The Beginner’s Guide to Mixing With Stems

In the studio, so much of our work with stems comes down to printing them at the end of your session. We’ve previously discussed what that process looks like – how you print your tracks and effects down for remixers and recalls at a later date.

Today, I want to take a look at one of the most common deliverables in the pro audio world from a different perspective: mixing.

With stems, I think there are some pretty common misconceptions about what you can and cannot do with them. For example, a new remixer might think that all of those stems are there for reference and only use the vocal track in their remix. They might be hesitant to add their own effects/processing. But realistically, your stems shouldn’t be treated all that differently from any other stereo track in your session.

Starting From Scratch

One thing that I think I see the most are mixers and remixers restoring everything to unity gain (0 dB). This can be a great way to take inventory of your stems and make sure everything is there, but at the end of the day you’re probably not keeping any of those stems at that level. Instead, you’ll often need to drop them down or remove them completely to free up headroom and parts of the frequency spectrum for elements that you’re planning on adding.

At the end of your day, nothing about your mix needs to be consistent with the original mix.

The Flexibility of Stems

Stem mixing isn’t just isolated to remixers – live shows and productions will often fold down many of their tracks to stems to make mixing easier on the front of house engineers. Rather than managing a whole orchestra for a Broadway show, engineers are able to use stems of the different orchestral sections to mix things like horns, strings, and keys with the live performers. This gives them a professional level of control that can’t be replicated with a simple two-track background.

Check out this example from Josh West at Cellar Door Sound, who recently found himself using JST plugins on his surround stems for a live musical:

I think a key point that Josh makes is that compression is sometimes necessary when working with stems, as he showcased by using BG-Keys. Stems don’t usually retain the same polish as a fully mastered song because it’s impossible to hit the master bus the same exact way without everything playing back at once.

In some examples like this, a minimal amount of compression is needed just to tighten things up, but in others you may need to add much more to get the sound you’re after if your stems aren’t compressed enough. Again, you should be treating your stems just like any other stereo track in your mix.

Is Stem Mixing On The Rise? 

Stems have always had a use in pro audio, but there seems to be a growing community of engineers and producers that actually prefer to mix stems rather than multi-tracks. Just like in the live sound example, the simplicity and ease of use of stems has a certain appeal to it. You can work faster with fewer track counts and it forces you to be decisive and commit to your decisions. 

It also means giving up some control, depending on the quality of your stems and how much effort went into splitting them out when they were created. An experienced engineer is going to give you some options – Vocals with FX, Vocals without FX, FX Only, Rhythm Guitars, Lead Guitars, etc… A less experienced one might give you Vocals, Guitars, Drums & Bass and call it a day. 

Consider your needs for a song before each mix and work with the recording engineer to get the right assets from the start if you are someone who finds working with stems easier. If you don’t have stems to work with today, check out sites like Nail The Mix that offer access to professional sessions to practice with. Print your own stems if you have to!

Stem mixing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so experience working with them will be a huge benefit to your career in the long run. 

Better Sources, Better Mixes 

Starting your work from a solid foundation requires a bit of work leading up to the actual mix session. If you’re involved right from the start of tracking, good recording techniques will be important, but even still, pre-processing and editing your tracks will make a huge difference.

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