With technology making DJing easier and cheaper than ever, ambitious digital DJs need to find new ways to stand out from the crowd. One such way is to make and DJ with your own mashups.
Here, mashup artist and DJ Fred Dancekowski starts an in-depth four-part series, complete with detailed video demonstrations, revealing the secrets of how to make and DJ with mashups using modern sample editing and production software….
Mashups have been around for some time. We’ve all heard some, and most DJs have probably played them, or even made a few of their own. A mashup is similar to a remix in that it bases itself on audio material from pre-existing songs, but different in that as opposed to a regular remix, it doesn’t tend to features much original material from the remixer.
Mashups can be made by the simple combination of one song with another, say the vocal (acapella) of one with the instrumental of another. They can also be made up of multiple sources. A mashup consisting of dozens of samples from different songs can very well become an entity on its own, because it doesn’t build on any one song in particular. These mashups are called “sample-based mashups”, or “loop-based mashups”, popularised by the now worldwide popular artist Girl Talk.
Girl Talk made a name for himself by mixing live (and producing albums) strictly using samples of other songs, as opposed to full-blown tracks, thus creating a very original and frenetic live show. With this he helped to blossom a new genre that is getting more and more practitioners every day, myself included.
A mashup consisting of dozens of samples from different songs can very well become an entity on its own…
If you’ve been reading Digital DJ Tips lately, you’ve certainly read how mashups and personal reinterpretations of songs can give your deejaying a little edge, and help your sets become more unique. However, you may be starting to DJ just now, or you’ve DJed for a while but have no music production experience, and want to know how you could start making your own mashups. If this is you, this series is going to help.
In the next four parts I’ll be guiding you through the steps necessary to move from having the songs you like to turning them into something else of your own.
What’s coming up…
The first part will cover sampling, as in getting the parts you like from a song and storing them as individual loops that you can use anywhere else.
The second part will cover arranging, where I’ll share with you the principles of structuring a mashup in a way that it resembles a song, instead of just being different bits playing at the same time.
The third part will cover levelling and mastering, which basically shows how to make the final mixed product feel like a cohesive piece of music.
The fourth and final part will cover everything you need to know about setting up a live performance around loops. In this last part I’ll show you how I have my live act set up, but also give you some ideas on how you can incorporate these techniques into DJ sets.
Part 1: Sampling
The first thing I want to talk about in regards of sampling is what to sample.
You can sample basically anything that grabs your attention, but the most important bits are those parts in songs that can stand as a loop. A drum loop for example, a melody, a riff, a vocal line, and so on.
Although the majority of the elements of commercial music (and I’m talking about any music that’s being sold in some way, not just chart hits) are based upon “loopable” material, that doesn’t mean you can easily sample anything, which brings me to the next point.
The best loops are the more minimalistic and less dense ones, where there’s basically just one instrument playing. Songs like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge or Nirvana’s Lithium are good examples, because both have the main guitar loop playing by itself in the beginning. These loops are the most versatile, because you can easily add to them a couple of beats and a vocal, and it won’t sound crowded.
So when you’re thinking about looping something, a vocal for example, try sampling from the acapella. If it’s an instrument part, try getting it from the instrumental or a remix pack of the song, if they’re available.
If you’re sampling from the full song, make sure you aren’t sampling something that has the entire audio range full, with every single instrument and vocal playing at the same time. This way you’ll be missing the point, because you’ll struggle to add anything more to it.
Getting your hands dirty
It’s now time to follow along watching my first video tutorial on sampling, which is the first part in a full mashup tutorial series of ten videos that accompany these articles.
I will be using Sony Sound Forge for sampling and editing, and Ableton Live for everything else.
Audio editors are generally fairly similar, so you can follow along using others like Adobe Audition, Audacity (which is free) and so on. However, I feel that Sony Sound Forge is one of the easiest to start with, and has an extremely fast and easy workflow, having very intuitive navigation tools. It’s not free though.
You can also use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) other than Ableton Live, but if you’re looking to make a live act and perform your mashups live, I can’t recommend none other than Live.
Sampling beats and general percussion
Beats are probably the easiest to sample. They have a very fast attack (time it takes for a starting signal to reach its peak), so you can see exactly where your loop starts and ends.
I always zoom (using the scroll wheel scroll wheel) in to sample level (i.e. the level where you see all those dots, with each two of them being a digital representation of a certain part of an analog audio signal), and place markers (M) where the beat starts.
Beats are probably the easiest to sample. They have a fast attack, so you can see exactly where your loop starts and ends.
Remember, place the markers at zero crossings, where the audio crosses the horizontal 0dB line in the middle. Then, after marking the start and end of a loop, I play it (double click between markers to select and “space” to play it) as a loop (Q) and hear if it loops perfectly. If you find it doesn’t, it’s probably because you’ve looped an irregular amount of beats, or didn’t place your markers dead on the beat.
Finally, if it’s good, select the loop and hit Cmd+C (Ctrl+C) and Cmd+E (Ctrl+E) to make a new file with it and save it (Cmd+S (Ctrl+S)). Always save all your loops as wave files, as I explain in the video!
Any other type of percussion (such as “pacekeepers”) or even melodies or vocals that have some drums/beat behind them should also be sampled in this fashion.
Sampling riffs and melodies
Some riffs and melodies might have a simple hi-hat behind that generates a little peak in the waveform, helping you to easily find the down beat. However, you might come across loops of a single instrument.
In case it’s a guitar or a bass, the plucking of the string will generate a slight peak in the waveform as well, and you can zoom in on that and sample through those peaks. But if, for example, what you’re trying to sample is a violin or other soft instrument, you might not be able to see a visible peak. In this case I try to put markers where it seems best and hear how well it loops. The advantage of soft instruments is that there’s more tolerance to where you cut them, as long as it is close to where the down beat should be.
There’s another technique I use for when I can’t seem to find the down beat. Sometimes this down beat can be a silence, as in the case of syncopated rhythms.
This is where the ease of use of Sound Forge comes into play. You can mark a different loop anywhere in the song that you can perfectly pinpoint the beginning and end, and then use the navigation tools to shift that selection to where your loop is. (Of course, this works best with electronically paced music where the beat is exactly constant throughout.)
To access this navigation tools go to menu View > Toolbars… and tick the Navigation box. You’ll be using the “selection shift buttons”, both the “halve and double selection” buttons, and the “cursor to selection start and end” buttons, which are handy to place markers in the beginning and end of selections. (Another nice thing in the Navigation toolbar is that, if you select four beats on the song, it’ll show you the BPM on a box next to the selection shift buttons.)
You can see me using this technique in the video, while sampling the claps from J Cole’s Blow Up, in which the loop actually starts with silence.
You can double, halve, and shift selections as you wish in order to easily navigate within a song and know exactly where you are in terms of rhythm. I also use it to build a temporary grid line with markers and edit precisely within the beats I want to edit.
Time to follow along with the second video.
If you’re sampling vocals from within a full song, you’ll be fine with the techniques I’ve already spoken about. However, most of the vocals you will be sampling will probably come from acapellas.
Acapellas are probably the trickiest to sample, but are also fairly easy once you get the hang of it.
Acapellas are probably the trickiest to sample, but are also fairly easy once you get the hang of it. As you can see in the video, the trick is to line up the acapella with the original song, then sample by marking on the beats of the original song the start and end of the various parts. By marking out a verse, the chorus, or whatever parts you want to sample, in the full song, you’ll just have to copy that same marked parts to the acapella.
For this, you start by creating a new file (Cmd+N (Ctrl+N)) and choose four channels. Then copy the full song onto the first and second channels; you can do this by selecting the entire song and dragging it, or copying it, selecting the first two channels (shift+click) and pasting.
After this you’ll have to find a point of the vocal in the song, and then find that same point in the acapella, and mark them out. This point can be anywhere in the song. After finding it, just select everything up until the marker in the acapella and drag to the third and fourth channels. Do the same with everything that is beyond the marker.
If you play them both together and you can distinguish both vocals, this means they could be better synced. You can adjust them by selecting the acapella in channels 3 & 4 and then selecting the Event tool (next to the Pencil tool in the toolbars) and dragging it around until the waveforms match and you only hear a single (loud) vocal.
When you feel it is in perfect sync, select the portion between the markers on the acapella and save it. Verses will probably be 16 bars long, and choruses four or eight, though it doesn’t matter right now. If you’ve cut exactly in the beginning and end, later on Ableton Live will know its tempo and place the beatgrid accordingly.
If you’ve cut exactly in the beginning and end, later on Ableton Live will know its tempo and place the beatgrid accordingly.
Also, you might find that you’re cutting exactly on top of a word; this is because the vocal line has a pickup or ending (ie it starts before the first beat of a bar, or overruns the last beat of the musical section). For this, I mark out one or two bars (depending on the size of the pickup, but never smaller than one bar) right before or after the vocal line I sampled, and save that loop as a pickup. For example “Beyonce – Single Ladies (1st Verse Pickup)”.
Sampling pickups and endings on separate files will mean that, when in Ableton Live, you won’t need to place any warp markers to sync the beginning and ending of the vocal part, they’ll be the exact start and end of the file. Then later, when you’re sequencing and want to use that vocal part, just put the pickup or ending loops right before and after that part.
One more important caveat: sometimes the acapella might drift in relation to the song. It might happen with acapellas released long after the originals, or because of how they were converted. When this happens, I try to timestretch the acapella in order to match the tempo of the song, at least within the part I want to sample.
To do this you’ll need to find two points of the vocal in the full song, and the same two points on the acapella. Select in-between these points and the duration of the selection will appear in the lower right corner of the window (third box). Divide the duration of the selection on the full song by the duration of the selection on the acapella. Next select the entire acapella and go to Process > Time > Time Stretch…, change the Input Format to Percentage and enter the final percentage which is the ratio the calculator has given you (times 100, of course).
If this fails, it’s probably because there are inconsistencies in the acapella’s tempo. When this happens you’re left to your ears. Your best bet is to mark the start and end of the vocal part you want to sample on the full song, play them and hear where they hit on the vocal, then try to find the exact same spot on the acapella. When you find these spots, and have a full part marked out, you can then use the double and halve selection buttons to get any pickup or ending you might need from there as well.
Some final tips
Some parts of songs might appear not to loop, maybe because they have a vocal pickup at the end, or they don’t finish on a leading note. You can see me editing the 50 Cent In Da Club vocal, in order to get it to loop, in the second video.
There’s really no way of teaching you how to edit in this kind of situations, as it’s down to your judgement. If you feel that something could be looped, you should examine the parts that are making it unloopable, and then try to find parts in the rest of the song that might replace these and make it loop.
It’s kind of like making a puzzle. Pay attention and examine the songs carefully, and with experience you’ll be able to figure out how to turn something that might seem unloopable into a looped part.
We’ve covered making loop-based mashups, and also started to examine building a sample-based live act. Next week we’ll cover arranging. I’ll share my approach to it, as well as some universal tips that will help you make consistent mixes.
Finally, if feel free to go ahead and watch the rest of the video tutorials if you’re comfortable with the material – if not, there’ll be more explanation and additional material to help you along in next week’s article.
• Fred Dancekowski is a mashup artist/DJ and music student who lives in Porto, in the north of Portugal. You can hear a live mashup DJ performance by Fred Dancekowski on Soundcloud.
Has today’s article inspired you to start making your own mashups? Would you like to incorporate more mashups in to your DJing? Let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments.
Want to escape the bedroom and play in public - fast?
Our 1000s-selling How To Digital DJ Fast video course shows you how.
Learn to DJ Free - email course plus bonus PDF book
Sign up for our weekly email course for beginners now...
Trouble choosing a controller? Visit the web's #1 guide!
DJ Controllers: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide 2013.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.