How to Remix a Song Better than the Original
Tutorial: Paul Tingen
Artist: Ryan Riback
Album: Remix of Starley’s Call On Me
Remixing is mainstream these days. It’s gone from hip hop sample culture, to electronic music B-sides, to the classy heights of riffing on ‘Cash Me Ousside, Howbow Dah?’
Memes are remixes, and they’re almost always bigger than their source. So it should be no surprise when a bonafide commissioned remix of a song charts higher than the original. Occasionally the remix is so successful it becomes the de facto version of that song, even to a point where the original is barely referenced anymore.
That happened recently to young Sydney singer Starley, when Aussie Ryan Riback’s remix of her song Call On Me became a top ten hit in Australia and Europe, even reaching the number one spot in Sweden. It also prompted a video reshoot just for the remix which has netted 100 times more views than its predecessor.
The original tune was penned by Starley Hope and Peter Waddams (aka New Zealand’s P-Money). Waddams also produced it, with additional production by Brisbane EDM duo Odd Mobb. It’s a curious mixture of folk acoustic guitar, R&B programmed drums, bass, and keys, and typical EDM trappings like vocal stutters and a heavily treated vocal sample that overpowers the chorus vocal to such a degree that it ends up functioning as the main hook.
While it didn’t set the world alight, the single did well enough to get playlisted on most major radio stations and streamed millions of times. However, it wasn’t until DJ/producer Ryan Riback applied some magic ingredients three months later that it climbed the charts.
REMIX MEDICINE 101
In an echo of what happened in 2015, when Norwegian production duo Seeb stripped all the instruments from Mike Posner’s song I Took a Pill from Ibiza and turned the folky, acoustic-guitar-led singer-songwriter song into a worldwide EDM monster hit, Riback also stripped out everything but the vocal production, sped the track up, and added his own EDM arrangement.
“I was sent the original session as wav stems, and dropped those into Ableton,” began Riback. “I kept the structure of the original song, but soon switched to only listening to her a cappela vocals with the vocal production. I have this process where I go for walks and listen to a cappella vocals and wait for inspiration. These walks get me in the zone before I go to the studio. The moment I had a solid idea in my head as to where to take the song, I go to my studio.”
Seeb dramatically increased the tempo of I Took A Pill In Ibiza, from 74bpm to 102bpm. Starley’s song was already in the same chill-out zone, so Riback bumped it up a little to 105bpm. Next he wrote new chords and added piano parts, an organ, a bass, a few ear candy incidental sounds, and programmed new drums.
“The Seeb track was a really big inspiration for me,” said Riback. “This track is a bit similar in that I’m taking an awesome song and turning it into something with a dance vibe. I felt the tempo and acoustic guitars of the original were a little too chilled. So I upped the tempo, and tried to bring out the energy of her vocals in other ways. That’s why I went for big piano stabs, with samples from reFX’s Nexus 2, instead of the guitars. You could now either dance to the track or quietly listen to it. Once I had that, everything else fell into place.”
MIX OF A REMIX
Riback rarely formally mixes, preferring to get the sounds exactly as he wants them and balancing their relationship with the rest of the track as he goes. His ‘mix’ comes down to tweaking a few parameters during the last time he opens the session. “If I listen to my mix of Call On Me, I think that thousands of songs are better mixed,” reckons Riback. “But for some reason it works. I get the track to a point where I don’t have to fix anything anymore in the stems, and then send these to the mastering engineer. I may include a reference mix, but I always send the stems because it gives the mastering engineer more flexibility. Usually it comes back a bit more polished than what I did. The label then created a radio mix, which is simply a rebalancing of my stems.”
Starley now performs multiple versions of her song, sometimes Riback’s version and sometimes a blend of the two. And just as quite a few of the world’s greats started sending Seeb their tracks for a remix treatment, Riback has been asked to reinvent tracks by Fergie, Maroon 5 and others since his version of Call On Me made Starley a true star.
RYAN RIBACK’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL REMIX
1) Choose the right song and settle on your main hook.
Riback: “When I heard the original version of Call On Me I felt there was something special about Starley’s voice that I wanted to enhance. I immediately realised that the chopped-up vocal line was a great hook. When I heard that, I thought, ‘That will stick in people’s heads.’ I knew what to do with it. I began the song with it and repeated it a number of times during the song.
2) Set the right tempo and mood.
Riback: “I sped up Starley’s song slightly, from 100 to 105BPM, because it created a unique energy, and something that you can dance to. It’s also at a tempo you can chill out and just bop your head to.”
3) Don’t be shy of stripping the original version to eliminate parts you don’t need.
Riback: “I liked the movement of the guitars in the original, but they didn’t have enough energy. So I took them out and replaced them with organ and piano. I also like to strip the drums and not use drum loops but replace them with my own programmed drum patterns instead. It gives me more flexibility and opportunities to put my own stamp on the track.”
4) Use the tension release structure from EDM but don’t overdo it.
Riback: “In pop music you can use the same principles and tools as EDM, but you don’t need the big risers and drops. Instead I use subtle things like reverse reverbs, particularly on vocals and cymbal crashes.”
5) Develop your own style and always add something uniquely your own.
Riback: “I added a few things to Call On Me that were deliberately intended to do something different, for example that choppy, sped-up bass that sounds like a real musician playing. To me it created something I hadn’t really heard before. I also worked quite hard at creating a unique blend of trap and progressive house, the big-room EDM sound, and that has opened many doors for me.”
WHO IS RYAN RIBACK?
Originally from Johannesburg in South Africa, Ryan Riback currently works out of his studio in Elwood, Melbourne. “I lived in Australia for three years with my parents when I was a kid,” said Riback. “I learned to play the piano by ear, and experimented a lot. Then I discovered the computer side of making music and began using the Roland MC303 Groovebox. Later on I worked with Fruity Loops, then Reason, followed by Logic, and for the past three or four years I’ve been using Ableton Live.
“When I was still in South-Africa I started DJ-ing. Someone introduced me to turntables and I thought they were the best thing ever, so I bought some turntables and started practicing. I had a lot of fun, but after a while it felt like there wasn’t a lot of room to move my music career forward in South Africa. I moved to Melbourne about 10 years ago and I’ve been here ever since. I’m an Ozzie now! I continued DJ-ing — playing tons of clubs and festivals — but I’ve recently taken a break from that, because it was creatively draining me in the studio, and decided to put all my efforts into actually making music.”
As a DJ, Riback has played the Goodlife, Breakout and Summadayze festivals. Before Call On Me he enjoyed some success with tracks like Work Money Party Bitches and Make It Wet (collaborations with DJ Lowkiss), and began building a CV of highly-regarded deep house, electro house, progressive house and Melbourne Bounce remixes, like his take on Yolanda Be Cool & DCUP’s From Me To You.
Then came his opportunity to branch out into pop. “Over the past year I’ve been doing remixes because I found it’s the quickest way to get a fresh sound released quickly and be associated with high-profile acts,” explained Riback. “It involved working a lot with a cappella vocals and putting tracks underneath them. So when Tinted Records offered me the Starley song to remix, I jumped at the opportunity, and put a new track under her a cappella vocals.”
Riback conducts all remixes and develops his sound at his home studio in Elwood. It’s a typical minimalist 21st Century facility: a Mac laptop with Ableton Live, M-Audio BX8 monitors, Avantone CK6 mic, a Focusrite Sapphire Pro 24 I/O, and an Evolution MK449C MIDI keyboard. Special mention goes to his Sennheiser HD650 open-backed headphones, because “I do a lot of mixing on them when travelling around,” he said. “They sound great, though the bottom end isn’t quite as good as it could be, so I found an EQ setting on line that emulates a speaker system while listening to the 650s, and that helps with mixing the low end.”
CALL ON ME DEEP DIVE
Riback’s Ableton Live session for Call On Me has a relatively straightforward 40 tracks subdivided in groups: kick drum, vocals, piano, organ, percussion, bass, effects, and a master track. Riback later used those groups to print stems to send to the mastering engineer. After starting in Fruity Loops, and trying Reason and Logic, Riback explains why he settled on Ableton: “It took me a while to get my head around Ableton’s automation, but since version nine the flexibility of the automation has been amazing. You can craft ideas very quickly in Ableton. I found that doing the same things in Logic took a lot longer. I now have all my presets and templates in Ableton, which also speeds up my workflow. Plus I really like Ableton’s native plug-ins. The only non-Ableton plug-ins I used in this session were the Waves CLA Vocals plug-in, Nexus 2 and Kontakt.
Riback: “At the top of the session is a track called ‘SideChain, in black, which is a duplicate of the orange and red kick channel below. I muted that black track and used it to trigger a sidechain that was routed to other tracks where needed. The first kick is in orange and comes in at the same time as the piano to accent it. It then turn turns to a four-on-the-floor floor kick for the chorus, which are in red.”
Riback: “The song begins with the main chopped vocal hook and organ. I automated the EQ so the vocal goes from dark to bright. I think that part is an E from Starley that’s pitched up, and I marked it as ‘Vox Chop’. I repeated that chopped vocal more frequently than the original version does, which is the reason why my version is a bit longer. I left the other vocals pretty much as they were, apart from using Waves CLA Vocals on the lead vocal to make it sound a little brighter and add some reverb. I also took a snippet from the lead vocal, reversed it and put a stock Ableton reverb on it. Then I reversed it again and placed it just before the lead vocal comes in, for a subtle EDM-like tension buildup-release technique.”
Riback: “I layered two pianos for the piano part, both from Nexus 2, the presets being PN Movie Score 1 for the Piano track and Grand Piano Pop for the Strong Piano track. I wanted to have more top end on the Strong Piano, so I added some EQ, and I took some high end out of the other piano. Together they sounded big and in your face. I used Ableton’s EQ Eight, as I did for all EQ in the session.”
CUTTING ORGAN OUT
Riback: “I added the filtered organ in the beginning because I didn’t want to start the song with a bang. Instead I wanted to build up to the piano coming in. It was a preset from Nexus called SY Water Organ, and I really wanted the vocals to shine in that section, so I took everything out of the organ sound above 372Hz.”
Riback: “All the percussion parts are MIDI, and were programmed using Ableton’s Impulse drum machine. I’ve been collecting samples for years, and I used some of my own samples and some samples from CR2’s Tropical House, plus some Trap sample packs. There’s a finger snap similar to the snap in the original, which is a deliberate reference. I tried to keep the vibe similar, with just an Ableton reverb and EQ Eight on it. I’m pretty influenced by Trap, so I incorporated a number of Trap elements, including a Trap snare and hi-hat. You can only do Trap snares in samplers with MIDI because of the really short drum patterns. ‘Hey’ is a vocal sound that goes ‘hey,’ which is also a Trap sound.”
Riback: After the organ came together, I messed with a bass guitar sample called ‘Classic Bass’ from Kontakt’s Factory Library, and that really started to develop the track into something special. I tried to get it to sound as real and energetic as possible. It sounds like a real bass guitarist playing busily, and helped create this nice balance between a dance element and something that’s not specifically just for the club. I side-chained the bass to the top kick track and had the EQ Eight on it. I had a bass track, ‘Bit Bass’, with ‘ Ableton’s Redux on it to get more colour and distortion into the bass, then I automated that.”
Riback: “At the bottom of the session are a number of incidental sounds and effects. Delays, reverbs, a crowd sound and some white noise. The crowd sound is from the Vengeance Sound sample pack. I’m a big fan of crowd samples for adding a bit of excitement, though I normally keep it in the background so you can feel it without it being in your face. The white noise comes from Native Instruments’ Massive, which is a really good instrument for creating white noise.”