Making an ambient techno bootleg pop remix

I’ve been enjoying doing remixes lately. Here’s one using a pop song by Taylor Swift as the basis:

This is a completely unofficial, unauthorized bootleg remix, so if Taylor Swift’s label ever objects I’ll have to take it down. The label have put the acapella for this song on YouTube though, so I thought I’d give it a go. You can download it for free from SoundCloud, and it’s also on YouTube.

On the surface this song is a story about a holiday love affair, but there’s something a bit deeper in there for me. It evokes the tension people often feel between their ties to the place where they grew up as a child, and their desire as an adult to make a life elsewhere. A sense of leaving but never quite being able to fully escape.

So making the remix I was guided in an intuitive way by this mix of belonging and not-belonging expressed in the vocal – a kind of torn, heartbroken feeling. I wonder whether this initial process, of establishing some sort of relationship to the material, is the most important part of doing a remix. It gives you, not a sense of direction exactly, but some kind of initial orientation to inform the aesthetic and technical aspects of crafting the track.

Having recorded the acapella into Logic, the next task was to adjust the tempo of the vocal. The melacholy in the lyrics suggested an ambient / atmospheric techno rework to accentuate that mood. The original song is 146bpm, which might have worked well for a dubstep / bass type remix but would be way too fast for what I was after. Half time would be 73bpm, which would be too slow for techno. So I did a timestretch on the vocal to slow it down a bit.

One cool aspect of remixing is you can use the parts that resonate and leave out the rest. So the next stage was to cut up the vocal and edit it down to some key fragments. For example, the main line from the title, tis the damn season, seemed too obvious to use, so that got cut. I ended up removing some parts that narrated the details of the love affair (e.g. the lines about “you could call me babe for the weekend” and “I’ll be missing your smile”) and keeping phrases that were resonant with that tension of leaving, loss and being pulled back.

Alongside editing the vocal I also wrote a new chord sequence and drums on my Digitakt, and then shifted the vocal fragments around in Logic to find the right arrangement. The chords came from a polysynth, chopped up to give them more of a rhythmic pulse using my modular synth. The polysynth went as a stereo signal into an AJH Gemini 2412 dual filter (this is a really lush sounding SEM style, 12 dB/octave state variable filter), and an Intellijel dual VCA (a basic, clean amplifier). The VCA level was modulated by an envelope from Make Noise Maths, triggered with a MIDI sequence from the Digitakt running through a MIDI to CV converter. I did a couple of versions with different types of modulation (e.g. using Pamela’s New Workout to do a sample and hold pattern on the filter cutoff), and some fx dubs on these parts.

The bassline was made using another Digitakt sequence of triggers, with the pitches created generatively in the modular using a stepped random generator run through a quantizer. The sound came from a straightforward analogue VCO-filter-VCA setup. After recording, I edited it heavily to keep the good bits and remove pitch sequences that sounded a bit off.

I designed and recorded in a couple more parts from the modular to add texture, e.g a fizzy high frequency rhythmic thing, and a sort of mutating pitched burst noise that works as a kind of punctuation at the end of every 4 bars.

This is typical of how I like to work at the moment, patching up sounds a small Eurorack modular system, and tracking them into the DAW as long takes, with fx dubs and tweaks to the patch all committed to audio. I’ll build up in layers like this, then once everything is recorded it becomes an editing and mixing job. So it’s quite a traditional workflow: sound design in the hardware domain, tracking each part with live dubs, then mixing everything at the end.

Obviously that’s a very simplified account – there was a lot of trial and error with the sound design and the mix, including various little tricks I’ve developed over the years.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you want to learn more about any of the production techniques used in this remix, I offer tuition via video calls. Or if you’d like to hire me to do remixing, mixing, mastering or other production work, just drop me a line using the form on my contact page.

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