Isolating Vocals from Background Music (Part 4)


This is a continuation of our rip and remix series that focuses on how to isolate vocals from a backing track that started here in Part 1. This part continues the list of specific tips and techniques for manipulating the wave file and fitting it into your remix started in here in Part 3. This entry has a lot of subjective opinions (even more than the other parts of the series) so keep that in mind. Hopefully you have a sound, or at least an emotion in your head and heart that you are trying to express. You need to fiddle with the knobs until you get that sound and emotion. I’m still fiddling with mine, thank you very much, and I expect you to do the same with yours as opposed to, you know, mine, which I’m already fiddling with.

  1. Non-Chopping Method

    You may want to use whole parts of the original track, for example a dance remix where you want to keep the overall structure of the song. For this case I end up chopping up the vocals but with a much larger granularity. Each verse and chorus will get a clip. Instead of triggering from the keyboard, I lay out the clips in track view in the host mixer application.

    If you are using the vocals in a mix of a different tempo then I recommend you do not try to do it an application other than ACID. Even if you are using ACID it is easy to get carried — there is fine line between a vocal that sounds processed (which is cool for many cases) and just unnaturally bent out of shape. I recommend manually chopping gaps into the vocal track to do get stretching or compressing of tempo. Let other tricks (like tap delay mentioned below) help out. If you must stretch don’t go too far. If I were to be honest I would say my remix of Beth Quist pushes the limit — if not goes over.

  2. Tempo Based Tap Delay

    One of the axioms used by jazz improvisors is “If you make a mistake, do it again” or as I have adopted to my every day life: “I meant to do that.”

    In this kind of remix you are likely to get a few pieces of sound that started out as a guitar chord, a conga hit or synth line that now just sounds like so much noise. With the proper amount and careful placement of delay that noise can be repeated, in tempo, and made to be like you meant to do that.

    Become an expert at using the delay effect. Learn what every knob and button does. Try out all the delay effects you can get your hands on and expect to switch them up based on what is best for any given remix. Delay is your friend. Delay will save your butt.

    The most important attribute for remxing vocals is the ‘delay time.’ This is how frequently each echo (a.k.a. ‘tap’) happens. Most host mixer environments have a delay effect built in. The better ones are “tempo based” which means that by default delay time is whatever the tempo of your mix is. You want this, don’t fuck with this. If your delay plug-in of choice is not tied into your environment’s BPM that’s OK because many delay plug-ins let you set the delay time using BPM manually. Do it. If your delay plug-in insists on manually setting by entering milliseconds you can use one of many tap calculators that are lying around. So you see, there is no actual math involved. You are officially out of excuses.

    Which brings us the most important tip of the whole series: Ignore the original BMP of the vocals and set the delay time to the BMP of your new remix.

    You will be in shock and awe at how the vocals take on the characteristics of the new tempo.

    In yet another piece of subjective pontification let me say that I tend to favor about three taps, usually at eighth note intervals, falling off sharply on volume with the first tap around 50% or less of the source volume. My goal is not to have the words sound like they are actually repeating, just give support to the tones that are floating by. How’s about that.. subjective and obtuse. Well, what can I say? Experiment.

  3. Reharmonize

    This point isn’t so much a tip but an encouragement to get adventurous.

    I am a graduate of a (now defunct) music conservatory. I have composed, arranged and scored for everything from quartets to jazz big bands to eighty piece orchestras. (Do everybody a favor and don’t confuse any of this for a little thing that what we in the industry like to call ‘talent.’) Years later when I heard DJ Krush I was re-energized by his adventurous juxtapositions of records that are clearly in different keys, yet, reformed in his mixes sounded more beautiful than the original tracks by themselves. These two conditions conspired to give me confidence and inspiration to throw melodies on top of chords and progressions the original composer and producer seemed to have missed. (Ah! Subjective and arrogant!)

    Tools like ACID (and to a lessor degree Live and Tracktion) make it “safe and easy” to change the pitch of tracks which is great and a boon and all those things. Now take a step back. Before you hit the ‘+’ plus to raise the track by a half step, listen closely to some other possibilities. What if you chop the vocal one more time? What if you move the backing over a half a bar? Is the “conflict” you were trying to avoid still there?

    If you’re mixing for the overnight at Ravey-Rave’s-Tranceorama then fine: do what you gotta do. Otherwise try to make this about something other than just slapping a boom-chick-four-on-the-floor-big-fat-sub kind of thing and give the world something different.

Genre is the figment of a marketing mind, an artifact of obsolete cultural barriers and just plain old stereotyping. Remixing gives us a great opportunity to prove that. Genre is bullshit. Honest. It only sounds subjective when I say that. It’s not. Genre really is bullshit. Now go fiddle with your knobs.

In the next installment I’ll cover online resources for free and legal sampling materials and free and not-so-legal remixes and mashes.

[UPDATE:] Change of plan: after I wrote the “final” part, it seemed to deserve to fly under it’s own banner so here it is.

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