Last fall the British pop singer known as Little Boots held a remix competition for her song “Earthquake.” I was very excited to jump into this project for practice but I immediately ran into some problems. You can grab the Earthquake stems here.
My first problem stemmed (pardon the pun) from the choice of files that were provided. Unfortunately the vocals arrived as one giant stem reducing the possibilities to remix the incredible harmonies within the vocal track.
I tried to work around this limitation by using Melodyne, the vocal tuning software. This would have allowed me to make different melodies out of the single stem. Unfortunately my version of Melodyne does not have Direct Note Access. The polyphonic chorus block really confuses the software’s automatic pitch detection. I decided to leave the vocal alone for now, I really liked the results of my work in Melodyne, but since it wouldn’t work during the chorus and other parts of the song I felt this would leave the song sounding bad.
The source of my Problems, Drifting metronome!
My other problem was very spooky until I resolved its source. My metronome was staying in time for the first few minutes of the song, but very quickly it started to totally drift off from the song. I eventually discovered that the song changed bpm from 125 to 125.5 across the second verse (right screenshot). Tracking down simple problem probably consumed over 4 separate 1 hour sessions at The Lab. Luckily I now have a solution and know what to watch out for. Maybe next time I will only waste two hours on something like this!
After the song begins the speed starts to speed up to a point that I estimated by zooming in on the grid and looking at where the drum samples started to drift from alignment. The BPM probably returns to an absolute value by the end of the song, but when I placed that bpm marker near the end I was just trying to figure out if it slows down for just one verse or the entire song. The clock fit so well through that quick attempt that I left it in place, even though its not at the end of the song.
These stems are also missing an introductory sound that takes up about 2 bars at the beginning of the original mix. The bass and synth stems are also made up of several layers of instruments and effects, just like the vocal stem. This informed the next few choices I made with the remix. I talked about stems in my last Tutorial/walkthrough, so my next goal became simple. I set out to replicate all the synth sounds and bass sounds from scratch, starting with the drums. My goal first would be to make a cover of the song so I would be able to control all of the sounds and also to help me learn mixing better.
Early screenshot of the drum waveforms as I was arranging them in time
The drum loop has a basic bare section that I used to make a loop from a section where it played on its own. The rest of the cymbal, snare, clap and reverb effects (a common production effect to make a drum hit fade in) were re synthesized by me into an early audio arrangement as seen in the photo on the left. I used the plugin Adictive Drums from XLN Audio because it sounds so much like real percussion. I have not found a better sounding way to replicate the sound of a drummer inside your computer. After I figured out the permanent timings of the drum parts I made custom loops out of the 8 bar segments for each drum sound so that I could arrange and re arrange the parts with ease later.
Final Arrangement of Original song with my MIDI parts
I also often colour code my tracks as I go because it makes it easy to arrange the parts later. For this project I made all the drums red, the bass orange, the vocals blue and the synth yellow. At this point I have almost completed my “cover” of the original. I have recreated the drums, bass and synth parts, but I’m still not happy with the way the bass part is mixed together. This is why I have left it as MIDI rather than bouncing it down to audio.
I need focus on this part the next time I work on this project and it is likely that I have set the compressor too strong; this often throws the bass sound out of balance, as does tight EQ filters (narrow frequency bands are terrible for sine waves or pure bass). Since the bass is still in MIDI I have absolute freedom to change the sound around, or even make a brand new sound that is played on another synth. With the stem file I would have only been able to re-arrange the timing or placement of notes, but this would not be very practical.
I have recorded some MIDI parts from Logic as audio on track 11 “Ableton In.” You can find out more about how I did this in the ReWire tutorial that I made earlier this month. Check it out if you want to find out how simple it is to use these two programs together.
I’m going to hold off on this project until I get my hands on the newest version of Melodyne. I had a lot of early ideas that involved re-tuning some of the vocal parts, but this option was limited to only some sections of the vocal. Parts that were mixed with a harmony sound terrible with this technique since my older version of Melodyne is not able to detect the polyphonic audio (like chords). Also high on my list of things to change would be balancing the sound of the bass.
At that point I plan to make a different bass line and drum part. I really like when a remix is able to retain most of the original tracks sound but transfer it to a different genre. With any luck I will be able to apply this concept to Earthquake over the summer months, stay tuned!