How to Stem Mix – The Art and Advantages of Stem Mixing

By | February 11, 2015

Stem mixing is a mixing technique concentrating on the macro level of a mix. Stem mixing, if applied, is usually the final stage of a mix before bouncing the stereo mix to audio. There are many advantages in stem mixing. Read on to find out how to stem mix your music in a proper fashion.

Stems?

Stems? Photo Credit: bradleygee via Compfight cc

Stems? Photo Credit: bradleygee via Compfight cc

You might wonder, “what is a stem?” Well, a stem is a stereo audio track consisting of multiple instruments of the same kind. Stems are also known as a submix, bus, aux or group. To clarify more, a drum stem would be a stereo track where you have routed all your drum sounds in your mixer. When you mute this track, you would hear drums no more in your mix.

Stems could be used to organize a mix, to route everything in their rightful groups. In the usual mix, you could have drums, guitars, vocals, keyboards, pads and sound effects for example, in their own stems. The instant advantage of using groups like this is the ability to mute any one of them, which offers perspective between instruments.

How to mix using stems

Basically there are two ways to stem mix:

  1. Mix using stem buses in a full project context
  2. Bounce stereo stems out of a project and import them into a new mix project

It’s a matter of preference how to approach stem mixing. Personally, I like to mix within a project I am working on as I go, so to speak. But bouncing out all the stems to form your full track could be very useful, especially if you’re planning to get your track stem-mixed or mastered elsewhere, or get your track summed using analog gear.

Bouncing out stems could also be useful for yourself for applying final polishing or tweaking to your stereo stems. It’s easier to get the right final balance with only 5-7 stereo tracks, by making adjustments to them each. And in a clean new project, it’s a breeze.

Mix stems in a project, controlling different instrument groups.

Mix stems in a project, controlling different instrument groups.

Mixing with stems can be anything from subtle tweaks to exploring borders of creativity. Here are some ways to work with stems:

  • The fader! Adjust the overall balance of your song by tweaking the stem faders.
  • Use broad EQ boosts and cuts to shape the tone of an instrument group
  • Use surgical EQ cuts to take out clashing frequencies between stems, clarifying a mix
  • Use filters to cut unneeded frequencies from the whole group
  • Apply compression to “glue” things together, such as the drums for cohesiveness
  • Apply parallel compression to add excitement while retaining the original sound
  • Use one reverb for a certain group to place them in the same “space”
  • Apply special effects by automating plug-ins on and off in certain parts of a song, giving the impression that a certain instrument group is effected, while the others are not

As you can see, there are various ways to work with mix stems. The rule of thumb is, always approach instruments individually in a mix, using their own faders and mixer channels. When you get the desired balance with individual faders, you can play around with the stems to fine-tune and polish the mix even more.

You could even group multiple stems together to process them together. You could send all the keyboards and guitars to the same bus to apply effects to them, or bus the drums and bass together and compress them. There are no limits, so take advantage of the technique of stem mixing. Be creative!

Processing drums and bass together using a compressor.

Processing drums and bass together using a compressor.

The End Result

A stem mix is the cherry on top of the well-built "mix cake".

A stem mix is the cherry on top of the well-built “mix cake”.

Think of stem mixing as the cherry on top of the cake. The mix should already sound good before approaching the mix at stem-level.

Sometimes a simple rebalancing of the stem faders by 1-3dB will do the trick, sometimes a few surgical EQ cuts here and there. The goal here is to make the mix clearer, cleaner and pop out even more.

You will also want to try applying exciters, tape machines and other “character” plug-ins to your stems. With an exciter, you could bring out the high-end sizzle in a drum track, or the sparkly midrange of the music track. A tape machine, however, could beef up a vocal stem or bass stem. See?

As in mixing in general, and as said before, there are no limits here. Try different things, and you’ll find plug-ins and settings that will make your stem mix pop out.

I hope you gained some new information in mixing from this article. Have fun with stems, and happy mixing!

Please leave all your comments below, and I’ll be sure to get back to you.

-JP

Have you used stem mixing before? What are your favorite stem mixing techniques, plug-ins or even hardware? You can share them below. Let’s discuss!

2 thoughts on “How to Stem Mix – The Art and Advantages of Stem Mixing

  1. Daniella

    Hi

    This is a great article , very well explained and easy to read!
    I realy enjoy this blog. My husband play guitare , he will love your site
    Thank you

    Reply

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