Butch Vig, Andy Kravitz, & Billy Martin Discuss Remixing

Remixes are equal to sequels – a new version of some familiar form of entertainment. But you won’t find these follow-ups in theaters. Instead, these sonic remodels are all over the airwaves, record stores and the Internet, providing listeners with fresh ways to hear a song.

The treatment can be applied by a megaproducer like Puff Daddy to a megahit like “Every Breath You Take,” or it can be recorded on an 8-track by an indie metal band. Whether it’s being done to generate additional sales or as a home-studio experiment, the art of the remix has evolved into a whole new way to compose, and it has everything to do with the drums.

“In our society, if you talk to a copyright lawyer, they’ll say songs are about words and melody,” says drummer Andy Kravitz, who has done recent remixes for everyone from Billy Joel and James Taylor to Cypress Hill. “But when you really look at the way music is today, it’s about the groove. The focus of any remix usually starts with the groove. Remixing reminds of me doing arts and crafts at summer camp – cutting and pasting.”

“One thing that’s interesting about a remix is that there’s no set thing that it has to be,” says Butch Vig, whose production, engineering, remixing and drumming skills have been tapped by everyone from Nirvana to Korn to Smashing Pumpkins, as well as his own band, Garbage. “There’s no ’this is correct or incorrect.’ If it moves you, that’s the most important thing.”

(Above) Andy Kravitz

For Kravitz, remixing is a full-time gig that he runs out of his facility, The Amazing Barn, located in a 400-year-old stone structure outside of Philadelphia. Kravitz’s clients are often record companies and artists with a serious agenda, commissioning remixes in the hopes of broadening an audience for greater airplay and sales. To that end, he employs an 80 series vintage Neve console with moving fader automation, a Studer 2" 24-track recorder, an Akai MPC60 sampler/sequencer, a MIDI workstation and a wide assortment of EQs and effects. An experienced drummer, he also has a large variety of things to hit.

To get started, Kravitz is supplied with the master recording, then starts going though what could be 96 separate vocal and instrumental tracks looking for parts to drop, enhance, add to or just leave alone. “Before you get into automating the mix, you’re basically just loading up the tape with ideas,” he explains. “’Let’s try the loop,’ and you put it down on the whole song, then sit with the mute automation on the channel and create dynamics. Because [the loop] is there the whole time, you can create a whole set of dynamics and do something else.

“Since you have these three new loops that run from top to bottom, or this guitar part that might be in the wrong key in the verse but works in the chorus, you’re trying to create a landscape, a new dynamic range. You’ll be hearing the old drummer, the new guitar part and the old guitar part, and it just sounds insane. You have to decide what’s going to be interesting for different purposes. What can I do to make this more radio, more dance?”

This is the part of remixing that can make drummers cringe, because adjusting or completely replacing the rhythm track is the most obvious way to change a song’s feel. “If there’s a live drummer on the track the first thing we do is shut that down,” Kravitz confirms. “We see what the timing is like. Hopefully, there’s a click track and time code.”

But converting a rock song over to an urban feel is more complicated than just slapping on a loop from a Roland 808, as illustrated by Kravitz’s experience with songs like “Falling in Love” by Aerosmith. Even with a rock-solid player like Joey Kramer keeping time, there’s bound to be slight variations that will eventually throw a programmed loop out of phase with the rest of the music. Once again, its time to choose. “Should you shift these loops so you have to follow Aerosmith?” says Kravitz. “You make a creative decision: Make the groove fit the band or make the band fit the groove.”

(Above) Butch Vig

Whether remixing for Garbage, Korn, Nine Inch Nails, U2 or anyone else, Vig makes sure his efforts go towards supporting a broader, fuzzier philosophy. “It’s not so much the groove as sonically what it sounds like,” he says. “When I was a producer in the ’80s, everyone was obsessed with getting this amazing snare sound. I try to get a balanced picture. Processing the sound is a reaction to [what became common in the '80s]: spending a week in the studio trying to get the drums to sound good. It was overkill, like, ’How long are we going to spend on the drums when the song is supposed to sound good?’”

While Vig will record and add new drum, guitar or piano tracks if he thinks they’ll work, he really gets his kicks from altering the feel of a track that the artist has already recorded. A vocal or guitar that sounds good au naturel is still ripe for sampling, looping and processing. Moreover, Vig stresses that changes have to do more than just sound cool. They should make some kind of sense.

“I personally think I am better at working remixes that have a song structure,” he says. “I’m still interested in techno and electronica, and when I was younger I went to clubs all the time. But I get bored listening to records that are club or dance music. I think they work in clubs when the subwoofers are pumped up, but it doesn’t always work when you put it in your boombox. Try to keep a song structure, even though it varies drastically from the original.”

A recent remix of Korn’s “Freak On A Leash” from their album, Follow The Leader, is a good example of Vig’s plan in action. “I cut the song up and made it a lot shorter and more concise,” he says of his effort, nobly entitled “The Freakin’ Bitch Mix.” “I took some of the vocal ad libs in the middle with some crazy sped-up guitars from the start, cut the vocals up so they went through a staccato process Vocoder, but kept the verses and a lot of other guitar things. You’d recognize the song, but everything races on.”

A big part of the fun, naturally, was digging into David Silveria’s drum parts. Like a lot of remixers, Vig has an extensive selection of rhythm samples at his disposal – everything from drum hits and grooves that he programmed to hip-hop sample CDs with a multitude of beats. But with Silveria’s mean patterns ready for the splicing, Vig found plenty of inspiration for new ideas.

“With one of his fills going into the bridge, I took the toms into a weird one-bar loop and made it samba-esque,” Vig says. “I was looking for something to loosen it up. It’s a combination of one dark cymbal and toms, but not the pattern that he originally played. It’s cut up and edited so it sounds like he’s constantly rolling around the kit.”

The popularity of Garbage has made many of Vig’s own songs targets for remixes, both by himself and outside parties, with results ranging from great to unreleasable. Being on both ends of the process has probably helped him realize that if you’re remixing your own music, objectivity is crucial when it comes to the tracks you played on. “You have to think of it not in terms of your own playing – you have to look from an engineer’s or producer’s point of view,” he points out. “I use the studio as a writing tool and it’s really exciting. Don’t try to work out some paradiddles over the toms. Try to look at the big picture.”

(Left) Billy Martin

Although very much a newcomer to the art of remixing, drummer Billy Martin of the NYC jazz jam band Medeski Martin & Wood was able to bring that attitude to his first effort. Creating a new version of the song “Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho” off of their album, Combustication, for a remix EP, Martin often replaced his warm funk backdrop with an urban loop and percussion, changing over to a harsher rhythmic feel. While Kravitz and Vig can probably work deep digital audio workstations like Pro Tools in their sleep, Martin had more curiosity than experience, and a relatively limited set of tools at his disposal.

“I didn’t have an engineer and sophisticated equipment,” says Martin. “The vision I had was: I know I can make music with anything, and that if I just took some elements from the actual record I could piece it together, change some sounds and add a vibe of my own.”

Depending almost exclusively on an Akai 950 Sampler, a makeshift electronic drum kit made up of an Emulator SP-12 drum machine hooked up to pads, an 8-track analog recorder and percussion instruments, Martin threw himself into the six-day project. While working without a MIDI sequencer was a challenge, he also saw it as a chance to get totally intimate with all the sounds in the remix.

“I think a lot of people [deal with sequencers] in which every beat can be adjusted,” Martin says. “You can do it all in the computer and just shift the track anyway you want. I would do it the old-school way and just trigger the sample. I like the hands-on thing, actually not relying on a sequencer and maybe having a drum-machine part that’s looping, having a piece of music and just flying all over – cutting and pasting, like a collage.” After adding more percussion and triggering drum samples, Martin had his raw remix. Now he had arrived at the mixing and mastering process where he finally got a little help, in the form of fresh ears from his engineer, Scott Harding. At those stages, the remix was EQed to smooth out the balance and levels of the samples, then edited to cut down sections that had grown too long.

For anybody looking for a jumping-off point to get into remixing, the sampler – which can cost as little as $300 – is a great place to start. “It’s like a tape recorder – it captures moments [so that] you can use them,” Martin says. “You can recall sounds and parts within a flash. That way you can get into a spontaneous composing situation.

“It’s ultimately the way of manipulating sounds, having an orchestra at your fingertips, which is how synthesizers advertise themselves – having brass, winds, drums. But now you can emulate anything. I’ve got Billy Martin’s drums, the New York Philharmonic performing, or whatever, and you put together your own combination that’s unique.”

Other programs designed for home computers, like Acid from the software company Sonic Foundry, also mean that remixing can be practiced without an expensive Pro Tools system. However you approach it, remixing is a terrific way to combine your instrumental skills with technology to increase your understanding of music.

“It’s all about an approach, creating a depth of field and a new dynamic range,” says Kravitz. “It’s interesting to pull out a guitar track that’s always been there – it leaves a lot of space. Be creative and do what feels right.” “Anyone can do a remix now!” Vig enthuses. “But you want to make it interesting. It’s not just the beat – it’s about the singer, the bass groove and the whole attitude of the song. That’s what makes a great remix.”