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Stems In Music Production – Everything You Need To Know

We’ve all heard of stems but what are they?

I would like to clear up a few misconceptions about stems because a lot of people, including A&Rs, music supervisors and post-production supervisors use the term incorrectly. Stems are now commonplace in music, and indeed many other areas of audio production, but not just as a delivery requirement: creating stems in your own projects can make for convenient and time-saving workflows, both when working with others and when making music on your own.

As such, we really must all be on the same page when we’re discussing them. 

What Stems Are?

Stems are sub mixes of a larger mix, that when played together at equal volume will exactly recreate the full mix. 

Typically, this will mean dividing larger ensembles, whether recorded naturally or artificially, into smaller subsections. An orchestral mix might be stemmed into strings, brass, woodwind and percussion, or a rock band into drums, guitars, keys and vocals. Crucially, stems are groups of elements that make up the final mix, not the individual elements themselves.

As such, anybody given the stems can alter the relative balance of these sections. For instance they’ll be able to control the levels of the brass against the strings, or the guitars against the drums, but not the individual instruments such as violins against the violas, or the kick drum against the snare drum. 

Stems are used in post-production too. The most common stems to come out of a post mix. It starts with Dialog, Music and Effects, often shortened to DME. The DME is often made up of Dialog (or sync sound for documentaries) Narration or Voiceover, Music, Effects, although larger projects can certainly go wider, with additional stems for foley, backgrounds and diagetic music (music in the scene playing through a radio or a PA system), or any other group of similar sounds. But the focus of this article is the use of stems in music production.

Stems are most useful for allowing somebody further up the chain of delivery to have some control over the mix, but not complete control. 

Please note, I’m talking about audio files here. Although whilst mixing it’s common to group tracks together and route to a bus to simplify things or add bus processing, stems are what we’d get if we bounced these groups as separate files. The stem is an audio file, not the auxiliary channel itself within a DAW project. 

Multitracks Or Stems? – What Is The Difference?

Before I go any further, I want to clear up what stems are not. It is a commonly held misconception that stems and multitracks are the same thing and in recent years I’ve really noticed that many are incorrectly using the terms multitracks and stems interchangeably.

In the very first YouTube video I watched whilst researching this article the vlogger tried to explain what stems are and they just described multitracks – in fact, one of the comments was “so stems are just multitracks” and the author actually liked the comment!

So what is the difference? If multitracks is also an odd word for you, just think instead of “audio files”. The term multitracks comes from multitrack tape – a single piece of tape that could hold multiple, well, tracks. Much like stereo tape can hold two tracks of left and right, multitrack tape can simultaneously record and playback up to 24 tracks across 1 reel of tape up to 2 inches wide in the most common instance. Although physical tape as a recording medium is now generally long gone, the term multitracks is still used to describe all of the audio files that make up your recording and will be mixed into the final piece of music. 

I’m not explaining this because I’m a nostalgic tape nerd: If you’ve only ever worked in a DAW perhaps you’ve never actually come across the term multitracks, I can understand why you might confuse multitracks with stems. …….

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