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STEM MASTERING: HOW TO PREPARE THE STEMS

Ciao guys, Manuel's here from masteryourtrack.com.

In this article, we are going to see what stem mastering is and how to get the stems ready.

There are a few tips that I would like to share with you to optimise the export of the stems and avoid common mistakes.

Pro Tools Mixing Session

What's Stem Mastering?

Stem mastering is a process to master a song from multiple stereo tracks containing consolidated groups of instruments (also called stems) of the mix. Providing the stems, you allow the mastering engineer to manipulate the sound to a deeper level. That said, stem mastering shouldn't be confused with mixing where the engineer uses fx, automation, compression, eq, etc. to sculpt each sound. The goal of stem mastering is not to mix a song but is to master it, having more flexibility when a problem needs to be addressed. It's important to notice that the sum of the exported stems must sound as the original mix (L-R mixdown). So, as a result, by importing the stems on his/her DAW the mastering engineer will have your final mix as reference (we'll go more in-depth into this, later on, in this article)

When go for Stem Mastering and how a mix can benefit from it?

You should go for stem mastering if:

  • You feel there are specific issues that can be improved: you are not sure of the overall balance, you can feel something is wrong, but you can't target the problem, You feel the mix is too muddy, etc.

  • You need a more "aggressive" approach to enhance the character of the mix.

  • You feel your mix lacks depth, width, warmth and separation (yes, stem mastering can also help with this).

Which groups of instruments?

Every song is different, but there are some group of instruments which are always good to submit in separated stems due to the fundamental role they play in every mix. These instruments are:

  • Drum

  • Bass

  • Lead Vocal

You can split the rest of the mix in sessions. For instance: guitars, keys, background vocals, brass, and so on.

A good rule of thumb is to give an order of priority to the stems and eventually leave the last stem as "the rest of the instruments". If you are not sure about which kind of stems you should create, a very good idea is to talk to your mastering engineer. Have him/her to listen to the mix so he/she can tell you which stems are needed.


At masteryourtrack.com we accept up to 8 stereo stems.

We usually suggest to split the mix in the following groups of instruments:

  • Drum

  • Bass

  • Percussion

  • Guitars

  • Keyboards

  • Back Ground Vocals

  • Lead Vocal

  • All the Other Instruments

Of course, every song is unique, so the stems my change according to the arrangement of the song. Other potential stems might be Brass, Strings, Synths, and so on.




Creating The Stems (checklist)

  • Remove any limiters from the master bus: the limiter reduces the number of options the Mastering Engineer has to manipulate the sound.

  • Leave some headroom: Someone recommends 3 dBFS some other 6 or 10 dBFS. The truth is that if you are mixing at least at 24bit, just make sure that your master bus doesn't clip. The mastering engineer will be able to adjust the levels according to the gain structure of his/her setup.

  • Leave one bar of silence at the beginning of the tracks: Often when you mix, you set the DAW's delay compensation mode ON. In some DAW, this can create a short fade-in at the beginning of the song. To avoid it, it's always better to leave a bar of silence before the track begins. What you can do is select all the regions (including automations) and make sure the song starts at bar 1 rather than bar 0.

  • Synch all the stems together: before exporting the stems make sure to select the whole length of the song. In other words, you want all the stems to start at the same point (bar 0) even if a group of instruments doesn't start to play at the beginning of the song. This ensures that all the stems are synched together.

  • Return fx: Make sure every stem includes the related return fx.

  • Mute or solo?: In order to create a stem mute all the tracks, you don't want in that specific stem. This will ensure that due to solo safe none of the unwanted track goes into potential effects return you have created during the mixing process.


Creating the drum stem by muting all the rest of the instruments

Export Options

  • File Type: WAV and AIFF are the recommended file types as they are lossless.

  • Format: Interleaved (this means that it's going to create a stereo file).

  • Bit Depth: 24 Bit or 32 Bit (float). 16 Bit can be mastered but is not ideal.

  • Sample Rate: Use the same sample rate of the mixing project (44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz). Don't upsample or downsample.

  • Dither: In some DAW, you can apply the dithering when exporting. The dithering process is used when you downgrade the sample rate. Since you don't need to convert the sample rate, don't apply any dither.

  • Normalisation: Again, if your DAW gives you this option, don't apply any normalisation as you want to keep the levels of your mix.

Name the stems correctly

Most people underestimate this point while it is essential to keep communication as smooth as possible.

If you need to ask for some change, you can refer to the stem using its name and the name of the song. Doing so the mastering engineer will exactly know which song you are talking about and which stem, as well as everyone else involved in the production process (Producer, Record Label, Mixing Engineer, etc.). So remember to create a folder for each song and put in each folder the relevant stems accordingly named.

The importance of the tracklist

Mastering wise knowing the tracklist is essential for the sequencing: optimise the silences between the songs, create tailored micro automation to make the album/ep flow better, underline the listening journey through the album/ep if there are climax moments. Make sure to provide the tracklist of the album/EP.

Double-check the exports before the submission

This is a straightforward but essential thing to do. I can't stress people enough about this. Always always always double-check the stems before the submission. It's very annoying for everyone getting ready to work only to discover that there are problems in the stems and have to delay your schedule.

Just open a new project, import all the stems and make sure that everything sounds as you want. That is your mastering engineer starting point.


Communication

If you are not sure about something or you want your mastering engineer to look after some aspect of your album/ep/song, tell him/her before the session. Behind that screen, there is a person happy to help you to achieve your goals and give you some good advice if needed. Make sure to be clear, be concise, and practical.

I hope you find this article helpful.


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