Recently, it seems like the disco edit or the RnB bootleg has increasingly become a way to gain a foothold in music production. From the likes of Soul Clap to techno warriors like Blawan, many artists have really kicked off their careers in this way. But how can you approach it? And isn’t it slightly illegal? Let’s go into the subject in a bit more depth….
A good edit could span the whole spectrum of production. The earliest edits were simply to make existing tracks a bit more useful for DJ’s in the club – people like Danny Krivit and Larry Levan extending a breakdown, repeating an instrumental drop, or hacking an intro to make something more mixable. These days, however, most producers simply take an existing acappella and write a whole new track around it; much more work, but it can totally revitalise or re imagine the original. Think of Blawan’s ‘Getting Me Down’ which takes a classic R’n'B track and slaps it over the top of ragged techno, or Behling & Simpson’s remix of Ciara’s ‘Like A Surgeon’ which switches a halting soulful original into a euphoric house stomp.
To do this, you first need to find an acappella. It needs to be one that hasn’t been completely rinsed already, and it needs to be something reasonably close to the tempo you want to work at. You can make up a certain amount of distance with pitching and timestretching – but to avoid the chipmunk effect, or the classic Ableton warble of something that’s been bent too far out of shape, it should probably be within 10bpm of the tempo you’ll be using. Bear in mind however, that a lot of RnB is super-slow – a 60bpm original track will work perfectly in a 120bpm house remix!
The acappella should also be of decent quality. A 128k mp3 isn’t really hi-fidelity enough to use as the centrepiece for your track, although it might be OK for the odd word or snippet. Ideally, you should use the best quality you can find, though 192k is sometimes just about good enough. It must be an ‘official’ acappella though; oftentimes, people try to make their own via the means of stereo and phase wrangling. These are usually marked as ‘DIY’ acappellas and your author has yet to find one that is even remotely useable in a production context. Many, especially from the 90s or before, will be ripped off vinyl; in such cases you might need to go through and edit out a few clicks and crackles. A few crackles may add atmosphere to your track – but a whole tidal wave of them will just get in the way!
Next, you’ll need to figure out what key the vocal is in. This is hugely important – most vocals are relatively straightforward, melodically, so if you can get the rest of your track in the same key, then just a few good chords should complement the vocal very well. If it’s not in the right key then it could just end up being another one of those numerous Soundcloud bootlegs that never get listened to! If you’re not too hot with music theory, then get a friend who’s handy with a guitar or piano to come and help you figure it out. It really is worth it. Then use one of those ‘chord wheel’ charts (Google will help here) to try out some chords that will sit nicely with the vocal. This part is crucial – don’t try to ignore the key!
You should also pay attention to what the structure of the original does. Notice when the verse starts, how long the chorus is, where the bridge occurs, etc (generally these will usually be sections
of 8 or 16 bars) – and consider whether you want to write around that. You don’t have to – but sometimes it can help the dynamics of your tune if you layer in a string line or a ride cymbal over the chorus, or perhaps use the bridge for your breakdown. This is especially helpful if you normally struggle with arrangements – someone has written an arrangement already, so why not make use of it?
The question of legality must be addressed though – this is, indeed, illegal. All those rumours you hear about how it’s legal to use less than a few seconds of a sample or whatever – they’re not true. Sorry. The good news for you, however, is that in 2013, it’s not going to cause much of a problem. If you just sling an edit up on your Soundcloud profile, no-one is going to sue you for it – it’s just not worth getting lawyers involved. Even if you were to press it up to vinyl and sell a couple of hundred (and this is the bad news) the industry is such that you probably won’t make any profit anyway. So again, there would be little point in suing. If anything, the edit may open up an old track to some new listeners. If you want to nose yourself slightly closer towards the moral highground, however, then be sure to title it as a remix of the original – not as an original track in its own right (like, say, the Blawan track mentioned earlier or Ben Pearce’s anthem ‘What I Might Do’ from last year). This ensures that if the track gets radio airplay or a million hits on Youtube, the publishing royalties will go to the original artist, rather than you. Which, since you’re relying so heavily on the original, is probably the right thing to do.
We should point out, that since doing edits is illegal, we don’t recommend it. Especially since there are now some great vocal sample packs out there featuring stacks of professionally recorded vocals in high quality, just ready for you to drop into your tracks. Available from certain well known sample companies. Hint, hint.
But if you must go down the edits road, these pointers should give you some help on going in the right direction. And the important thing is to be writing good music. So whatever route you choose, get that DAW up and running and start laying down some beats!