How much can you learn by remixing music you’ve mixed before?
Years ago when I lived in San Diego, I was in a pretty great band called Humboldt Road – for a minute. We recorded a grand total of one album and only played a couple of shows before I decided to leave the band. (More on that later, maybe.)
Recording was a DIY affair. I called upon a lifelong friend and musical buddy to help track the drums, and I recorded everything else at my house with my modest gear and decidedly substandard room. I’d been recording and mixing on my own for years and was learning mastering, so I took on both mixing and mastering duties.
I’m someone who is never quite happy with songs I’ve written in the past or recordings I’ve made. Somehow I always think that if I knew then what I know now, and if I’d had the gear that I have now, I could’ve done so much better.
So, recently I got the urge to put that assertion to the test and remix some old material to see how much I could improve upon what I’d done all those years ago.
Humboldt Road seemed like a great candidate for a project like this. It was a full band with great players, good songs and interesting arrangements. And deep down I felt like I’d never fully done the band justice with my recording work. Plus, I’m still in contact with a couple of the guys from the band. Maybe they’d like to hear these tunes with a fresh coat of paint.
I’d put off trying something like this in the past, for a lot of reasons. Why work on material you’ve already done? Wouldn’t it be a waste of time – time better spent on making new music? Probably, and life is busy enough.
Also, I’ve changed DAWs several times since then. Back then I worked exclusively in Cakewalk Sonar, now I work in Bitwig, Studio One and sometimes Mixbus. Would I even have the files? Would they open and function?
After dipping my toe in the water by remixing an old tune I’d recorded for a friend and mega-talented San Diego artist named Omar Musisko, I felt like I’d been somewhat successful in improving upon my old work. Now, I was hungry for another shot.
If I remembered correctly, good old Cakewalk Sonar had been bought years ago by Gibson, and then it was bought by Bandlab. They now offer it free to their members. Didn’t seem fair, really – Sonar was never the most well-known or widely adopted DAW, but it had been ahead of its time and even now I think it did some things better than most DAWs do now.
I’d signed up for Bandlab a long time ago but hadn’t signed in for ages, but when I dug out my password – sure enough, Sonar was available for download. Opening it up after install was like being sucked back in time! It looked exactly as it had when I logged so many hours in it all those years ago.
Next I located my old Humboldt road files. I recall it was kind of a weird set up. My friend Chad who helped out with recording was much more adept at tracking and mixing drums, so traveled out to Southern California from Arizona to record the drums. Then he took the tracks back and mixed just the drums while we recorded the rest.
It was a good way to split the work and keep our streak of working together alive, but it wasn’t the best arrangement for mixing. It meant I had to mix the rest of the tracks with the stereo drum tracks Chad had mixed. He killed it and they sounded great, but I had less control and I remember getting things to sit together convincingly was a challenge.
But I did have the old project files. Even more shockingly, they opened without issue! All of my old plugins were missing, of course. But I don’t use those anymore, either. Nice work, Cakewalk. I played them back to see what I had, and sat awash in memories as I listened.
My very first thought was that this really was a great band. Drummer Dan was technically ludicrous and played everything like his sticks were on fire. Matt the bass player never failed to hold the pocket down and still managed to add tasty touches everywhere.
Ryan to this day is one of the best guitar players I’ve heard and a deeply talented songwriter and singer. Riley has a one-of-a-kind voice, brought unique and well-crated songs to the table and had a knack for lyrical imagery like nobody’s business. I sang, played guitar and wrote songs as well.
This band had no business having this much talent in one group! (Why did I leave this band, again?)
I thought if I was going to improve on the original mixes, I’d have a better chance if I could get my hands on the individual original drum tracks. So I reached out to Chad, and waddya know? He had those as well. He promised to share them. Good man.
In another stroke of luck, I’d kept the direct guitar tracks. I guess I’d used an amp modeling plugin for guitar tracking? I didn’t even remember that! But it explains the less-than-stellar guitar sounds I got at the time. But modeling has come so far since then, and having the direct tracks meant that I could reamp the old tracks using either new modelers or the Kemper Profiler I’d acquired not too long ago.
Side note – when people talk about things like file management, naming conventions, backups, recall sheets, notes and all those other boring aspects of managing the recording process, it’s hard for me to keep myself from nodding off into a nice nap. But I gotta say, thank goodness I did enough to be able to revisit these songs.
I’m still working to improve and be consistent in this area, but this project has given me new motivation on that front. You never know when you might need or want to revisit some old work!
Today, I’m mostly finished with three of the four Humboldt Road songs I chose to work on. It took some work, but I managed to pull together all of the drum tracks I needed from Chad’s old Logic project files.
I can’t tell you how much fun it has been to breath new life into these songs. Taking a guitar track that was recorded over seven years ago and reamping it to give it an entirely new sound shouldn’t be so thrilling to me, but I am a sound nerd through and through, and it is.
Having the original drum tracks has helped me pull things together into a cohesive sound better than I ever could have before.
Not only are the hardware and plugins I have better than many I used back in the day, but I am more seasoned and know my way around a mix better. I’m more confident in my decisions and my ability to translate what I’m hearing into choices that are reflected in the sound coming from my monitors.
What’s interesting is that the changes I’m hearing so far aren’t always dramatic. When I compare my current work against the old masters, the difference isn’t always night and day. Some of the original masters are overcooked, and I remember struggling to get the level I wanted out of them without fizzing out the mix. Overall, though, the mixes themselves weren’t that bad.
Will these new mixes actually be better? Certainly I hear more depth and nuance in my new work, and they are coming much, much easier. The benefit of experience and better tools, I guess. But we’ll see when I’m done.
Where I haven’t made drastic changes to the sound or arrangement, maybe the average music listener might not notice too much of a difference. But other sound geeks like me? Yeah, they’ll notice.
Then again, maybe they won’t be better or worse, just different. I would be okay with that outcome, because even though I’m not producing anything that will be groundbreaking or widely listened to, I’m having a hell of a lot of fun and learning a lot about myself. That’s worth the time.
I may do another post to update my progress before I wrap up the 22 Remix + Remaster Project. And I’ll put up the before mixes on the Music page as well as the afters when they’re done. Let me know your thoughts.