The Desktop Remix
Tracking the progress of a DIY mix that went official
Programmers Daryl Stickley and Tim Wedge turned an unsolicited Cubase version of Visage's classic 'Fade To Grey' into a Top 40 remix - and it was all their own work. Phil Ward listens to the lesson
Back in 1981, in the days when affordable synthesisers, in the hands of young artists influenced by David Bowie, Roxy Music and punk's DIY ethic, began to make a big impact on the sounds and styles of mainstream pop, 'Fade To Grey' was a No.8 hit for Visage. The band, fronted by the seminal New Romantic clubber Steve Strange, was only fleetingly successful. But the song, with its driving beat, thunderous chord sequences, and seductive French vocal sound-bites, has gone on to become a modern classic.
Two of the song's fresh-faced admirers at the time found themselves responsible for its second visit to the Top 40 last year, in the guise of a remix. Daryl Stickley and Tim Wedge (for it is they) are engineers-in-residence at The Music Corporation, a unique blend of equipment suppliers, production studios, and multimedia research centre buried deep in the South of England.
They took it upon themselves to construct their own version of 'Fade To Grey' when they heard that Polydor, copyright owners of the original, weren't entirely happy with a remix prepared during renewed interest in 'New Romantic" classics in 1993. Their instrumental version persuaded the record company to supply the original vocal tracks, enabling Daryl and Tim to complete three new 'recordings' of the song: a seven-inch mix, a 12-inch dance mix, and an extended ambient reworking (the 'Subliminal' mix) of which they are especially proud. The record company were no doubt a more than a little pleased with the fact that the seven-inch mix reached No.39 in the charts.
But how do you transform an unsolicited Cubase file into a major release? It all began with a rummage through the old record collection...
"For the rough mix, we just got the record out," reveals Daryl. "We listened to it for an idea of keys and scales, and built a basic arrangement of it in Cubase."
"We put chords, a basic beat and some of the original phrases into Cubase," adds Tim, "but we immediately made some changes. We made the sequence a lot more aggressive in the chorus, and put a lot more percussion throughout. We speeded it up straightaway, too, because we always had a dance vibe in mind.
"Working with quite short loops, at first we kept the verse/chorus structure intact. Only later did it develop into a club mix with a much longer intro and breaks in it. The beauty of it was being able to cut and paste and allow it to grow."
It's not only the ability to arrange entire songs on a computer which has changed electronic music since Steve Strange formed Visage. The way that sounds are used - although often drawn from instruments nearly as old as 'Fade To Grey' itself - has responded to the new priorities of the dance beat.
"All the drums are samples we've collected," says Tim. "808 bass drums, 909 hats, combinations of snares, all from a library stored on Akai DD1000. The chords and initial sequences were from a favourite of ours, the Roland Jupiter 6. The bass was sampled into the Kurzweil K2000 from a Yamaha TG77, because the Kurzweil can create these really interesting layers over something really solid. You can keep a solid bass on one layer, and put high-pass filters on other layers so that it sounds like a composite patch, but you never lose the bottom end. The frequencies and the resonance can be taken all over the place without spoiling that foundation."
This is what Polydor heard - and it was sufficient for Simon Harris in the A&R department to sanction the copying onto DAT of each vocal track from the original master. Steve Strange's lead vocal, plus backing 'aah's and that French female monologue were duly supplied, serially recorded in their entirety - which, according to Tim, revealed some fascinating details.
"There was Steve Strange and someone else talking to each other, which was obviously muted on the original mix. But the DAT we had was a straight copy of each entire track - tapping on floorboards, the lot. The great thing about that was it made the whole recording come alive again. Those familiar details that you get when you're recording vocalists were all there, and it sounded like 'Fade To Grey' was recorded yesterday.
"Once you blend the original vocals into the track, it really starts to sound like the song you're used to. We didn't use any of those extraneous sounds; they just weren't charismatic enough for our purposes. But you could, for a different kind of recording."
Once the vocals had arrived in an envelope, it was time to get them into waveforms compatible with the Cubase file.
"We put the vocals into the DD1000 and timestretched them," Daryl explains, "because they were running at the wrong tempo for our track.
We then put them into samplers so that they could be triggered as parts in a sequencer. The Akai S1100s were best for the more workhorse-like jobs - the lead vocal and things that aren't going to get messed about - and we used the K2000 to be more creative. It's a lot more powerful."
"You've got to get a reputation with the A&R people. If you can put together what they've asked for, they come back to you with other projects"
"The timestretch algorithms in the DD1000 worked very well," Tim reiterates, "and because of the storage space we could just whack them all in and do it in one go. If you choose to, you can then output the altered vocals into something perhaps a little easier to use, like the S1100. You stay in the cutting and pasting world right up to the last minute."
"We could then apply the vocals to the mix as we had imagined it to be in the first place," concludes Daryl.
The final mix is indeed performed with audio triggered from the computer, and not a reel of multitrack tape in sight. Daryl outlines some of the details to be borne in mind at this stage.
"The seven-inch had to be a commercial mix in two ways: it had to retain the original, familiar melody; and it needed a lot more energy. The original is quite a bit slower, and obviously they didn't have the equipment that we have to strengthen both the bottom and the top end."
The 12-inch mix was designed to give the new version exposure in clubs, and was executed in the knowledge that, in itself, it wouldn't 'break' the record so much as provide some underground credibility.
"We took it apart completely," says Daryl, "and put it together in a way we thought would appeal to DJs. The trick is to keep any unique sounds or hooks intact, but forget about the original structure entirely. We define the end result we want; inject the key ingredients from the original; and then look at what else we need. If you stay too close to the original, you'll lose sight of your own brief."
The third mix was approached with an equally clear goal in mind, but with fewer constraints. No wonder they enjoyed it.
"We decided to forget the dance mix and play around. We tried to be a little bit creative, a little less thoughtful, look for new ideas, then come back to our brief for an ambient mix. It still had some recognisable character from the original, but it certainly wasn't radio play.
"We started from the bass groove we'd invented for the dance mix, changed the sounds, and adapted the instrumentation. Once there was a new groove going, we then applied the vocals to it. You can modulate the musical ideas to ensure that they fuse with the vocals, but it's a mix that doesn't allow the vocals to dictate anything beyond the basic notation."
The advantages of desktop remixing are clear. Endless versions of the track can be saved to disk as work in progress, enabling you to store several possible applications for the mix.
"You can follow a client's brief," explains Daryl, "and at the same time keep in mind what you think the record should be doing. If you know that as you go along, you can save it and come back to it later. At the the end of the project, you can go to the client and say: 'here's the brief you gave me, and by the way, here's another mix you might want to consider'.
"It means the client will be convinced you know what you're doing, because you've supplied what they want, which makes them more open to your other suggestions. That's important, because you've got to gel a reputation with the A&R people. And it works. If you can put together what they've asked for, they do come back to you with other projects."
Daryl and Tim's 'Subliminal' mix of 'Fade To Grey' is a case in point. Unrequested by Polydor, they did it anyway and stowed it away with the mixes that they knew the record company wanted - and it was released. It was perceived as a bonus; it satisfied Daryl and Tim's own creative preferences without challenging Polydor's expectations.
"We sampled the French voice, reversed it, put reverb on the reverse sample, and turned it back round so that the reverb trails into the voice"
Working separately in the two studios at The Music Corporation is very important to Daryl and Tim. They reckon it enables them to depart sufficiently from the original track to ensure the injection of genuine new life into the thing, and then to review each other's work objectively in order to avoid indulgence. As Daryl explains:
"You can throw a whole load of ideas into the sequencer, and then swap studios and listen to the other's ideas. It means that we retain some objectivity, and at the same time we have the space to think laterally and generate some completely new stuff. I would always encourage people working in their own studio - especially with computers - to collaborate and talk to others whenever possible."
If you get the sequencing just about right, the need for editing is dramatically reduced. In fact, Daryl doesn't see editing as a particularly crucial stage in the production, even in an environment which enjoys all the benefits of desktop flexibility.
"If you get the creation right, and you're thinking about how the project should flow in the first place, editing is a lot less important," he muses.
Having said that, Digidesign's SoundTools II was used as a convenient way of making the seven-inch mix, as Tim reveals.
"The 12-inch was an extended seven-inch created in order to get the whole idea across to Polydor in the first place, so it was quite an easy job to use SoundTools to chop it back down to a seven-inch mix. In particular, we were able to just take out the percussion breaks wholesale and tweak the overall length at the last minute. It's crucial to get it radio-play length."
But the desktop isn't everything. Some of the more traditional aspects of remixing - particularly the use of outboard effects - still play an important role in the development of a style you can call your own. Tim has his own preferences.
"I listen to other people to get ideas for little embellishments. I've got to recognise how people like Brothers In Rhythm have done things. We're lucky to have units like the Sony M7 and R7 which have such unusual effects. It goes hand-in-hand with our way of thinking to experiment with things.
"The 'Subliminal' mix is quite an ambient groove, and there's quite a lot of reverb used in a constructive way. For example, we decided to sample the French voice and reverse it, put reverb on the reverse sample, and turn it back round again so that the reverb trails into the voice instead of fading away after it.
"Because it's all in the S1100 or the K2000, it's always a target to be changed in some way. We like to strip everything right back and see if we can add something to it."
Every single part becomes a potential source of new sounds, and can be judged on its own merits according to the overall requirements of the mix. Another golden rule in Daryl and Tim's unwritten remixing guidebook is to avoid, within reason, imposing too strict a timetable on events.
"You need an approximate schedule," admits Daryl, "but you must allow for the fact that it doesn't always work out. Some mixes happen in a day or two, but we often need about four or five days to get everything right. If you're thinking about having to get finished within a certain time, you've got a built-in dissonant factor confusing the issue.
"If you can get as much done as possible in your own setup, you have the two advantages of knowing your own equipment and avoiding the pressure of paying by the hour. Obviously, we're very lucky here, but if anyone is faced with the choice of spending £600 in a studio or buying some bits of equipment, it's well worth bearing in mind the creative benefits of having your own space."
And so say all of us at the mix. With sufficient sampling and sequencing capability, a remix can be developed as far as possible at home before being finished off in a studio.
The budgetary balancing act is then one between the gear you need to buy and the amount of time you'd need in a commercial facility.
"The trick is to keep any unique sounds or hooks intact, but forget about the original structure entirely"
Daryl and Tim are doing okay. The Music Corporation allows them some enviable privileges, but don't get the impression that they've had any unfair advantages. They began pretty much as anyone else with an ear for pop and an eye for technology.
"Neither of us read music. We both just picked up a synthesiser one day and started doing something," says Daryl.
Starting from nothing, the duo have now had mixes released in 22 different countries. Proceeding steadily with bread-and-butter dance remixes for obscure labels in far-flung territories, they've found it unnecessary to score major hits in order to break even. It's just a matter of keeping those ears to the ground.
One thing they pay particular attention to is monitoring changes in record company personnel as far as they can. "It pays to know who's who," as Daryl points out. Building a relationship with whoever happens to be who is as important as getting the mix right, otherwise all of this may be in vain. But even if the publishers aren't completely convinced of your treatment of their song, they may still allow you to get it released elsewhere - as long as it's good enough.
"It's a bit dodgy picking out a remix unless you're confident of doing it well," warns Daryl. "Otherwise, you won't be able to sell it on to anyone else, even if it's a new recording. Publishing laws have changed now, and you've always got to get publishing approval."
Red tape aside, however, it's never been easier to get a remix off the ground and into the charts. Daryl Stickley and Tim Wedge are stylish, successful proof that a quick but carefully-constructed Cubase demo can lead to bigger things. So what's stopping you?
On The Re:Mix CD:
13 Visage - 'Fade To Grey' - Original 1981 recording 14 Visage - 'Fade To Grey' - Daryl and Tim's unsolicited demo 15 Visage - 'Fade To Grey' - Seven-inch mix 16 Visage - 'Fade To Grey' - Ambient-style 'Subliminal' mix
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #1.
Interview by Phil Ward
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