB-Force The Amen can be downloaded here: http://www.vst4free.com/free_vst.php?plugin=DB-Force_The_Amen&id=1789
Another crown jewel from the now non-existent MastrCode Music, The Amen is a drum kit plugin that allows you to slice, tweak, and rearrange the original Amen Break. It's worth noting that the Amen Break plugin is only semi-finished, and will sometimes crash and need to be reloaded. For those unfamiliar with the original Amen Break, see the following:
A trance synth with a similar goal as T-Force Alpha Plus, P8 is designed to create classic dance sounds similar to the Roland JP-8000 synthesizer. It's less focused on leads, and more focused on the ability to create pads, chords, arps, FX, and more.
Think of TranceDrive like T-Force Aplha, but with a vastly different layout/color scheme, and a slightly different way of routing outputs through effects units. It's included pad presets are what made it shine for me.
Alieno is an ambitious project designed to create, well, alien sounds. Weird space vibrations, groovy space dance leads, icy chords, all of it is contained in a window that looks like a cockpit of a UFO. Alieno is definitely one of the most powerful plugins that I've found, but that sheer power has a drawback - it has some problems interfacing with DAWs every once and a while. I've had curious cases where I would click on the plugin, but select the window that was underneath it. If you can work around it's quirks, Alieno will serve you well.
Sound Magic's Piano One
NOTE: Sound Magic's website has ceased to host downloads for Piano One indefinitely, but it can be downloaded here: http://www.vst4free.com/free_vst.php?id=1100
Do any amount of searching for a piano plugin, and you'll find that it's hard to find a natural sounding baby grand that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Piano One is actually an advertisement for Sound Magic's other products, but their "appetizer" plugin does a solid job of providing a natural sounding piano. Sounds were recorded from a Yamaha C7 concert grand piano.
HG Fortune's ProtoPlasmTSM Pro
HG Fortune was well known for creating a vast number of free plugins, and ProtoPlasm was just one example of them. ProtoPlasm TSM is an atmosphere generator; it doesn't create musical notes like you'd expect, but it layers up to three different background noises to change the mood. (Bonus: The HG Fortune download link includes almost 1 gigabyte of other HG Fortune plugins for you to toy with!)
Ourafilme's SB-1 and SB-2 (Speaker Blower 1 and 2)
https://www.facebook.com/ourafilmes (Like the page, then click the "FREE VST plugins" tab)
SB-1 and SB-2 are just two of the four bass synthesizers in the Speaker Blower line. Ourafilmes is actually a film company that happens to do some post-production audio work on the side, but their collection of free VST's can add some great bass and groove to your mix. If you mix and mash some of the other free instruments, you can create some catchy sounds. Just give this a listen:
Ichiro Toda's Synth1
http://www.geocities.jp/daichi1969/softsynth/#down (Website is largely in Japanese; scroll down until you find your appropriate Windows VST or Mac AU download.)
Everyone needs a classic oscillator, and Synth1 gives you a 2 stage oscillator modeled after the Clavia Nord Lead 2 Red Synth. Straightforward and a bit bland looking, but it has all of the options you could ask for.
Dillot2k's Dillie Base
http://dilliot2k.com/wordpresswp-contentuploads200908rsdb1-dll/ (Note that you're supposed to create a free account to download the plugin, but you could probably do a little bit of Googling and find it elsewhere.)
Dillie Base is an odd one. Aside from the fact that it has a picture of Will Smith in sunglasses in the background, this instrument has only 4 controls and 1 purpose: big bass. If you need a large, deep, sound, Dillie Base does this one job and it does it well.
Illformed dBlue Glitch v1.3 effects unit
I hopped over to the Illformed webpage to grab the download link, but it seems that Illformed has suddenly come out of their five-year hibernation and created an entirely new version of Glitch which has to be purchased. If you can find it, the original Glitch is a wonderful effects unit which can take any sound and chop, distort, reverse, and stutter in time with the music. I'll post a download link if I can find a legacy version.
Now, onto the samples!
Step 3: Collecting Samples, Samples, and More Samples
Samples are pretty straightforward: They are recorded sound files that you can pitch up or down to create new notes, or add effects to make them sound unique and different. Commonly used for drum loops, most DAW's will include a library of prerecorded samples for you to play with (and a plugin that links all of the individual recordings to a virtual keyboard that you can play), but sometimes you can't quite find the sound that you want.
Luckily for us, there's a plethora of free samples online that come in just about every flavor, and sampled from pretty much every source imaginable. As with DAW's and VST's there are both paid and free sources, but for now you can probably ignore the paid samples. There are enough free sample packs floating around the Internet that you could easily download 10-15 gigabytes in a day and scratch the tip of the iceberg. (Free samples will sometimes be a lesser quality than paid samples, but most free sample packs will contain a few "diamonds in the rough" that you'll probably end up using over and over.)
Once again, Google will be our friend here, so don't be afraid to punch "royalty free sample packs" into the search bar. Unlike VST's, sample sounds/sample packs will sometimes (rarely) be covered by a copyright or royalty agreement, which states that you must attribute the creator/share profits/follow the guidelines of the sample wherever your music is posted. Keep that in mind. On the bright side: if you find something labeled as a "free sample pack" (such as a .zip folder collection of hip hop drums) on a relatively well-known music website, chances are you're clear of any royalty agreements. Attribution clauses usually reveal themselves on websites like https://www.freesound.org/ where the individual sound effects aren't specifically for music, and could be used for things like advertisements, video games, and so on.
MusicRadar covers a lot of bases (showing up earlier as a good source to find free VST's), and we'll definitely be turning to them again for our free sample packs. The authors put together a collection that they call SampleRadar, a mind blowing collection of 143 different free sample packs, which contain close to an astronomical 50,000 different samples! Prepare your hard drive and notify your ISP, you might be doing a bit of downloading over the next few days.
Bedroom Producer's Blog
Our Bedroom Producers are also back again with a few free sample packs. Not nearly as varied as MusicRadar, but a respectable collection of high quality samples nonetheless.
Despite the rather cliche name, HowToMakeElectronicMusic is a good source of music info, tutorials, resources, and news. They're category of "freebies" is over 10 pages long and is updated every so often, so it's worth checking in on a regular basis to see what new sounds you can grab.
Another great collection of samples, though these ones aren't packed into neat zip folders. Boasting a collection of 63,063 royalty free samples (as of the time of this writing), LooperMan is a great compliment to the ~50,000 samples that MusicRadar provides.
Those should easily get your sample collection started. To use them, you can either drag specific samples into your project individually (for drums, hi-hats, snares, etc.), or use a sampler plugin (such as a drum sampler or a instrument style sampler) to streamline the process. As an example:
- Drum samplers will usually have sixteen "buttons" that you can assign to sixteen different drum samples, and you can tap the buttons to play the assigned sound. You could then either record a loop using a midi device (such as an Akai MPD26), or the DAW will usually let you use a virtual "keyboard" to draw a drum pattern - the first drum button will be linked to a C key on the keyboard, the second will be linked to the C# key, the third will be linked to the D key, and so on.
- Instrument samplers work by asking for a few samples of known keys, and then can use the provided samples to create the rest of the notes. For example, you could give a low C, middle C, and high C note to a plugin such as Image Line's DirectWave, and DirectWave would try and create the missing notes from the samples that you provided. The more samples that you have, the more accurate the remaining notes will be.
Step 4: Finding Remix Material
If you've made it this far, then I must have struck a chord (pun intended) earlier about having good taste! You're first instinct might be to go out and grab some music software to try and tear a song apart, but you'll want to hold off on that for the moment.
For most remixes, you won't be able to use any old MP3 or CD that you have lying around - you'll need special files known as stem tracks in order to play around with a song.
When a song is crafted, it is usually recorded in separate tracks, and then layered together towards the end to produce the full song that is released to the public. The band may practice together and play at live events, but for a studio recording, drummer will play his part in a quiet room surrounded by various microphones, the guitarist will play his part at another time, and the vocalist will sing in a special recording booth designed to pick up voices. Each of these individual recordings is known as a stem track. Artists would usually rather keep their trademark sounds to themselves - and for good reason! Having someone else steal part of your music would be frustrating.
This is an important topic to note as well: You cannot sell or profit from other people's work. If you wish to either sell your remix or reuse the stem files elsewhere, you need the original artist's permission. However, you may remix, promote, and distribute your work without the author's permission - and in some cases, the authors will give out their stem files specifically and tell users ahead of time that they have permission to use it however they wish.
The question now becomes: "Where do I find stem files to play with?"
A good place to start is to enter remix contests. As mentioned on the first page of this guide, remix contests are a great all around learning resource for musicians. It lets you practice creativity without having to come up with an entire song on your own, it gives you a chance at winning prizes, it gives you a chance to promote yourself, and it helps you understand how the professional music industry works.
Resources for Remix Contests:
Pros: Large database of contests, an easy to use website, helpful information on songs, and solid search functions.
Cons: As RemixComps doesn't directly own or host any of the contests, instructions are sometimes unclear or missing entirely (rare).
RemixComps is an aggregate website - meaning that they don't personally host any remix contests, but they grab as many remix opportunities as they can from across the web and collect them all into one big list that you can search through. You can sort by prize type, genre, BPM (Beats Per Minute), and more. It's the perfect place to start your search, since they manage to find a large majority of the remix contests being held around the web. RemixComps gets their results from places such as...
Indaba Music: https://www.indabamusic.com/opportunities
Pros: Decent rewards, larger selection of contests.
Cons: Limited to 3 free entries a year. After that, you have to purchase a subscription to Indaba Pro.
Indaba is a website heavily aimed at remix contests, though they serve other functions as well. They personally host the stem files and will allow you to enter three contests per year for free (which means you can practice with three different sets of stem files!)
Beatport Play: http://play.beatport.com/contests/?t=submit
Pros: Big name artists, larger rewards, no limits on the number of contests you can enter.
Cons: Only a few (3-5) contests running at any given time, and many competitors will be trying to remix the same songs.
Primarily known for being the "Itunes" of electronic music, Beatport also hosts a various remix contests throughout the years. Prizes range from signed gear, software, sample packs, and more.
Pros: A massive assortment of genres to fit your taste, and the number of people competing against you will usually be much smaller than Indaba or Beatport.
Cons: Harder to find contests without the help of websites like RemixComps, and the prizes are usually smaller than contests hosted by record labels, etc
SoundCloud is a website that every musician should be familiar with; free music hosting, social media integration, and viewer statistics are just a few of their wonderful features. Artists will often turn to SoundCloud to both host their stem files for downloads and to create "groups" that you can join if you wish to remix one of their songs.
There are other places to find remix competitions as well: record labels will announce contests on their Facebook pages, music websites will sometimes email out notifications of new opportunities, and so on.
What to look for:
Now that you have a few ideas of where to get started, you can start previewing the songs that are up for grabs. I'll give you a "rule of thumb" of that I tend to go by: If you listen to a preview of a song, and you don't start humming along within the first twenty seconds or so, then move on. Listen can to it once through, jump around a little, find the high points and low points, but remember: if you don't love the music, you probably won't be doing your best work - and your audience probably won't like it either.
Now that you have a DAW, some instruments, a few samples, and a song to work with, let's walk through an example of a remixing a song using all of the resources that have been listed so far.
Step 5: Entering an Official Remix Contest
The previous section was an overview of where to find remix contests; now we're going to talk about how to actually enter one! Remix contests can be structured a number of different ways, but the overall format is the same. The flexibility of contests means that we're not going to have a structured, orderly list of 123's and ABC's, but we'll be trying to keep this list of tips in a chronological order.
The Announcement and Time Limit
The big release of the remix contest. The host will announce the following:
- The time limit.
- Age limit (if applicable)
- Preferred genre of submissions
- Submission guidelines.
Contests generally run anywhere from three to four weeks, but it's not a hard-and-fast rule. (Given more time, artists tend to lose interest, but if given less time, artists feel rushed.)
Downloading the Stems
After the announcement has been made, the remix stems will become available to the public. Though uncommon, some contests require you to purchase the stems for a small fee. After you download the stems, you'll most likely be presented with multiple WAV files of equal length, with a large amount of silence in the track. Each file is an individual recording of an instrument - if you take your collection of stem files, and stack them inside of your DAW, and align them all to start at 0 minutes and 0 seconds, you should get the original song as a result. Most remix contests will provide you with most, but not all of the stem files - this is to prevent people from maliciously aligning the stems, rendering the original song, and releasing it for public to download without paying for it.
There are two general rules that you will find regarding stems:
- If the original song includes vocals, you are generally required to use part or all of the vocal stems.
- You will not be allowed to use the stem files outside of the remix contest.
Now it's up to you! You can now focus on creating a new piece of music from the tools that have been provided to you. Take your time, come up with something memorable, and wow the presenters.
Now the time limit is almost up, and you'll have to submit your finished product. Keep the following things in mind:
- Check to see what time zone the hosts are in!It's a terrible feeling when you realize that you worked on a remix for weeks, only to find out that you missed the deadline because of time zones.
- Know what format your remix should be in. Do the hosts want an uncompressed WAV file? If so, what quality? 8 bit? 16 bit? 32 bit? Or do they want a smaller file, like a 320kbps MP3? Make sure you know what format is acceptable.
Know where to submit your remix.Some artists will want you to send your remix to a specific email address, others will want you to upload it to Dropbox and give them a link to the folder, and others still will want you to upload it to SoundCloud and join their remix group. This is probably the biggest wildcard of the whole entry process, so pay extra attention to this.
Once all of the various submissions are in, the voting period will begin. Voting is usually done in one of three ways:
- Judge's selection: The original artist or a group associated with the artist listens through all of the submissions, and makes a decision. The benefit is that everyone is guaranteed a fair hearing by the judge(s), but it generally takes longer to come to a decision if there are a large number of submissions.
- Popular vote: The community is given an extra one or two weeks to listen and cast votes on their favorite remix. It makes judging faster and easier, but gives an advantage to those with a vast number of followers (more voting power) and those who submit early (more exposure time).
- Combination: The final call is made by both popular vote and the judges. This is done in one of two formats, either by selecting two winners (one of each), or having the community narrow the results down to the top ten, and having the judges pick from those.
This is one of the main reasons why people look into remixing; there's cool stuff to win! When you win a remix competition, you sign away the rights to the music (meaning that it will no longer be yours to sell or give away), but you usually receive something cool in return. There are many different types of prizes, but the most common ones that you'll see are as follows:
- Royalties: Remixes will often be sold as part of a CD or download pack on websites like Itunes, Beatport, or Bandcamp, and winning royalties means that you will earn a percentage of the profits that are made off of your song. For example, 40% royalties would mean that you would receive 40% of the profits, and the original artist would receive 60% of the profits (after paying fees to the record label, etc.) This works well if you create a one-hit wonder - you're reward increases with the popularity of your song!
- Independent release: Relatively rare in terms of prizes, an independent release means that the record label will allow you to sign one of your original works with them, and they will go through the work of promoting, publishing, and selling your song/album. You'll receive royalties on your original work as well (sometimes even 100% of the profit).
- Cash prize: Pretty self explanatory. You get a lump sum of cash, usually close to the average profits that the original artist makes on his/her song.
- Physical gear: Also fairly self explanatory; you'll receive something like headphones, a keyboard, guitar, etc.
- Software: This can be anything from a new DAW to VST's. Sometimes it's determined ahead of time for you, and other times you'll be given a gift card for an online store so that you can pick your own.
- Sample Packs: As with the software category, these can be predetermined, or you can receive a voucher/gift certificate to an online store. A common source is PrimeLoops.
- Website subscriptions: A little more vague than the others, some prizes consist of subscriptions to music websites that will provide you with exclusive tools to use in your music.
- "...song will be released on an upcoming album." Not to be confused with an independent release; this vague phrase doesn't mean a whole lot. Your work will be published on the official album that the stem files came from, but you won't receive any of the profits generated from your work. This is pretty much fancy talk for "you'll get some publicity".
This covers all of the resources for artists; now let's put these into practice!
Step 6: Using What We've Learned: an Example of Remixing
By now you should have plenty of information about DAW's, plugins, samples, remixes, and more, but I think an example is in order. I'll walk you through part of the remix process, from start to finish.
As an artist, my favorite genres are Liquid Drum and Bass (a fast paced, uplifting, and energetic music), and Trance (dance music known for it's use of SuperSaw waveforms and bright sounds). Liquid Drum and Bass is fast, running at around 170 BPM, or Beats Per Minute. Trance, on the other hand, sits at a comfortable dance tempo of 128 to 138 beats per minute. I'll keep those genres in mind while I'm searching for a remix contest; you should do the same.
I've used LMMS, Garageband, Audacity, Adobe Audition, FL Studio, and Cubase before, and a few years ago I decided to save up money for my own copy of FL Studio 11. Therefore, I'll be using FL, since the option is available to me. Remember that LMMS was designed to function similarly to FL Studio, so a large number of the edits that I make in FL Studio can be replicated in LMMS.
For this project, my instruments will be:
- T-Force Alpha Plus (for a lead, chords, and trance-ish bass)
- Dillie Base (for the subbass)
- Piano One (for a classical piano)
- Synth1 (for an oscillator)
- A commercial VST [Nexus 2.0] (for my guitar). You could easily replace this with SpicyGuitar to achieve the same guitar pluck.
My effects will be some of the built-in plugins included with FL Studio, but there are free plugins that actually function better than the default effects. The effects used are:
- A generic flanger effect
- A generic delay effect (click here for a list of free delay effects)
- A generic reverb effect (click here for a list of free delay effects)
- A generic stereo shaper (click here for a list of free stereo enhancers)
My Sample Packs
I'll be looking to MusicRadar's SampleRadar article for this section. (It appears that one or two of the sample packs that I'm were downloaded from a different website, and aren't available to download anymore. I'll update this page if I happen to find them.)
Finding a song
Let's hop on over to RemixComps and see what we find. I don't have much in the way of physical gear in my personal studio, so I went ahead and sorted by "Prize" and then "Music Equipment". There were a few House and Electronica tunes, but nothing that really stuck with me..
However, the very last result was very different - a song called "Mountainside" by Beardyman (funny name, I know). Mountainside was a much slower Downtempo song, and I found myself flicking my fingers along with the beat. Have a listen:
Kind of catchy! I think I'll make a Liquid Drum and Bass remix of it!
I proceeded to head over to the download link (see the image), and was brought to a Facebook page where I could download the folder of stem files. Here are a couple of the individual stems, to help you understand what they sound like:
Not bad! But for the musically inclined in the audience, you may have noticed: Mountainside is much, much slower than the 170 BPM of Liquid DnB. In fact, it sits around 91 BPM. How can we mesh those two?
The trick here will be to slow the song down to 85 BPM, and then double the number of beats in between, effectively giving us 170 BPM. (This took a little bit of time to work out, since the original song ended up being something like 90.17 BPM instead of the 91 BPM provided by RemixComps.) It's important to remember that speeding up a track will raise the pitch, and slowing it down will lower the pitch. Most commerical DAW's will have timing/pitch correction in their arsenal of tools to counteract this effect, but you can do the same thing by using Audacity.
The two sound very, very similar to each other - so much so that I won't bother showing you the difference. However, the slight change in tempo will mean the world to us down the road.
Now comes the fun part: playing around with noise! I spent a number of hours tossing around different ideas, adding chords, removing stem tracks from the mix, and eventually decided that I wanted to remove two stem tracks (the drums and the bass) and add a few of my own: supersaw chords, drums, bass, a piano, some guitar plucks, and FX.
Here are a few of my own stems that I added to the song:
After a few more hours of toying around with various preset instruments, I finally had something close to the finished product!
All that's left is to do some official mastering to emphasize the drums, export the song, and then send it off!
Step 7: Production Tips: My Two Cents Worth
Heehee, tips, two cents. (Did you see what I did there?)
All jokes aside, this section will be mostly of random pieces of information that I have picked up over time. There is no particular order to these tidbits, but I hope they serve you well nonetheless.
- More volume does not make a better song. Just because something is LOUDER doesn't mean that it's suddenly better. In fact, you might start to experience clipping, which is caused when a volume level exceeds 0 Db (Decibels). Once clipping occurs, your music will start to sound distorted and grainy.
- Limit your volume to -6 Db for mastering. If you don't know what this means, don't worry: I had no idea what mastering was until I had been casually writing music for a year or two. The idea is that no instrument should ever get louder than -6 Db, so that your record label/audio engineer has some wiggle room to play with as they try to optimize the sound for public release. There are entire college degrees based on audio engineering, but you can do some basic mastering yourself if you want to give your own music that final burst of energy (without paying someone for their engineering services). Look up some YouTube tutorials on mastering; the process is hard, but well worth your time.
- Make sure instruments aren't competing for space. Instruments occupy their own sections of the sound spectrum. Two, three, even four instruments playing at the same time isn't a problem, unless they happen to occupy the same frequency range. If that occurs, then the two instruments will have to "fight" for that space, removing some of the clarity in the process. If you have two instruments that use the same space, try to keep them from playing at the same time.
- Cut out any unnecessary frequencies. If your final mix sounds "muddy" or "clouded", it's probably because instruments are still competing for space in the audible sound spectrum. Start by equalizing (see the dictionary at the end of this Instructable) each of the instruments and cutting out any unused parts of the sound spectrum. All instruments have a primary spot that they occupy in the sound spectrum, but they also create invisible harmonic frequencies as well. Individually, these frequencies are harmless, but when stacked on top of one another, they create a musical mess that removes the "sharpness" of your music. To illustrate: your bass uses the low end of the sound spectrum, probably in the 1000Hz range or less. Therefore, you should use an equalizer on your bass instrument to cut out all of the frequencies above 1000Hz. Likewise, pianos and guitars will occupy the middle space, and hats/snares will occupy the upper realms of the sound spectrum.
- Less is sometimes more. As much as I may cringe at that phrase, it still holds true. Silence can be equally as powerful as noise, if used correctly. In the movie Castaway, the producers didn't include any music in the movie until the climax at very end, to emphasis the loneliness of being stranded. The result? One of the most powerful musical themes in film history.
- Listen to your music from a variety of sources. Listening to your music from only one source means that you can't get a feel for how well your song covers the audible sound spectrum. I was stuck with nothing but laptop speakers and a gaming headset for quite a long time, and I never realized that my gaming headphones were bass-heavy, artificially making all of the sounds "warmer" to enhance the gaming experience. As such, my music sounded thinner and less lively when played through other sources, since I was unknowingly compensating for the hardware.
Step 8: Learning Some Common Music Terms
This list contains a bunch of common terms that are thrown around in the music realm. Do a quick "Ctrl+F" to search the page and see if the word you're looking for is here.
ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release): An umbrella term that covers the four main attributes of a note. Think of ADSR as the four steps of pushing key on a piano keyboard.
- Attack is how fast a note reaches it's peak volume. A fast attack is a sharper sound, and a longer attack time means that the sound will slowly fade in.
- Decay is how long it takes for the note to drop from the peak volume down to it's decay volume.
- Sustain is how long the note stays at it's normal volume.
- Release is the amount of time it takes for the note to go from normal volume to nothing after the key is released.
As a (slightly flawed) illustration: let's say you hit a key on a piano, and hold it down. The hammer inside hits the strings, creating a fast, loud attack time. The sound will quickly decay to a normal volume, where it will linger for it's sustain duration (since your finger is holding down the piano key, allowing it to vibrate freely). The moment you let go of the key, the strings will be muted, and the time it takes to go from sustain volume to no volume is the release time.
Arpeggio ("arp"): an arpeggio is simply a sequence of notes that are arranged in octaves. For example, a 3 octave "up" arpeggio on C#3 (the third C# key on the piano) would start at C#3, then play the C#4, then C#5, and then start back over again at C#3 until the key is released. Likewise, a 3 octave "down" arpeggio on C#3 would play C#3, then C#2, then C#1, and then start the cycle over again. Arpeggios will usually have the options of an "up" arp, "down" arp, "up and down" arp, and "random" arp.
Chorus: an effect which uses a combination of delays and pitch shifting to create the illusion of multiple instances of the same instrument.
Clipping: audio distortion which occurs when the volume or gain attempts to exceed the capabilities of the hardware/software. Clipping should be avoided at all costs.
Compressor: an effect that smooths out music by increasing low volumes, and decreasing high volumes, thereby reducing the overall difference between the loudest sound in the music and the softest sound in the music.
Delay: A fancy word for an "echo" effect. Echos can be modified to be louder, softer, shorter, longer, etc.
Dynamics: the volume of a note.
Equalization (EQ): equalizing is a technique to modify the properties of the sound spectrum to accentuate or detract from certain frequencies. EQ'ing can be performed on individual instruments (like increasing the high end of the audio spectrum to make a hi-hats a little fuller), or to a song as a whole (to finalize the overall "feel" of a tune). EQ'ing is incredibly important to prevent clipping, and to keep the overall sound of the song from becoming too "muddy".
Fader: a sliding (or rotary) form of volume control.
Flanger: An effect which feeds part of the output back into the input, which is partially fed back into the output, and so on. This creates what's known as resonance (see "resonance"), which emphasizes the peaks and valleys of the sound.
Gain: how much the program modifies a signal. High gain means large amounts of sound.
Gating: an effect that turns the volume up and down at a known rate. This makes a "stutter" effect which can be used on many different sounds.
Hertz: the scale for measuring the pitch of a sound. The audible sound spectrum is between 20Hz and 20,000Hz (also represented as 20kHz). In fact, most common media players ignore anything below 20Hz and above 20,000Hz, so it is wise to remove any sounds outside of those frequencies to save memory space. Bass sounds are near the bottom at 20 Hz, and high pitched frequencies are found near 20,000Hz.
Mixer: the device/plugin that takes all of the sounds and applies effects to them. The mixer is where all of the audio is routed through before being output to the speakers.
Panning: panning refers to the stereo output of music. If you pan an instrument to the left, then it will be more audible in the left speaker, and less audible in the right speaker. Likewise, if you pan an instrument to the right, it will be more audible in the right speaker, and less audible in the left speaker. Panning allows you to add some "space" to your mix by giving instruments their own positions in the stereo output, making it sound more dynamic and diverse. Basses and kick drums are almost always positioned in the center, while higher instruments and hats are usually panned left or right. A lack of panning will sometimes make the music sound clouded or muddy, since all of the sounds are trying to occupy the same stereo space.
Pitch: the relative "highness" or "lowness" of a note.
Phaser: An effect like the flanger, a phaser purposefully emphasizes various peaks and valleys of an instrument's audible sound spectrum. The position of the peaks and valleys is changed over time, creating a "sliding" effect.
Resonance: refers to synchronous vibrations in the sound, also refers to how much a sound qualifies as deep/full.
Reverberation ("reverb"): An effect that utilizes algorithms to mimic the sound reflections of big rooms, hallways, etc. More powerful reverb plugins can even let you choose the number of walls in the virtual room, the size of the room, and whether the "walls" reflect more high frequencies or low frequencies.
Tremolo: A tremolo is a rapid variation in the pitch or volume of a note, creating a slight "wobble" sound to a note.
Velocity: like dynamics, velocity refers to the volume of a note. However, it is most often used to refer to the actual volume of a note, rather than the intended volume of a note.
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