How To Make High Quality Vocal Stems

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Vocal stems are in high demand these days, and any engineer that can make high-quality vocal stems are worth their weight in gold. There are tons of reasons why an engineer might want to print vocal stems: quicker recall for vocal up/down edits, prepping the background vocals for live shows, or the motherload: the remix.

Vocal production is an incredibly intricate art. A well-produced track can have dozens (and in some cases hundreds) of vocals interweaving with each other. And it’s only the well-versed, forward-thinking producers that are planning for the long game when it comes time to print their mixes down.

The next time you’ve got a big session that you’re mixing, put in the extra time to get your stems in order, and set yourself up for success when your client comes knocking for the remix.

Why Print Stems?

Printing stems locks in your creative vision of the track you’re working on. You and I know that the raw tracks for a song are just the basic building blocks of a good song, and that it takes a well-trained ear and a lot of practice to mix it right. It’s the reason you can give those raw tracks to random engineers and end up with drastically different mixes.

By printing stems, you’re locking in your sonic imprint on the song and the instruments in it. Not just a vocal sample signing off on your production, but a stamp of quality approval. Your guitars become “your guitars”. Your drums become “your drums”.  It’s the easiest way to hand off elements of the mix while retaining the right amount of control and input.

Stems provide the remixer a starting point for the elements of the song. They’re not going to be concerned about making the mix sound good as their starting point – that was your job. They want something that’s easy to work with that they can twist and bend into a new production with ease. Some remixers won’t even touch a track if they get raw files – they’ll point the finger back at you and say they need stems that sound closer to the original.

By taking a few extra minutes at the end of your mix session, you can save yourself a headache later on and have a set of next-level stems prepared.

The Standard Stem Process

Stems start at a subgroup level, after you’ve finished your mix. Trying to print stems even a second before that won’t give you “true-to-original” stems that add up to your final mix.

Start with the biggest pieces first: drums, guitars, keys/synths, bass... Anywhere you’d likely create a stereo aux track to apply some bus compression is probably a good place to begin. Depending on the complexity and control you’re after, it may be worthwhile to separate out some of these into smaller groups, lead and rhythm guitars for example.

The most important piece is that you shouldn’t be printing any one track more than once when creating stems. Doing so will result in a summed output when playing all of the stems back together. This means your guitar could be 3 dB louder than intended, and your remixer might have no idea that anything is wrong.

Printing Your Vocal Stems 

Vocal stems can usually benefit from a bit more fine-tuned approach to stem creation. Similar to the lead/rhythm guitar split, you’re unlikely to have just a lead vocal in your song.

You’re going to have leads, harmonies, doubles, backgrounds, ad-libs, and on and on…

Do they all need their own tracks? No, but the more the next person has to work with the better.

Stem creation is all about finding a balance between simplicity and accessibility. You want to print stems that can easily be loaded up at unity gain and played back, sounding exactly like your mix. For most, this means creating a lead vocal stem with doubles on it. Think of this as your “Lead Vocal Group” stem.

Working your way down the list, harmonies can benefit from being on their own stem if you’ve got enough of them. If they are too infrequent (or there’s just one or two of them) you might find it better to group them with your other background vocals, which can be your “BG Vocal Group” stem.

Finally, get your ad-libs, oohs & aahs all grouped together on their own stem for their own “Ad Lib Group” stem. These stems will be the go-to for chopping and editing when the remixer starts digging into your tracks.

Getting Fancy

A good engineer is going to have bus compression controlling their vocal bus, and as they print, that compressor is going to do its job to tame any dynamic variances it can. Depending on how your mix is structured, you might have one for each subgroup, or you might be printing stems through a single instance and muting individual tracks over multiple passes. I actually prefer mixing vocals into separate subgroups before routing everything to a “Master Vocal” aux track for this exact reason. Splitting them out earlier in the mix can actually save a lot of time at the end of the session.

Icing On The Cake

If you’re feeling like adding a little bit of extra ear candy for anyone looking to work with your stems, there is one rule you can break. Printing a set of dry stems can actually be hugely beneficial to remixers, especially if they’re looking to mess with the tempo of the song.

Bypassing time-based effects like delays and reverbs give you a clean set of stems that still have your dynamic processing and levels applied. This can be done on vocals, or the full session, depending how much time you want to put into it. Most remixers will have more interest in the dry vocal stems than anything else – any other dry tracks would only be useful when trying to apply their own time-based effects to something you’ve already processed.

NOTE: If you choose to provide dry stems, be sure to label them accurately so that someone else doesn’t use them unknowingly. Naming the stem something like “FOR REFERENCE – Dry Vocal.wav” gives some indication that the stem shouldn’t be included when rebuilding the mix.

Do Your Vocals Have What It Takes?

Have you honed your skills as a vocal producer or mixer to create next-level vocal performances worth creating stems for? Creating stems for your songs can be intimidating at first – not too different than a singer that’s self-conscious about their isolated vocals.

Our mixes provide a bit of masking for where we fall short as mixers, but that mask falls away when you split the song out into stems. Fortunately, doing so makes us critical of our mixes, and over time that means better mixes.

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