The answer is stem mixing, and it’s free. The only catch is that it takes a little bit of time and good technique to prep your stems, but once it’s done – your sessions will live forever. Forget plugin issues, mix recalls, and additional requests for instrumentals, radio edits, TV mixes, and parts for remixes. Properly bouncing down the stems of your project saves you hours of time and frustration down the road.
90% of the requests I get for my older songs ask for instrumentals, but these are often impossible because a plug-in is missing, there’s software compatibility issues, or I simply can’t find the session.. So I’ve made it a habit to diligently bounce stems for every session. With offline bouncing now standard in every DAW (even Pro Tools finally), there’s no excuse.
Benefits of stem mixing:
- Improved clarity and separation of sonic elements
- Easy backup
- Easier export to outside mixing and mastering
- Compatibility with all DAWs
- Faster recall for additional mixes (radio edit, TV mix, instrumental)
- Remix parts ready when you need them
- Much greater flexibility with mixing and mastering
- Easy export for digital summing (in the box) or analog summing (via hardware). See what works best for your song
- New STEMS format by Native Instruments provides new performance opportunities, allowing you to trigger stems simultaneously on dedicated channels. Learn more here
- Less CPU usage – bounce stems within busses to lighten the load on your computer
- Collaboration – services like Splice allow for simultaneous collaboration, backup, and stem creation. Learn more here
- Clearly label your sessions and differentiate busses from individuals tracks. I label busses in CAPS. ex: BASS BUS
- Bounce your stems with sidechains on. Provide an alternate non-sidechained version, if needed – and clearly label it
- Note your master signal processing. Take screenshots if needed, so the original master level and dynamics can be matched with signal processing (Compression and limiting are providing in Native Instruments STEMS application)
- Try applying more processing and automation to each of the busses rather than the master, when possible – since your mixes will be recreated from the summed stems fed into another master signal chain.
- Freezing or bouncing audio in place is recommended but not always needed for MIDI instruments
- Set up dedicated effects returns for vocal and lead reverbs so you don’t get ghosting effects when bouncing instrumentals or sparser mixes with leads muted
- Print any hardware processing early on
- Bounce to 24bit or 32bit if possible
- Backup to the cloud immediately and zip up the stems and reference master. Include a txt file with the mastering processing
- Rebuild the session from stems to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything or the processing chain is missing a step. Apply your signal processing as noted earlier. You can audition your mix in Native Instruments STEMS creator to compare your summed mix vs the original. Learn more here
- Keep your stem count low – less than 12 stems. If you’re more concerned about your mix, bounce a version with more.
That’s it! Yes things can get complicated but follow these simple guidelines and you’ll save tons of time in the future and earn more money from your music. Pretty much every DAW has a painless way to bounce all tracks at once (or all busses) which should only take a few minutes. Enjoy!
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