How To Create Stems: Best Practices
When you’re crafting a remix or any other derivative work, you’ll need to become familiar with sending stems. Far too often novice producers and beatmakers send stems incorrectly, which wastes time and gives off an unprofessional impression.
Luckily, we’ve put together a complete guide on how to create stems for any application– the right way. We’ll walk you through why stems are important and explain how you can successfully export stems from any DAW below.
What Is A Stem, Exactly?
If a complete song is a cake, stems are the ingredients that are essential for collaborators, promoters, and live settings. It’s worth noting the true definition of stem is separate from how it’s used colloquially.
The true definition of stem is derived from film, describing multiple audio tracks within the same category “bounced” or exported into a single audio file. For instance, if you have a drum stem, it would be a single audio file containing individual drum components like the kick, snare, hi-hat. This type of stem is also commonly used in remixes.
From one producer to another, a “stem” may also refer to an individual audio file (so in our drum example, the isolated kick, snare, or hi-hat track). While these separate components are technically classified as multitracks, they also might be called stems depending on who you talk to. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to clarify with your collaborators to determine what audio file they’re looking for.
Why Do You Need Stems?
Different types of stems will have different export needs. Here are the most common scenarios in which you’ll need to export stems or multitracks throughout your music career:
Remixes: Musicians might upload stems to share for an official remix, remix contest, or offer them as a monetizable asset to fans.
Sync: TV, content, and film placement libraries and agents often ask for the full track, and stems of the desired track. For instance, your song might be perfect for a scene, but they might want to use a version without the drums.
Samples: Whether you’re making a sample pack or sending out multitracks to a collaborator, it’s important to export all stems properly.
Stem Mastering: While stem mastering is less common than the traditional mastering approach, some engineers might prefer this methodology.
Live Performance: Multitracks or stem groups can be useful when putting together a live performance, or sending out parts to instrumentalists in your band.
How To Create Stems in 6 Steps
Without further ado, here’s the proper way to export stems for any project.
1. Talk With Your Collaborator
As discussed, even the word “stem” itself can make for a lot of confusion. Save yourself the trouble by talking with your collaborator upfront about what sample rate and what types of files they’re looking for.
2. Organize and Label
You might remember what “Cool space sound” means, but this means nothing to your engineer or collaborator. Relabel all of your tracks and groups so that they could be understood without even hearing them.
3. Create A Folder
Make sure you have labeled folders ready before exporting. If you want go the extra mile, group like-minded tracks together. For instance, you might have separate groupings for drums, bass, keys, and vocals, all in separate folders. Ask your collaborators if they have any organizational preferences.
4. Export Appropriately
When you export audio files, you generally want to export at the highest audio quality level possible. Most people will ask for exports at 48kHz with bit depth of 24 or greater. That being said, output levels vary based on the context, which reinforces the importance of speaking with your collaborator. These settings are easily configured within the settings of your DAW.
Next, you’re ready to export your stems! This screen will look different for every DAW, but in Ableton Live, simply press “export all individual tracks” and route it to the folders you’ve created. If you’re sharing with another Ableton Live user, you can simply save a copy of the project and select “collect all and save” under the File menu instead.
5. Share With Context
Once you have your stems properly exported, it’s time to share your files with your collaborators. Make sure you have a backup copy served within a cloud sharing service or on a backup hardware drive just in case.
Along with links to your stems, you should also share the BPM, key of the track, chord progression, and lyrics if at all possible to make things easier for the next musician.
6. Exercise The Golden Rule
Put yourself in the shoes of your engineer or collaborator. How do you prefer to receive audio files? Try to do as much preemptive leg work as possible so that your engineer doesn’t have to communicate back and forth with you just to get started. Be polite and communicate your expectations upfront. As with any industry, you can get far in the music business by simply prioritizing positive and productive relationships.
Stem Mistakes To Avoid
There are certain mistakes you want to avoid when exporting stems. Make sure you don’t fall into the following pitfalls when exporting stems:
Don’t export the wrong track version. In some scenarios like mixing, your engineer may need dry tracks or the unprocessed versions of your multitracks. In other cases, like crafting an official remix, wet or processed tracks may be needed. When in doubt, export both options and organize them in separate folders.
Don’t assume you know what the engineer needs. When it comes to collaborating on any project, it never hurts to ask. If you’re unsure about what types of tracks your engineer needs or what sample rate he or she is looking for, reach out to them before bouncing out your entire project.
Don’t leave all of the work to your engineer. Some artists assume that because they are paying an engineer, they shouldn’t have to do any prep work. This couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, your organization, or lack thereof, represents you as an artist. Making the engineer’s job easy helps you save on studio time and helps build a favorable relationship with your collaborator.
And there you have it! Understanding how to properly export stems is an essential skill as an artist. Use this guide as your golden standard when working with other musicians and artists.
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