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Stems & Alternate Versions


This post focuses on creating individual mixes of elements called stems, and also on creating alternate mixes.

It’s pretty common in music production to, during the mixing process, print many different versions of the track to tape. Some examples might be: just the brass section (for performing the song live), a vocal +1 or -1 mix, an a cappella version, or a no-vocals (or just backgrounds, ie. karaoke) version.

It’s pretty self-explanatory how to do this, really, but I’ll go into it a bit. For most stems it works best to mute tracks you don’t need for a particular stem. The reason I choose muting over soloing is that, on many mixing boards and DAWs, soloing will mute everything that isn’t soloed, including effects returns. Sure, you can solo-safe all those returns, but it’s usually best not to risk messing up a good mix by hitting extra buttons. So mute what you don’t want and leave everything open that you do.

Vocal +1 or -1 mixes are mixes of the same song with the lead vocal either up a bit or down a bit, respectively. The name infers that these versions are up or down 1db, but usually I make the change 3db up or down. Lots of record labels love being able to choose between the standard, vocal +1 or vocal -1 mixes. Plus, fatigued ears will tend to boost or cut major elements a bit too much (and there’s nothing more major than vocals), so planning ahead with some extra versions is probably worth the added ten minute of bounce time. Additionally, if I’m a little unsure of the balance, I’ll sometimes do +1 or -1 versions of other elements (like kick drum… everyone seems to have different tastes with regards to kick volume). Always run your ‘standard’ mix first so you have it in case you mess the balance up in some way that is difficult to recover.

With a cappella and karaoke mixes, again, I recommend muting the unneeded tracks. This is one of those situations where solid track organization can come in handy, such as having the types of instruments grouped on their own group channels (guitars, horns, drums, vocals, etc). Karaoke and a cappella versions can be especially useful for film work or remixes.

Always run the extra versions from the same reference point as the standard mix… usually zero. That way you can easily use them together in a pinch.

I know lots of performers who make stems of background vocals or brass sections for performing live. Like it or not, the ‘Pro Tools’ live show is here to stay.

If the studio’s routing allows it, it can be really valuable to track only your effects returns, as well. You may not be able to find that particular reverb setting every again…

Printing stems and alternate versions won’t add a ton of time to your session and will almost certainly come in handy in the future.