How To Remix A Song: Easy Guide For Competitions, Bootlegs And Official Remixes

remix writing music Mar 01, 2019

I have done many remixes over the years. In 2010, my remix of Shakedown by Joan Reyes went to #1 on the BeatPort overall chart. It then went on to be the highest selling track on BeatPort for that year. (seriously)

So I am often asked how to make a remix of a song.

It is a unique and fun thing about electronic music and hip hop. We can take one song of any genre, and reinterpret it in our own style. We can make remixes of popular songs, underground songs or anything we like.

But before you can make your own remix songs, there are a few tips you should know about the art of remixing.


The Difference Between A Bootleg And A Remix

An official remix is when the original artist/record label paid you or requested you to make it.

A bootleg is an unofficial (and often illegal) version of a remix. Like "bootleg whiskey” in the prohibition times. These are more common and usually made by DJs who want an alternative version of a song to play at their show.

It is illegal to sell a bootleg. Technically, you are not even meant to upload or share it... but lots of DJs do.


Can You Remix Songs On Garageband?

Yes. You could do it with any DAW or editing software. Garageband, Audacity, FL Studio or even in a mobile app, but you might find it a lot easier on Ableton Live. Or something else that has easy time stretching and pitch shifting for music production.


Pick The Right Song

Whether you are being offered an official remix or choosing a song to bootleg, it is crucial that you choose wisely. Only remix a song if you actually like it.

If you feel you want to change it completely then it’s not the right song to remix. The original song must excite you so much that you want to feature the main part of it in your remix.

Then, look for songs with…

  • a good catchy hook (vocal, lead synth, bass line). Something that gets stuck in your head.
  • a tempo that is not too far from yours. +/- 20 bpm should be ok.
  • a similar emotion/vibe to the music you write. e.g. A happy pop song might not work well as a melancholy Techno song.

If you are doing a bootleg for exposure, then choose something that is a well-known hit, or classic anthem. Sometimes old songs can be a great choice. You can then put a fresh spin on them.

Avoid bootlegging a song if there are already loads of good remixes of it. Find a song that needs your remix touch.


Where To Find Good Remix Parts

If you have not been hired for a remix then you are going to need a song and some parts.

One option is to enter a remix competition from something like...

Or you can find sites that list music for legal remixing under creative commons license etc like…

Or, you can make a bootleg. Find a song, acapella, (or Traktor stems from Beatport) you like and start chopping it up. But, you might need to separate the sounds for your remix using some audio trickery.


Your Goal / How To Make A Good Remix

Your goal is to reinterpret the original song in your own unique style. Kinda like when a rock band covers a chilled song. They might make it more heavy and aggressive, but the original song is identifiable.

So, you can use your usual genre, arrangement, drop, drum and instrument sounds. Make sure to include at least the main hook from the song you are remixing.

If you like to chop up audio and vocals in your original songs, then you should do it in your remix too.

If you don’t like guitars or chords in your original music, then don’t put them in your remix.

Don’t force it to sound like the original, or someone else in the competition. Make it sound like “YOU”. It should sound like your other songs, and fit well into your DJ sets.

Try asking yourself, If I wrote this song, how would I do it.

…or, what would I have to change to make this fit into my DJ sets?


Ask The Artist/Label What They Expect

For an official remix, you should always ask the artist/label what they are expecting. They hired you for a reason. Ask what track of yours they like the most, then use that as a reference.

Ask if they want you to make a remix for the club? or something commercial to play on the radio?

Do they expect you to use the full original vocal, or is the chorus ok?

If they want a full vocal remix, then you should follow the same arrangement as the original. If only a partial vocal, do your own normal arrangement style.


Choose A Direction

Think about your desired function of your remix and keep that in mind as you create it.

If you want it to be a big club track, or played on the radio, or for chilling out, then choose one direction and stick to it.

If you want to use it as a free giveaway to build fans and get DJs attention with a Fan Gate... Then make sure you chose a good original, and make a club weapon of a remix that people HAVE TO HAVE.

If your mix is for a remix contest then you should keep similar things in mind. Unfortunately, there is no one you can ask here, but we can make some good assumptions.

If you write club music, and the original song is a pop/full vocal song, then I recommend you do a club style remix. Which means you don’t need to do a full vocal mix, and you can arrange it how you like.


What Do Remix Competition Judges Want?

Judges of remix competitions are looking for something creative that will contrast the original song.

They don’t want something that competes with it. They want something that complements it.

e.g. a harder version, a softer version, a chilled version, a club version, a faster version, a slower version etc.


Set A Deadline

For official remixes, you should ask the artist/label when they expect it to be completed. For remix competitions, they usually have an official deadline. For bootlegs, you should create your own deadline and stick to it. Two to four weeks is a good starting point.

Stick to this, but don’t rush. You don’t get extra points for submitting your song early.

Try to finish your song with some spare time though. Then you can play it to some friends/professionals with good ears. Ask for feedback on what might make it better.


Use The Right Parts

The listener should be able to recognize the original song. So make sure to use the most important part/s.

In a vocal song, it is usually the chorus vocal. For an instrumental track, it might be a synthesizer, piano, or guitar etc.

Look for the part that sums up the original song. The bit that people sing along to. The bit that makes it special.

Build your remix around that.

If you only used one part from the original, it should be this part. It is mandatory.

As long as the main hook of the original is in your song, then you don’t have to use any of the other parts. Only use more original parts if it fits your style, and sounds good.

For some remixes I have done, I have used the chorus vocal only. Even if they sent me 60 tracks of audio.

Having said that, before reaching for new sounds, always try to use as many of the original song parts as possible. But only if they work well in your remix. Don’t force it. they must fit your genre and vibe.

There is only one part that you should almost always replace and that is the drums.


Finding The Key

The two main things you will likely need to do is work out the key of the song, and time stretch your parts to fit your tempo.

If you are not able to work out the key by ear, you can load the song into Mixed In Key and it can identify the key for you


Time Stretching Vocals


Time stretching in Ableton is automatic, but sometimes it might struggle with things like vocals.

This is because there are no clear beats and rhythms for the algorithm to detect.

It might help to remember that the majority of modern songs are fixed at one tempo. They don’t speed up or slow down.

If this is the case with yours, then try the “Warp From Here Straight” function. You can always assign the exact original tempo in the box here afterward too.


Difficult Tempos

If the tempo or the original is too different from your usual genre, then you may like to double/halve the tempo.

e.g. if your goal temp is 125bpm and the original song is at 80bpm, you would increase the original by 45bpm to match. This will make the original sound very fast. what you could do here is then halve the tempo of the original to 62.5bpm. That is closer to 80bpm and might sound more natural.


Underground Remix Of A Happy Song

Sometimes the original song will be in a major or happy key. Especially if it is a pop song.

If you want to make it feel more club or underground, you could write the backing music in the relative minor key.

98% of dance music is in a minor key after all.

e.g. If the original song is in G Major, you might be able to use just the vocal over a backing that is written in E minor. This way you end up with “Major over Minor”.

It is not essential, but it can be a very cool twist that adds a fresh dark edge.


Too Many Stems Will Overwhelm You

If you are given too many audio tracks and separate parts it can be overwhelming.

If you drag them all into your DAW and line them up at zero, you might find yourself doing more mixing than remixing.

This can close your mind to possibilities and make your remix too similar to the original.

e.g. if they send you 10 tracks of vocals and a mixed acapella, just use the mixed acapella.

Focus on one part at a time. e.g. Start with the vocal or lead.

Or use a sampler. Load a stem in, then adjust the start point while playing some keys. You will find many happy accidents.


How To Arrange A Remix

You should arrange your remix just like your own originals, but there is a bit of a formula for when to use the original song parts vs your own parts.

It is generally best to use the original parts (e.g. vocals) in your breakdowns. Then make the drop more about your own sounds.

Kinda like the breakdown reminds you of the original song, then the drop is where you flip it and do something new and cool. At least for club remixes anyway.

If you do use some original parts in the drop, try cutting them up and manipulating them. This helps the drop feel more "remixed”.


Keep It Simple

You don’t need to change everything about the original. Just make a remix that sounds like “you” and also has the main hook from the original in it.

e.g. Often you can use the original breakdown almost as is. Especially for bootlegs

While sketching you might come up with loads of hook options. It doesn’t mean you should use them all.

It is your job as a music producer to pick which is the best hook to represent the remix.

Then build the whole remix around that. It will make it more cohesive and concise.

If someone played your remix from any point in time, it should always be “the good bit”.

So, move quickly as you work. Focus on the first initial thing that got you excited about the original, and don’t over complicate things


Save Time & Make It Sound Like YOU

To speed things up, you can use parts from your original songs.

For example, you might use the vocal from the original song, then program a new drum beat and bass line with the sounds from the last song/s you wrote.

This will immediately make the remix sound like “you” because you used the same instruments that are in your own original tracks.


Teasing The Hook

Sometimes the original hook can feel like it’s too much. Too long, too many lyrics, too many notes etc.

Using small pieces of the hook scattered around your arrangement can work well.

This can also build tension towards the drop and can be a great fill within the drop.


Replay The Hook With A New Instrument

If the original song has a catchy lead or bass hook, but the sound doesn’t work well for your genre, you might like to replay it with a new instrument.

This way you will include the melody that everyone knows, but use an instrument that matches your style.

If you are having trouble replaying a melody from a stem, then you might like Ableton's Audio To MIDI function.


Writing Your Own Hook

If the song you chose does not have a good hook, you should not remix it. But, sometimes you might want to write an extra section in the remix where you use your own hook.

This can be a nice addition, but it is not 100% necessary.

If you use a second hook, make sure that you include enough of the original hook, and do not have them play at the same time.


Learn To Remix Creatively

This is not essential, but it is a great way to let your creativity shine, and impress the listener.

Experiment with a recognizable part/s from the song and do something unique with it.

e.g. unique vocal slicing, looping, pitching, time stretching, plugin processing etc

Maybe even make a meldoy or bassline out of the original vocal.

Try to find a balance between this kind of experimenting, yet still, keep the original song recognizable.

It’s kind like you are saying…” here’s a song you guys all know, now watch me do something cool with it”.

Show that you are manipulating it in a new and positive way, and make them go “Wow!”


Find Inspiration In Other Remixes

If you are running out of ideas, or not sure where to start, try listening to some other remixes. Pay attention to what parts they chose to use, and how they used them.


Make Sure It’s Mixed And Mastered Well

Whether you want to win a remix competition, impress a record label, or have a popular bootleg, you will need a great mixdown and master.

Make sure you allow yourself enough time for this. If you have yet to achieve that pro sound in your mixdowns then check out my course The Road To Main Stage.


Over To You

What are your favorite remix tips?



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