What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It?

In today’s post, we’ll discuss stems and multitracks in music production, why they are essential, and when to use which of the two. Additionally, we’ll also talk about stem mastering, how to bounce stems and multitracks, and how to get stems for a song.

Stems can save you a lot of time and spare you the most brutal headaches. Alternatively, multitracks give you the utmost flexibility to work. Whether you’re a producer, DJ, mix, or master engineer, using both can benefit your workflow in various ways. But first, what are stems and multitracks in music production?

First, you need multitracks to create stems. Multitracks are the individual audio channels, unprocessed. Stems, however, are submix files containing the instrument groups together with their stereo processing and effects. So, multitracks come before mixing and stems, after. When played together, stems sound like a finished mix.

So you can create a project with 200 multitracks, mix it, and break it down into a lot fewer stems. That will help you retain the integrity of the mix for various purposes. You can also send the stem version of your mix to the mastering engineer and achieve the best possible balance. There are several possibilities, and we’ll explore them all in this post. Let’s dig in!

What’s the Difference Between Stems and Multitracks?

Multitracks are audio files holding the unprocessed sounds that, together, make a song’s arrangement. With drums, you’ll have one song-length file for each track used to build the sound. Stems are the final mixdowns of the whole instrument. So, drums would be a single file with all the pieces as they sound in the final mix.

Even though, of course, there are other differences. Here’s a quick comparative guide to help you understand what differs stems from multitracks:

Features
Used For
Number of Channels
Processing
Exporting Method

Multitracks

Mixing

Mono tracks, stereo MIDI instruments

Only what was baked into the recording

Exporting tracks as files

Stems

Mastering

Preferably stereo tracks

All effects added during mixing

Bouncing soloed tracks as you would the entire mix

How do you use stems in music – Why are they useful?

Here are few reasons why stems are instrumental and can save you a lot of time:

  • Perfect for keeping, sharing, and editing a mix

You can send them to a producer who wants to remix your track. The mastering engineer also benefits since stems make mastering a lot more precise. Alternatively, one of the most important reasons for using and creating stems is for backup and future-proofing your work. A folder with stems doesn’t take up much space in your HDD. You have to make sure all files are in a lossless format with the same sample and bit rates. A stem folder looks like this:

What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It? | Integraudio.com

  • Hold Your Back

You never know when your DAW, computer, or HDD might stop working, and you will never be able to reaccess your audio files. Saving stems is easy, fast, and can save your hard work (perhaps days or even months).

  • DAW Compatible

You can also use stems if you need to recreate your work in another DAW or send it to a mixer using a different platform. Or perhaps you’re long into the future, and someone’s asked you for a new mix of an old session. If you’ve kept the stems, it should be easy to do the job without ever having to go back to the original multi-tracks.

  • Alternate Mixes

Another great reason to use stems is when you need to produce multiple alternate mixes. Some artists or labels require differently-focused mixes for various purposes. They can ask for a mix with louder vocals or only the instrumental track. Sometimes they might want a mix with less aggressive guitars and more keys for radio. So, after producing the final album mix, some engineers might resort to stems to create the alternates effortlessly. The label can then send these different mixes straight to mastering. Alternatively, the stems themselves can be used for mastering, as we’ll see in a while.

It’s easy to create alternate mixes when you have stems of all the song’s different elements.

In short, you should use stems if you’re handing down the work after doing your part or if you want to make sure you can revisit it in the future. Whatever the case, correctly bounced stems can save everybody a lot of time.

Why Are Multitracks Useful?

Multitracks are the basis of music production. When you record a song with more than one channel, you are creating multitracks. Whether it’s electronic, a live band, or vocal overdubs, multitracks are helpful because they give the mixer plenty of freedom to work. They allow for individual processing of each instrument in a song.

Although they take a lot more space in your computer, you may need to share multitracks for various purposes. The main reason you’d want to share multitrack files is to send your project over for someone else to mix. Perhaps the mix engineer doesn’t use the same software as you, so exporting the individual tracks is the only alternative. A folder containing the multitracks for a song would look like this:

All these files comprehend the entire song’s length, which means they last for the same amount of time. You have to export them like this to help the mix engineers, so they don’t need to sync up random files and recreate the entire song. When you place the multitracks in a DAW and press play, they sound like an unmixed version of the song. Here is how these multitracks look when you open them on FL Studio:

What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It? | Integraudio.com

Another reason to share multitracks is when you’ve done your recordings in a commercial studio, but you’re not going to do anything else there. This is more usual for genres that need live instruments or even a live band performance. Sometimes the entire recordings, with overdubs and all, will use many tracks. Even worse, if there are multiple takes, you have to bring home long WAV files, which sometimes last for as long as four hours. That requires an external hard drive and a lot of patience to wait until all files are appropriately exported and shared across devices.

After you’ve gotten ahold of the multitracks, a new chapter begins: mixing. The process now becomes finding the perfect balance between each sound, compressing, and adding EQ and effects. One can even use subgroups to make some parallel processing. However it goes, after doing the mix, it’s time to bounce down those multitracks as stems and send them over to the mastering engineer.

If you, for any reason, bypass the earlier process and end up sending the multitracks for mastering, take cover. Chances are, you’ll get some angry texts from your mastering engineer. Working with the multitracks is a job for the mixer. Mastering is done either from the final stereo file containing the entire song or from stems.

Should stems be mono or stereo?

Generally, stems should be stereo bounce downs of an instrument or a group thereof and their effects. That is true for drums, vocals, keys, guitars, etc. However, sometimes the bass is supposed to be placed dead center in the mix, for example. In this case, you can have a mono stem containing the instrument.

What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It? | Integraudio.com

Stems for bass, drums, and percussion – all in stereo.

Mastering engineers expect stems to be stereo, so all instrument positions across the panorama are defined. Thus, a stereo stem with a shaker panned 30% to the left will effortlessly retain its place in the mix. The same is true when the producers want a particular instrument balanced and placed exactly as in the pre-mix. For that effect, they’ll send a stereo stem of the source to the mix engineer and let them know not to re-pan it.

Is stem mastering better?

Stem mastering is better than regular mastering, especially when you’re looking for a loud, clear final track. This process allows the mastering engineer to perform finer adjustments that wouldn’t be possible in a single stereo file. Thus, resulting in a lot of nuance without the sonic and dynamic tradeoffs of a regular master.

When you’re mastering a stereo file containing the entire song, every bit of processing emphasizes undesired elements in the background. In this case, the mastering engineer must be meticulous while applying EQ and compression since every adjustment happens globally. On top of that, the limiting stage can bring forth undesired frequencies and resonances that will pollute the final track if the engineer doesn’t care for them.

However, you can solve all these problems efficiently with stem mastering. When the mastering engineer receives submixes for all instrument groups in the song, it’s easier to achieve punchy drums without messing with the synths or vocals. The result is a much more flexible master with a lot more dynamic range, which sounds more lively and natural.

Stem Mastering: WHEN and WHY To Use It

Can you mix and master without stems?

Yes, you can easily mix and master music without stems. When mixing, you get a lot more control over the details if you have the multitracks of the song laid out in front of you. And as for mastering, the standard procedure is still finishing up the final stereo track rather than the stems.

Still, it all goes down to the situation. If you’re a mixing engineer and your client has sent you only stems, it’s going to be harder to achieve professional results. In this situation, all you can do is balance the levels, compress, and EQ the instrument groups. However, if you’ve received all individual tracks, creating stems of your final mix for storage, alternate mixes, or stem mastering is highly advised.

How should I bounce stems and multitracks?

Exporting stems is the same as bouncing the final mix but excluding what you don’t want in the stem. Exporting multitracks require some workaround with settings. Either way, before bouncing any of them, follow these four steps, regardless of the DAW you’re using:

  • First Step – Consolidate Your Tracks

This first step is not necessary for every situation, but it’s useful nonetheless. If you’re working with samples, or if you had to chop and resync some bass notes to fit the tempo, you probably have some minced audio files in your session. Consolidating means turning these chopped parts into a single full-length file. Before doing so, listen carefully to eliminate any clicks and pops derived from poorly adjusted fades. That is the most important part of this step, as it will ensure your stems have no artifacts. Additionally, consolidating your tracks ensures they will all start and finish simultaneously, saving everybody’s time.

What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It? | Integraudio.com

The track on the top is consolidated, while the one on the bottom isn’t. Make sure all your tracks are consolidated before exporting.

  • Second Step – Selection

To bounce stems, you should select a region from the beginning of the song until the last effect tail ends. This should be unchanged throughout your stem bouncing process. Even a small change at the beginning or end of this region will generate different-sized files. So, unless you want to resync the files later, you should make the selection only once, at the beginning of the process. If you’re in doubt about the effect tail at the end, listen carefully to the last two bars of music and try to notice anything still ringing after the last note is struck.

What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It? | Integraudio.com

In Logic Pro, the range selector is the yellow bar up top. Every DAW has its own. Simply check if you’re selecting the entirety of the song.

  • Third Step – Solo

Solo only the tracks you want to add to the stem and bypass the plugins in the master chain. Soloing these tracks will ensure no undesired instruments find their way into your stem. Similarly, bypassing the plugins in the output track makes sure you leave enough freedom for the mastering engineer to work. So, if you’re bouncing keys, make sure only the keyboard sounds appear in your stem. You don’t want any percussion in the same stem, so double-check if only the essential tracks are soloed. Sometimes when you’re repeating the process for the fourth time or so, you may become a bit unfocused and forget to mute the tracks from the previous bounce. Also, if you only find that out later, it could mean a big problem for future-proofing and mastering. That’s why soloing is a crucial step in our stem bouncing process.

What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It? | Integraudio.com

I’m bouncing these three tracks as a stereo stem file. To do so, I have to make sure they’re all soloed and ready to go.

  • Fourth Step – Bounce

Bounce the stems using the same process as you would for exporting the final mix. That will retain all bus and track processing you made. The result will be a stereo file containing a mixed version of any specific group of instruments, sound the same in any DAW. When bouncing stems for mastering, a minimum headroom of 8dB is required, meaning that no audio should peak above -8dB. That allows the mastering engineer to apply as much processing as needed and properly raise the overall level. It’s essential, however, to bounce all stems preserving the original mix’s proportions. The goal here is to make sure that when the next person opens up the stems in their DAW, the mix sounds how it is in your session.

What Are Stems & Multitracks In Music Production? Why Do I Need It? | Integraudio.com

Finally, I have to check the export setting in the dialogue box and click “OK.”

How To Bounce Stems in Your DAW

Each DAW operates slightly differently, but the essence of the process is the same. You’ll have to select the file format, quality, and destination folder in your hard drive in every DAW. Here’s a quick How-To guide to help you export stems in your DAW of preference. Remember to follow every one of the steps mentioned above before attempting this process.

  • FL Studio

Image Line’s FL Studio offers two ways you can export audio. One is through the Mixer tracks, and the other through the Playlist tracks. If you want to export multitracks, go to File > Export, and select Wave file. This will give you the individual Mixer tracks, with whatever playlist tracks are routed into them. The DAW lets you bake in the insert effects, which can be desirable if you’ve worked hard on attaining a specific sound. The second way follows the same path, but now, instead of  “Wave file,” you have to choose “All Playlist Tracks.” This process will take longer but will ultimately give you the stems for every group you selected the way they sound in the mix. That means it will preserve the automation and the effects on the master channel if you choose not to disable them.

FL STUDIO | Multi-Track Audio Export

  • Logic Pro

Apple’s Logic Pro offers a more intuitive solution for bouncing stems. After following the four steps mentioned before, click the “Bounce” button on the master channel. Done. Exporting multitracks is a bit different. You’ll have to go to File > Export and select “All Tracks as Audio Files.” The shortcut for this is Shift-Command-E.

How to Export an Audio File from Logic Pro X - Bounce your final mix

  • Ableton Live

On Ableton Live, exporting your stems or multitracks is as simple as pressing Ctrl-Shift-R on Windows or Command-Shift-R on Mac. The popup menu that will open lets you bounce off the master channel or the individual tracks. Make sure you’ve followed the steps we mentioned before, and you’re good to go.

How To EXPORT STEMS in Ableton Live

  • Pro Tools

Pro Tools offers several ways to export your tracks, but we’re focusing on stems and multitracks. To export multitracks, follow the steps mentioned earlier. Then, select the consolidated tracks on the playlist view, and make sure they’re all highlighted at the Clip menu on the right. Right-click any of the highlighted files and select “Export Clips as Files.” That will drop every individual file into a folder on your computer. To bounce stems, however, go to File > Bounce To and choose “Disk.” The following video gives you plenty of tips on how to take better advantage of this process:

How to Bounce In Pro Tools | Home Recording Basics

  • Cubase

Steinberg’s Cubase also offers a very simple solution for bouncing stems. Repeat the process we stated before and go to File > Export and select Audio Mixdown. Then, choose your settings and voilà. Similarly, multitracks require you to go through the same process and select “Channel Batch Export” and select the boxes that represent the channels you want to export. Here’s a quick tutorial video:

How to export in Cubase

Can you use stems as a DJ?

Given the proper consent, a DJ can download and use a song’s stems during live performances. That allows for exquisite audio and beats manipulation, which results in more intricate blends and transitions. You can attain the stems from specific websites or straight from the song’s owners.

Generally, live use of someone else’s work implicates royalty payments. Through a dedicated aggregator, DJs can make sure that they’re not breaking any laws when using stems in their live sets. Some aggregators also offer royalty-free music and sounds that bypass this issue altogether.

How do I get stems for a song?

  • Contact The Artist Directly

Firstly, you can contact the artist or producer and ask directly for the stems of any particular track. This is the best way to get exclusive access to the stems and make a new contact in the music business. Depending on the artist, if they like your remix, they might call you for a collab later. The key to talking to an artist is patience, as most are usually very busy. Don’t put any pressure on it. If they wanted to share the stems in the first place, they’d already have done it publicly. However, when they do respond, be friendly and well-mannered. When they send you the files, do the best work you can. In this case, both parties should find a copyright agreement. Depending on how big the artist is, they’ll most likely have a lawyer take care of it.

  • Search Online For Audio Stems

Do you want to remix a particular song? If you’re going to remix a specific piece, type in the search phrase like “Song Remix Stems” or “Song Remix Competition.” And you will instantly know if there are stems available for that song. If there aren’t, you can still search for the other tunes that you would like to remix. Just type in search words like “Remix Competition” or “Remix Contest.” Then, check various sources to match your genre, and finally, download the stems.

  • Become a Patreon

Nowadays, Patreon is a very popular website, and many producers and artists are leveraging it a lot. There, they include remix stems for a subscription fee. Usually, they have remix stems in the third most expensive plan (which generally costs about 15$ on average). It depends if you want to make a severe remix and maybe release it, so buying the subscription for a fee would probably be worth it.

  • Get a song’s stems on licensing websites.

You can get a song’s stems on licensing websites for a fee. That will allow you to use those songs or their portions as music in your content. There are artists making music with the sole purpose of striking licensing deals. These people make sure that content creators don’t have to rely on expensive top 40 hits and overused stock music to complete their products.

So whether you’re making YouTube videos or streaming on Twitch, there are licensing websites for you. Similarly, if you’re a producer or artist who needs a vibey beat for your new song, some websites got you covered. A few websites charge a monthly fee; others let you buy the licenses for specific songs. It all depends on their business model and the artist’s consent. Here’s a list of a few sites that provide this service and who they’re best suited for:

Website
Best for
Since it’s focused on dance music, it’s best for DJs;
Content creators
Streamers and content creators
DJs
Producers and content creators in need of beats
DJs

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, working with stems is not tricky, and the aggregated benefits are ultra-valuable. They are an essential part of modern music’s economy and a reliable technique for post-production and future-proofing. Similarly, multitracks are extremely necessary to carry your session around and open it in another system.

A song’s multitrack files offer the mix engineer the necessary freedom to shape the music and make it sound the way it needs. On the other hand, Stems allow you to send your mixes to other producers for remixes and collabs and receive the final touches in mastering. Additionally, DJs and content creators can also benefit from stems, as do the artists who live off this business model. It is an effective way to share your work and save a lot of time in the future.

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