We’ve heard a lot about Stems, a distribution format providing four separate, DJ-ready parts. And we already go to the point where you could buy a range of Stems music online. What you haven’t been able to do is try making your own Stems, unless you were on one of the early label partners.
That changes today, with Native Instruments’ public release of the free Stem Creator Tool. This is officially a beta version, but NI reports the files are created correctly and you should find it stable.
This also means whether or not you’re sold on Stems yet, you’ll get a better picture of how it works for producers.
First, to the pack itself. You get get:
1. A quick-start guide. (There’s also a video, included here.)
2. A guide on making your own Stems album cover (so it says ‘Stems’ on it, basically), accompanied by a template .psd file.
3. A software tool for Mac and WIndows that handles metadata, dynamics processing, and file export. (Only 64-bit Windows is supported at the moment, but 32-bit support is coming.)
Probably your best bet is to watch the video. There are some interesting details you might easily have missed in previous discussions:
The Stem Creator Tool provides its own compression and limiting tools. “How do you master Stems?” was a frequent question. The answer is, basically, you don’t – not before you get to the creator tool. That tool has its own compressor/limiter for quickly making the mixed stems sound as loud as the master.
Here’s the workflow: first, go back to your project file, and make sure that when you mix together all four stems, the results don’t clip. In other words, you’re treating exporting stems the way you would sending individual track exports to a remix artist or mastering engineer – dry.
Then, from the creation tool, you apply internal compression and limiting to bring the mixed four stems up to the loudness level of your stereo master. That means you’re now feeding the individual stems through NI’s own processing rather than what you or your mastering engineer used on the stereo master signal chain.
The advantage here is ease and reliability. You can quickly get your track to the same overall loudness as the master. To get there, you sacrifice some control – though since you still distribute the stereo master, that’s perhaps not much of an issue.
The Stems playback tool has to reproduce those compression settings. Here’s the interesting bit. When you export, the tool doesn’t bounce the processing. Instead, it stores your settings in the metadata of the file. A playback tool – for now, this is just Traktor – has to reproduce the same processing.
NI tells CDM a bit about their motivation:
Those settings are then read from the file when the user loads it in TRAKTOR, thus the user hears what the producer heard when they have all the stem volumes at max. When the user starts changing the mix of the stems, the real-time compression/limiting then responds accordingly so the end results sound authentic and professional.
Any Stems-compatible tool will need this (free) DSP library. NI mentioned recently it would provide DSP in the SDK. Now we know why: you’ll need to add their compression/limiting library to your tool so the Stems play back dynamics settings from the file accurately.
NI confirms that to CDM. “Without the DSP library, the end results could be thin (lack of compression) or could result in clipping (if the stems add up to a level over 0dBFS and the Limiter isn’t used),” NI tells us. “Anyone who fails to implement the DSP library will not have fully implemented Stems support in their product.”
Stems will respond dynamically as you mix. Since compression/limiting is applied in real-time, rather than to individual stems, you can depend on your mixed files sounding loud enough even as you mix.
But you can bake in your own processing, if you choose. If you want to do some dynamics processing before exporting Stems, there’s nothing stopping you. However, your Stems may not sound loud enough when used elsewhere.
There isn’t a standard for color and order. In the creation tool, you drag and drop your Stems, then choose color and title. There isn’t a convention; any standardization is down to paying attention to what other Stem producers are doing. This means you have a fair bit of choice, if your track is something other than “drums / bass / synth / vocal” – or if you’re picky about color. (Hey, some people really do have serious synesthesia that makes them compulsive about this! Or maybe your vocals were done by a Smurf, and so you want them to be blue. Whatever. I’m not sure what color as a bassline is supposed to be.)
Reflections: Stems is still “a Traktor thing” until there are other software partners or at least an SDK – I still think the SDK could get small mobile developers onboard in a hurry, for instance. But the creation tool is important because it opens up the appeal beyond just labels and stores, and potentially to producers. It’s at least of appeal if you’re a producer who either uses Traktor or things your fans might want to use your tracks in their DJ sets.
The delicate balance NI has to walk is one between standardization and ease on one hand, and flexibility on the other. Will producers be happy with these internal compression tools? Will this be a mess of unpredictable colors and titles?
I will say, though, for most dance music producers, the Stems Creator Tool is easy enough that this should be a no-brainer to at least try.
For distribution, if you have music that lends itself to releasing stem files, it’s a solid option. Even if you’re not on a label on one of these stores, there are various tools that let you sell zip files directly (including Bandcamp).
And what we know now is that making the files is a quick and painless process. Expect to see a lot of artists try this and see if it sticks. (In fact, Stems’ new problem is how to sustain interest past that initial, likely boom.)
For anyone doing hybrid live/DJ sets on a laptop, this could also be worth trying today. It means at last you can load individual, remix-able parts of your own songs into Traktor with a lot less effort, versus making individual Remix Decks and so on. (I will save my rant about Ableton Live “live” sets that do nothing other than trigger scenes for another article.)
Let us know if you get using it. I still have questions about the approach to mastering – and I’m really interested to see that SDK.
Newsletter signup, which is where NI hopes you’ll go for the latest on the format.
Previously: our in-depth guide to the format