Periodically – something like every other day or so – you will see offers for online mixing contests.
Usually this consists of brands (e.g., microphone manufacturers) or audio educational services, or occasionally artists themselves, giving you a chance to download stems from a song, mix and mangle them to you desire, and then submit them to some contest.
Wait. What are stems?
Stems are what we call the individual, unprocessed tracks that make up a song.
When we've finished recording, we will have a bunch of tracks that may be different lengths and may require further editing. Once we finish the editing process, we should have a single "clip" or audio file for each track and each audio file should be the same length.
This is important because when you load them into your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and set them all to start at 0:00:00, they will already be lined up correctly in the timeline.
This is in contrast to an editing session where we may be cutting, pasting, trimming, and moving little clips around.
If we were to just find all of these little audio clips from that editing session in our file explorer and send them for stem mixing, it would be the equivalent of the mix engineer receiving a box of puzzle pieces.
Here's an example of a raw session during editing. Notice all the little bits and clips. These are the "puzzle pieces":
They would have to assemble the pieces before actually being able to work on the song.
Here is what a session will look like with stems loaded in. Nice and neat. Everything starts at 0:00:00 and is already lined up.
OK but I really care mostly about recording. Why should I care about stems?
Whether you’re interested in mixing or recording, periodically checking out stem mixing opportunities will benefit your craft.
A Rare Look at the Ingredients
When you listen to a finished song (i.e., a “reference song” with a professional mix and master), it can be very difficult to see the “targets” for what your raw stems should sound like to match the quality.
Think about tasting a delicious pastry.
Really picture it in your mind's eye. Here's one.
It tastes great, but it can be hard to understand the raw ingredients and processes that went into creating that pastry.
With stems, you have the opportunity to see, touch and taste the raw ingredients.
You’ll say things like “oh wow. That’s WAY more butter than I was expecting”.
Yes, butter makes things taste more delicious. Facts don’t care about your waistline.
OK, I’m losing the thread. Get back on point!
In listening to the raw stems, you will be able to understand what the “target” for recorded tracks looks like.
How does a professionally recorded, raw, unprocessed acoustic guitar sound? Stems give you the ability to find out.
Level Up Your Production and Arranging Skills
The stems for these contests are usually very well arranged, produced, performed and recorded.
They typically need almost no editing.
This, again, gives you valuable insights into producing and arranging. You will notice little things like, the second verse has a triangle part recorded while the first verse does not.
In the context of a full, busy professional mix, you may barely notice the triangle – you may just “feel” that the energy level for verse 2 has shifted somehow. Having access to the raw stems will reveal these little production tricks to you.
Start Building Your Reference Track Collection
In fact, you can start collecting reference stems.
For example, when you find a bass line that just seems to be recorded perfectly, you can save that track into your “reference stem” folder.
The next time you’re recording a bass, you can pull that track up and use it to compare against the tones that you’re getting when recording your band or your instrument.
Where Can I Start and What Should I Listen For?
Recently, Benjamin Hull and I did this experiment on the DIY Recording Guys podcast. In Episode 19, we loaded up stems from artist AVEC from the recent LEWITT microphone mix challenge. You can download the stems at that last link. I’m not sure how long they will be available for but do make sure to grab them if you can because they are really beautifully recorded.
The session is very minimalist. There are only eight stems! And yet, you will see that the finished mix still sounds like a full and polished production.
There’s a lesson in this as well.
Tasteful arranging and minding the frequency spectrum can get you there even with a relatively low track count.
Another important realization you will have when analyzing stems is that when you press play, even though the stems are truly excellent, you will notice that something isn’t quite right. It doesn’t sound quite like a finished product would sound.
This difference between the playing the raw stems at the same time and the finished product will help you understand the role and value of mixing and mastering – which will be useful to you whether you’re outsourcing the stem mixing process or mixing yourself.
In Episode 19, Ben and I do these exercises. We play the raw stems and discuss how they were recorded, what we liked about them and what our initial thoughts were when coming up with our own mixing strategies.
We then go on to play the raw stems back to back with the artist’s official mix and both of our mixes.
It was a very interesting exercise because, even though Ben and I (and almost certainly the person that did the official mix) probably agree on what makes a "good" mix, we came up with three pretty different results.
This just goes to show that even within the constraints of “what defines a ‘good’ mix”, there is PLENTY of room left for creative interpretation and maneuvering.
Here were my thoughts on first loading the session
Low stem count
No bass guitar, no kick drum. This means it will be the job of the mixing engineer to determine how to “fill the bottom of the box”
Very well recorded tracks from a frequency balance standpoint. No unpleasant resonances or build-up. Nothing is too thin or too dark sounding. The only tonal changes I noted were more “brightness” in the lead vocal and less mid-range and more subs in the Floor Tom to make it more like a Kick drum.
Drum “kit” recorded with only two mics – one looking at the floor tom (which was used as a kick element) and the other as an overhead mic (which was capturing the snare top and snare rim – which was used as a sort of hi-hat element)
Lots of mono elements. The only stereo stem was the keyboard track. For my mixing strategy, I wanted to create more of a stereo field spread.
Lots of “dry” or “up front” elements – meaning that everything was right in front of the stereo field (or, right in the listener's face). This is good from a stem standpoint. We wouldn’t want stems with a lot of room reverb because it would limit our possibilities during the song mixing process. That said, it was part of my mental notes because I knew I wanted to introduce much more front-back separation and a sense of depth.
My approach to creating stereo separation was slightly different than Ben’s.
Here are the raw stems:
Here is my mix:
For more details and in-depth analysis, definitely download the stems yourself and also check out Episode 19.
Cheers and happy recording!
Vadim is a mixing engineer and producer. His passion for recording and mixing was sparked through playing guitar and writing music as a teenager. Today he operates Calm Frog Recording where he helps artists get their songs to sound as good as they possibly can. He loves sharing his passion for recording and producing music with others through this blog and the DIY Recording Guys Podcast.
For many more tips, check out Vadim's FREE eBook at www.howtorecordyourband.com