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Mixed Up About Music Stems

By March 3, 2015No Comments

A long stem rose by any other name
As music Stems become more and more popular amongst industry professionals you can see a tendency to confuse what a Stem truly is. The reason for this is simple: most legacy material in music libraries was not created with Stems productions in mind, and recreating them in this format is hideously complicated and expensive: or impossible. There can be an incentive to muddy the waters by mis-describing other formats as Stems when they really aren’t.

On the track to understanding
Traditionally, production music has been delivered as a complete full length track with some cut down versions and sometimes alternative mixes. The options available to the editor have been to choose the full length version or a cut, and then to either turn the music on or off; or up and down in volume. That’s it.

Sophisticated marrying of audio to the moving image requires a new level of flexibility: which music stems can provide. If you were producing a Hollywood blockbuster film you’d hire a composer to write music for the whole production with different audio for each scene and maybe with recurring themes and a consistent feel. Importantly the music would be synchronized to and change with the on-screen action.

Stems music, in essence, allows you to do the same thing with pre-recorded production music. The composer will have gone to great trouble to record each of the component instruments separately: all the same length, all volume-balanced, all packaged together as a ‘Stems mix’. The editor now has the ability to infinitely vary the way in which the audio supports the images. He will of course also have the option to use the complete full length track and cut downs, in case time and simplicity is of the essence and he is happy with the mix as provided.

Just kill the trumpets, or ‘hold the horns’?
How many times have we heard, ‘I love that track until the brass comes in?’, or similar. It is often the case that the music is fine for much of the production; but inappropriate at certain points or for certain scenes. Music is written in bars, and video is delivered in frames. With a Stems version one can easily mute or modify a single component instrument by adjusting the individual Stem; modern editing software makes this child’s play. When the hero steps through the door the trumpets and percussion cease and the bass and rhythm continue at a lower level whilst the on-screen dialogue takes over.

Note that this is not just the same as turning down the volume of the whole track. This distinction is crucial to understanding why Stems music is a game changer.

Moving on; all things are possible. A track with a full and dramatic orchestra backing can be played as a much more minimal piece for some minutes; the full impact of the orchestra only being deployed at a later stage to provide impact at the appropriate moment. Music can be stretched to support videos that are much longer than the available music track in a much more sophisticated way than just by looping the audio. We’ve all heard background music that simply repeats at a few minutes’ interval: with a Stems mix we can extend the intro of the track and bring in other Stems at a suitable place allowing the track to evolve throughout the duration of the production: with no obvious repetition. Once you’ve used Stems versions of tracks you’ll find many more ways to be creative with their use.

What isn’t a Stem?
Some websites have tracks that are described as Stems – but they really aren’t. Often they are merely different mixes, for example ‘without brass and woodwind’, or ‘with flute, guitars, but no percussion’. These may be useful alternatives but they are not stems they are mixes. Often it is not that you don’t want percussion at all, rather it is that you don’t want the drums at that particular scene or at that volume. Mixes don’t allow you to address this need – Stems do.

Think pizza. A house special pizza might have everything on it. A “veggie special” might have the same without the salami and ham, and the “weightwatcher” version might cut out the cheese too. In production music terms these are mixes: the manufacturer has decided what you might like and pre-packaged it for you. In a Stems pizza you’d be able to select at ingredient level to compose exactly the final effect that you want: seafood with shrimp – but without those nasty anchovies!