Everything you need to know about the new Stem audio file format
There is a newcomer to the world of audio for music artists called STEM. Audio pros should know all about this already, but the silent hobbyist might still be unaware of how much the mighty Stem will change their lives.
All STEM file has five channels. There is a stereo channel for playing the track as usual, through any basic speaker system. Then there are four separate channels, usually dedicated to drums, basslines, melodies, and vocals. How you use the different channels depends on them, but the aforementioned format is conventional in the music space – handy when you have different knobs or sliders mapped to different channels on your hardware.
There will undoubtedly be many creative uses for the format. We will come back to this below. But STEM will have the biggest effect on DJs, producers and mashup artists. For these groups, it’s a dream come true.
Previously, DJ mixers allowed you to manipulate the low, middle, and high parts of the track EQ. This meant that the elements were grouped into each other – try to keep your voice down, and you’d knock off the top hats as well. Try to get rid of the bass, and you will inevitably cut the bass drum too. We did the best we could with it, but it basically simulated the level of control that STEM offers.
Now you can easily switch between vocals on a house track. Easily paste a rapper’s lyrics to a different hip hop beat. Switch the basslines of two tracks while the other elements play normally, for a seamless and impressive mix. He’s a game changer.
What about Serato?
Since the STEM format was created by the folks behind Traktor, this performance software has obviously had a head start. Still, Serato has been slow to embrace and does not yet support STEM. Traktor was already ahead according to most of the DJs I talk to, and that only widens the gap.
Do i need special equipment?
There are already pieces of DJ gear that are released only for STEM manipulation, and it’s not too difficult to reuse other controllers for working with STEM. Traktor products like the F1 controller for $ 249 are plug & play, or the $ 699 Controller D2 is pretty much done with STEM in mind. There is also the $ 1449 S8 controller as an all-in-one solution.
These last two options are a bit pricey, however. Something like the Midi Fighter Twister would do whatever you want to do – here is a video of that in action. Anything that has knobs, knobs, or mappable sliders would do, like this $ 121 Behringer, or this $ 165 version.
But you don’t really need any of these. With customizable Traktor and all, you can just map STEM commands to your keyboard. This will take a bit of thought – you’ll need to find eight keys that you’re happy to dedicate to STEM, which will also be clear enough that you don’t press the wrong button. Maybe some sort of color labeling is in order. With this solution, you basically only get cuts, while the dedicated hardware gives you buttons to gradually increase or decrease the volume of a channel.
So obviously, if you intend to use it professionally, you will need the appropriate hardware. But for the hobbyist, even the limited control over the cuts is still a lot more control than you had with the bass, mids, and highs. You’ll be able to mute the bass on one track and bring it to another, adding a fun tool to your DJ arsenal.
Can I do STEM?
It’s an open file format, so there are no licenses needed or royalties to pay. You cannot extract audio channels from existing MP3s to create a STEM file, but you can absolutely combine audio files to make one. I imagine some people will get pretty creative with the possibilities out there.
There is a free download Rod Creator which allows you to bring it all up, make sure everything is lined up correctly and levels are correct, edit the metadata and hit Go. Bring your project from Ableton Live, or do any other crazy idea you have in mind.
For example, if you have the a capella as well as the instrumental of a track, you can absolutely combine the two to create your own mini-STEM, whether or not the producer has gone STEM yet.
The creator has a great video tutorial on how to use the app:
Is it lossless?
It can be. According to the STEM FAQ:
The STEM format uses the mp4 framework which allows STEM files to be encoded in 256 kbps VBR AAC or Apple Lossless (ALAC) audio. The upcoming Windows 10 provides native support for ALAC, unlike previous Windows operating systems. Please note that any playback software used on older Windows systems must support the ALAC itself.
Where can I buy them?
Online DJing marketplaces – like Beatport – quickly saw the potential. Find them there, as well as Bleep, Juno, Traxsource, whatpeopleplay, Wasabeat, and anyone who sees the light in the near future.
However, the availability of STEM over your favorite tracks is entirely up to the producer. Most electronic genres will benefit greatly, so it’s easy to see producers seeing it as an easy way to increase the value offered and reward the effort. Lower-level producers might take longer to start releasing them, but from Hip Hop to House to Dubstep, this rising tide will lift all boats.
There are not say what people will find, and I bet we’ll see the next Madeon in a little while on Youtube, amaze us with ideas we would have liked to think of, with new material dedicated to the format. This is in addition to more routine stuff like “Boy, I wish I had this song without the vocals.” “
Maybe podcasters or performance artists will do something interesting with it. All it takes is for the listener to have a suitable way to increase or decrease the volume of the various volume channels.
Have you ever listened to a music podcast and wanted the host to shut up so you could listen to the music? I know that fans of electronic music can testify to the desire to strangle anyone who speaks over the water. Like on radio, a lot of them talk over music so you can’t tear up the tune, but with STEM it would be possible to just turn down the unwanted element. Goodbye, talkative DJ. We will not miss your cries to people we have never heard of.
Or maybe it’s a talking podcast, something to do with current events or history, and you want to know a bit more about what just mentioned. Go to Channel 2 where they go deeper, Channel 3 where they have an extended interview with the relevant expert, or Channel 4 for the blooper. Maybe it’s a four person chat podcast and you hate the fourth person. Goodbye, fourth person.
Maybe you would like to switch between different commentaries or languages ââwhile listening to a sports broadcast?
One could imagine for ages. But one of the best things about it is that you can try it out for free. Well, almost free. After purchasing a few STEM tracks, you can go ahead and map some keys and try them out on your existing software. If you are inspired, then there is dedicated material to think about. It might not be too late to ask your friends and family for a combined Christmas presentâ¦