How to Remix a Song: 50 Essential Tips
“Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.”
— Austin Kleon
Why Make a Remix?
I love remixes. I love making them, I love listening to them, I love playing them in my sets. To me, remixing allows one artist to give their own musical interpretation of another artist’s song. Remixing also is a great way to gain popularity. Zedd is now considered one of the top producers in EDM, but his career began with remixing Skrillex – and he’s not alone. Many top-tier producers launched their careers off of successful remixes.
Remixes are super useful to artists because it’s an easy way for them to extend the life of a release while they work on new music and content. They are also super useful to the remixer because they allow you to work with great-sounding vocals even when you don’t have access to a topliner. Here I’ll share the 50 essential tips every remix artist needs to know to up their game.
1. Remix a Classic
Something fun to do is take an older but loved song and put your spin on it. This will separate you from the throngs of producers remixing today’s hits. If you want to see how I remixed "Feel So Close" by Calvin Harris in 4 simple steps, check out this video below!
2. Only Remix Songs That You're Passionate About
Sometimes you may be hired to make a remix, you may have a friend or fellow producer approach you to remix their song, or you might just have a song you really want to remix. The best remixes you’ll make are the ones you are passionate about, so try to remix songs that you feel you can offer an original interpretation of.
3. Remix a Hit – Before it’s a Hit
Sometimes a song comes out and you just know it will be the song of the summer. Several years back Marshmello and Selena Gomez released their song ‘Wolves’. Knowing it would take off with names that big, I made and released a remix within 6 hours of the original song coming out. I got the first remix of the song out, and I got hundreds of thousands of streams on it after it was picked up by many YouTube promo channels.
4. Check How Many Remixes There Are of a Song Before Remixing it
Popular songs are well, popular. So they get remixed a LOT. Before you think about how to remix a song, you need to consider if it’s the right song to remix. It’s a good idea to check if there are many remixes of the song you chose that have major support. A simple YouTube search will usually reveal this.
5. Make Sure You Get the BPM & Key Right
Ok, so now you know which song you want to remix. The first things you’ll need to know are the BPM and key of the song. There are many ways of determining this. You can Google the name of the song and BPM and key (i.e. ‘Marshmello Wolves BPM key’), you can use a website like Beatport that shows the BPM and key, or you can use specialized software such as Mixed In Key that will find them for you.
6. Try to Find Official Stems Whenever Possible
When remixing it’s best to have the original stems of the song. Stems are groups of the main tracks in a song. If you want to get the stems for a release, it frequently is as simple as emailing the artist or their manager and asking for them. Sometimes there’s a remix competition which will provide stems, and on rare occasions, stems are leaked to the internet that you can find by searching.
7. Bootlegging from the Master is a Valid Option
Sometimes official stems or acapellas aren’t available, and then you need to turn to bootlegging. Many major remixes on your favorite EDM channels are bootlegs, made through careful techniques. You can workaround using the release for a remix by high-passing the lows, and using mid-side EQ to cut out a lot of the side information then building your remix around that.
8. Frequently There is an Online DIY Acapella
Do a search for the name of the song you want to remix and ‘acapella’. Studio acapellas are best, but frequently people make their own edits called DIY acapellas, and frequently they’re good enough to get the job done.
9. Use the Acoustic Version Instead of an Acapella
Frequently acoustic versions are released of popular songs. These are generally less busy, and therefore easier to put your own layers over.
10. You Can Make Your Own Acapella
The magicians at iZotope made Music Rebalance as part of their premier audio editing software RX7. It’s pricey, but it’s freakish how well this software can separate elements of a mixed and mastered song.
11. Use Audacity to Isolate Vocals
Not nearly as good as RX7’s Rebalance feature, but the free and open-source editor Audacity has a vocal isolation feature. It’s not great, but if the song is pretty minimal it sometimes can get decent results (and did I mention it’s free?).
12. Make Sure the Tracks Are Aligned Properly in Your DAW
Once you have your tracks and the BPM and key, you’ll need to make sure they are properly aligned in your DAW. I like to do this by playing a drum loop and looping several measures of the song. I’ll then drag the files around until they slide into place with the drum loop. Some DAWs (such as Logic) have built-in aligning algorithms, which work quite well if there are transient information such as drums in the song it can work with.
13. Have a Direction Before You Begin
Before you start getting dirty with production, try to have an idea of where you will take the remix. Knowing how to remix a song isn’t just all technical skill, you should have some sort of plan in your head for how you will approach the song. It’s ok to deviate from your original idea as you work on the song, but you should start with at least some sort of direction.
14. Try Not to Reference the Original Too Much
Let your chord progression and melody come naturally. Over-listening to the original can paint you into a corner creatively.
15. Determine Which Style Remix You Want to Make
Some remixes are designed for clubs and dancing, others are emotional, and some don’t even have drops and are more vibey. What do you want people to feel from your remix?
16. Learn to Play Ball When Making an Official Remix
If you are working with a label or the original artist for an official remix, ask them if they had a style in mind. Being accommodating with your remixing will help you land more.
17. Change the Tempo
An easy way to separate your remix from the original is to slow it down or speed it up.
18. Change the Key
Marshmello established a sound with his first remixes by pitching up the vocal. You can instantly change the vibe of the song by messing with the pitch of the vocal.
19. Switch Up the Rhythm
Is the original four on the floor? Maybe go half time. Switching up the rhythmic structure of a song will make it more fun to listen to if the original song is already ingrained into people’s minds.
20. Find the Original Chords (if you want to use them)
You can frequently find the original chords pretty easily online if that’s the chord structure you want to use.
21. Make Up Your Own Chords
Nothing changes the vibes of a song quite by reharmonizing it and using your own chord progression.
22. Don’t Make the “Obvious” Remix
Sometimes you hear a song and there’s just an obvious remix direction for it. By not playing into what’s expected, you can help your remix to stand out.
23. Choose Your Tempo-Change Algorithm Carefully
Most DAW’s tempo algorithms are quite frankly – awful. Ableton’s is better than most, but if you want to go for gold use either the one built into iZotope RX (my personal favorite) or Serato’s Pitch ‘n Time software.
24. Don’t Disrespect the Song
Listen to the lyrics and message of the song you’re remixing and make sure your changes make sense. Turning Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ into a banger would be sacrilege, and you don’t want to disrespect a song or it’s artist with your remix.
25. Move to the Relative Major/Minor
By changing the song to its relative key you can instantly switch up the feeling from melancholy to cheerful and vice versa. The relative minor of a major key is 3 semitones down, and inversely the relative major of a minor key is 3 semitones up.
You can quickly determine the relative key by using the circle of fifths, pictured above. The outside ring is the major, and its corollary key in the inner ring is the relative minor.
26. Remake Elements from the Original
You can create familiarity and interest in your remix by incorporating elements of the original song in unique ways. Remake melody lines with other instruments, turn a vocal line into a synth line, etc.
27. Make Ear Candy from the Stems
Tease different parts of the original songs by sprinkling in elements of the original subtly.
28. Vocals Are Cheat Codes for Interest
Use as much of the original vocal as possible, people usually want to hear it as the main part of the song.
29. Distort and Mangle Parts of the Original
Listen to this epic remix of Post Malone’s ‘Rockstar’. Check out how Crankdat uses parts of Post's vocal as fills in the drop to keep things tied together and interesting. This is an amazing example of how to remix a song in a way that the remix feels very tied to the original. The remix remains grounded to being a Post Malone song despite all Crankdat’s additions because of his creative use of parts of the original song.
30. Vocal Chops Are Killer
Vocal chops are an amazing way to turn parts of the song into fun elements that the listener can hang on to. I love using Serato Sample to make my vocal chops.
31. Keep it in the World of the Original – or Don’t
Make a conscious decision if you want your remix to remain tied to the original, or be completely deviant. Sometimes what makes a remix cool and unique is just how radically different it is than the original.
32. Rearrange the Song
It’s a new opportunity to switch things up. Rearrange, cut sections out, only use the chorus, etc. Have fun with it!
33. Incorporate Parts of the Original into the Drop
Sometimes when the drop of a remix is a complete departure from the original song, the listener can get lost and disinterested. Keep them with you by reminding them what it’s a remix of.
34. Tease the Drop
One of the things that get me most excited when listening to a remix is hearing the drop melody/idea teased subtly in the parts leading up to it.
35. Don’t Drown Out the Vocals
It’s easy to feel like our additions are the most important part of the song, but the listener is still going to want the vocals to be at the forefront of the mix.
36. There Are Advantages and Disadvantages to Being “Out There”
How crazy should the remix get? Up to you. Sometimes keeping it a bit generic will help it get popular, but by getting wonky you can help define a sound for yourself as an artist.
37. Make it Obvious from the Start it’s a Remix
Let your listeners know they’re in for a treat. Make sure they know from the first moment of the song that they’re about to hear a fresh take.
38. Make Sure All Your Additions Fit
We’ve all heard those remixes that feel like they are two different songs awkwardly squished together. Pay attention to your transitions!
39. Don’t Drag it Out – Get to the Drop
Get to the drop pretty quickly or people will get bored of listening. Unfortunately, the average commercial listener doesn't have much patience. In fact, the average human has an attention span of only 8 seconds. We're not saying you have to get to the drop in 8 seconds, but the faster you bring in the chorus, the more likely a listener will stick around.
40. Make a List of Promoters
Make a Google Sheets page and come up with at least FIFTY places you are going to send your remix for promo help. This can be YouTube channels, Spotify playlisters, bloggers, etc.
41. Track Your Emails
Use a service like CloudHQ Free Email Tracker to know when A&Rs have opened your email. This is especially useful because if you see that they have not opened your email for a couple weeks you can resend the email. Just be sure if you are using the free version to disable the message that comes up saying you are using a tracker. If you want to get advanced with your email tracking and opportunity management consider a CRM like Pipedrive.
42. Commissioned Remixes Compensation Can Come Multiple Ways
Compensation for remixes come in a number of forms, but the most common are payment, splits on the master, or a combination thereof. It’s not uncommon for arrangements to be made when remixing for artists that have a sizable following that they repay the remix artist by putting the full support of their marketing team behind the release.
43. Get the Details in Advance
Work out the details of the business end before you begin work. The last thing you want is to finish the remix then hear that you don’t agree with the terms. Make sure that you have the deal in some form of writing so that the details can be easily recalled if there’s confusion later. An email will suffice, but some people prefer a short agreement.
44. Don’t Let Remix Contests Discourage You
Remix contests can be great practice for producing and remixing, but don’t be disheartened if you don’t win – they have many many entries and are frequently rigged to begin with. Many times the winner was predetermined at the onset of the competition, or goes to a friend of the original artist. This isn’t to say it’s the case every time, but it happens enough to deserve comment. Not winning remix competitions doesn't mean you don't know how to remix a song and that you aren't an amazing producer.
45. Always Read the Rules, Terms, and Conditions for Remix Contests
Sometimes they throw weird stuff in there, like that the label owns your productions even if you don’t win or get compensation, or that you’re disqualified if you release the remix publicly. Watch out for sneaky conditions!
46. Don’t Monetize Without Permission
You can’t monetize or distribute a remix without explicit written permission from the artist and their team/label. Don’t get yourself into trouble, and play by the rules! You can however usually publish an unofficial remix to YouTube without repercussions. Soundcloud gets a bit trickier but I’d argue Soundcloud is no longer a platform worth devoting time into.
47. Turn a Remix into an Original
Sometimes making a remix is a great inspiration, but it doesn’t have to stay a remix – mute the vocals and get a topliner to put original vocals on it! This is an especially good move if you’ve entered a high profile remix contest and don’t want to be one of a million remixes for that song getting released.
48. Be Easy to Work With, But Stand Your Ground
Artists and labels will all have their opinion about your remix. While you want to be accommodating, also know when they are compromising your artistry. They brought you on to this project so that you can make your interpretation of the song, and it’s ok to remind them politely that ultimately the remix is your song with your name on it.
49. Believe in Your Art, and Release Your Music
I made a remix of a song for a large EDM label and didn’t finish it in time for the contest. On a whim, I sent it to the original artist who responded that had I submitted the remix it would have won the contest and might have been officially released. Believe in the work you do, and make sure you let people hear it!
50. Have Multiple Aliases if Taking on Commissioned Remixes
If you remix professionally, consider having multiple aliases so that you can funnel different genres to the appropriate project. Also sometimes you may be hired to remix a song you don’t like, and then you won’t want it associated with your main artist project.
Wrapping it Up
While these are all great tips, not all of them will apply to every project or song. Take the ones that work for you and run with them. Ultimately, remixing is about having fun and creating and sharing art, so go at it! With these 50 tips on how to remix a song you can now be a remix king. Go figure out what you are going to remix and kill it!