In March 2021, I remixed Emma Holzer's Queen as part of a remix contest. In this post, I'm breaking down each part individually and recording what influenced me along the way.
The original ingredients
Here's what I got to start with. From top to bottom: drums, bass, vocal, guitars, synths, and FX.
…this were a pumped-up song instead of a chilled-out song? For example, re-interpreting this lyric
So boy you better treat me like a queen […]
with a bright, upbeat background is “I’m too good for you” instead of “ugh, just go away.”
The big picture
These are the parts of my remix. From top to bottom:
- Red: kick drums
- Peach: other percussion
- Orange: bass
- Green: guitar
- Light blue: vocals and vocoders
- Dark blue: keyboard and pad
- Pink: FX
- Purple: vocal chops
This is what they sound like together:
The piano chords
I only start a track with I get a stroke of inspiration, and that came from noticing I could match the chords with a remix I'd been playing on repeat at the time, LoaX's remix of Grey - Want You Back. 0:49–0:54 contains an isolated instance of these chords. Technically speaking, the I-II-III progression is musically interesting because it starts out in major tonality, but the II and III chords belong in minor tonality.
Another example of these chords is in Ariana Grande's No Tears Left To Cry around 0:25. The lyrical content also happens to be fairly close to the "too good for you" vibe I was going for.
Here's a snippet from the verse-to-prechorus transition:
I made the percussion beat kind of arbitrarily. It was fairly difficult because I grew up playing piano without an intuitive sense for a good beat, and I hadn't learned how to use the Ableton's stock Drum Rack or Simpler properly yet, so I was fumbling and dragging clips around trying to get this to sound good.
However, I also was somewhat confused trying to get the pacing right. Even when increasing the tempo, which I did as much as I felt was tasteful, I didn't feel like the vocal was particularly four-on-the-floor friendly. Still, I tried my best.
The cowbells were loosely inspired by C2C's remix of Stevie Wonder - Superstition.
Here's a snippet from the prechorus buildup to the chorus/drop:
The chorus vocals
I left most if not all of the verse vocals untouched, and mostly focused on the chorus. I threw a vocoder playing some thick chords on the chorus vocals to give them a beefier quality, and I turned them into an quick arpeggio in the middle bit as some glue. These honestly fall pretty far in the background in the context of the entire chorus, but they're still fun to hear. Influences in general include Daft Punk, although I mostly just wanted to use the vocal as another instrument.
Here's a snippet from the chorus:
The undistorted guitars
I chopped up the original sample to make a slightly different guitar melody, just fumbling around until I found something that sounded pleasing. No real magic here, just working with what I'd gotten since I wish I could play guitar myself; instead, I have to resort to ripping up others' guitar playing.
Here's a snippet from the prechorus:
Vocal chops and FX
I used to listen to a ton of Kygo, so I have the vocal chop "bug"—being intrigued by the idea of sampling a sound as a completely new instrument, I was instantly excited hearing this work decently well in context. I think I laid ~90% of this down in an hour and didn't change it after that (minus very slight modifications).
The record scratch (1:03 in the remix), tape stop effect (0:58 in the remix), and some vocal chops were also inspired by the C2C's remix of Stevie Wonder - Superstition. I initially tried doing the heavy tape-speed-variation effects reminiscent of DJ spinning directly on the vocals, as the C2C remix does, but they didn't work out so well; only the record scratches remain from that sound design experiment.
Here's a snippet from the prechorus buildup to the chorus/drop, out of context though:
And that's it!
I originally gave this as a lightning talk to my coworkers. Later, I realized I didn't describe the basses, but those were just single notes following the roots of the chords. Also not pictured:
- Many many drafts
- Many many times I was not feeling creative and needed to go do something else for a while
- Many many effects with many many parameters and virtual knobs that I tuned to taste
- A few virtual instruments, which I leaned heavily on my Roli Seaboard for
- For the uninitiated: the thing that takes a raw note (like “piano key number 37”, or one of the horizontal bars in the pictures above) and determines whether it should sound like a trumpet, sine wave, bird squawk, or something else
- I paid a trustworthy stranger on the internet $20 for detailed mix/arrangement feedback on a late draft. I learned a lot from that feedback, like how I should do more: fading in and out, tying sections together with FX, making the chorus the peak energy of the song, cutting overly-repetitive sounds like my cowbell initially, among others.