As a music technology teacher it’s often useful to go through a track in its entirety as a case study. Normally using your own music makes the most sense as you have access to all the stems and have prior knowledge of the sound design, chord progression choices, where samples are taken from etc.

Depending on what I’m teaching (synthesis, composition, mixing, Logic/Ableton) you can put different emphasis on certain elements of said track but, since this website focuses on all of those things, I thought it’d be an equally good idea to have a look at an example track.

So here’s a quick look at a remix I’ve completed recently: my thoughts of the stems and how I prepared them; my ideas on the chords and why I chose them; the sound design choices; and a bit of the mixing and mastering. Here’s the final version I got back from the band:

Background

The track in question is called Horizon, and is by London-based Italians NAIVES, whose manager and bass player I know. Horizon was self-released earlier this year and has a great video:

I was asked about doing a remix and agreed. Upon hearing the track my initial idea was to do a DFA/Hot Chip kind of thing, focusing heavily on the bass guitar.

However the final version I submitted couldn’t have been further from that, so I think this is an interesting case study looking at the steps I took through each version.

I started by dumping the stems into Ableton Live, getting the tempo and key signature. I ascertained the original was at 127 bpm (a bit fast for my productions normally) and the key was F minor.

Next I decided what I was going to use and discard; obviously I liked the bass guitar, the vocals were an obvious choice (it would be hard to pass it off as a remix without using them) and there were various elements of the drums and synths I liked.

Live makes it easy to drastically change the tempo of the stems without much noticeable degradation of audio quality, at least not enough to bother me. After separating the vocal out into verses, choruses and other sections, I was ready to start.

Early Attempts

This remix went through many incarnations and the version I finally submitted was my eighth attempt. I’m not going to dwell too much on some of the earlier versions, but it is interesting to hear some of them to understand my train of thought (although little from versions one to seven was maintained in the final submission!).

Versions one to four were all in a similar vein: I’d dropped the tempo to 117 bpm, focusing on a modular synth arpeggio, off-beat bass line and ‘Can’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough’-style muted guitar part:

As you can hear I quickly discarded the bass guitar as it wasn’t sitting with anything else I composed. From here on in I was pretty unclear where I was going!

In later versions I tried a more filter disco approach, chopping up segments of eighties boogie records:

Next I totally lost the plot, trying to mix Digitalism style distorted drums with pseudo Balearic piano riffs:

At this stage I was pretty much ready to chuck in the towel and apologise for wasting the band’s time, but I decided to have one final crack at it.

Moving to Logic

I’d just recently installed 32 Lives, thanks to the advice of a former student of mine. For those of you who don’t know, some quick background: Logic X is Apple’s latest release of Logic, and they big change here was the move from 32-bit computing to 64-bit.

Without going into detail (because I don’t understand enough myself) the net result was it meant I’d lost a bunch of 32-bit synths and effects that I’d come to rely on. Around this time I’d virtually moved over about 90% of my music production to Ableton Live, which supported both 32- and 64-bit.

However, upon installing 32 Lives I could run all of my old 32-bit stuff in Logic X. And it was this change of environment that pushed me to finish the remix: I’d been starting at the same stems and loops in Ableton for weeks, dumping them into Logic (an environment I don’t prefer but am certainly more familiar with) was useful for inspiring new ideas and ultimately taking a different approach. I went down the route of an early eighties RnB-come-Global Communications route (although I don’t know how much of this made the final cut).

Chords

I’ve already mentioned that the most important thing about this remix was retaining the vocals, so I started writing a chord progression that sat around it. To make it a touch more interesting I played all of the chords off-beat (or, syncopated). Here’s the vocal with a one bar count-in; notice it starts on beat two:

The chords I went with were F-, Ab∆7 and Bb-7 with a Db∆7 on every second repeat (if you’re unfamiliar with chord naming conventions, have a read of this):

All of the piano parts are courtesy of my favourite piano plugin, the awesome (and free) Sound Magic Piano One – which perfectly encapsulates the primary school upright (a big, shiny grand piano would have sounded too polished and out of place in this track).

The bridge (or pre-chorus) was a simple Bb-7 to Eb progression. This worked quite nicely with the melody and didn’t contain an F- chord, so it acts as a sort of relief:

The chorus chords again deviated a little from the original track. I fiddled around with more outlandish chord voicings, eventually going with F-7, Eb(add9) and C7#9, Db∆9 with an Eb at the top of each chord.

Like the bridge all of these chords (except the Db∆9) fell on the beat, which was another contrast to the verse groove:

As Horizon only had one verse it was important to try and keep the track moving, so I added this section that comes after the breakdown. The chords are F-7, Ab∆7 and C-7. It initially was a subtle allusion to Midland’s Before We Leave but actually worked nicely with the verse melody:

A lot of the thinking behind the chord voicings and their timing is discussed in this article.

Drums

Before moving on to the bass I wanted to get some drums going. I used a kit that I’d used in previous tracks (such as Push The Night and other forthcoming stuff with singer Raff). It’s an Oberheim DMX that’s been through generations of resampling and layering to make it sound more modern and beefier.

The kick was layered with something from Sample Magic’s SM-101 Club Kicks, recorded out through my TL Audio Ivory 2 5060 into my Akai S2000, reprocessed, repeat etc. The snare was similarly treated.

Each time I use it in a track, I export it with all the processing (channel strips, compression, EQ, reverb) and use that in the next track into an EXS24 Sampler. It may not be the most comprehensive kick and snare in the universe but they suit my purposes and sit nicely with what I tend to choose as other instruments.

You can download the kick and snare here.

I programmed the snare on beats two and four (standard) but left the kick always off beat to give the bassline something to bounce off. From the start I didn’t want to turn this into a simple boom-bap track as that could quite quickly descend into boring territory. Here they are with a one bar count in:

The toms are Simmons toms I stole liberated from my pal and fellow EXS24 Muted Guitar abuser Hal Ritson of The Young Punx from the remix stems to his track Heart of the Night.

They sound awesome and I use them all the time. The have a really nice stereo image and sound great when pitched up. These had a touch of Waves SSL E-Channel Strip and Logic’s EnVerb using a tweak of the Gated Drums preset:

I later added a Roland TR-707 and LinnDrum (all ReWired from Ableton) to add various layers. I also used one of the hi-hat loops from the original stems that were quite bright and airy, adding some necessary shine to my drums.

All the drums were bussed with more Waves SSL Channel Strip, Waves CLA-76 Compressor and Logic’s Bitcrusher (set to 12-bit but more to act as clipping distortion) allowing me to squeeze an extra 4 or 5dB out of my drums.

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