Why Stems Is The Audio Format Of The Future

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Last week we saw a tidal wave of news about Jay Z’s new streaming music service Tidal, which sadly swept away the even bigger news of the day a new audio format from Native Instruments called Stems. This new format being packaged by one of the most ubiquitous manufacturers in music today and solves a problem that music creators have been dealing with for years.

Stems themselves are nothing new, even packaging them has been going on since Todd Rundgren released a CD-i ( a short lived pre-CDR format) in 1993 which enabled you to play with stems and remix songs. For the uninitiated stems are what a mixing engineer makes for an artist at the end of a record if they want to have remixes done, submit their music for Rock Band-type games, get their songs in movies with surround sound mixes or for use of backing tracks in a group’s live music setup. Instead of getting the individual tracks of a song without their mix processing, mix engineers print the effects and multiple tracks down to a stereo mix of each element such as drums, bass, guitar, vocals. These files can then be passed on to a remixer to be reworked into whatever fashion they see fit.

So if this has been going on for years you may wonder why me and every other dork with a MIDI controller is so excited? The world of giving and receiving stems has always been chaotic. Whether they are sent in extreme excess, unlabeled in varied sampling rate and bit sizes, exchanging stems has been a nightmare for the past 3 decades. The Stems format is first and foremost a container for 5 audio files in the Apple developed MP4 format (these files are also compatible with iTunes and will be able to be developed by other services to be played back and dissected). This files contains a regular mix and then 4 elements which most commonly will be drums, bass, accompaniment (aka guitars, synth, main chord changes being played in the song) and vocals. This along with some meta data will help make this file exchange to be a more organized world, coupled with files being presented in more manageable sizes instead of excessively large wav files, we can expect to see this making the world of mashups, remix and altering files to get way easier.

Native Instruments, the most popular manufacturer of soft synths, samplers and other music production instruments introducing this format ensures it will be widely adopted. Their popular DJ software Traktor is the first to adopt the new format, ensuring it will be used to creatively mix and match song elements in DJ sets across the country soon. Once a musician has a Stems file authored they can distribute it however they may see fit. This can obviously be used to promote music that is remixable by allowing DJs to use it creatively in their sets.

But what about those who don’t care for remixes? This format will enable musicians to get educated and break down parts of songs like they never have before. For far too long stems have been exchanged across closed links and are rarely made publicly available. An open, organized exchange of these files will allow musicians to isolate and learn from the way each instrument is used in some of their favorite songs. Never before have musicians had this much access to get educated about what makes their favorite songs work.

For those who do care about remixes, this will enable a world that can often be gated to be opened to everyone and democratize the remix world and spur more enjoyable and innovative remixes. The format will open up sometime in the next few months and I am very excited to see what it will do for music creation and education.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.