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Stem files: How do I use these?

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Stems and Multitracks: What’s the Difference?

by Phillip Nichols, iZotope Contributor

January 5, 2017

Audio files are essential to modern audio production and are relied upon for successful collaboration, tracking, editing, mixing, remixing, and mastering. However, lack of proper file preparation or confusion about what files to use will net a lot of frustration and wasted time, money, and progress. Under the umbrella of audio files are two commonly used and confused kinds—multitracks and stems.

Sure, both are audio files, but what’s the difference?

Some people use “stems” and “multitracks” as interchangeable terms. Though they are related, they're not the same. Understanding the differences prevents mixups when it comes to requesting and sending files.

What are multitracks?

Multitracks are the recorded separate, individual elements of an audio production. Some may be mono, while others are stereo. They may have been recorded from microphones or direct inputs, programmed in a sequencer, or arranged in a sampler. In many cases, dynamics processors such as compressors and time-based effects such as delay and reverbare excluded to allow flexibility for the mixing engineer. The image below shows a folder of multitracks.

Multitracks

 

1521665178298.png

What are stems?

Stems are stereo recordings sourced from mixes of multiple individual tracks. For example, a drum stem will typically be a stereo audio file that sounds like all of the drum tracks mixed together. In most cases, additional processing such as equalization, compression, and time-based effects is included to ensure that the sound achieved by the mixing engineer is committed. The image below shows a folder of stems generated from a mix of the multitrack files displayed in the previous image.

Stems

1521665179777.png

As you can see, multitrack sessions typically have far more tracks than stem sessions. Whereas the track counts in multitrack sessions range from twenty to a couple hundred, stem sessions may contain only four to twenty tracks.

Multitrack sessions are created and expanded upon in the recording, editing, and mixing processes, while stem sessions are more commonly created after all the recording, editing, and mixing is finished—there are exceptions, of course.

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so... if you export stems from Cakewalk to BandLab, do you, precisely, upload from tracks, from busses, or is it user selectable?

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I recently did a project where I recorded the tracks in Cakewalk, and then I sent the stems to the recording studio for the vocal. What I did was export the file under the preset "Raw Tracks." Cakewalk exported all the tracks separately.  I renamed each track, "bass, drums," etc, although if named properly in Cakewalk, the track name will automatically be the name of the exported file.   In order for the tracks to line up when imported into another DAW, you would want to  drag the beginning of the track to bar 1.  In other words if your track starts at bar 1 with say, drums and bass, and the vocal comes in at bar 16, you would want to drag the empty part of the vocal to bar 1 so everything aligns in the imported DAW.  It's possible Cakewalk will do it on its own, put I never tried it that way. 

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On 2/4/2019 at 3:50 PM, Deckard said:

Heh, yeah it can be VERY confusing when there are multiple meanings attributed to the same word! :) And it's kind of annoying, as it's making language less precise...

Unfortunately, there are no "language police" in the audio industry to make sure everyone's on the same page. And then there are terms like "loop":

  • A piece of repeating audio
  • A sustaining region in a sample
  • Live looping
  • Patching in a daisy-chain fashion

And then manufacturers like to choose different words for the same thing, I guess just to appear different...

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On 2/4/2019 at 1:36 PM, Audioicon said:

Thanks Craig! It has been a while.
Love your new music. The tradition mixes are great!

Thanks much! The mixes on Simplicity were easy, because there were so few tracks. The more tracks, the harder it is to get a good mix.

This is why sometimes stems can be helpful within individual songs. I'm working on a song with massed vocals, there are around 12 tracks of background vocals. Of course once you get the level right, you can group them - but sometimes it's easier just to do a premix. It's sort of like "permanent freezing" :)

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