Want to get high-profile rappers to spit on your beats? Need to make an indie rock track into an electro-house anthem? Producers K-Salaam, A Touch of Class, DJ Day, and Pilooski with tips on remixing, re-editing, and rethinking your records.
"DJing and production go hand-in-hand; each one is an extension of the other, to some degree," says DJ Day, who started scratching in 1989 and dove into beat-making a few years later. In 2004, he released his first 12", "What Planet What Station," a horn- and organ-driven remix of the Jungle Brothers' "Beyond This World" filled with party rocking vocal snippets. "The remixes were more of a way to get my foot in the door," he explains. "I didn't want to be labeled as 'the remix guy,' so I kind of steered away from repeating it."
Day's sound is constantly evolving, but certain elements–soulful loops, intricate percussion, and vocal samples–are almost always present. His main tool is the MPC2000XL, but he also employs a Fender Rhodes Mark II, ARP Odyssey, Solina String Ensemble, Moog Prodigy, MicroKorg, clavinet and assorted percussion instruments. Having run up against the limitations of making music that is, by his own estimate, 75% sample-based, he's had to find creative workarounds. "I try to take as little as possible, but sampling a key change from the same song can make a big difference. I usually do this with basslines that I filter." As for crafting the all-important backbeat, he explains, "Normally' start with the drums and really take time to dial them in. I generally will chop up drums and use the same set, then I'll layer one of the kicks pitched down by 50% and filtered, or an 808 to add bottom."
He's also reaped huge rewards from his own live instrumentation."Something as simple as live percussion, like a shaker or a tambourine, can really add another element to a beat," he states.
His advice for those who may be afraid of bona fide jamming? "This will probably piss off some musicians, but I don't believe you have to be trained or very competent to play instruments. As long as you can get your idea or feeling across, sometimes that's enough. I'd pick up a tuba and play it if I had one." No tuba yet, but he does have a wooden flute he bought for a dollar at the zoo, as well as a thing called a Xaphoon, which is like a pocket saxophone. "I don't know how to play it all," he says, laughing. "Right now it sounds more like an animal dying, but I'll figure it out." Ross Hogg
Oliver Stumm and Domie Clausen will be the first to tell you that remixing pop and rock songs is a craft unto itself, and requires a lot more thought than major-label execs put in.
"We always wonder why certain record companies want a dance remix of, say, a ballad," says Stumm, emailing on behalf of himself and his partner, more popularly known as production/remix duo A Touch of Class. "If you want a dance song, it's easier to make a dance song than to remix a ballad." And how about the ugly trend of remixing rock and soul classics? "We're not going to paint over Picasso!" says ATOC, who have put their spin on tracks from Le Tigre, Scissor Sisters, and Services, among others. "There has to be a (non-monetary) reason to give birth to a remix."
The twosome has pretty firm guidelines before they go in with their Pro Tools Ginsu–those rules start with having a good original recording to work with. Case in point: "Listen Up" from indie darlings The Gossip.
"Everything you get from [The Gossip] is incredible: vocals, guitars, bass, drums!," they exclaim. "We wanted to keep the remix as close as possible to the original since it's so good, just make it a bit more dancey. So we added a few things in the rhythm section and built our synths around the original bassline. We also tried to create a b-part for the chorus to make it stand out more. We used the classic PCM 70 Lexicon reverb to give it an '80s kind of a sound."
The duo can't stress enough the importance of paying attention to vocals. "They will tell you what to do," says Stumm. "Also put in the de-esser, [a plug-in that cools down 's' sounds], so you don't destroy your ears... and create a chord progression that works for the vocals."
After building instruments around the chord progression, incorporating non-musical noises and FX, and arranging, re-arranging, and re-re-arranging the edit, the most important element is to "delete the stuff that doesn't really help the song, even if you worked on that part for 16 hours!" says ATOC.
"It's a psychological thing," the duo reminds, so take a break before you put the finishing touches on your remix. "Sleep for a while or listen to completely different music," they advise. Ken Taylor
Cédric Marszewski, 34, revives ghosts. Not because he lives next to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris–though that's cool–but because he has a talent for finding forgotten '80s b-sides, downtrodden prog rock jams, and '60s soul gems and breathing new life into them. He records them into the computer, scissors them to pieces, then sutures their parts back together into hypnotic, reverb-heavy space jams perfect for drinking mushroom tea at 10 a.m.
Pilooski, a longtime hip-hop DJ, began doing edits first out of necessity, pasting longer intros onto '60s and '70s soul and rock tracks to make them easier to mix. Eventually, he started adding backbeats, effects, and original melodies and hooked up with two other Parisians to form the D-I-R-T-Y Soundsystem. Via their Dark & Lovely edits label, he's reworked the raw moodiness of Krautrock band Amon Düül's "Kismet" and the bittersweet go-go dance beats of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons' "Beggin'," to name a few.
"I've got to love the track first," says Pilooski of his process. "Then I start chopping up the parts and I add a beat, maybe, and effects. Then I'll use synthesizers, sometimes replaying the basslines or adding noises. I put all my tracks through effects pedals and this old '80s mixer to get a dirty sound. By using pedals instead [of software effects] I'm sure I'm going to get some hiss–the computer is too clean for me at the moment."
Pilooski says his edits take anywhere from two hours to three days, depending on the complexity and recording quality of the original track. "The Can edit [of 'Mothersky'] was the longest. The original was 15 minutes long and it was such a mess to get the track in loads of pieces. When you start taking parts out, it changes the structure. When you go to reconstruct the track, you have to make it logical, like it was in the first place. A good edit is when you don't feel there's something missing."
Though software can now quantize even the most wayward drumming, Pilooski deliberately chooses to keep some edits loose and shambolic. "It doesn't really bother me when it's not [perfectly] on the 4/4," he muses. "I used to love RZA production for the Wu-Tang Clan because it wasn't always perfectly on tempo; same thing with some of the Mobb Deep and Madlib stuff."
Pilooski prefers to save the strict grids for his techno productions, dirty beats in the vein of French contemporaries Mr. Oizo and Sebastian. And just because he likes his edits kind of psychedelic-sounding, that doesn't mean you have to. "There's no rules, as long as it sounds good," he enthuses. "Just try it!"
When K-Salaam left Minnesota for New York City in spring 2005, he had some well-received DJ mixtapes to his name but little in the way of production credits or industry connections. Within a year, he and partner Nick "Beatnick" Phillips had completed The World Is Ours (VP), an ambitious debut LP with guest vocalists including Saigon, Dead Prez, Mos Def, Sizzla, Capleton, Talib Kweli, Luciano, Busy Signal, and Papoose. None of the aforementioned artists had heard of K-Salaam before he personally handed them beats for the project, which the Canadian-born Iranian-American describes as a message to "all people who have had their land stolen from them, from New Orleans to Palestine."
"My mentality was 'This has to happen,'" says K-Salaam, who secured investors himself (though distributed by Koch, the album was originally released on his own Shining Star Music) and funded trips to Jamaica on the mere promise of gaining an audience with the likes of Capleton. "If you don't have money, you have to give them other reasons to do it. I'd find a way to get numbers for people like Capleton, and they saw there was a whole message and movement behind this. I played them the music face to face and, after that, it was a done deal."
He got dancehall kingpin Sizzla involved by walking up to the artist's compound in August Town, Kingston, and handing beats to some locals. "Someone suggested that if I just went there, people might be like, 'Damn, this kid's got balls' and introduce me, so I did that," he says. "The next thing I knew' got a call saying 'Sizzla loves the tracks, he wants to meet you.'"
What does he suggest to would-be producers trying to secure the right artists to complement their vision? "Number one, you gotta have something special, and be someone people want to meet," the 27-year-old says. "If you're a producer or DJ, you gotta have the goods. Finally, you gotta make it happen. Don't expect it to be easy–it's gonna be very hard. Trying to do something big as a new artist is a big step, so you gotta be on top of your game."