The hardest part of figuring out how to remix a track is trying to remember how to spell “Acapella.” Is it Acapella? Or Acappela? Shouldn’t there be two “c”?!
The second hardest part is getting started. And a lot of times, this means warping the acappella from the original track. Even if you are going to be only using a small snippet of the acappella, the vocal is often an important element, since it is usually what lets the average person know that the track is a remix and not a wholly new production.
But warping an acappella presents its own special challenges. While Ableton’s best guess about warping the average track is usually pretty good, the warping of an acappella is almost never correct right out of the box. The reason for this is that acappellas often lack the basic rhythmic elements that Ableton uses as reference points to warp a track, since acappellas are only an isolated vocal track.
So, I’ve isolated two techniques for warping acappellas that have served me very well. One, which you can use with acappellas whose backing tracks are still faintly audible and another for acappellas with no audible backing track. I decide which technique to use based on whether or not you can hear the backup track.
*EDIT* Here’s the acapella that I used in this video: Marvin Gaye-Sexual Healing (Acapella)
The cardinal rules
Both of these techniques have the same basic two rules: 1) warp one bar and then use the segment BPM of that bar to warp the rest of the track.
So, what you are looking for is a way to tell what is one bar. We usually start with the downbeat (1.1.1 in Ableton speak), but you can just as easily start with another bar. The important thing is that you can isolate one “cycle” of the beat. So, your bar could go from 1.1.1 to 2.1.1 or it can go from 1.2.1 to 2.2.1 (as it does in the example video). For our purposes, it really doesn’t matter.
Once you’ve isolated one bar and you can get it to loop cleanly, then the BPM of that bar should be close to the BPM of the whole track.
How to Remix with an Acappella if You Can Hear the Backing Track
Oftentimes an acappella will contain a very faint version of the backing track. While this was probably a mistake in the recording process (the mics bled into one another) it’s a huge coup for us! Sometimes, we can even hear a tad bit of the drums in the intro. If that is the case, then we can warp the track according to the backing track and be done.
What I’ve noticed, though, is that the most common drum that comes through from a backing track is not the kick (which would usually fall on the downbeat, solving all of our problems) but the snare or the clap. While these don’t fall on teh downbeat (usually), they do fall on the 2, which is the next best thing!
Why stand on ceremony? If you have enough of a backing track to hear the snare, then go ahead and set a warp marker there, right (cntl) click and set it as 1.1.1 Then set warp markers at all the snares that you can find. Once you’ve done this, drag them to the nearest 1s and 3s. You only need to do this on a few (maybe three).
As soon as you can, set the “loop” function to one bar and try to isolate one cleanly looping bar. Remember that it doesn’t have to go from downbeat to downbeat, it can go from snare to snare.
Once you’ve done this, put the cursor inside the warped, looped bar and look at the clip view for a number that says “Segment BPM.” This will be the BPM of that bar that you’ve isolated.
Go up to the global BPM and enter the number that you’ve gotten from “Segment BPM.”
Right click your 1.1.1 warp marker again and select “Warp from here (Start at [global tempo]).”
Now, your acappella (or is it accappellaa?) should be warped to at least shouting distance of correct. Listen to it with a click track to confirm. You may have to reset the “Start” marker of the clip to get it to conform to the downbeat, but that shouldn’t require any more warping.
You may, though, find places where the vocal drifts off the click. This is going to be especially true if you are remixing an acappella from a track made with a live band. Tune in on Thursday to see how I handle this scenario, as well as how to warp an acappella if you can’t hear the backing track at all! Once I’ve done everything in this series on how to remix with Ableton, I’ll link them all together somewhere handy, so don’t worry.
If you interested in more Ableton tutorials like this one, sign up for the Ableton Cookbook email list. You’ll also be eligible for a exclusive 25% discount on The Ableton Cookbook Live Course, an 8 Module Ableton smorgasbord!