There is a lot of talk across the DJ community around the recent announcement of the Stem audio file format. The technology, currently being developed by Native Instruments is due to come out in late July. As an independent record label this is something we’ve been monitoring closely over recent months. Stems will offer labels and artists like us, a brand new revenue stream, which for many, in today’s music industry, couldn’t come sooner.
What makes Stems more compelling than other initiatives we’ve seen in the past is their sheer simplicity. Stem files play back exactly like a normal record. The composition of the music remains intact, exactly the way the producer intended. The DJ can operate and control Stem files in pretty much the same way they would a wav or mp3. Its instantly clear that Stems have infinite creative potential.
A Stem file contains four channels of audio. A wav or mp3 contains an interleaved stereo channel. Until now, submitting a release as a stereo file has been the accepted standard. This is about to change. A Stem file gives the producer the option of exporting four separate mix downs of their track. Typically they may choose to export a drum track, a bass line, a melody and a vocal. The decision is theres. It is simply a case of soloing selected channels in your DAW and bouncing out the desired content for each of the four Stems. Now the exported audio files are imported into a Stem authoring app, mastered together and exported as one audio file containing all four channels. When this Stem file is opened in a digital djing app like Traktor, the DJ now has control over four channels of audio instead of just one stereo channel. So they could for instance turn down or take out the drum track out completely, then maybe add an effect to the vocal line whilst applying a filter to the bass line.
Sounds too complicated I hear some of you say. The beauty is, its as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. If, like me, you prefer to let the music do the talking and play records as the producer intended, you still can, but having the Stem functionality offers some really useful and simple applications for standard mixing situations. For instance, some tracks do not mix well together, no matter what you do. This maybe because they’re in a different key or belong to different genres. The Stem format however, now allows many of these previously incompatible records to be mixed together in a musically coherent and pleasing way. If you have a keying issue between two tracks for instance, you could take out the melodic content of one record and just use the drum and rhythm sections during the mix, eliminating any unwanted harmonics. When you’ve finished you can then re-introduce the musical elements at the appropriate time. Another nice trick is to remove the drum track from the record that is playing, creating a breakdown. You’re then free to mix in very different style of track to the melody, bass line and other elements of the currently playing record. This method works really well for switching genres mid set. You could for example introduce a dub step track with a house record in a such a way that wouldn’t be possible if you were trying to match the beats of both records together at the same time. Being able to create your own breakdowns gives you the freedom to create bridges for crossing into different genres; I believe this will allow DJs to introduce much more variation in their performances than has been previously possible; taking the listener on a journey though different styles of music in a seamless way. For these simple reasons alone, given a choice over a standard audio file or a Stem, the Stem would immediately become first choice for me, because it gives so much more freedom.
What also makes the Stem format look extremely promising is the fact that the technology is going to be open source. What this means is although Native Instruments have developed it, other software and hardware manufactures will be able access and implement the technology into their own products without any licensing fees; so the chances of this becoming a widely accepted file format are much greater.
As far as we’re concerned, Stems get the thumbs up! Going forward we plan to release music in Stem format where ever possible. With Beatport and Juno already lined up to retail the format in late July the coming months will be very interesting for sure. Lets see where this goes...
For more info on Stems visit Native Instruments here
Joseph S Joyce