Do You Know Your TRACKS From Your STEMS?

Let’s set the scene:  You’ve worked hard to get your recording project this far.  Perhaps you’re the band member who “had a knack” for the sonic side of things, and the willingness to take on that role for your cash-strapped musical project.  You could be a songwriter, or producer just embarking on the road of a new career.  You’ve researched who you want to have mix your creation, and you’re excited because your first choice has agreed to take on your project.  “Great,” you say as the initial conversation winds down, “I’ll send over the stems for the first tune as soon as I can!”

My question to you now is, do you know exactly what you’ve just said?  If you’re like a great many of my clients, the answer is no.  What you really mean is, “I’ll send over the tracks for the first tune as soon as I can!”

These days the term “stem” as it relates to recording/mixing gets thrown around as a synonym for the term “track.”  The difference may seem subtle at first, but in reality they are two very different things.  Using them interchangeably at the wrong time could cost you a lot of time, and money.

So let’s dig in!

How Did We Get Here?

This is a tough one to answer definitively, but I think there are two issues at play:

The first is the usage of the term “stem” in many DAW’s export pop-up windows.  The people writing the code had to settle on a term for the files created during the export process, and the one they chose is “stem.”  Unfortunately, as we’ll soon see, that’s very often incorrect.

That led to the second issue.  A whole lot of people learned to refer to all exported files as “stems,” because that’s what they saw on their computer screens.  A whole lot of other people heard them use it, and we were off to the races.

So What’s A Track?

Tracks are the files created during the recording process.  Even if effects are applied.  Even if multiple instruments have been bussed together.  The correct term for anything created before the mixing process is “track.”

The term has its roots in analog recording.

  • Once we moved past stereo (or 2-TRACK) tape, we were working on multiTRACK machines/tape reels.
  • Two  24-TRACK analog tape machines locked together meant you had 48 TRACKS to record on.
  • If you ran out of TRACKS on tape during the recording of a song because you needed to add more instruments, you might bounce your 10 drum TRACKS down to two to make room.  The result was that you now had a stereo set of drum TRACKS.
  • The Beatles famously bounced performances down again, and again because they were working with only a 4 TRACK recorder during the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  When they started mixing, they were working from the TRACKS they’d created.
  • If you bus your snare top and bottom microphones together, the result is a single snare TRACK.
  • In most DAW’s you create mono or stereo audio TRACKS.  Even if you mix them together during the tracking process (for instance if you’ve run out of playback voices), they’re bounced to another audio TRACK.

The word “stem” was never, nor as a rule should it be used to refer to the results of the basic, or overdub recording process.  These files are TRACKS.

Then What’s A Stem?

Stems are created during the mixing process.  In the music world, they are essentially sub mixes of instrument groups printed as stereo, or mono files.  Usually when re-combined at unison gain they give you a very close approximation of the master mix.


  • A drum STEM would be a printed stereo sub mix of all of the drum TRACKS as they’ve been treated during the mixing process.
  • A keyboard STEM would be a printed stereo sub mix of all of the keyboard TRACKS as they’ve been treated during the mixing process.
  • A guitar STEM would be a printed stereo sub mix of…you get the idea.
  • A bass STEM might very well be a mono sub mix of all of the bass TRACKS (microphones and DI) as they’ve been treated in the mixing process.  Or it might be a stereo sub mix if the bass is a stereo keyboard patch, or if a stereo effect has been applied.  The same would be true for lead vocals.

The key phrase you’ll have no doubt noticed above is, “…as they’ve been treated during the mixing process.  If you’re not in the final mixing stage of your project, you’re not creating stems, and you shouldn’t be referring to your files as stems.

Stems can be split into smaller, more numerous groups.  You can have one guitar stem that’s only the lead guitars, and another for just the rhythm parts.  One stem for live drums, and another for programmed drums.  One for keyboard pads, a second for leads, and a third if you have a keyboard bass.  A lead vocal stem, and a backing vocals stem.  It all depends on your (or your client’s) needs.

If you’re working in the post-production world, stems will most often be used to refer to the individual audio elements used to create the audio bed for the video.  So there might be a dialog stem, a sound effects stem, a foley stem, a room tone stem, and a music stem.  That music stem will often contain already mixed/mastered stereo music files.  Sometimes the project will require multiple music stems.  And THAT leads us to…

Why Does This Matter?  It’s 2017!  GET OFF MY BACK OLD MAN!

One of the most common ways for music to generate income these days is through placement in movies, television shows, and commercials.  Let’s create another little scenario:

In a huge step forward for your career, a song you worked on has landed a big dollar placement in a new national ad campaign for Mega Mart.  Mega Mart will be making a series of commercials.  For a section of each they want the full version of your song playing.  Underneath the voiceover they just want to hear the instrumental mix.  Then they want just the drums and bass to play while the VO artist delivers their famous tag line, “Mega savings at MEGA MART!”

So the post production mixer for the project calls, and requests the Master MIX*, the Instrumental MIX, the Lead Vocal STEM, the Backing Vocal STEM, the Drum STEM, and the Bass STEM files.

If you’ve been referring to every TRACK you create as a STEM you’re going to badly misunderstand our poor post-production mixer.  They’re expecting two stereo MIXES, a mono STEM (bass), and three stereo STEMS (lead vocals, backing vocals, and drums).  What you deliver instead are the two stereo MIXES, followed by the kick, snare, hat, ride, rack tom, floor tom, overhead left, overhead right, room left, room right, bass amp, bass DI, lead vocal, lead vocal double, and the 12 backing/harmony vocal TRACKS you recorded.

Suddenly our post mixer is downloading 26 unmixed files instead of 6 mixed files.  Mega Mart is pressuring them to deliver because their first ad buy starts airing in 48 hours, and now they’re desperately trying to get a hold of you to sort the situation out.  They say, “We asked for STEMS and you sent us TRACKS.  Could you please send us the STEMS for this song right away?  We’ve got a tight deadline here!”

You get the message at 2am after a night of celebrating your big placement, but you’re not sure what they’re talking about (and you’ve had a few margaritas).  You thought you’d sent exactly what they’d asked for!

Sadly when you get in touch with them it turns out they didn’t have time to wait.  Mega Mart had OK’d another song they’re happy to use in their commercial, and those folks knew exactly what files to deliver.  Now you’re out, and your dreams of being, “The Mega Savings Song,” and collecting the mega paychecks that come with it are over.

Obviously that’s a little extreme!  But it illustrates the point.

Less extreme is needing only an 808 kick drum TRACK to create a playback track for a live show, asking for an 808 STEM, and getting a single stereo file with the 808 kick, snare, hat, and cymbals that were also used on that particular song.  You email the mix engineer to ask them  for just the 808 kick drum.  They email back to let you know that since they delivered exactly what you asked for the first time, there’s going to be an additional fee for giving you what you actually need now.  Time is money, after all!

All it takes is one moment of misunderstanding at the wrong juncture of your project to turn a simple request into a complicated mess.

*BONUS ROUND:  Are Mixes Also Stems?

No.  Though we almost always print multiple versions of a mix, they are always referred to as “mixes.”  Master MIX, Instrumental MIX, Lead Vocal Up MIX, Bass Down MIX, etc.  We often print an A Capella MIX, which means only the vocals and vocal effects in a single stereo file.  While you could easily call this a “Vocal STEM,” (and you’d be correct in saying that they’re the same thing) that is not the common convention.

So there you have it!  The basic difference between stems, and tracks (and mixes if that information helps).  As with everything, there OF COURSE are exceptions to these rules (such as the A Capella MIX/Vocal STEM situation).  What I’ve tried to do is lay out a good foundation from which you can build your knowledge.  If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be in safe territory.  Now go forth, and communicate with confidence!


The Ins And Outs Of “Spec” Mixes

Over the years, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions to do a “spec” mix for a potential project.  This used to mainly be a practice of major, or financially healthy independent labels.  But as the recording business evolves I’m getting more requests from individuals who don’t necessarily understand the process.  I thought a little explanation and guide to the process would be helpful.

So you’re an independent artist, or producer recording an album on a tight budget.  To keep costs down you’ve done as much work “in-house” as possible…but now it’s time to mix, and you’re thinking it’s time to bring a professional in to wrangle all of those tracks you’ve so lovingly recorded.  You do some research online, in a book, or (gasp) a print magazine; and you’re introduced to the idea of a “spec” (short for “speculative) mix.

The concept seems both simple, and reasonable:  Have one or more people mix a song for free to gauge whether or not they’re the right fit for your project.  “Try before you buy,” if you will.  This seems perfect!  Sample the work of a few different mix engineers at no cost to you!  But before you click “send” on that first email, or dial the phone number of your potential mixer(s), there are a few things that don’t often make their way into the blog articles.  Understanding them will help you find the right person for your project, and get your creative relationship started on the right foot.

A Short History Of The “Spec” Mix

Understanding how the process used to work will help you avoid pitfalls now.  Labels would often hire multiple people to mix their planned lead single from an upcoming album.  The mixers involved would usually be well-known within the industry.  They would each mix the song, and the team involved in producing/releasing the album would listen to decide which mix they liked best.  That part you probably knew, but there are a few important details that are often left out.  It’s important to understand these things because you may be contacting someone who worked under these conditions.

1.) Each of the participants in the mix shootout was PAID FOR THEIR MIX.  That was not a cheap proposition.  It was not uncommon for people like Tom Lord-Alge, Chris Lord-Alge, Bob Clearmountain, Jack Joseph Puig, and Richard Dodd to all be taking part in the same shootout.

2.) The winner of the shootout got to mix the rest of the album.  Which is why it’s called a “spec” mix.  The mixers are speculating that if their mix is judged to be the best, their reward is another 9 or so songs worth of work.

3.) There were rules.  Or rather there were loose guidelines.  It is the music business after all!  As mixers, we liked to assume that there was some amount of democracy in the listening process.  That it was a blind comparison, so nobody would be swayed by names or reputations.  Of course this wasn’t always true, and politics often figured into the decisions.  But it was much more true then than it is now.

The Short Evolution Of The “Spec” Mix

Of course those were different times when the recording business was flush with cash.  As financial prospects dimmed for labels they squeezed everyone involved in the production process to work for less.  They stopped paying for the “shootout” mixes, and only paid for the winning mix.  Then they chiseled away at the amount they were willing to budget for mixing.  Then they involved an ever-increasing number of people in the shootouts.  Eventually it devolved into a sort of free-for-all.  The quality of the mix seemed to matter very little in the final decision.  While all of this was happening, so was the rise of the self-sufficient artist/producer funding their project on their own.  The definition – and expectations for outcomes – of the spec mixing process became blurred.  It’s often frustrating for both the mix engineer, and the client.

Guidelines For Hiring Spec Mixers

So let’s try and bring some clarity to the situation, shall we?  Here are some guidelines that will hopefully help you navigate the world of spec mixing today.

1.) Define your project.  Is it a single, an EP, or a full-length?  How many songs total?

2.) What’s your budget?  Before you contact anyone regarding a spec mix, know how much money per-song you’re able to spend on mixing for your project.

3.) Do your homework.  Listen to recordings you love, and look up who mixed them.  Narrow your choices down before you contact prospective mixers.  Credits can often be found online through a combination of wikipedia pages and allmusic.com (though allmusic can be maddeningly incomplete).  Usually a mix engineer will have a credit list on their website as well.  It’s our version of a resumé.

4.) To shootout, or not to shootout?  Part I:  This is important, and there are a number of factors involved in making this decision.  If you’re confident in your choice of a specific mixer, and just want to make sure it’s a good fit; you can ask them to do a spec mix for this purpose.  Be clear about both your creative and business expectations (budget, deadlines, etc.).  Answer any questions they might have regarding the project.  If they agree to a free spec mix, the deal is usually that you get a reference file of the mix (say an MP3 with a few short gaps in it that allows you to judge the mix quality without handing over a release-able copy).  If you like the mix you pay for it, and get the master files.  If not you part company.  If you’ve been clear about your expectations, the mixer will understand it’s just not a good fit.

5.) To shootout, or not to shootout?  Part II:  Say you’ve chosen 5 mixers you think might be great for your project.  Before you engage any of their services, ask yourself (or them if necessary) a few questions.  Do they all fit within your budget?  If you have a deadline, are they available during the time you need them?  Are you willing to pay each of them for their work, or are you asking them to do a mix for free?  If you’re asking them to work for free, then ask them if they’re willing to take part in a shootout situation.  They may have neither the time, nor the inclination.  Will you be hiring the winning mixer for the rest of your project (assuming it’s not just a single)?  Asking questions will help narrow your field of candidates before you ever hear a mix.  Which leads us to…

6.) Don’t go “window shopping.”  If you know your budget, deadline, or some other factor isn’t going to work for a certain mixer, DO NOT ask them to do a free spec mix.  No matter how badly you want to hear their work.  You already know they’re not going to be able to meet your requirements.  Cross them off of your list, and move on.  Nobody likes finding out that the free creative energy, time, and effort they put in on your behalf didn’t have anything to do with your final decision.  On the other hand, if you can afford to pay for a spec mix, most mix engineers will be happy to oblige you.

7.) Make sure you’re communicating your needs.  Mix engineers aren’t “one trick ponies.”  These days a “mixer” is often thought of like a piece of equipment you plug into your project, and get one kind of result from.  Sure we have our musical strengths and weaknesses, but our job is to be flexible enough to meet our client’s requirements.  We’ve put years blood, sweat, and tears into our craft.  If you want something to sound a little (or a lot) different than the first version of the mix you hear, don’t be afraid to ask!  If we’ve agreed to do a spec mix, we want to get the gig!  That means making our clients happy.  That said, the more clear about your creative vision you can be at the beginning of the process, the more likely you are to get a mix that fits that vision.  But mixes are very rarely perfect on the first pass.  Giving your prospective mixer (or mixers) a chance to make adjustments based on your feedback is crucial.  Especially if you’re working remotely over email/web.

8.) Everything’s negotiable…to a point!  Everybody’s working on a budget.  The terms of the project should be laid out even before work on a free spec mix begins.  That way the mixer knows what he/she is working towards.  Most mix engineers understand the need to be flexible with pricing when they can afford it.  But as with anything in life, you have to give something to get something.  As a concession for taking less money, a mixer may ask you to be more flexible with your deadline, or limit the number of times a mix can be recalled (a recall is generally defined as one instance of re-addressing a song to make changes).  Always remember that in a choice between good, fast, and cheap, at best you can only ever have two!

9.) Make sure your listening process is fair.  Especially when asking mixers to participate in a shootout situation.  Make sure you compare all of the mixes on the same playback system (NOT your laptop speakers).  Do everything you can to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.  You want to be certain that you’re making a decision based on the different choices the mixers have made.  Not the difference between your car stereo, and your iPhone earbuds.  But by ALL means feel free to listen to all of the mixes in various situations to make sure they translate.  If it’s a situation where multiple people are involved in the decision-making process, it’s very helpful to have a joint listening session before passing final judgement.  That way everyone is listening to the same playback system in the same room.  And though it should go without saying, make sure all of the mixers in your shootout are mixing the same song, from the same set of multitrack recordings.

If you want to hear more information on the subject of spec mixing (and spec projects in general) from the studio pro’s point of view, check out this episode of the “Mix Notes From Hell” podcast.

New “Mix Notes From Hell” Podcast

Episode 17 (thanks for sticking with us this long!) of Mix Notes From Hell is now posted.  Phil, Marc, Kenny, and I are joined by our friend amazing engineer/mixer Will Sandalls.  Will and I swap stories about the differences and similarities between working on American Idol (where he spent 3 seasons), and working on Maisha Superstar (which I served as studio producer for here in Nairobi).  Apologies if I sound tired!  The time difference meant I was joining the conversation at 3:30am!