By Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler
I often use music as a way to illustrate how components of content can be re-purposed or recombined in new ways to create useful derivatives of content. In my work as a blogger, presenter, and content strategy consultant, I borrow concepts from remixing music to make such examples easier to understand. My experiences as a night club dj made the move to creating music — and content — mashpups a natural progression for me. A partial library of my mashups and remixes can be found here.
DJ Schmolli is one of my favorite mashup artists. His talent for combining the seemingly unlikely — The Monkees with Iron Maiden, for instance — is one of the things that makes him an up-and-coming superstar on the international bootleg dance music scene. In this exclusive interview, I chat with him a bit about his work as a dj, remixer and mashup bootlegger. If you’re unfamiliar with DJ Schmolli and his work, check out “Pirate Nation Vol.2” (30 min mixtape). We’ve also included a few pieces of digital bootleg mashup candy (including a fabulous video mashup of AC-DC with Robyn) for your enjoyment. Read the article. Click the links. Share your views. Let us know what you think!
TCW: Thanks for dropping by to share with our readers a little bit about yourself and your craft. What’s your real name and what you do for a living?
DJS: Thanks, Scott. I’m Tom but people know me as DJ Schmolli. My DJ name is coming from the nick name I have had ever since; it refers to my last name. I’m from a little town around 35 miles south of Vienna, Austria. I used to be a tools salesman. But I have been working as a professional dj since the beginning of this year.
TCW: How did you get started working with music?
DJS: I used to be a musician (guitar), I also did some producing. I played in various bands, mainly rock and metal. Most of the bands I played with were well known in my area, never going international though. In 2003 I released a death metal album under the name of Soul Devoured. I wrote most of the songs and also produced it. The album did get a lot of positive reviews all over the world, but because it was mainly planed as studio project, we never took the next step.
In 2000 I started to DJ in local pubs, parallel to playing live as a musician. After I while, I built a reputation for myself and in 2007 began getting gigs in bigger venues like clubs and discos.
TCW: How did you get started making mashups?
DJS: In summer 2000 I heard Eminem vs. Britney Spears on the local radio and thought, “This is fun.” Being into production already, I thought that producing mashups could be a useful way to get to know this new software called Sony Acid. I remember me being sick at that time and staying at home from work. So my situation was perfect for spending time messing around with software. In 2000/2001 I did a couple of mashups, but then went on to other musical projects. In 2005, I picked up where I left off and I started to do mashups regularly. Being infected with the mashup virus, I have been going strong ever since.
TCW: Describe your first mashup?
DJS: My first mashup was called “What’s This Name For?” and used the music of Creed (“What’s This Life For?”) and the vocals of Destiny’s Child (“Say My Name”). I also threw in some guitar licks by Yngwie Malmsteen and some vocal samples by Limp Bizkit. As a fan of both Creed and Destiny’s Child, I thought they may fit each other well. And looking at the chord structure (with the help of my guitar) I got the proof. I produced it in the summer of 2000, I tagged it as “DJ Schmolli” because at this time I wasn’t thinking about a DJ career at all, I just took my nick name. I put it in my Napster folder and was surprised by the number of downloads. Later on I also played it out in the pubs where I’ve been DJing and the crowd always liked it. In 2006 I re-recorded it. I thought that my productions skills got better (which was true, in fact) and because I always loved that mix, I made a little update.
Check out some of DJ Schmolli’s work.
TCW: How do you make a mashup today?
DJS: Most of the time mashups happen when I come across an a cappella (vocals without instrumentals) or instrumental (music without vocals) that I like. I have amassed a huge library of them to choose from and I try to find a fitting vocal opposite to match up to an instrumental version. I usually take my guitar and write down the chords of the song I want to use, then try to find a good match. Thank God I labelled most my library with metadata (tempo and keys).
But every mashup production is a little different. Often I just make a simple A versus B mashup. Sometimes, I use 4 or more source tracks for one mashup.
One of the most important parts for me is the structure of the mash. It has got to be memorable. Some of the other mashup artists just slap 2 songs together not giving much about the structure or they just try to put in as many source tracks as possible. There are very few people who manage to do — let’s say a 10 source tracks mashup — that still has something like a structure/build up that is memorable.
Ok, on with the process. I then do a quick demo that takes me maybe 10 minutes just to see if the matching theory also works practically. It usually does, but not all of the time. If they match, I start to work.
I do all of the mashup production on my computer using the software Sony Acid Pro. I line up all the source tracks/samples that I’m going use and beatmatch them as they usually don’t have the same tempo. Sometimes, there is a need to “pitch-up” or “pitch-down” certain tracks to make the keys fit together. I also might have to do a little EQing/filtering on some tracks.
I build up the song structure, try to level all the source tracks well and use some plug-ins like reverb, compression, delay etc. to enhance the mix. I put a lot of work into the details to ensure good production. Usually, after 2-6 hours (depending on the complexity of the mash), I end up with a “first mix” that I master briefly and then listen to with headphones, on different stereos, and in my car.
I then go back and correct certain points of the mix that my testing determined could be improved … and then it’s done!
TCW: Where do you make your mashups available?
DJS: I post my mashups on my website. Most of them are linked to the Mashup Industries site from there. Sometimes I upload the tracks on my Official site. When it come to long mixes/mixtapes I upload them to my Soundcloud site. And, for the videos (yes, I make those, too!), you can find them on my YouTube channel.
TCW: Some people think of mashup artists as criminals, snatching pieces of copyrighted works and making products from them. I think that depends on whether you charge for them or not….after all, the original artists should make money off their work. But there are many issues to consider. What a your thoughts on mashups as an art form? Do you give yours away for free? Or do you charge? Are your creations licensed or do you just borrow pieces to create your tracks?
DJS I give away all my mashups for free since I don’t own any rights of the tracks I use. That makes me actually a pirate, mashups are often considered illegal. Mashup artists that are selling their mixes aren’t really welcome in the global mashup scene, but of course a couple of people try to make money with it. The good thing is that mashups are accepted by most of the record companies, especially the smaller ones appreciate them as it is some additional free promotion for their artists.
You are right, the original artist should make the money, that’s why proper tagging of the mp3s is important for me. I always list the tracks used so everybody is able to check out the original versions. So is it art then? There is of course some creativity going on, so mashups may be some kind of art, but I wouldn’t rate it as high as painting, writing or even playing an instrument.
TCW: Have you ever been contacted by a label or artist and asked to remove a mashup from the web, or threatened with legal action because of your work as a mashup artist?
DJS: Except for YouTube taking down my videos (or at least blocking them in certain countries), I haven’t been threatened with legal action so far.
TCW: There doesn’t appear to be a school for mashup artists, but if there is one, I want to know about it. How did you develop your skills?
DJS: No, I don’t think that there’s a school to learn how to mash. I was thinking about doing workshops though; people keep asking me about the art to mash. Anyway, as I said I have always been interested in production (even before doing mashups) and I think this — and the fact I’m a trained musician — is the key to why the quality of my mashups is pretty high. So learning-by-doing was my key, I guess.
Nowadays you can read or watch many production tutorials that are spread around the web, so for beginners this might be an interesting approach to developing production skills faster.
TCW: Well, if you do decide to run some workshops, talk to me. I’d love to promote (and take) one or more. My skills were developed old-school, back in the day (the disco era) when continuous mixing using two turntables was the norm. I’ve been able to add mp3s into the mix, but never fully made the move to digital, which I think I might be good at. But for those aspiring mashup artists getting started today, what advice do you have? Where can they gain skills? And what skills are critical?
DJS Getting basics on chord progressions, harmonies and things like that help a lot, so learning an instrument would be a great help to understanding certain things about making music. For the production get some good mastering software, listen to your mixes on various stereos, try to gain skills by watching or reading tutorials, and try to be creative by mixing different musical styles. The more diverse the tracks are the more attention you might get (only if the mix is good, of course).
TCW: What resources are there to help aspiring mashup artists? (mention any books, magazines, websites, videos, etc. that mint help newbies get started).
DJS: As far as I know there aren’t any magazines or books (well, except for DJ Earworm’s “Audio Mashup Construction Kit” – Wiley, June 2006) that really deal with mashup production. I really recommend Google and Youtube to find tutorials. Once you have produced a couple of good mixes, go out and spread them around the web (YouTube, Facebook, forums like GYBO and Mashstix). By posting your tunes there you’ll get feedback on things you might be able to improve. And, you’ll get noticed by others who are looking for and appreciate mashups.
TCW: Where do you get your raw material (sound bites, clips, a capellas, beats, samples, etc.)? Do you find them on the net? Buy them? Make them yourself?
DJS: You’ll find a lot of acapellas, instrumentals and samples on the net. Of course if you’re lucky, you’ll have them on a rare 12’’ or CD single. If there’s no instrumental available, I sometimes take longer versions/remixes of the track and edit loops out of the bits that do not include vocals. I sometimes use DIY a cappellas, but in most cases I try to use studio acapellas as the quality is way better than on the DIY ones.
TCW: Is there software that can strip away pieces of a song, and, for instance, move the vocals? If so, can you share some brand names and why you think they’re good products.
DJS: No, you can’t extract vocals from a finished production without having artifacts. I have tried a couple of software products that claim to do that, but the result is not really good, and in most cases, not usable (if you have high production standards like myself). I can recommend a plug-in named “Extra Boy” by KVR. It’s old and hasn’t been updated for a while but it’s useful if you wanna extract vocals of a recording that has strong panorama settings, like in the 60s and 70s. When the vocals are right in the middle of the mix and instrumental include a heavy right and/or left, this plug-in helps you the get out the center tracks alone, which is where the vocals sit.
TCW: If you work on a computer to make or enhance your music, do you use a Mac or a PC or some other devices (iPads, for example)?
DJS: The PC does it for me. I do not use any external devices when it comes to producing mashups.
TCW: Thanks for making room in your schedule for this interview. I’m sure our readers learned a lot about mashups and I appreciate you sharing tips, tricks, advice and, most of all, your valuable time. Before we end the interview, can you share a few links to some of your work?
DJS: It was a pleasure speaking with you, Scott. Here’s a few of my mashups for your readers’ listening pleasure.
DJ Schmolli – Insomnia Rhythm Satisfaction (multi dance mashup)
DJ Schmolli – Dancing On My Own All Night Long (AC/DC vs. Robyn)
DJ Schmolli – The Trooper Believer (The Monkees vs. Iron Maiden)
Do you have a favorite mashup artist — or other technology professional — you’d like use to interview? If so, leave a comment and tell us a little about the person and why you think they’d make a great interview. We’ll try to arrange one here on The Content Wrangler.