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The Ultimate Guide To Stem Mastering In Music Production

July 21, 2023 
BY DAN SPENCER
Last Updated on July 21, 2023

You may or may not have heard the term "stem mastering" before. In the history of music production, it is actually a newer concept and process. It's overall goal is to provide a mastering engineer with more control over the production to achieve a better result.

In this article, we will discuss what stem mastering is, how it compares to stereo mastering, and our overall opinion about it.

So, if mastering and music production intrigues you, then you are definitely going to want to read on!

Understanding Stem Mastering

Stem mastering has become popular since the digital revolution. But, what actually is it? To understand stem mastering you must first know what a stem is.

What Is An Audio Stem?

An audio stem, or simply stem, is a group of instruments mixed together and bounced down from multiple tracks to a single track.

Imagine a complex composition, with separate tracks for multiple instrument groups: vocals, drums, guitar, keyboard, and bass. Each of these individual tracks could be considered an 'audio stem'. Alternatively, you could group related elements together, such as all the drum components (snare, kick, toms, cymbals) into a single 'drum stem'.

Audio stems serve as building blocks in the mixing and mastering processes, providing engineers with greater control over their work. They offer the flexibility to alter the sound of grouped elements collectively without affecting other components of the track.

What Is Stem Mastering?

In simple terms, stem mastering is a more intricate form of audio mastering. Typically a track is divided into several subgroups or 'stems'—such as vocals, drums, bass, synths—each having its own dedicated stereo track. These stems are then treated and processed individually for tonal balance, dynamic range, spatial positioning, and other sonic aspects. This provides a much higher level of control over the elements of a mix compared to stereo mastering.

The Stem Mastering Process

Stem mastering goes way beyond standard mastering as it has many mixing tasks baked into it.

A typical stem mastering session starts with processing the drum stem, then adding in the bass stem, then the music stem, and lastly the vocal stem. EQ, compression, and other effects are added to each stem to bring out their best qualities. The process finishes with treating all the stems as a whole, similar to stereo mastering.

As great as stem mastering is, there is still a debate about whether or not it is better than stereo mastering. Let's discuss that next.

Stem Mastering Vs Stereo Mastering

Music production comes in many different shapes and sizes, but mastering only has two different flavors; stem and stereo. For most of audio engineering's history, stereo mastering has been the standard. Today it can go either way.

What Is Stereo Mastering?

Stereo mastering, often simply referred to as traditional mastering, is the final step in the music production process before a song or album is ready for distribution. It involves refining a stereo mix to ensure it sounds the best it can across all types of playback systems, from high-end audio setups to earbuds, car speakers, and beyond.

During the stereo mastering process, a mastering engineer works with a single, mixed-down stereo file. They apply various processes such as equalization (EQ), compression, limiting, and stereo enhancement to adjust the overall sound of the final mix. The aim is to create a balanced frequency response, consistent dynamic range, and to make sure the music is loud enough to compete with other commercially released tracks.

While stereo mastering offers less control over individual elements of a mix compared to stem mastering, it is still preferred by many.

Comparing Stem Mastering And Stereo Mastering

Both stereo mastering and stem mastering come with their unique advantages, and the choice between them often depends on the specific needs of a project. Let's explore some of the benefits each process offers.

Stereo Mastering:

  1. Simplicity: Since stereo mastering works with a single stereo mixdown file, it's less complex compared to stem mastering.

  2. Preservation of Mix Decisions: In stereo mastering, the balance between different instruments and sounds that was decided during the mixing process is maintained, ensuring the artistic intent is preserved.

  3. Efficiency and Cost: Stereo mastering is typically quicker and less expensive than stem mastering because it requires less time and fewer resources.

Stem Mastering:

  1. Greater Control: With separate stems, engineers have control over the individual elements of a mix. This allows for more precise adjustments and corrections without affecting the rest of the track.

  2. Fixing Mix Issues: Stem mastering can help resolve issues that are hard to fix in stereo mastering. For example, if the vocals are getting lost in the mix, the mastering engineer can adjust the vocal stem without impacting the other musical elements.

  3. Flexibility: Stem mastering offers more flexibility for creating different versions of a track, such as radio edits or instrumentals, as the engineer can easily mute or modify individual stems.

  4. Creative Possibilities: Stem mastering opens up creative possibilities, such as adding new effects or making subtle changes to the arrangement that can enhance the final product.

Both stereo and stem mastering have their place in music production, and the choice largely depends on the condition of your mix, the complexity of your project, your budget, and your final audio goals. It's all about selecting the right tool for the job to help your music sound its absolute best.

What Do We Like Better?

Here at Audio Sorcerer, we offer both stereo and stem mastering. Though they both have their place, we prefer traditional stereo mastering. Well, at least for our experienced mixing clients.

With stereo mastering, we are able to keep our clients vision intact. They get to hear the mix as they created it, but with enhancements that take it to a new level.

With stem mastering, we might hear something a different way than the client does. This usually results in more back and forth to achieve the desired result. However, stem mastering is a great opinion for beginner mix engineers so that we can use our expertise to fine tune the tracks further.

To sum it up, if you are an experienced mix engineer then stereo mastering is for you. Otherwise, choose stem mastering so that we have that extra control to help your music achieve the professional sound it deserves.

Final Thoughts

As we draw the curtains on our deep dive into the fascinating world of stem mastering, it's clear to see why this method has become so popular in music production. From the freedom and control it offers to its ability to resolve complex mix issues, stem mastering provides an avenue to help elevate mixes.

While stereo mastering has its strengths in simplicity, efficiency, and preserving mix decisions, stem mastering provides an unparalleled level of precision and flexibility. The choice between the two ultimately depends on what you are looking for as an artist or mix engineer.

Thank you for joining us on this journey through the art of stem mastering. Here's to making music that not only sounds good but truly resonates. And remember, the road to professional sounding tracks is paved with knowledge, practice, and a bit of mastering magic. Happy producing!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can stem mastering save a bad mix?

Stem mastering is a powerful tool, but it's not a magic wand. If the individual tracks are poorly recorded and mixed, even the best mastering engineers will struggle to turn the tide. Remember, garbage in, garbage out!

What's the average cost of stem mastering?

The cost of stem mastering can vary widely based on factors such as the complexity of the project, the reputation of the mastering engineer, and the turnaround time. Prices can range from $50 to several hundred dollars per song.

How many stems should I provide for stem mastering?

The number of stems can vary depending on the complexity of your mix and the level of control you want over the final sound. However, typically 3 to 5 stems are common, including groups like vocals, drums, bass, and various instruments.

Can I do stem mastering myself, or should I hire a professional?

While it's possible to do stem mastering yourself with the right knowledge and tools, a professional mastering engineer brings years of experience and a finely tuned ear to the table. They can provide a fresh, unbiased perspective and ensure that the final master of your music competes with other professional tracks in terms of loudness, balance, and overall sound quality.

What format should I use when exporting stems for mastering?

It's best to export your stems as high-quality, uncompressed audio files, such as WAV or AIFF. Also, ensure that all stems start at the beginning of the song, even if a certain instrument doesn't come in until later, so everything lines up correctly when loaded into the mastering session.

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