What are Stems in Music Production and Audio Engineering?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

What is a stem file? What are stems in music? What are multitracks in music? What is the difference between stems and multitracks?

Today we’re going to talk about stems in music production and audio engineering — what they are and what they are used for.

Over the years, I’ve had to explain stems to a lot of clients.

I like explaining terminology that mixing and mastering engineers use everyday because it helps clients and engineers have a better understanding of what they are talking about.

For example, it very common these days to find people confusing stems and multitracks.

Let’s talk about stems and compare them to multitracks.

What are Stems in Music?

Stems are groups of same instruments mixed down to mono or stereo files. Stems start at the same time within a session so that the person you are sending them to can easily line them up in their DAW.

Stems are one of several ways of sharing music and audio files.

In other words, the stems of your song is your song broken down into groups, or individual tracks. Think of the bass tracks, keyboards, guitar tracks, maybe a drum loop or drums, each in their own separate file.

Both stems and multitracks are individual files we create for our mix. But stems are different from multitracks, more on that later.

When it comes to live performances most people are not using huge bands nowadays, they use stems.

When performing live you can have a keyboard player of a band can take out the keyboards from the stems of a song, for instance, and perform that with the rest of the song. It will still be live, but with some of your original music playing.

Ultimately, what’s included in each of your stems really depends on your mix.

Generally, when we make stems, we are creating tracks for an individual instrument, or a group of instruments within a mix but how much you break down your stems is really up to you.

For example, you might only want one stem for all your backing vocals, or you might want to break up your backing vocals into several stems. It really depends with your production process and many other things.

Why Do You Need the Stems of Your Song?

Even if you’ve only ever had a single song produced, you’ve probably heard that it’s an absolute must than when you go to a studio to get your song recorded, you insist on the actual wav file of the song and the stems, not just an mp3.

Why do you need the stems?

Reason #1 — Stems Can Save You Money When Performing

The first reason is what we’ve already mentioned above.

Stems save you money because you can just use the stem from the song instead of hiring players.

If you are performing with your band, for instance, and have the stems of a bass part of your song, you can of course, but you don’t really have to get a bass player. You can just use the bass from the song and play along with it.

In fact, the stem will sound exactly like it did on the song.

It’s better that way when you are working with a limited budget. If you have the budget to hire everyone that you need for the song, that’s fine, but it’s always good to have options.

When you’re recording a song in the studio, ask for the stems once you finish that song. Don’t wait until you’ve got the whole project done to ask for it.

If you wait, to ask, it becomes tedious for the engineer to go in and balance all the stems to all your songs. It’s much easier for everybody to ask for the stems immediately you finish a song.

Make sure you get the stems to your song. It’s the industry standard. They always come in handy.

Reason #1 — Stems Can Easy Way to Share Your Work

When a client approaches me with work done in another DAW (one I do not use), I usually ask them to send me the stems of what they have so far for their mix.

Sending is a really easy way to send your work to a collaborator on your project. This is really valuble especially between collaborators working in different DAWs.

That one particularly good use for stems.

Reason #1 — For Remixes and Placement in Media

It’s often common to see media such as ads or commercials using a charting song at the time as a background track. The song you’re hearing on the radio is often featured as the background track for a commercial.

In almost cases, a remix will have been done on the original song. It’s not the exact mix you’ve been hearing over the radio. It’s a different mix.

This is done for a bunch of reasons such as the ad agency not wanting the lyrics to intefere with the ad message, or for whatever other reason.

Remixes are made using stems. That’s good to keep in mind if you’re trying to get your tracks placed in media.

Ads take the stems and tweak the mix so that you don’t consciously recognise the impact the song has on the ad, and on you.

An Ad is just one use case, there are many others but you get the idea.

If you have this use case in mind, how confident you are with whether or not those indiviudual stems might be remixed or not dictates how you break up your stems. If you think it might want to be remixed, then you might want to break it down even more.

Let’s not look at the difference between stems and multitracks.

Reason #1 — In Stem Mastering

Another reason for using stems is in stem mastering.

Stem mastering is mixing combined with mastering.

The mastering engineer can take your drum stems and aggressively compress that, take your vocal stems and add a little bit of mid-range to help the vocals cut through the mix a little better, and so on and so forth.

Obviously there are more uses for stems but these are the major ones.

The Problem with Stems

Even though stems are useful, the problem with stems is two-fold—

  • People often confuse multitracks with stems. They often refer to multitracks as stems.
  • Stems limit the creative control in mixing.

In audio work, everything has it’s place.

The Difference Between Stems and Multitracks

This is one of those things that people really get confused on. When you start mixing and mastering a lot of projects, you’ll find that there really is a lot of confusion between stems and multitracks.

So what is the difference between stems and multitracks?

Let’s say in your song you have 20 different tracks.

Maybe there’s a stereo beat, you’ve recorded guitars, vocals etc., if you wanted to get your track professionally mixed, you would need to send those twenty separate tracks for that song to a mixer.

The twenty different tracks in this case are the raw recorded tracks.

What are Multitracks?

Multitracks are the dry, raw tracks from your recording session. They have no effects such as EQ, compression, nothing. They are just raw audio or MIDI files. Multitracks are what a mixer uses to make a mix.

This leave as much control over the final mix as possible to the mixer.

By contrast, stems are groups similar instruments, mixed down to either mono or stereo files.

For instance, if recorded your drum kit with 8 mics, say, two for kick drums, two for snare drums, two overheads, one for toms, and maybe a hi-hat mic, all 8 of thise mics would get processed all together to create a drum sound really good — exactly the way you want the drums to sound.

All 8 of these tracks would make a drum stem. That drum stem would be a single stereo file.

The individual tracks in a stem would no longer be editable. Now the mixer has to work with, say, a drum stem as a single stereo file.

Same as with a drum stem, you can have a guitar stem with all your rhytmn guitars and lead guitars as a single stereo stem, same thing with vocals, and bass and so on and so forth.

As we saw earlier with the ad example, stems are often used as backing tracks. They also work well as backing tracks for events, or if you are sending your stems off for stem mastering.

Again, the reason you would want to use stems in a live performance is maybe where you have a song for a full band (drums, bass, guitar, and vocals) but live it’s just you and your guitar.

In this case, you can use the drum, bass and vocal stems to play with you on a live set.

That will sound like a full band is playing.

In Conclusion

When you ask for stems, the end result will be a folder full of audio files, and if MIDI files, were used, there will also be a folder of MIDI files as well.

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And just to recap, multitracks are the individual unprocessed, raw tracks from your recording session. And stems are groups of same instruments mixed down to either mono or stereo files.

That’s it for this article.

It’s a really simple end result that together make up the mix. Again, remember that they all start at the same time.

This should give you a basic understanding of what stems are and what they are used for.


I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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