The Mastering Show

The Mastering Show Podcast

with Ian Shepherd and Jon Tidey

The Mastering Show #75 - Stem Mastering - or is it ?

February 16th, 2021 BY Jon Tidey5 Comments

It’s either the most powerful mastering technique known to man, or it isn’t really mastering at all, depending who you ask. Some people love it, others hate it, and some are mortally offended just by it’s name.
Why does stem mastering provoke such passionate debate ? In this episode we dig into the topic to figure out the answers to these and other questions...

  • What is stem mastering ?
  • In fact, what really is a stem, anyway ?
  • Why do some mixers find the idea offensive ?
  • What are the benefits and pitfalls of stem mastering ?
  • Why will stems often not sound exactly like the mix ?
  • Does stem mastering really help your client ?


TMS #28 - Restoration and re-mastering

Stem Mastering: How and When to Use Stems in Audio Mastering - by Ian Stewart

TMS #57 - With great power… (the ‘ethics’ of mastering) 

5 comments on “The Mastering Show #75 - Stem Mastering - or is it ?”

  1. Hi
    I’ve been a ME for about 50 years (though latterly, more of a digital music editor) - when I started, at Abbey Road, I was really a Transfer Engineer - so my job was to get that tape onto the lacquer, and we didn’t really have many options to change the EQ.

    And I still think that the studio engineer surely is competent enough to do his job... why would I ask for stems?! My job is basically (still!) to translate the engineer’s mix (speaking of which, why do we have a recording engineer and a mix engineer?) to the final medium.

    It’s great to talk about ‘I think it’s too dark, so I’ll brighten it’ but is it really down to the ME to put his/her stamp on a record?

  2. I think it depends on what strata of the industry you operate in. If you’re mastering for major releases then it makes sense to push back on the mix engineer. But in this day and age being creative in getting work and building relationships is critical to making a living for many of us. If you feel comfortable mixing stems, offering that as part of your mastering function can be a back door to more income and potentially building a relationship and future work with the artist, and potentially work as a mixer.

  3. I really enjoyed the podcast. Thanks for the link. I’ve signed up for more.

    As I was listening something became very clear. Something that I’m sure goes to the heart of the misunderstanding, fear, mistrust and hatred of Stem Mastering by some in the industry.

    The type of client you and I work with are very different.

    I work with lyricists who have little or no musical ability. They hire me to interpret their lyric musically by giving me reference tracks that describe what they hear in their heads. In that situation I am a composer as well.

    I also work with songwriters with musical ability but who struggle to get their mixed tracks beyond the demo stage and want me to use my skills to make the mix commercially viable and also add creative elements to it.

    Both want tracks that are mastered so that they compare well to all the other tracks out there and the owner feels confident to submit them to opportunities.

    Both are on a tight budget.

    In your podcast you mentioned numerous times working with bands. They will have a distinct idea of how they want their mixes to sound. So the mixing engineers and mastering engineer are very much tied to that vision and rightly so.

    I am not so restricted, because in most cases I am very much central to the creative outcome.

    So with that in mind it makes more sense to me why there is so much controversy surrounding Stem Mastering in the higher end market of the industry because of the limited opportunities to be creative with the mix.

    I should say I have never recorded or mixed a live band and only very rarely anybody else’s voice. I have never worked in a professional studio. I am self taught and the only instruments I record are acoustic/electric guitars, bass and vocals. Software provides all the other elements.

    This is a long reply but I want to say that I put nothing on the master stereo out. It feels akin to painting a picture under a coloured light (that’s a discussion in itself).

    But this means when I create the stems (on average 6-12), and import them into a mastering project the mix is reconstituted and it sounds exactly the same as the final approved demo but with the added advantage that all those elements are on their own tracks.

    All I have to do is add some magic with my interpretation of Stem Mastering.

  4. Creating stems that are both sent always to the side chain and also able to be cut for main audio output for isolation could easily be done on a DAW but not on an analog console (for routing reasons & real-estate)

    Only because adding auxes as outs beyond fx is necessary.

    Its convoluted but here’s the “clean” way:

    All instruments segmented to their stem groups will use stereo outputs 25/26, 27/28, 29/30 or 31/32 (for example). From the recipient stereo faders, output for side chain - the output is always on. Let’s say we use aux 23/24 for side chain as output from those 4 stereo faders.

    The 4 stereo faders meant for main audio can be cut as needed for isolated stems at the stereo faders sending their output to main audio output (say aux out B group of stereo faders all go to output Analog 1-2.. The audio captured follows a simple path, as does the side chain - everything essentially is multed going to stereo pairs.

  5. I'm not sure your idea of you can change the mix too much makes much sense in a land of iZotope Music Rebalance, dynamic EQ, and multi-band compression. These tools can fundamentally change a stereo track well past what the original mix sounded like. But if you're doing that without the artist asking for or wanting the change, that's just being a bad mastering engineer, it doesn't matter how many tracks you started with.

    But this is a rather esoteric conversation as I doubt any of us have regularly paying clients who care what any of us call whatever it is we're doing with whatever we are given. Whether what I do is remixing, 2nd stage mixtering, or mastering, my clients want exactly what Sam Moses would say — "they want someone to make it sound as good as it can, and tell them it's done."

    I've always preferred stems as I can work faster and affect the problematic material directly without worrying about dancing around the parts that don't need anything. If anything, I've felt stems allow me to alter the original mix far less than if I only had a stereo track to work with.

    2020's isolation and lockdowns have created a mountain of music crafted in acoustically questionable rooms that have made stems more important than ever. So much so that I now regularly ask for the entire DAW session with frozen tracks as oftentimes stems aren't enough. Yeah yeah, scream "that's not mastering' as loud and for as long as you want. My clients don't care what I started with, what I used, or what I call it. Mastering has always been the final stage to the deliverable, and that deliverable is always changing. For my clients, mastering is the part where I make it sound better and tell them it's done.

    [And as an aside, if you ever want to work with immersive formats, it's better to make stems your friend sooner rather than later.]

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