Stem Mastering: Working with Individual Mix Components

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If you’re a music producer or mixer, you may have heard about stem mastering but aren’t quite sure what it is or how it works. 

In this post, we’ll break down the ins and outs of stem mastering so you can decide if it’s right for your next project. 

What Are Stems?

Stems are groups of audio tracks exported separately from a mix session. For example, you might have a lead vocal stem, a drums stem, a bass stem, a guitars stem, and so on. 

Stems allow you to continue working on elements of a mix individually after it has been exported, rather than being limited to processing the full stereo mix. This gives you added flexibility when mastering.

As you can see above, stems don’t have to follow any strict grouping. You can export stems based on what makes sense for the song. Just be sure to export every track that was used in the mix so you have all the components needed for mastering.

Why Use Stems for Mastering?

Stem mastering opens up creative options that aren’t possible when mastering a stereo mix. Here are some of the key benefits:

Custom Processing

With stem mastering, you can add different processing to individual elements as needed. For example, you might add extra compression to the drums or cut out harsh resonances from the vocals. This level of customization can take your master to the next level.

Remix Capability 

Having the individual stems allows you to easily change the balance of the mix during mastering. You can bring elements up or down, push instruments further back in the stereo field, or even create entirely new sections.

Control and Consistency

When mastering a stereo track, any processing you add affects the entire mix globally. With stems, you can pinpoint your adjustments, maintaining consistency across the song.

Revising the Arrangement

Don’t be afraid to try editing or rearranging sections by muting/unmuting stems in your DAW. You might find that extending the chorus or stripping back instrumentation in a verse helps the flow and impact.

How to Approach Stem Mastering

Stem mastering follows a similar workflow to typical mastering, with a few key differences:

Import the Stems

Import each stem into your DAW on its own track. Make sure they line up exactly and have the same start and end points. Solo each one to check for errors or clipping.

Set Channel Processing

Add any processing (EQ plugins, compression, etc.) on the individual tracks as needed. Think about the role of each stem and what it needs. You likely won’t need much on any single stem.

Balance the Stems 

Once the stems sound good soloed, balance them together to recreate your mix. Make any adjustments to get the blend right. Now you can hear the mix with your channel processing baked in.

Add Master Bus Processing

Add master bus processing like compression and limiting to take the overall track loudness and punch up another level. Use a light touch here since the stems were already processed.

Export the Master

When you’re happy with how it sounds, solo the master bus and export the final master file! Make sure it’s the same bit depth and sample rate as your session.

Tips for Effective Stem Mastering

To get the most out of stem mastering, keep these tips in mind:

  • Solo your stems periodically to ensure nothing is getting drowned out in the composite mix.
  • Don’t over-process stems or add processing that should have been done in the mix stage. Keep it to refinement. 
  • Make sure stereo position and reverb tails are consistent session-wide when balancing.
  • Compare your stem master to the original stereo mix to reference improvements.
  • Be organized from the start! Name and color-code your stems consistently between mixing and mastering.

When Stem Mastering Works Best

While stem mastering opens up many possibilities, it isn’t the best choice for every project. It works well when:

  • You want greater creative control over individual mix elements.
  • The mix needs refinement, but remixing the entire song isn’t feasible. 
  • You’re looking to add arrangement variations or sections.
  • The mix contains lots of clashing frequencies that are hard to balance.

If the mix is already cohesive and balanced as a stereo track, stem mastering may be more effort than it’s worth. Use your best judgment!

Final words

Stem mastering lets you take your music’s sound to the next level. By continuing to refine mix elements individually, you can achieve results that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Give it a try on your next project and see what creative ideas you can come up with!

Have you used stem mastering before? How did it influence your workflow and end result? Let me know in the comments below!

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