The No.1 Website for Pro Audio
Mastering from Stems
Old 10th May 2003
Lives for gear
Wiggy Neve Slut's Avatar

Mastering from Stems

Ok.. i have been talking to some mastering cats of late. Its seems from what i gatehr this is a popular thing.

If anyone here has done it recently can they please elaborate onthier experiences?,

-How did they feel it went?

-Did it allow you, artist and or producer more freedom in the final master?

-Did it slow things down and was awaste of time and money.

-Is it just another extension and exercise in people not being able to commit to decisions as a project progresses?

-Was there any type of analogue summing involved eg.. D2B or mixer etc?

-What was the format, system and hardware that the stems were mixed from?


Old 10th May 2003
Hey Wigs,

Ask Chap.

I think the guys over at Sterling have made it really popular.

They use the Dangerous stuff to sum the stems back together.

In some ways its good(it forces people to attend their own mastering sessions), in other ways its bad(a record you've mixed can end up sounding like Sh*t because the artist/producer/A&R/mastering guy decided to get creative at the mastering sesssion).

And then on top of it you may or may not get the credit for the mix.
Old 11th May 2003
Lives for gear
Steve Smith's Avatar

For the love of pete, Make a decision people!

Cant we at least decide on what we wnat by the time Mix is done, I know tracking decisions went the way of the dodo for alot of folks with the advent of the 64+ track tracking session, but really.. deciding on balances at a mastering session?.....

dfegad dfegad
Old 11th May 2003
Moderator emeritus

I can understand the reasons (and in fact, do some variant of that myself, with the track, the lead vox and the BGV's on separate stems when I go to do my final mix), but I'm nost sure that it isn't better to simply make a decision and live with it.

The last project I mixed went to two 24 bit pairs, identical except that one pair passed through a Vari-Mu and the other didn't. After listening to all of the mixes, I re-mixed two songs (the client felt that the vocals were 'just right' while I thought that they were too hot). Two days to mix 16 songs, and the system wasn't even patched together til after lunch the first day.

Reference copies will go to the band next week; either they'll choose which mix to use or the mastering engineer (the lovely and talented Bob Olhsson) and I will make that decision so that they won't have to.

In any case, it's actually MUSIC - very, very cool.
Old 11th May 2003
Motown legend
Bob Olhsson's Avatar

A lot of the top people either send stems or additional "vocal up" mixes that have the vocal and solos .5 to 1 dB higher.

What's "right" frequently depends on precisely where a song is in the sequence, how much limiting is being done and what kind of eq is being used. I frequently find myself editing between "vocal-ups" and regulars within the same song if the excitement isn't building properly or a word needs emphasis. With a stem, you can simply ride the vocal. Both of these methods often sound better than shelving the mids in order to make a vocal or solo sit right.

In terms of decisions, BOTH mixes need to be perfectly acceptable. Each just has a slightly different perspective.
Old 13th May 2003
I dont trust the following "clowns" to not screw up with stems

Management wannabe producers
Artist wannabe producers
Mastering engineer wannabe producers
A&R wannabe producers

Before you know it mastering will get booked the one day you said you were busy, or out of the country. Or that they 'doubled back' to 'have another go' without you.

Also dragging a whirring DAW an emiting HF racket from SCSI drives, into the mastering room might throw off the mastering engineers ears..

And then there is the issue of "stems out of what"?

Digidesign 888/24's?
Apogee AD8000's (SE versions?)

- I can see if mastering studios promote it and have the gear on site, that it COULD be a cool thing, but most mastering guys here in the UK would say, "nope I ain't doin it". They HATE new stuff / ideas by and large...

Old 13th May 2003
Gear Nut

Despite the "fix it ' ability Stems provides, You are still giving your mix to someone to part mix for you, not master.

Either it is ready for mastering or it is not.

As Bob O says, a vocal up/vocal down version can help with a particular problem.

Old 13th May 2003
My finely tuned but I belive healthy, engineers paranoia, leads me to this conclusion...

Throughought the recording process a producer approves & vetos things constantly. This journey can leave a trail of folks all wondering when THEY will get their chance to be 'the boss'.

Not on my production!

Old 14th May 2003
Lives for gear
jazzius's Avatar

i think it's insanity.......'s like creating a new process in between mixing and mastering...........let's call it "stemming"!?

If a mix engineer isn't competent enough to provide a stereo mix worthy of mastering, then what the hell is he /she doing on the gig!!??......i don't mean this in a derogatory way, but, i mean, like someone else said, let's make some decisions here!

Also, in the mix, isn't automation of levels going on? do you print the stems with automation or not?...if not, is that now up to the masterer?.....nah......that's absolutely not to be done in mastering...

...mix it, master it, go drink a beer........more complicated than that it need not be.

i could be wrong!

Old 14th May 2003
BevvyB's Avatar

As previously discussed in other threads, giving stems over is almost impossible to avoid when doing scores nowadays. It gives the guys what they need to do their surround stuff, and also change balance in favour of the other competing elements in the film. Also, it gives your music more mileage in a funny kind of way in that medium...
Old 14th May 2003
Lives for gear
Wiggy Neve Slut's Avatar

Excellent replies everyone..

I think its adding another layer/ dimension of confusion?... i mean u look at eh stuff Bob was involved with and was there much confusion there in the production process compared with today? i dont think so.

Im all for the decision to be made as they go rather than lump one person with all the weight and expectations of a project.

Im all about keeping it real and keeping it with feel

Old 14th May 2003
Gear Addict
mitgong's Avatar

You jerks gave me such a hard time when I brought this up in a previous "stems" thread, but I guess that was mainly a "post"-oriented issue.

I am aware of one recent incident in which the wishy-washy A&R guy, torn between pleasing the artist and the label flipped out on the studio which did his artist's mixes (to her approval and enjoyment) for not providing stems, because he was too much of a wuss to tell anybody he didn't like the mixes (he didn't think they would sell).

So he had the project recorded and mixed at a discount, weedling for economy at every step of the way, without the balls to mention that he didn't think the direction the artist was taking was appropriate (or good for her career). Then he drops a wad at Sterling because he knows they can "remix" it. Except he forgot to mention that he wanted stems, and now won't pay to have them made.

Guess how much his decisions are costing the label and, by extension, the artist?

There are many valid points of view. But just mix the damn thing, eh?
Old 16th May 2003
Lives for gear
Mikey MTC's Avatar

I have mastered several projects this way and every time it's come out for the better. Some good examples of things that made it worthwhile:

(1) A song that was a little too middy/nosey/honky. We had a separate stem for keys/guitars. A little bit of mid range compression on just that stem sat the whole track down. Why penalize the drums? It's not their fault!

(2) A song where the compression/limiting was destroying the crack of the snare. We actually had separate kick and snare stems for this one and treated the snare independently. You could argue that we are going beyong mastering and going back to mixing, but the effects are all on there to start with. I've got the client's reverbs, delays, and exisiting EQ and compression before I move.

(3) A song that had too narrow a stereo field. A Waves S1 or equivalent approach might tend to sound too phasey as well as weakening the toughness in the middle. Easy - apply the S1 to just the BV's stem or maybe just on the keys/guitar stem to get the wide lushness, and the drums and bass can rock away as they always did.

etc etc etc.

The approach may not be for everyone, but I suggest it to many clients now because I'm so sick of having my hands tied in mastering where obvious mistakes in one area are holding the whole song to ransom.

Old 17th May 2003
Lives for gear
jazzius's Avatar

Originally posted by Mikey MTC

etc etc etc.

So, when you finish with it, it'll still need to be mastered then?

Seriously, where does it end? could always argue that the more individual tracks you have access to, the better it'll turn out....correct...but that leads you back to..........mixing it'll still need to be could find yourself locked into some endlessly repeating ground-hog day type loop.........each time you finish the "mastering" you'll find yourself back at the start of the........mastering!

Mixing is mixing, mastering is mastering,, ne'er the twain shall meet!
Old 18th May 2003
Motown legend
Bob Olhsson's Avatar

The first person ever I heard of doing this was Phil Ramone in the early '70s and I understand this remains his SOP. Stems have been SOP in the film industry for nearly 30 years because of the massive mix translation issues involved in surround mixing.

As budgets decline, mastering facilities are becoming the last traditional facilities that offer cost-no-object gear and monitoring that are still somewhat affordable to a project. Combine that with the surround issues and I can't imagine stems won't become the norm for major label projects in the future.

As for A&R people, they've already got our multitracks, our ProTools sessions and the authority to hire somebody else to do a mix if the vocal isn't loud enough. Stems create a great financial incentive to keep the original mixer involved instead of bringing in somebody cheaper because so much more needs to be done to make a minor change!
Old 18th May 2003
Lives for gear
jazzius's Avatar

Isn't a great mix something whole and complete within itself?.......a sort of organic structure which dies if a part is removed?....

...don't many of the great mixers mix thru, or rather into an analogue 2-buss compressor?....or purposefully overload the console?

...this cannot be seperated into stems without intrinsically destroying (or at least changing) the mix...

...i agree you have more control with access to the stems.....this is what you have in the mix .

Also, i think that the mind-set and goals during mixing and mastering are completely's not a good thing to think too much about mastering while mixing and vica versa.

This stems thing is at best a band-aid or veil for incompetents

just my opinion FWIW
Old 18th May 2003
Lives for gear
Mikey MTC's Avatar

Just to be clear, in the process I mentioned, you are actually mastering the final 2 out as well. I still have the compressors and EQs strapped across the whole mix, but if upon listening we feel that JUST the guitars are too bright - well it's an easy fix that doesn't dull the vocal or the drums.

The beauty of this method from my side is that the mix guy (often I'm not dealing with major studios or engineers here) can still do their own full mix. They're not thinking stems when they're mixing. I tell them to do what they would normally do, and then at the end as well as mixing out a normal stereo master, to solo up all the stems with their matching effects and spit out as many as is practical (usually between three and seven stereo stems).

The first thing I do is push all the stems to unity so (all digital things being equal - let's not go there on this argument!) effectively I'm hearing exactly what was mixed out. That might sound fine, in which case we treat the two track only. It's just great to have that flexibility if needed.

For the home mixer guys, the extra hours to go to stems costs little to nothing because it's their gear. They are all happy to pay me a little more to have the power and fresh set of ears to improve in one or two days the thing they've invested months working on.

A more upmarket example is this: About a year ago I mastered a major label artist's album. They had the first two singles mixed by an excellent LA mixer and they sounded great. The rest of the album was mixed by one of the musos themselves. He's very good but he's primarily a muso and not a mixer. Him delivering me all his mixes in stems gave me a much better chance of matching them to the LA mixes. On a couple of the songs where even the luxury of a drum stem resulted in the kick and snare not working, we even opted for a kick stem, a snare stem and a drums less kick/snare stem.

Yes this is turning into mixing, but again, these stems are totally effected so it's a balance/EQ/compression thing (still mixing, certainly). This became a large and expensive job, but like I said above, a few extra days in mastering is not a lot in the big picture of a major album budget. If it results in a noticeable improvement surely it's worth it?
Old 18th May 2003
Lives for gear
blackcatdigi's Avatar
Originally posted by jazzius

This stems thing is at best a band-aid or veil for incompetents

Just slightly OT:

Right now I'm mixing a full length hard rock project. I'm using an analog console and lots of analog outboard. The only 'recall' available, is whatever I happen to 'recall' about that mix!
The band lives several hours away and can't attend the mixing. We've worked together before, and they trust my ears...


if just ONE single element of a mix is not to their liking (and these guys are super picky), be it a vocal level or a kick drum, we'd have to start all over... And I'm not going there.

So, in this particular instance, mixing to stems is both practical and timesaving.

I can mix at my leisure, hand them a 2 track to live with for a few days, and make any changes they want without going all the way back to square one.

Some may see this method as a postponement of mixing. I see it as preservation of a (minor change/s aside) 'perfect' mix... YMMV.
Old 18th May 2003
Here for the gear
Jack Ortman's Avatar

Old 18th May 2003
Lives for gear
malice's Avatar

Originally posted by Jack Ortman
We are doomed ...

Old 18th May 2003
Lives for gear
Steve Smith's Avatar


Your example is exactly the kind of application I would use stem mixes for. The diffrence is that you are still sending the band 2 mixes. You , the mixer is still making decisions about level, not the mastering engineer... I am not so sure I like this idea ( see my first post) but there are def some applications presented here that it has been useful on... at the end of the day, whatever makes a record right? I am just curious how the credits read....
Old 21st May 2003
7rojo7's Avatar

1993, the band: the Rmones; the album, I don't remember even though I worked on it; stems: DRMS:L+R; BS; GTRS:L+R; VOX(r.i.p.); BKG.VOX. The format: if I remember correctly we had 24 tks of ADAT at the time but I think we rented a DA88. The "remixes" were matched for effects with mixes previously done at the tracking studio. The producer felt that the problems he'd always had with mastering sessions could be easily solved in this manner. I'll try to remember the name of the album so you can listen to it. It was quite popular.
It's been being done now for a long time. If Phil Ramone has been doing it then you can listen to any Billy Joel album done by him.
It doesn't seem so insane to me, if the performances are good and the sounds are good a couple of level adjustments don't seem like heresy to me.
At the end of films I'm always amazed by how many people work to make even a really simple film. If you want to be a star go grab the mic. MF or get in line with those working like pros to make it happen.
Normally it's the producer's call. Wannabee or not, if you're not at the top of the pecking order you don't have much to say about it, and if you do it won't be for too long.
Old 21st May 2003
Gear Addict
mitgong's Avatar

Originally posted by 7rojo7
If you want to be a star go grab the mic.
So true. So hard to remember sometimes. You have to learn to compromise while being uncompromising. Ah the studio life!
Old 21st May 2003
Lives for gear

I recently mixed single for a European artist, and decided to do stems back into ProTools. All tapes were sent back to the label at the end of the day. Three months later they wanted me to attend mastering in L.A. They shipped the 1/2" tapes and forgot reel 1 which contained the tones and the "master" mix - DUH!! I happened to have my laptop rig with me, and the stems were still on one of the drives. We played back out of the rig through fancy converters, and did TV and instrumental mixes also. It's a handy practice.
Old 22nd May 2003
Gear Maniac
Jack the Bear's Avatar

About 40% of the masters I receive are PT sessions.
Stems can be helpful, but generally are a pain.
Most people don't have ther budget for the extra time for making decisions.

I agree with Bob O with asking for voc up or guit up or whatever mixes and if necessary, edit between them.

I'm a glorified tape copy boy, NOT a mix engineer.
Two very different disciplines that require a lifetime to get a reasonable handle on.

If more people bring stems to mastering sessions, then they will no longer be mastering sessions and then the mantra of "we'll fix it in mastering" will become even more popular.

As Wiggy says it's all about keepin' it real in the feel.


Tony Mantz.
Old 23rd May 2003
7rojo7's Avatar

Dylan sang this song: the times they are a changin', he also sang the answer is blowin in the wind, I have no idea if he wrote these but in a few days I'm gonna start a thread on "wish I had the 2" back" or somethin similar. Now it's so easy to do a recall and with PT now I hardly ever touch a compressor etc... Mastering PT sessions or having to edit between mixes (since I've been around this has the way) or whatever you have to do to get the end product to somebodies satisfaction (producer). Is a job and if you're not with it, your'e out.
If I ask someone to master from stems or to provide stems to go to mastering and they give me a hard time, Guess what.
If you check the RIAA regulations for providing archives these days (somewhere on the grammy site) you have to give the original session, if it was a DAW type of recording you must provide consolidated tracks and all original tracks with out deletions ( to think of how many times i wiped and spot erased (early automation) and now it's against the law) in AIT- ?I forget which number or equivalent other, a Hard drive an optical etc... the point being that the record company owns the recording and if someone fucked something up along the way they want to fix it if it's worth it or sell Bob Marley's vocals to who ever they please.
There are still people doing mixes to 1/2" and editing as they go (Rick Rubin) and they sound fine, whatever floats your boat.
Old 23rd May 2003
Gear Addict
mixer's Avatar

the more of your job you give away...the less of a job you have. insecurity has killed many a good artist . looks like another way to run away from decisions.
Old 25th May 2003
Motown legend
Bob Olhsson's Avatar

Originally posted by mixer
looks like another way to run away from decisions.
When misused, absolutely!

On the other hand when you don't have the necessary information or quality of facility available to make the best decision, stems are a great way to get 90% of the way there and get on with your life until the information becomes available for you to apply the appropriate final touches. A mix is like an examination. You'll frequently find things that absolutely need to be fixed before a successful mix is going to be possible. Stems take you well past that point but leave room for minor alterations that would otherwise need to be done using radical eq and compression in mastering.

It's like setting final peak limiting, levels and eq. on the 2-bus. There is no way you can know the appropriate settings before you know exactly what the song before and the song after are going to sound like in the album. Having a mastering engineer process a song once appropriate to the context will always sound better than the mixer inadvertently processing it wrong for the context and a mastering engineer needing to whack it upside the head in order to make it fit.
Old 26th May 2003
7rojo7's Avatar

well said!!stike
Old 3rd July 2003
Gear Nut
Pricey's Avatar

I think stems are a great idea, because you can process each stem separately. But it should be limited to 2 stems - 1 for instruments, 1 for vocals.

I recently mixed a soundtrack album for a "rock opera" that is very complex vocally. It was a PITA to get the required intelligibility for the vocals and still have a slammin' rhythm section. I "mastered" it myself (due to a small budget). I had 1 stem for instruments and 1 stem for vocals, and I gave each one its own compression/eq/limiting. No 2-bus processing at all. The result was very clean, because the vocals and the instruments weren't modulating each other.
πŸ“ Reply
Post Reply

Welcome to the Gearslutz Pro Audio Community!

Registration benefits include:
  • The ability to reply to and create new discussions
  • Access to members-only giveaways & competitions
  • Interact with VIP industry experts in our guest Q&As
  • Access to members-only sub forum discussions
  • Access to members-only Chat Room
  • Get INSTANT ACCESS to the world's best private pro audio Classifieds for only USD $20/year
  • Promote your eBay auctions and listings for free
  • Remove this message!
You need an account to post a reply. Create a username and password below and an account will be created and your post entered.

Slide to join now Processing…
πŸ–¨οΈ Show Printable Version
βœ‰οΈ Email this Page
πŸ” Search thread
♾️ Similar Threads
πŸŽ™οΈ View mentioned gear