The Making of a Mashup: Aurally Volume 1

The Making of a Mashup: Aurally Volume 1 - By Scott Abel, The Audio Wrangler

By Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, aka The Audio Wrangler

What do you get when you cross Pink Floyd with Christina Aquilera? How about a little Elvis with your Public Enemy? Or some Cher on top of This Mortal Coil? Although it may sound a little frightening, pairing musical groups and vocalists together in unorthodox ways can yield some pretty incredible audio sensations.

Known commonly as mashups (or bastards), these bootleg musical creations are user-generated derivative works created by blending two or more songs, usually by overlaying the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the instrumental version of another. This technique makes it possible to create a new music product by combining, for instance, the a cappella version of “Hurt” by Christina Aquilera with the instrumental “Is there anybody out there?” by Pink Floyd. The result, when done well, yields a beautiful new audio product – in this example, a mashup entitled “Is There Anybody Hurt There?” by the mashup artist Okiokinl.

I use music mashups in conference presentations, workshops, and during consulting assignments, to teach my clients (organizations struggling to get a grip on the documents, web pages, marketing brochures, and other information products they produce) about content reuse, XML authoring, component content management, and content personalization. I use music mashups as an example because it’s the easiest way to help people understand these concepts and it’s something most — if not all — humans have experience with in one way or another.

How do you make a music mashup?

There are various ways to make a music mashup based on two songs. They can be created digitally on a personal computer using software designed to facilitate the mixing of music files together such as Apple Garage Band, which allows user to mix and record music from multiple sources. Music mixing software — of which there are many varieties at varying price points — provides a granular level of control that is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain using traditional music mixing methods.

Numark iDJ2 iPod Mixing Board

Numark iDJ2 iPod Mixing Board

Mashups can also be created using a more traditional remixing approach. This method requires two turntables (or two CD players), a dj mixing board (a type of audio control panel that provides the dj control of what music is being played, its volume, bass, treble, midrange, as well as its tempo, calculated in beats per minute or bpm), headphones, and a recording device like a CD burner. Inexpensive modern mixing boards like the Numark iDJ2 provide an iPod interface, allowing you to mix music directly from your iPod (without the need for CD players, turntables or other music inputs) onto the recording device.

More complex mashups may involve a hybrid approach that utilizes a variety of approaches and may even incorporate other techniques including live vocals, music, and spoken voice.

How I created my mashup compilation

Aurally Volume 1: A Mashup Compilation by DJ Scott Abel, The Audio Wrangler

Aurally Volume 1 - A bouillabaisse of sound, jam-packed with songs you may recognize, but in new and unexpected ways. A downtempo mashup continuous mix by DJ Scott Abel.

Aurally Volume 1 is a mashup compilation – a series of mashups (created by other artists) that I weaved together using the Numark iDJ2 mixing board, a home stereo system (amplifier, CD recorder, speakers), a video iPod, a MacBook Pro, and a series of carefully selected mp3 files (the mashups).

The art of selecting, sequencing and mixing the tracks together to create the final product is what I enjoy when making a compilation. It’s an art form that relies on timing, feelings and emotions, as much as musical knowledge and technical ability. It’s not something everyone can do well. In fact, the mashup databases are littered with good examples of bad mashups. Here’s an example. It’s called “Bringing Back Sexy Knights” (Justin Timberlake vs Knight Rider Theme Remixed) by DJ Skip .

To create my compilation, I first determined the theme (or flavor) of the mix. I decided to deviate from my comfort zone. Usually, I tend to create hiNRG, continuously mixed dance compilations, which involve a technique known as beat-matching. But this time around I decided on a downtempo vibe — a collection of mellow songs, with the occasional uptempo track included for good measure. The goal of a downtempo mix is to create a listening experience by weaving the tracks together in a way that is both interesting and musically pleasing.

To create my continuous mashup mix compilation, I performed the following tasks:

  1. Scanned online mashup databases for mashups
  2. Listened to each mashup and downloaded those that were candidates for inclusion in the compilation into iTunes
  3. Recorded metadata about each mashup I planned to use. (Note: I recorded this metadata in iTunes, but you could do it in a spreadsheet or on a piece of paper). Metadata included:
    • Name of mashup artist/dj who created the mashup
    • Name of mashup (usually a combination of the original song titles repurposed to create a new mashed up title)
    • Titles of the original songs and artists included in the mashup
    • The total length of the mashup in minutes and seconds
  4. Created a draft line-up (the order in which each mashup would be included in the mix); I use a piece of paper for this, but you could use a spreadsheet or a text document to accomplish the same goal
  5. Played each mashup, paying special attention to the beginning and ending of each mashup in order to identify places where the mashup had a natural break, or a change of tempo, that might make a good place to introduce the next mashup in the mix — aka seque
  6. Recorded the exact time (in minutes and seconds) of the seque on my draft line-up
  7. Fired up the mixing board and my iPod
  8. Rehearsed the mashup following the draft line-up, making changes to the segues and switching the order of the mashups in the line-up until I was happy with the final product
  9. Created the final line-up
  10. Recorded the final mashup compilation mix (as documented in the final line-up) onto compact disc
  11. Copied the compilation file (an .mp4 file) to iTunes
  12. Listened to the entire compilation
  13. Satisfied with the end result, I used iTunes to convert the .mp4 file to .mp3

Finding mashups

Finding the mashups to include on a compilation is a time-consuming process. I searched music libraries, peer-to-peer networks, music industry blogs, Facebook and MySpace pages, and websites dedicated to cataloging and writing about mashups. I downloaded hundreds of mashups – a more difficult and time-consuming task than you might imagine. Some sites provide an ability for you to download a mashup with one click. Others require you to right-click, then select a destination for the file. And still others trick you into thinking you’re going to download the file with a single click, but they really are trying to get you to register for (and often purchase) a service. To add to the frustration, many sites are advertising-based. They display a series of never-ending pop up ads, some of which start off by playing bandwidth hogging video that sometimes causes your browser to crash, forcing you to start all over again.

Once I accumulated a large selection of mashup files, I began the screening process. This is perhaps the most time-consuming part of making a solid compilation as it requires you to listen to each track and determine if you have an interest in keeping it, or whether you should delete it. If you’re like me, you can get wrapped up in the music and lose track of time, so it’s best to try and stay focused on the task at hand.

The Ingredients in Aurally: Volume 1

Here’s a listing of the mashups I included in my compilation (including the metadata described above):

  1. “Strictly Safe From Rock-n-Roll” by Apollo Zero
    • Ingredients: Bent “Strictly Bongo”, Britney Spears “I Love Rock-n-Roll”, Christina Aquilera “Beautiful”, Paris Hilton “Nothing in this World”, Simple Minds “Belfast Child”, Massive Attack “Safe From Harm”, K-Tel Records “Dance Lesson Intro”.
  2. “Turn Up The Club Ghetto” by Okiokinl
    • Ingredients: Elvis Presley “The Ghetto”, Public Enemy “Bring the Noise/Terminator X”, and DJ Rob “Clubbed to Death”.
  3. “Is There Anybody Hurt There?” by Okiokinl
    • Ingredients: Christina Aquilera ”Hurt” and Pink Floyd “Is There Anybody Out There?”.
  4. “Safari Love” by Loo & Placido
    • Ingredients: The Beatles “Because the World is Round”, Aretha Franklin “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”, The Pixies “Where is My Mind?” and Elton John “I Want Love”.
  5. “You Won’t See You’re All That I Need” by DJ Nite
    • Ingredients: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel “You’re All I Need to Get By” and The Beatles “You Won’t See Me”.
  6. “If This Isn’t Numb” by Ministry of Mashed Sound
    • Ingredients: The Pet Shop Boys “Numb” and Jennifer Hudson “If This Isn’t Love”.
  7. “Apologize Life” by Winkar Lopez
    • Ingredients: One Republic featuring Timbaland “Apologize” and Julie McKnight “Diamond Life”.
  8. “Jude’ll Fix It” by Phil Retrospector
    • Ingredients: The Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends”, Jim Sturgess “Hey Jude” and Coldplay “Fix You”.
  9. “Walk on By ‘Cuz I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” by Matt Bland
    • Ingredients: Dione Warwick “Walk on By” and Duffy “Stepping Stone”.
  10. “Sunshine on My Foolish Ocean” by Apollo Zero
    • Ingredients: John Denver “Sunshine on My Shoulder”, This Mortal Coil “Song to the Siren”, Sheena Easton “Foolish Heart”, Cyndi Lauper “Come on Home”, Dolly Parton “God’s Coloring Book
  11. “Funk That Shit: Believe in Glorybox” by Funk That Shit Productions
    • Ingredients: Cher ”Believe” and Portishead “Glory Box”.
  12. “Bootiful Prudence” by Autopilot
    • Ingredients: The Beatles “Dear Prudence” and Christina Aquilera “Beautiful”.
  13. “Nancy Gets Banged” by Phil Retrospector
    • Ingredients: Nancy Sinatra “Bang Bang” and Ryuichi Sakamoto “Railroad Man”.

Selecting the mashups to go on a compilation generally means finding a dozen or so songs that go well together. This is the tricky part. It involves understanding the emotional and dramatic impact of music, it’s tone, tempo, style, vibe, and flavor. These are not things you can easily learn. I think, like being able to sing, paint, sculpt or draw, it’s something you either have inside you — or you don’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn the techniques used by djs, mashup artists and remixers. They can come in handy for a variety for purposes.

Elapsed time to create this compilation…well, we won’t go into that. Let’s just say, it was days, not hours. Your mileage may vary. It’s a creative endeavor that involves lots of emotional judgements that are hard to describe. Suffice it to say that artists can’t be rushed when they are practicing their craft. Sometimes it comes to you quickly and other times, it’s a painful process — a trial and error experiment.

Aurally: Volume 1

Here’s the final product. Give it a listen. Then, let me know what you think by leaving a comment at the end of this article. If you like what you hear, join my DJ Scott Abel (The Audio Wrangler) fan page on Facebook where you can listen to and download my other mashup mixes.

In future articles, I’ll discuss how to make an original mashup, how to use social networks to promote your mashups (and get to the top of the charts), and I’ll interview some of the most famous mashup artists. Until then, enjoy the music.