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Stems and Multitracks: What’s the Difference?

by Arthur Kody, iZotope Contributor November 18, 2021

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In the audio production world, the terms “multitracks” and “stems” are often used interchangeably. Although stems and multitracks are similar in ways, they are actually quite different, and knowing the difference between the two can help prevent mix-ups when it comes to requesting and sending files.

Stems and multitracks are essential for successful collaboration, tracking, editing, mixing, remixing, and mastering, but it’s important to understand the key differences if you want your production to run smoothly and efficiently. In this article, we’re covering the difference between multitracks and stems as well as discussing the uses for each in music production.

In this piece you’ll learn: 

What’s the difference between stems and multitracks?

Stems and multitracks are both ways to break a full song down into its various elements in order to send them to a collaborator. However, the key difference between multitracks and stems is how many individual tracks you break a song into.

What is a multitrack? 

Multitracks consist of all the individual elements of an audio production, each with their own dedicated track (i.e. kick, snare, hats, toms, shaker). Some may be mono, while others are stereo. They may have been recorded from microphones or direct inputs, programmed in a sequencer, or arranged in a sampler. 

Example of multitrack recordings
Multitracks

What is a stem? 

Stems are stereo recordings sourced from mixes of multiple individual tracks, such as drums, vocals, and bass. For example, a drum stem will typically be a stereo audio file that sounds like all of the drum tracks mixed together. The image below shows a folder of stems generated from a mix of the multitrack files displayed in the previous image.

Example of stems
Stems

As you can see, multitrack sessions typically have far more tracks than stem sessions. Whereas the track counts in multitrack sessions range from twenty to a couple hundred, stem sessions may contain only four to twenty tracks.

Both stems and multitracks can be useful, depending on your desired outcome, but sometimes sending multitracks is overkill, and sometimes sending stems just isn’t enough.

When should you use multitracks?

Multitracks are typically requested when complete flexibility is needed. For example, in order to get everything to sit well together in a mix, a mix engineer is going to need absolute control over each individual instrument. For this reason, multitracks typically exclude any use of compressors, delays, or reverbs so that these decisions can be left up to the mix engineer. It’s always best practice to export your multitracks as “dry” as possible—meaning you should only include effects that are crucial to the sound of the instrument, but nothing more.

When should you use stems?

Unless your collaborator has specifically requested you send them a multitrack, stems are probably the best way to go. Rather than sending up to 100+ individual instrument tracks, you can simply send a handful of stems—one for each major instrument group—to simplify things ahead of time.

When sending files to a vocalist

Stems work well if you’re sending the files to a vocalist to record to. Since the vocalist won’t be editing or mixing the tracks, they don’t need every separate element of the production. But, sending stems allows the vocalist to have some flexibility over the track during recording. For example, if they want to boost the drums in their headphones to help them stay in rhythm, they can do that by turning up the “drums” stem.

When having your song remixed

Stems are also great for sending to people looking to remix your song. In EDM especially, one simple synth line can actually be created by seven different instruments. So, rather than overwhelming a remixer by sending every individual track separately, you can simply send them a few stems with which they can chop, cut, warp, and splice up to their heart’s desire. 

Bonus: Looking to work with other creators and submit your remixes to competitions? Check out Metapop, the community for music creation and improving your craft. 

When you want to rebalance your mix

If things are sounding generally good in your mix, but you want a second set of ears to help dial in the last few adjustments, stems are going to help a ton. A handful of stems is easier to work with than a full multitrack, so stems are a great option if you’re looking to simply rebalance your mix. Or, for example, if your song gets syndicated in a car commercial, but they want the vocal removed in a certain section, it’s going to be a lot easier to work with the stems than have to filter through potentially dozens of vocal tracks to remove the unwanted bits.

When getting your song mastered

Lastly, stems can also be useful during the mastering process. Although most mastering engineers prefer to receive one final stereo mix to work with, sometimes having the stems can be beneficial if they need to make some more fine tuned adjustments to a certain section (i.e. needing more kick and less bass would be tricky to accomplish if they didn’t have these elements in separate stem files).

Tips for creating and sharing 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.

Start at the beginning

When exporting stems from your DAW, it’s a best practice to make sure each stem begins at the same place (the beginning of your track) even if they begin with complete silence. Otherwise, it can take a lot of work for your collaborator to line things up properly in their own DAW. It’s worth noting that this tip applies to exporting multitracks too.

Start every stem at the beginning
Start every stem at the beginning

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Include at least four stems

You’ll want to export at least four separate stems: one for the drums and percussion, one for any bass instruments, one for all the vocals, and one for any other instruments or synths. These are the bare minimums, and you may want to do more than just four stems, depending on the complexity of your track. For example, grouping the kick, snare, and hats into one stem called “drums” and then grouping the toms, shakers, and any other percussive elements into another stem called “percussion” can offer a bit more flexibility to your collaborator.

Consider sending stems with and without effects

When you export stems from your DAW, you may want to include any additional effects you have placed on the various instruments, either on the individual track or via a bus. To do this, simply solo all the tracks you want to group into your stem along with any bus tracks they may be sending audio to before exporting. 

If you are exporting stems for an engineer, they might also want a version of the stems without effects as well for mixing and mastering purposes, so be prepared to share both versions. 

Turn off effects on the master channel

If you have any effect plug-ins on your master channel (like Ozone Pro, for example), you’ll want to turn these plug-ins off before exporting your stems. Since mastering plug-ins will often add compression/limiting to the audio coming into them, they will affect the audio from your stems differently than they would affect the entire track since there will be a difference in volume. Turning off any effects on the master channel will ensure your stems retain the same balance as in your original mix.

Turn off effects on the master channel
Turn off effects on the master channel

Check stems before sending

Sometimes things may not go as planned when exporting stems. For example, you may forget to include the vocal reverb bus, so you only export the dry vocal by accident. Before sending any stems off to your collaborator, double check them to make sure they exported properly. To do this, open a new session in your DAW, import your stems, and press play. You should quickly be able to tell if anything is missing and if you need to go back and re-export a specific stem file. This simple step could save you (and your collaborator) from potential headaches down the line.

Include the full mixdown

When sending stems, it’s best to also include a full mixdown of your song. This full version allows your collaborator to hear exactly how the track is supposed to sound. Just in case things are not lined up or balanced properly, including a full mix down ensures there is an easy reference for them to use if necessary.

Keep stems organized

Always label your stems (i.e. “drums”, “vocals”, etc.) and keep them organized in a dedicated folder. It also helps to include a PDF document in this same folder that includes the song information (title, artist, BPM, and key) as well as the session parameters (bit depth, sample rate, and file type) so your collaborator has all the information they need in one place. Finally, I find it’s easiest to “zip” the folder into a .zip file for easy transfer and to make sure nothing gets lost along the way. Keeping your stems (and multitracks) organized will let anyone receiving them get started working with them faster.

Include a song info PDF with your stems
Include a song info PDF with your stems

When in doubt about stems or multitracks, ask!

If you aren’t sure if your collaborator wants stems or multitracks, the best thing to do is simply ask them. Trust me, this could save a whole lot of hassle on everyone’s parts if you’re crystal clear about this ahead of time. Where the terms have become so interchangeable, it’s best to clarify before hitting the export button.

If they’re only needing stems, you can save yourself precious time and energy not exporting, labeling, and organizing every individual instrument for a multitrack. But, if they do want the multitrack, it’s going to save some back-and-forth if you accidentally send them stems instead. The bottom line: when in doubt, ask!

Now that you know the difference between music stems and multitracks, you’re ready to get into deeper production topics like mixing and mastering

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