Getting started as a Remixer *
by Peter Clarke
So, let's get to the business of creating a remix. If it's your first attempt, you'll probably have questions in your head which are common to most musicians embarking on their initial journey into the world of remixes.
Choosing a piece of SID music as your project
RKO only accepts remixes of SID music from the ‘High Voltage SID Collection’ (HVSC). So, make sure your chosen tune is in there. Next is the process of deciding just which SID to remix. This can be as simple as having a favourite SID which you’ve loved since childhood or perhaps you like a particular SID composer’s work and want to give one of their tunes your own signature.
Spy vs Spy was the first remix that I submitted to Remix64. At least it was the first that got approved. I know I made Bongo remix that didn't get approved, but I can't remember if I made that before or after Spy vs Spy. Getting a remix disapproved was of course not fun, and a slap in the face, but it made me want to get the next one right...Kjetil ofFASTLOADERS
Most established remixers will tell you that the process of choosing a SID becomes harder as time goes by. There are many reasons for this and I’ll let some seasoned remixers tell you, in their own words, how & why they choose SID tunes.
My first published RKO remix was Turrican 2 Introby Stefan Hartwig, in 2000. I chose it because it was one of my fav SIDs, it hadn’t been remixed before, and it was possible to do with the then very limited Fruity Loops software (which is now FL Studio)...LMan
RKO / Remix 64 currently hosts over 4,000 remixes and there are some distinct favourites amongst the ranks. When it comes to choosing your first SID to remix, a little knowledge of what has been ‘covered’ already and how many times, can be valuable.
Above are the Top 25 SID tunes and the number of remixes that have been made; and as you can see, there are some SID tunes which have had a lot of attention and different musical treatments from remixers. With a SID tune that’s been covered more than 40 or 50 times, you should be confident that you can take it somewhere new or add a completely fresh feel before creating version 51.
My first published remix on RKO was Rambo Loader in 2009. I chose this SID because I have fond memories of loading the game and listening to the Galway tune while the classic loading piccy unfolded before my eyes. So nostalgia was a big part of it. But another reason was also that the tune is simply great and has always been one of my favourites.…Johan Andersson
Having said that, there’s a reason why ‘Last Ninja 2’ has 120 remixes, (currently in 2020). It’s a game and a number of SID sub-tunes that have clearly had a significant impact on a lot of remixer’s lives / childhoods.
I have a lot of SIDs from the old days that are connected with fond memories. And even if there are already remixes, I always try to make that one remix how I thought it could have sounded if the original composer had more possibilities then.…Dr Future / Volker Buckow
If your very-favourite SID has been remixed many times already but you feel you can interpret it in your own unique way then go for it! The audience here at RKO / Remix 64 has evolved alongside the remixes themselves. You’ll find an informed crowd who accept the unusual and give praise where it is due.
Where am I going to take this tune? (The Arrangement)
Here’s where your creative juices get to work. You’ve picked your SID and now it’s time to decide exactly how you intend to treat it. Sticking to the original structure of the SID is something that has become much less common in the past 10 years. During the 90’s, in the infancy of remade SIDs, the remixes were sometimes as simple as adding a drum track. Later MIDI cover versions also tended to be 1 to 1 copies of the original structure.
I guess my remixes usually land in a certain genre, but I’m not sure what that genre is called;funky, synth-pop, maybe? It varies a lot, I think. ..Mordi
If you listen to a selection of current remixes, you’ll discover that many are now arranged in a significantly different way to the original. New chord-progressions have been added and the style or genre has been altered. Styles like rock, swing, reggae & disco have been used on SID remixes, often giving them a dramatically different feel; and popular genres like dance, trance & ‘Untz’ are still chosen frequently by many.
It begins with a piano. The piano is my go-to instrument to work out melody, and chords. I play by ear, and then start to lay down tracks over this skeleton. But often, it begins before this – an epiphany, an idea, out of the blue, the inspiration to tackle *that* song, in *this* way. This is often borne out of a notion to tackle a piece in a way that no-one else has done, or to tackle a piece *no-one* has done at all!.. K8-Bit
If at this stage you have some clear ideas about where your remix is going, you’re in good shape. Now… Learn the SID! It’s important that you know your chosen tune inside-out.
Style & genre - I never think about that when I start the project. It ends up where the SID brings me to. Of course there are instrument choices that suggest an outcome, for example a guitar track will probably end up in my hands as some metal bloodshed. But nothing is planned...Necropolo
Personally, I record the SID into a wave file. This allows me to skip about freely to different sections or highlight a section and repeat-play it when I’m decomposing the tune. There are lots of free audio editors which allow you to do this.
A fantastic resource which is available to all is ‘DeepSID’. The entire HVSC collection is contained here and can be sifted and investigated. DeepSID allows playback of any and all SID tunes in the HVSC and also allows you to switch SID channels in & out by pressing keys 1-3 and 4 for the sample channel. It also has a page of remixes for each SID so, you can hear what others have already done.
I often have a style in mind or a drum beat I wish to build the remix around. Then, to make sure I've picked the right SID for the idea, I usually try it out by jamming to the beat with guitar. So this is done before recording anything... Johan Andersson
Back in the day, SID musicians were forced to cram an awful lot of musical tricks into just 3 channels. Whilst some SID tunes are straight forward in their arrangement, others contain complicated channel switches, arpeggios & other effects that are hard to interpret musically and often even harder to reproduce in a remix. One way of being able to decipher the programming, is with a SID player that allows you to switch individual channels in and out. JSIDplayer2 is free and a good choice.
It begins with listening closely to the tune. Then I usually use sidplayw to split the channels into separate wav-files, and import them into Reaper. This is useful for catching smaller details, and it lets me slow it down to catch the notes of arpeggios. Sometimes I might even use some of the SID in the remix.…Mordi
Alternatively, SID2MIDI is a program which will reduce a SID file to a MIDI file. You can then drop the MIDI file into your sequencer or DAW and see exactly what the SID notes are doing.
JSIDplayer2 - sourceforge.net/projects/jsidplay2
SID2MIDI (for windows) - www.vgmpf.com/Wiki/index.php/SID_to_MIDI_(Windows)
I should mention at this point that past remixes which have used this SID2MIDI file as their structure have a recognisable similarity to the original SID, and tend to be identifiable as such. SID2MIDI is a good decryption tool but should be used as that only… and after all, you’re giving this SID your signature, aren’t you?
Then I decide whether to use the tool SID2MIDI or not. Using it will help you get the notes and chords right from the start; while transcribing the song by ear will help you achieve a deeper understanding of the source material....LMan
Which DAW, Sequencer or Tracker is best?
A question to which there is no absolute answer! It’s about picking a Digital Audio Workstation, sequencer or tracker which works for you. Sometimes, the style of music you tend to produce can dictate which type of work-space you prefer and get the best results from.
Renoise, because I started doing music with Fasttracker 2 so this was an obvious choice. But I am considering horizontalDAWs in the near future as well, like Reaper or Cubase. Some things look very easy to do there." ...Ziona
Traditionally, musicians who produce ‘dance’ music have leaned towards either a tracker or a DAW like Fruityloops. Musicians who produce orchestral remixes gravitate more towards an orthodox DAW but there is no hard & fast rule here.
I've been a Reaper user for quite a while. It is a production Raumschiff Enterprise for $60, capable of video editing and an ample of useful, workflow boosting things. I use it because it is completely flexible and stable.…Necropolo
Will you play parts of your remix live and record the sound of your instrument? Will you program your remix note by note? Most of the established music creation software is available for download in some sort of trial version and I would definitely recommend you try a few before spending your money.
I started off with Renoise, because it was the most familiar to me, coming from my own player, which largely was based on NoiseTracker on the Amiga. For some reason, it felt like it was limiting, so I started looking for alternatives, and tried most of them. I ended up with Cubase as my main DAW....Slaygon
Here are some of the most popular music creation programs / Sequencers & DAWs:
PreSonus Studio One
AVID Pro Tools.
Image Line - FL Studio
Cakewalk by BandLab (currently free in 2020)
Your chosen DAW, sequencer or tracker is the most important tool in your musical toolbox. It will be used during most, if not all stages of your composition, arrangement, mixing & mastering. So, try as many of the stages as you can with each trial version.
Get used to your gear. Look at YouTube. Look once more at YouTube. Maybe read some books. And last but not least checkout the forum @remix64. Lots of helpful people there....Dr Future / Volker Buckow
How big should my palette be? (VST’s, plug-ins, sample-packs & The Soundscape)
…and so to the subject of sounds & soundscape. This will vary dramatically depending upon your chosen genre & style, (and your budget). If you ask the established remixers (and we did), they’ll probably tell you they have dozens of VST’s & sample packs. Some will be free; others will have been purchased over time. It truly is like a painter, gathering their ideal palette.
Look for the things in the SID that you really, really LOVE. Start with your favourite parts of it, trying out new instrumentations on them. Once they start to sound right becoming something new, and maybe give you the Goosebumps, you are on the right track - you should remember that you do this because you love music and the track, so do not force it when you feel you get stuck; just take a pause and let the flow find you again! It should be born out of joy, not struggle but also - learning is a process. With each and every track you will become better and better, so be patient with yourself!… Ziona
So, if you’re new to remixing, you probably have a limited number of VSTs or possibly none. Fear not! Good remixes are not determined by the number of expensive VSTs in a remixer’s collection. I can tell you from personal experience that there are ‘chart-topping’ remixers who use very few VST’s & plugins; and also one or two who have ‘all the gear & no idea’. Lots of free VSTs are available for download, many of them high-quality.
Having gathered your ‘weapons of choice’ for your new remix, it’s time to start the process of creation. This is a different process for different remixers and again, there is no single, right or wrong method here. What I can say with absolute certainty is; learn your VSTs, Sample-packs & plugins so that you know them inside out. If you only ever use the default settings in a VST or sample-pack, your remix will fall short of where it could have been. Synths will sound identical to other remixes where default presets are used and real instrument, samples will lack the dynamics & feel that is required to make them truly convincing to the listener’s ear. Take some time to understand instruments & how they are played, especially if you intend to use them in your remixes.
The main thing is just to get started and don't expect to produce amasterpieceright away. Music and remixing is a learning process and you WILL get better with every attempt. Also, the feedback and advice from the friendly community will also help....Johan Andersson
For me personally, the process leans heavily towards ‘getting the notes down’. I tend to find that if I spend hours finding all of the killer-sounds first, it saps my energy and enthusiasm for writing the arrangement. This is not true for many other remixers, however.
Pick a tune that means a lot to you, that you know by heart. Bring your interpretation to life, the way you always felt it was supposed to sound. Or go crazy on the source material and turn it into something completely different. If you’re tempted to do the umpteenth version of Last Ninja because you love the tune, just go for it. It’s your hobby, after all. You’ll also find people who are willing to provide you with valuable feedback and tips to help you advance as a musician....LMan
Most importantly & above all, create in a way that suits you and produces the best results. I’ll bid you farewell at this point and wish you well on your 1st remix. I hope the advice of the remixers featured here is of some value and helps in getting your 1st ‘masterpiece’ started, completed & uploaded.
A serious note to finish. (Copyright & Commercial use)
If you want to use your remix commercially or somebody else’s, we wander into the area known as ‘copyright’. All of the original SID compositions usually carry some form of copyright in addition to the remixer’s copyright for their interpretation of the original. There are people within the ranks of RKO / Remix 64 who have fairly extensive knowledge of copyright & licensing, particularly Chris Abbott. So, if you want to sell, broadcast, stream or use a remix in a film or on TV, there is a process for doing this legally. Contact us for advice. We’d be delighted to help.
In a way that is representative of the community that exists here; this Article would not have been possible without the contribution and help of others. My thanks, in no particular order go to: Necropolo, Slaygon, Johan Andersson, Lman, Mordi, Ziona, Kjetil, Dr Future, K8-Bit & Warren ‘Waz’ Pilkington (for the Top 25 Remixed SIDs).
* This article supersedes an article with the same theme written by Chris Abbott in 2004