Everything you need to know about Stem Mastering

Blog by BINDUrecords.com

The mysterious distinction between mixing and mastering - it has been a overcomplicated aspect of making music ever since mixing and mastering services hit the internet. Thousands of independent artist making use of mastering services first had to understand what it is they're paying for. What would be the best way to make use of two different perspectives on the mix? The industry standard way of doing things is for one engineer to finish the mix, and for the mastering engineer to fine tune the overall frequency balance and make the mix loud. In reality the self-producing artist will find him or herself in a situation where the lines between mix and master are blurred. Regardless of whether you master your own songs or have them mastered, stem-mastering can help you with problems in your mix and further increase the potential for overall improvement from mastering. Stem mastering means, that the mastering engineer will receive a number of sub-groups - so called "stems" - instead of a single stereo-mixdown. That means the mastering engineer will have more possibilities in altering the sound and balance of the mix according to his wishes. It is the best way to make more intense use of mastering-hardware specifically where the mix needs it and integrate analog summing into the process as well.

How to pick the right stems for you song

Chosing the right stems can be tricky if you are not sure how to improve your mix the best. Remember that stem mastering should not be seen as a compensation for a bad mix. If you are unhappy with your mix you should go back and fix the problems before you proceed to mastering, or take a look at our mixing packages if you need help. If you are happy with your mix however, think about what elements go together and what elements need seperation. I would recommend using between two and four stereo stems for mastering, grouping elements that go together sonically. Each stem can then be run through an outboard effect if needed and into the mixer to adjust the final levels. Again, this is not supposed to replace leveling during mixing, but rather to make slight adjustments while already previewing the finished mastered signal. If you feel comfortable with your mix, you should not feel the need to export all of your instruments as stems. One stereo track or up to three stems should usually do the trick. Use this as an example for a stem-mastering chain:

What's Analog Summing?

Analog Summing is an essential part of stem mastering because it allows you to master stems in a completely analog fashion, adding outboard effects to the stems along the way without adding unnecessary conversions. In general, analog summing means, that instead of letting your DAW calculate the sum of all your tracks digitally, you will send them out of your interface seperately and let a summing mixer or console do the summing. Besides the outboard effects used, analog summing itself should give your mix more glue and lifeliness. Vocals for instance, tend to sit in the mix better than being mixed with the instrumental strictly in the box.

The Bottom Line

Look at stem mastering as a tool that further enables improvement to your mix. In general to make best use of this tool, your single stems should not be over-compressed, not overly saturated or sculpted with crazy EQ-curves. Why not you may ask? Because this will usually make it hard for audio material to work with. Just like on a regular stereo mix there shouldn't be any limiters before mastering. If you have a wildly complex mix, with effects and instruments intricately playing together, a regular Stereo-mastering might be the choice for you. It will keep all the minor adjustments you have made to your mix over time intact and not alter the flavor too much.