In The Loop  
Remixing with Jez Colin
By Erik Hawkins

   

For more than two decades, Jez Colin has written, produced, and remixed songs that make you want to get your groove on. Since his first successful gig as bass player and co-founder of pioneering acid-jazz group the Solsonics, he’s moved on to his current venture, the Latin Project, a co-production with producer/musician Matt Cooper of Dorado Records and the influential jazz-funk group Incognito. The Latin Project’s “Musica De Amor” was named Best Latin Dance Track at the 2004 International Dance Music Awards, while “Lei Lo Lai,” was remixed by Masters at Work and nominated for Best Remix in the 2004 Grammy Awards.

As busy as Colin is with his groundbreaking artist projects, he’s somehow found time to turn out a steady stream of hit remixes. He has remixed songs for Alanis Morissette, Bebel Gilberto, Jill Scott, Sade, Maxwell, Björk, and Stevie Wonder. Clearly, Colin has a formula that works for producing great music and remixes. He recently shared some of his production techniques and thoughts on electronic music production and remixing.

Arrangement Matters
A crucial ingredient of a well-crafted remix is its arrangement, Colin says. “A remix isn’t just about throwing a song’s vocals on top of a new beat — it’s also about building an arrangement that keeps your audience engaged. In traditional songwriting, you need to craft musically interesting changes and song sections — verse, chorus, middle-eight, and so forth — through melody, harmony, chord structures, and orchestration. A remix is no different. But this aspect of remixing is often overlooked, especially in dance music remixes.”

To create an effective arrangement, Colin draws upon his skills as a bassist and keyboard player, his knowledge of music theory, and a feel for the track. “I like to do remixes that honor the original arrangement of the vocals, but also bring new elements to the song,” he says. “I believe the remix has to stand apart from the original, but without alienating the artist or the songwriter. It’s a fine line to walk, because I don’t just change a drumbeat. Instead, I might reharmonize a song by finding new chords that work under the verse or the chorus melody. To make everything fit, I often extend verses and repeat choruses that weren’t originally repeated. It’s always interesting to hear a vocal melody framed with different chords — it creates an entirely new set of harmonic changes, which can present a song in a whole different light.”

For a remix of the Sade song “Lovers Rock,” Colin even went so far as to change a note in the vocal melody to fit the new chord progression he’d written. “The original chord progression for the chorus was very minor-sounding, so I changed every second bar to a major chord to create what I felt was a more classic Sade sound. To make her melody match the new progression, I had to bring her lead vocal down a half-step whenever it hit the third or seventh note of the scale on the major chord. I even brought in a session vocalist to recreate the three-part background harmonies for the new chords. I was really worried that Sade would be insulted that I changed her melody. Fortunately, she loved it.”

Pro Tools in the Remix
Pro Tools is an integral part of Colin’s remixing process. He likes to work with both the original multitrack and his remix tracks in the same session. “I take a copy of the multitrack session and insert ten minutes of dead space in front of the tracks,” he explains. “This area is my ‘play space’ for creating the remix. I keep all the original tracks open, and simply bring regions forward from the session into my remix area. I’m using the same physical tracks as the original, but creating a different arrangement. I could work more conventionally, duplicating tracks and working with playlists, but I find that this makes the session unnecessarily cumbersome and inhibits the workflow.” (See figure 1.)

Figure 1: Colin prefers to work with the original multitrack and
his remix in the same Pro Tools session, located at different
positions on the timeline.
When navigating between the original multitrack section and his remix space, Colin depends on markers in Pro Tools. “I’ve always got the Memory Locations window open,” he says. “I have markers set up for both my remix and the original multitrack to let me easily jump between the two areas. I use markers to locate sections within my remix, or to jump to the start of a particular section in the original — such as the verse or the chorus — from which I want to draw parts. Since I nearly always change the song’s tempo for my remix, I make sure to place a tempo marker at the song’s original tempo for the start of the multitrack section. This way, I can make tempo changes to my remix without worrying about what’s happening down the road to the original.”

Effect Tricks
“I use a lot of filtering and delays,” says Colin. “I really like EchoBoy by SoundToys. It’s enabled me to work in some very unique ways — for example, I can take a hi-hat track of straight sixteenth-notes and alter its feel and swing. I do this by turning the EchoBoy’s Mix knob all the way to Wet; then, with the delays locked to tempo, I use the Groove and Feel knobs to adjust the swing of the hi-hats. You can go from a shuffle to a swing feel, and even change whether the beats are rushing or dragging. In the original version, you’d do this sort of stuff when you’re sequencing the song. But if all I have to remix are audio tracks, obviously MIDI groove quantize isn’t an option. Of course, it’s possible to chop up the audio and re-groove the individual regions, but this takes a long time and the results can sound unnatural. In EchoBoy, you can automate the Saturation, High Cut, and Feedback parameters to subtly alter the sound of the hi-hat delays throughout a track. The result is a much more human or live feel than the original straight sixteenth-note hi-hats.”

Figure 2: The SoundToys plug-ins — EchoBoy, Tremolator,
and FilterFreak — are some Colin's favorite effects.
Colin relies on other SoundToys plug-ins as well: “I also like to use Tremolator and FilterFreak. For example, I might use the Tremolator as a radical auto-gate, drastically altering the original shape of a waveform. You can’t get this effect any other way. Then I automate the Rhythm parameter between eighth, sixteenth, and triplet presets to create a DJ-style transformer sound. I follow the Tremolator with FilterFreak. When you throw on a sweeping, dynamic filter over the top of a heavily gated effect, it just takes the sound to another level. It’s a particularly exciting effect for dance music, especially since both plug-ins can be tempo-synchronized. The effect sounds great on pretty much anything, from vocals to keyboards — and on a guitar, it’s
fascinating.” (See figure 2.)

Colin’s careful treatment of vocals and arrangements are one important reason he receives such positive responses to his remixes. “People often say that my remix sounds like it could have been an original song, because I treat it like a song,” he notes. His advice to would-be remixers, “Get a good handle on how you intend to use the original vocals right from the start. This really sets the pace for the rest of your remix, from how you approach the arrangement to the music itself. View the vocals as the cornerstone around which you build your remix, and the musical parts will end up revealing themselves.”


To learn more about remix production, pick up a copy of my book, The Complete Guide to Remixing (Berklee Press). It’s packed full of practical advice about remixing, features tips from the industry’s top remixers (such as BT, Dave Audé, Thunderpuss, and Deepsky), and includes an audio CD with over 50 examples of the remix production techniques discussed in the book. You can also study remix production with me online, at Berkleemusic.com, in the new Remixing with Pro Tools course.