Using Stems in Production and Live Performance
As a producer, engineer, DJ, or live performer, you have probably heard the term stems before. If you haven't or you have and just don't know what it means, that is okay because we are going to lay it all out for you here. Stems have been used by producers, engineers, and remix artists for years. But in the last year, Native Instruments has brought the world of stems to the DJing world for the first time. I will get into more on that later. Hopefully by the end of this article, you will have a much better understanding of this production term and how you can use them more effectively.
In audio production, a stem is an individual instrument track or a group of tracks mixed together. A single stem may be delivered in mono, stereo, or in multiple tracks for surround sound and are usually sent out in a WAV format. It may be broken down into sections like drums, vocals, lead instruments, and bass. An audio engineer might receive the individual track layers broken down for true mixing purposes.
In the drum and bass world, or any electronic music for that matter, producers are using stems in many different ways. Producers offer their stems for remixes and live remixing. Many producers get their start my entering remix contests were the original artist offers either sample files or stem sections for people to remix. Most times, when I remix, I like to only use the vocal track if there is one and build a completely original sounding song around that vocal. If there is no vocals in the track, I like to use the synth lines or other lead instruments like guitars. These types of contests are great for up and coming producers and season veterans alike in that it allows you to see how the original artist built the song as well as giving you a guide to start producing the remix. It is also a good way to get feedback as well.
Producers and DJ's have been using stems in live production and remixing for years using Ableton Live. Live gives you not only the arrangement view, which most producers are familiar with but also give them a unique session view for playing and remixing in a live setting using an array of different MIDI/USB controllers. Ableton's session view gives you the ability to set up live sets and manipulate each track on the fly to create a truly unique mix live. You can launch different samples or set up an entire set by using stems from different songs and remixing them live. It's a pretty amazing program if I must say so. Ableton Live is truly a one stop shop for both studio production and live performance.
In the last year or so, Native Instruments has introduced stem mixing into their Traktor DJ program. They have made this format open source so hopefully in the near future, other DJ software companies will embrace it as well. Stem mixing for Traktor allows producers to save out 4 different instrument stems and a master track from their production. Most producers split the 4 stems into drums, bass, lead, vocal as well as incorporating the master track. NI has put our a free software that allows you to create a Stems file. When you open Stems Creator, you will drag in each of your stems and the master track. You can also do some compression work on each stem to master it, but this functionality is kind of limited right now, but I am sure will get more advanced in the future. When you mix down from Stems creator, you will get one file that you will then send out for distribution.
These files can be played just like any other audio file as they are exported as an mp4 file. But when a DJ loads those files into a Traktor deck and if they are using a controller like the S8, S5, or D2, they will be able to see the stem break down on the onboard screens and manipulate each of the 4 stems separately. This gives unlimited ability to remix songs on the fly as you can control the volume and effects on each of the 4 stems. You can also use the S4 to control stems but are unable to see the stem breakdown as the main Traktor screen does not show the break down currently. I can't wait to get my hands on a Traktor Kontrol S8 so I can start mixing stems in this way. Many labels and artists are embracing this technology and are selling their stem files on stores like Beatport and Juno. This technology is going to do nothing but advance in the future and has opened up a whole new world of live remixing.
As you see, stems are used in many ways and are a great way for producers to collaborate, remix in studio or live, and give audio engineers a way to mix a song to give it the perfect sound. I hope this gives you a bit better understanding of what stems are and how you can use them in your own production or live performance.