Contrary to what they want you to think, Diddy his crew at Bad Boy did not invent the remix. If you really wanted to meet the people who first made dance remixes you'd have to go back a bit further in music history, to the land of the mid-'70s. In sweaty discos across the land people were looping songs the old fashioned way, probably unaware that their experiments in tape editing were one day going to be big business.
What was true then is true now: people love remixes. Go to YouTube and type in your favorite song of the moment and add the word "dubstep" to the end; there's a good chance you'll find a version of that track given the Skrillex treatment. (You mean you never thought "Call Me Maybe" needed to be heavier?)
Remixes take a certain amount of time and musical ability. Luckily for us lacking both of those things, an enterprising programmer by the name of Peter Sobot created a Web app that will give all of us the chance to become dance remix superstars. He calls it the Wub Machine.
The Wub Machine makes making a remix simple; you upload a song and select between the three types of remixes; the app chops the track into different chunks and combines those pieces with a backing track. You choose whether to download the remix or send it to Soundcloud to share with the world. It's pretty hard to screw up.
It's also pretty hard to get anything good out of it.
Unlike a human remixer, the app can only do what it's programmed to do. It runs a set algorithm -- nothing more, nothing less. The truth is that only a handful of the billions of songs in the world are going to sound good coming out of it.
Still, it's fun to experiment with, and experiment I did. I spent a few hours loading some of music's biggest hits, current and old, and some personal favorites to see if I'd get any winners. Take a listen.
We start off with a happy accident. It seemed only natural that the first song I tested out was one of the biggest in recent memory. On my first listen, I was shocked it at how well it sounded for the first minute and a half. The second half doesn't hold up as well as the intro sections, but for the first five seconds I thought I had stumbled onto pure magic.
When I decided to test "Thriller," I forgot about all the sound effect stuff at the beginning of the track. As a result, it starts off as more of a dance remix of a rocking chair. There's some interesting interplay that goes on between the remix percussion and the original drumming. Not a complete success, but not without some interesting moments. My personal favorite is the stuff with a chopped-up Vincent Price at the end. Those laughs are pretty cool.
"Midnight City" has already had its fair share of interesting legitimate remixes, but having never heard a drum-and-bass one previously it seemed a good track to experiment with. As you can hear, the end result is pretty messy. There are a couple of times where the high-pitched vocals and sax sound OK, but generally speaking not the most pleasant of mixes. Like I said, it's not easy to get a good track from the machine.
The previous track made me think that maybe the problem was with the vocals. The only way to find out was to try something instrumental. Since the guys in Explosions in the Sky are in town soon (Warehouse Live, June 17), they seemed like a nice candidate. I actually really dig the way the app chops up the guitar pieces and changes them into something new. This is the first track that really approaches something listenable the whole way through.
Having decided that instrumental music worked really well for the drum-and-bass remix algorithm, I decided to see how it worked out for the electro version. Since two post-rock tracks would be a bit much, I decided to go with a movie soundtrack. Wall-E is a pretty awesome flick, and this is a pretty solid remix. It's not very natural sounding, but it's still listenable. The transition to the last part of the song with strings is a standout moment.
It's a small step from movie score to musical. It's cliché, but the only soundtrack I had readily available was Rent. The results were mixed. Occasionally there's a nice stab of organ cutting through the mix, and when the vocals are on long notes originally it sounds pretty good. Still, the first trip back to vocals was not a complete success.
I couldn't go through this post without finding out what my favorite song sounded like after a trip through the Wub Machine. After much debate, I decided to go electro for the mix because I thought the chopping in the electro mixes would sound best for it. I'm pretty surprised how this sounds, given that it's a live acoustic track. The vocals work better than the guitar, but the guitar doesn't sound bad. Not my favorite of the mixes, but not the worst.
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I was curious about what the limits of the Wub Machine were, so I went with one of my favorite long tracks of all time. Now I realize most of you aren't in the mood to listen to all 21 minutes of this remix, but having done so myself I must say it's shockingly listenable at points. Sure, that drum beat/wub-wub bass might drive you mad after ten minutes, but if you make it through there's some really cool stuff in the back half. If nothing else, give the last two minutes a shot; the conclusion is satisfying.