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Not For The Win! Why we enjoy remix contests

This week we unveiled our nylonica style remix of "Wake Up Dead", a recent release by Grammy winner and auto-tune pioneer T-Pain. But we didn't produce this version because we're particular fans of T-Pain, R&B or hip-hop. It was all part of a remix contest run by Soundcloud. In fact, this is the 3rd remix contest we've entered this summer.

We didn't win, but with almost 1000 other entries and it being waaay outside our genre, we never expected to. So what's the point, you might ask? Well firstly, these contests are a great opportunity to study and learn from the work of other, more established artists. This is because the contest organizers will release stems of the original track. Stems are recordings of each individual track within the song, before they were mixed together. Dissecting these stems let's us study all the little details that get lost in the final mix.

Then there's the pure creative challenge, of coming up with a completely new interpretation of the original material. Material from someone with a different writing style and musical style. Having stems let's you reorganize things, remove parts you don't want, and add in completely new parts. Remix artists often don't add at all, they just re-edit the existing music, maybe punching tracks in and out of the mix in different combinations. But we try to completely reinterpret the song, adding parts that take it in a new direction. And in our case, also shifting it into an entirely different genre!

The final thing we like about remix contests is that it gives us a way to produce new material for our listeners, at a much lower cost, since the core idea has already been worked out by the original artist. It can take us as long as a month to write and record an entirely original piece. But a remix contest allows us to come up with something interesting in just 2 or 3 days. So it's allowed us to get some new tracks out between albums without having to sacrifice any precious outdoor summer funtimes!

Remixing T-Pain

The original Wake Up Dead track features thickly layered soul vocals by Chris Brown, on top of some fairly simple guitar-based backing music, and interspersed with some occasional hip-hop elements. While listening to the individual stems, we discovered that the vocals are incredibly rich and complex - with all kinds of interesting harmonies and improvisations layered across 4 tracks.

So we decided to keep all the vocals (which are the core of the song) and ditch pretty much everything else. Chord progressions are the musical foundation of any song, and the original track features a simple 4-bar chord sequence that is used for both the verse chorus. We decided to mess with these chords to make them different in the verse and chorus. For the verse, we used a few Hans Zimmer tricks to make the chords more angsty. The original chords reminded me of an old instrumental piece called Incantations by Mike Oldfield. So for the chorus, we simply adapted the full chord sequence from that piece, which gives it a slightly more resolute and upbeat ending. Amazingly, the vocals worked really well with both new chord progressions.

The new backing music we added follows our usual style: break beats and a large orchestra! The 2nd verse has more of a synthesizer feel to it, which is a direct homage to that aforementioned Mike Oldfield track. We then switched to a more guitar-y feel in the run up to the final chorus, which ends in our signature way with a climax of orchestra and choir ...something I promise we're gonna try and do less in future, before it becomes a cliche!

Remixing Underbelly

Earlier this summer we remixed Self Checkout by Underbelly. Underbelly is an artist that makes hilarious instructional YouTube videos about music production. We've learned so much from these videos. We also love his sense of humor. Our approach with this remix was the same - keep the elements that defined the original, and replace everything else with our trusted break beat / big orchestra combination. Underbelly's music is sort of "scratchy sounds and jazz chords". So we vamped up the chords with some over-the-top male vocal harmonies and then shamelessly recycled some sounds from a couple of our own tracks. The taiko drum snippets in particular feel sort of cheeky and whimsical, in keeping with the personality of the original artist. We also threw in a couple of Underbelly's signature catchphrases (eg. "wowsers" and "ok, so check it") and gave the middle section an energetic synthy feel.

A nice feature of the original song is that apparently it uses something called "binary form", meaning it has two musically different sections that occur one after the other (as opposed to a song with alternating verses and choruses). We kept this feature in our edit, but added a short preview of the second section earlier on - something that we do quite often in our own music.

And no, we didn't win this one either. But we did make Underbelly chuckle, which makes us winners in our minds! His feedback (aka 'roasting') was actually really useful and made us aware of some sounds in our version that would be too confusing for most listeners, and which we removed in the final mix. But he correctly pegged us as Hans Zimmer fans!

Remixing Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre is one of our musical heroes, so his remix contest couldn't be passed up! It was a bit unusual though, because the goal was to remix a 48-second snippet of music generated by his new phone app EōN. This thing contains hundreds of musical fragments, all composed by Mr Jarre, which it mixes together to create never-ending, never-repeating background music. It's an interesting concept, though the end result is very much just chillout music in my opinion, and can get a little monotonous at times. Hopefully it'll improve in future versions.

We captured a bunch of different snippets from by the app, and eventually picked one that we felt we could mutate into something new and interesting. It featured a repeating single-vowel vocal sample, a minimal bass line, and some wild electronic drum patterns. The bass line suggested a particular chord progression in a minor key, so we added that and riffed on it a bit. We kept the vocal sample present throughout most of the track, as it's single note creates tension over the chords. For the sections that needed a beat, we just re-used the beats from the snippet as they are just excellent and we are lazy.

Overall I think we managed to create something that still has a Jarre-esque sound. Throw in our signature orchestra, choir and big finale et voila ...a track that instantly didn't win lol! But we liked what we produced. I'm particularly fond of the slightly wistful outro after the finale.



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