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What are stems in music? Explaining terminology for artists and producers

Stems are an important part of any modern production, but there is often a misunderstanding as to what they are and what their purpose is in the process of music making. Since they can streamline an otherwise large and complex project it’s important to clarify what stems are in music and what they do.

What are stems in music production?

Stems are bundles of individual tracks in a submix. They are grouped together and exported as separate audio files, most often by their section in the song – drums and percussion, bass, vocals or harmonic instruments like keys and guitars. In the realm of orchestral and classical music, they are grouped by instrument families, like strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. Often, they are exported by an audio engineer, to be handled as one unit down the production process and provide greater flexibility, control, and creativity, allowing producers to achieve more polished and professional results.

What is the difference between stems and multitracks?

To fully understand what stems are in music, you need to know the difference between stems and multitracks. Multitracks are the individual tracks that compose a recording session and are used to create the final mix. Each instrument has its own track (pianos and other keys can have a L+R stereo track), onto which audio effects can be added, to make it sound better in the final arrangement/mix. Having each instrument on a separate track gives you greater control over the balance of the project, as it allows you to control the characteristics of each of them independently. Multitrack recording is one of the musical milestones of the 20th century and has allowed for a stellar amount of artistic advancements.

Knowing all of this you can now understand what music stems are, and that's bundles of individual multitracks of the same group that works as units. If an entire drum track is bounced as a stem, its different parts like hi-hat and snare can be panned, i.e. moved left or right across the stereo image to create a more realistic effect. Then the entire drum stem can be dealt with as a unit, be it volume, EQ, or compression. A visual equivalent of this would be merging different layers in Photoshop and then working with the resulting image separately.

Regarding audio effects, depending on the situation, they can either be bounced with or without them. Having stems with effects that are already there leaves little room for adjusting, whereas having a dry stem means you can add them to the bundled multitracks, without the need to apply them to one track at a time. An example of this can be reverb on panned vocal harmonies – if they already have it then it cannot be subtracted, but if it’s a dry signal, you can work on it in any way you want.

What are stems used for?

As you’ll find out, stems can be useful in multiple ways to music producers!

Stems can make the process faster

One of the most important ways that stems are used in making music is optimization. Say you have a large project with maybe 60 different tracks, each one having a few effects like EQ and compression on it. Two issues can arise from this, the first being that the large number of tracks can make it hard to find the instrument you are looking to tweak. 

The second is the processing power of your computer – a large amount of tracks, each with a couple of effects on it, being rendered live may strain your CPU and render playback difficult. You can use stems and busses to fix both, by organizing and exporting your tracks in bundles and bouncing them, thus saving on processing power and cleaning up workspace in the DAW project.

They can make collaborations easier and more fun

Another way stems are useful in music production is that they allow for easier collaboration. You can give a project with stems to vocalists or other musicians to collaborate with remotely, where they can tweak the balance of the instruments to hear them better while they record their own parts. A singer may boost the piano harmony or a bassist may boost the kick drum to lock with the rhythm better. Or you can use them to sample and remix your own music in creative ways.

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Mixing and mastering is more refined with stems

The mixing and mastering process is another way that music stems are used. For example, if you are working with multiple vocal harmonies, you can bundle and bounce those into a stem and then EQ or balance them against the arrangement together as one unit. The same can be done for strings, brass, or any other group of instruments. Another person who benefits from stems sometimes is the mastering engineer. If you provide them with the already mixed music stems for your song, along with the finished mix, they could enhance the overall sound quality of a mix by adjusting the levels, EQ, and dynamics of each stem separately.

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Stems can enhance live performances

A lot of musicians don’t realise that music stems can be used in live performances too! Drummers and DJs can have them loaded into their Digital Audio Workstations and trigger them with MIDI pads or controllers at key moments. For instance, these could be pre-recorded instruments like pianos, synths or even strings, that can make a band's choruses sound even more impactful.

What else can stems be useful for?

Music stems are also used in the film industry. Since modern movies tend to have a very dense soundscape, sound designers can use stems to help them organize and balance different elements of the soundtrack. Most often they are grouped in vocals, musical score and sound effects. This is especially helpful when mixing in surround, due to the increased number of speakers the sound comes out of.

They can also be used in video games in a lot of ways to create a dynamic and interactive soundscape that responds to the player's actions in the game. For example, different stems can be triggered based on the player's movement in a specific location within the level, creating a unique and immersive audio experience that changes in real-time, relative to certain scripted events. With fighter games like Mortal Kombat, different layers of the music can be brought forward or subtracted, depending on which round the player is on or how much life they have left. This can add to the dynamics of the gameplay.

Are stems used in remixing?

Stems are absolutely used in remixing, in fact, they are essential to it. If someone wants to remix one of your tracks, you can give them access to all the different groupings of instruments. Then they can get to work by extending your track, making it more bass or drum-heavy, adjusting the levels, EQ, and effects of each part of the mix. By adding their own elements, they can create new arrangements and completely change the style or genre of the song. Stems are a popular format for distributing remix projects, as they provide a convenient and flexible way for remixers to work on a mix, without having to start from scratch.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: What are stems in making music?
A: Stems are bundles of multitracks that are dealt with as one unit.

Q: What are the uses of stems in making music?
A: Stems are used to optimize arranging, mixing and mastering processes in music production.

Q: Can stems be used outside the recording studio?
A: Yes! They can be used to enhance the live performances of DJs and bands, by triggering the pre-recorded stems with a MIDI controller.

Jan 30 2024
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Edmwarriors Team