Whether it’s music, film or game audio – anyone involved in sound production will sooner or later have to deal with stems. They form an elementary basis for archiving, exchanging, and providing sound mixes and are included in most delivery specifications of labels and production companies nowadays. It is not uncommon, however, for inexperienced engineers that these deliveries result in annoying extra work (and unpaid overtime) because of bad signal management and archiving. This can be avoided!
This article is intended for anyone who wants to professionalize their audio workflow regarding stems.
Stems are partial mixes that result in the original mix when you sum them up again. The goal of stems is to enable remixing, remastering or alternative versions, which would not be possible on the mix sum alone. However, the mix should remain completely reproducible at best.
Although the terms are often mistakenly used synonymously, stems are by no means to be confused with “multitracks” (single tracks)! Multitracks are all the individual signals of a project, i.e. the entire raw material from which a mix is made. Depending on the project, this can be several hundred tracks! Stems, on the other hand, are groups of signals that have already been combined, and thus stems are significantly fewer tracks.
Another important difference is that multitracks are usually (largely) unprocessed, while stems contain the sound processing and levels of the original mix.
The right stems for every case
But what’s the best way to divide a mix into multiple stems? Well, it depends on the project and the purpose for which the stems are made!
The most basic division of a typical pop song consists of two stems: the instrumental (music without vocals) and the a cappella (vocals without music). This would be a conceivable division for a karaoke version or in case the song is to be re-recorded in another language. But if, for example, you want to make a remix and exchange the percussion, the separation into instrumental and a cappella is no longer sufficient. So, in most cases, it is necessary to divide into more than two stems.
Let’s take a look at a few typical scenarios in detail:
In stem mastering, the mastering engineer is provided with several stems in order to be able to intervene further in the mix. For this purpose, about 3-6 stems are usually quite sufficient. Drums, bass, vocals, and harmony instruments are suitable groups for stems because they often have somewhat different needs. Guitars or keyboards can usually be grouped together.
In the music world, “sync” stands for the use of music in conjunction with moving images, for example cinema, television, advertising film productions or video games. Here we work with stems, because in the context with picture often only individual elements of a song are used. The vocals and drums should be separate because these elements are particularly often muted so as not to distract from the image. The leading melodic instrument should also be provided individually to allow for a “stripped down” version of the song. If there are strings, they should also be exported separately. Film productions are usually created in 48 kHz, so for sync it often makes sense to export the stems already in 48 kHz to make it as easy as possible for the film sound team. …….
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