Benefits of Stems
Stems offer unique advantages over multitracks for certain applications, but they also present limitations when compared to multitracks. Consider these pros and cons of stems when deciding if they should be created and used.
Efficiency for overdubbing
Setting up an overdubbing session will be faster with four stems versus 40 multitracks. Fewer files, fewer hassles (usually).
Example Scenario: A California-based artist wants to feature a Vermont-based vocalist on a track and needs to send the reference music to the Vermont artist. The Cali artist uses the most popular DAW and the Vermont artist uses a different one. What should be sent, stems or multitracks?
Stems, you say? You nailed it. Since the Vermont artist will not be editing or mixing the tracks, he/she doesn’t need every separate element of the production. However, if the Vermont vocalist wants to sing along with quieter drums and louder instruments (for pitch reference), that is easily accomplished with stems. Plus, even if the computer used by the Count of Montpelier is weak in comparison to the strong SoCal supercomputer, it would surely be more likely to handle four audio files than forty of them. As a result, stems offer reliable simplicity when transferring between collaborators and engineers, regardless of which DAW is used.
Ease of mixing
If someone sends you ten stems, they will be “easier” to mix than 100 multitracks, but will also be quite limiting. The stems may already be affected with EQ and reverb and adjusted to the preferred levels from the previous session. Since that work was taken care of, it leaves less work for the mix engineer. Less work; that’s exactly what the mixing engineer wants, right?
Au contraire! Most mixers would prefer to access the multitracks to have complete control of each element’s level, panning, and effects (see example scenario #1). However, there are times in which stems are preferred by mixers (see example scenario #2).
Example Scenario #1: After stems are sent to a mixing engineer, the artist requests to have the drum overheads panned closer together, the floor tom panned further right, and the snare bottom turned down several smidgens. But if the mixer was given a stereo drum stem rather than individual drum files, the requests cannot be accomplished. There’s no way to tweak those individual elements in a stereo audio file.
Example Scenario #2: A year after the release of a song, “Shine Shiny Sunshine Shine,” the artist gets a licensing deal to have the song featured in a car commercial, but the production company wants a mix with the drums down and vocals up. If stems had been created at the time of the original mix, it would be simple and painless to pull them up and make the new mix. It wouldn’t matter if the mix engineer had a completely different system; any DAW that could read the stem audio files would be sufficient!
Ease of use for remixers
Remixes are fiercely common and popular. Last year, I heard a track called “Horns” by Bryce Fox. A few weeks ago, I decided to look up more of his material. My findings included a few miscellaneous tracks that each had four remixes! Electronic musicians, beatmakers, and music producers frequently want to take elements of a song they like, but use a different beat, tempo, and more to create a new interpretation of the song.
Example Scenario: A week after the release of a certain lyrically complex track—we’ll call it, “Yeah Yeah Yeah, Whoa Whoa Yeah”—an EDM artist wants to do a remix of it with his/her own spin on the instrumentation. Should the original artist send stems or multitracks?
Stems! The EDM artist wouldn’t have to create a mix from scratch, but just load up the stems and start chopping, cutting, and warping. If the remixer uses a software such as Serato DJ, Traktor, or Live, a handful of stems can easily be integrated and manipulated.
Flexibility in mastering
Looking to make an enemy? Send a mastering engineer an album’s worth of songs in multitrack form—12 songs averaging 50 multitracks each. Yikes! Adjusting and tweaking every single track is the job of the mixer, not the mastering engineer.
A mastering engineer will usually be dealing with the final stereo mix instead of multitracks or stems. However, some scenarios such as needing more kick, less bass guitar, and warmer lead and backing vocals (all in the same mix) may be easier for the mastering engineer to tackle if he/she has stems. Don’t assume that a mastering engineer wants stems. The mastering engineer may have a preferred stereo signal chain utilizing stereo analog outboard gear and could be slowed down by having to deal with stems.
So, communicate before sending files to a mastering engineer. If you will be mastering someone else’s material, make your preference known.
How to Deliver Stems
Each DAW handles the creation of stems differently. The process often involves features such as track bouncing and/or exporting. Regardless of your DAW’s unique capabilities (some offer faster stemming methods than others), there is a near universal way to make your stems. Prior to detailing that process, I’d like to review a few important suggestions.
Use the same file length for all stems
If all stems start and end at the same points, lining them up in a different session or DAW will be effortless. Receiving stems that don’t line up together yields a massive headache because you have to try to figure out where each stem should start. Also, be sure to include additional time at the session end to fully capture reverb and delay tails that may extend beyond the last audio region.
Include effects for each stem
To ensure that the stems will sound just like the current mix of tracks, the effects tracks such as reverb returns, echo tracks, and pitch and reverse SFX must be used. So, if you have eight dry drum tracks and one drum reverb track, don’t forget that reverb!
Create at least four stems—drums, bass, other instruments, and vocals
Using this as a minimum standard allows future users of the stems to have separate control over the most essential groups of sources. Based upon communication with your client, be prepared to create (aka “print”) additional stems for improved flexibility. You may end up with stems for drums, percussion, bass, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, piano and keyboards, synths, lead vocals, doubled vocals, and background vocals, or even more!
Note the session parameters
Document the tempo, meter, bit depth, sample rate, and file type of the stems. This information will be greatly appreciated by anyone receiving the files as it makes configuring their DAW much easier.
The following steps show how to create stems and can be used even in very basic DAWs.
Step 1: Select
Select your playback range from the session start to the session end. Don’t forget to include extra time at the end for effects tails (if applicable), as shown in the image below.