| The term "stems"
comes from the metaphor
(or example) of a tree - the stems all go into the trunk. The
trunk is not a stem. The final 2-track mix is not a stem - it's a
stereo mix. The stereo buss defines the difference between the two.
- it's a component of the mix or the Separation
Stems are intended to
be summed to a stereo mix which is intended to go to mastering.
Separations are intended
for mastering. It's a way to call out a format
that is specific, predictable and includes the stereo mix. When people
think stems, they don't think to include the approved stereo mix as a
reference (or as an alternate source for the mastering).
|• Any tracks before
the stereo buss are stems
Tracks derived after
the stereo buss are stereo mixes or
Stereo buss processing is not a component of any stem
Stereo buss processing is embedded in the Separations
Stems are structured in a way so they can be subtly adjusted or be
dramatically altered in the creation of the final stereo mix
Separations are structuured for subtle, more "global" enhancements that
look to the completed stereo mix as the essential reference point
Stems can be hugely different - aux busses, groups, tracks, mono
stereo, 5.1, live sound groups, tracks for film, etc.
Separations call out a specific format for a specific purpose:
Mastering for a final stereo release
Different stems can use aux sends to access different reverbs or
special effects - those reverbs or effect returns are not part of the
Separations are all-inclusive - any effect returns, automated moves,
triggered sounds or side-chain processing is included in them
The idea of "stem mastering" conjures up the idea that the mastering
engineer is going to be remixing in the mastering studio
Separation Mastering uses the stereo mix reference to ensure that the
original stereo mix is referenced.
Stems are not used to restore a mix, they are used to create it
When mastering loud audio, the drum separation can be raised to offset
loss of transients in order to restore the intent of the original mix
The unlimited form stems can take imply that continual, exhausting
mixing will take place in a facility not designed for mixing by a
mastering engineer who doesn't specialize in mixing on a full time
Separations imply that a limited number of tracks will target one goal:
a fully optimized stereo mix brought about using the daily techniques,
equipment and philosophy of the experienced mastering engineer.
define a clear-cut format
and lessen the possibiliy of error
have been used in a minor number of big name releases in years past. (Here's a visual example
from 1998 when I
did a last-minute rebalance of a vocal in the mastering of Juice
Newton's "American Girl" CD.) But these
stemed-out projects had no standardized form because the engineers
involved were individuals with specific production goals. Today, the
huge number of independent studios and leading mixing engineers can
benefit from a standardized format defined for mastering.
A full set of Separations
equals the approved final stereo mix when they are recombined.
• Separations eliminate the need for endless "alternate" stereo mixes
Separations alwasy include any related
aux effects returns, plug ins,
automation draws, mutes etc.
Separations include the 2-track stereo mix
as a reference to honor the artist's original vision
Separations reduce the worry associated
with mixing-room acoustics that can mask the sonic details of a mix
Separations, you tend to let go of that "last minute
obsessing" knowing that the
mastering process will
accommodate your final musical intentions.
Separations can take advantage of both
digital and analog tools --
it can can "level the playing field" for engineers,
producers, labels and artists who don't have time for trial-and-error
Separations just make sense.
Back to the
article on Separation
your mix is perfect
achieve your goals. If you're very happy with your stereo mix, we can
fully recommend using
2-track stereo mastering to
enhance what you have!
Different flavors of
sound are not right or wrong -- any more than chocolate and vanilla are
right or wrong.
"A-List" engineers often utilize a large format console, exotic gear,
or perhaps analog summing boxes and great D-A converters - all of which
contributes to mixes that are amazing from the first note. Sometime a
more dry, "glued-together" sound is preferred over a wider, more
distinctly stereophonic sound.
But consider this: Most
A-list engineers are already mixing with subgroups even when the
2-track mixdown is the only intended source for mastering. Given the
cost and difficulty involved in perfectly recreating a mix after
everything's been dismantled and reset, archiving stems and Separations
make perfect sense as a back up plan when BIG bucks are being spent.
Interesting: Our ability
to "think outside the box" with Seprations has set us in the direction
of looking a little deeper into methods of processing audio. Many
of the time-tested heavies in mastering like Bob Ludwig and Bernie
Grundman get the easiest work, because the big labels have the budget
for monster mixing engineers and studios. Therefore, they don't
have to look as deeply to get great sound - it's just there
Since we've worked harder
to find new ways to "level the playing
field," we carry our experience forward into the work we do with stereo
mixes. Our more innovative sound processing ideas work for
mastering. Try us for your
stereo mixes - your CD
will sound amazing because we go beyond
However if you have a
perfect mix and still want the flexibility of
just adjusting the vocal level and nothing else, we will simply leave
set to unity gain - use only standard outboard processing - and adjust
the vocal level if required. (Or just make two simple
instrumental/ vocal separations!)
your tracks for polarity. Here's an advanced tip - you
should be able to look at your tracks -
the kic drum in particular - and see that the "leading edge" of the kic
drum starts from the center of the waveform and goes up.... then
down. If your waveform goes down first, insert a plug in that can
invert (or flip) the absolute polarity (also called phase).
Listen to the sound. If you feel that there is more fullness and
punch when the track is inverted, then you have corrected its
polarity. If you feel the sound gets slightly thinner and
the top end (treble) gets a bit more harsh, you've flipped the polarity
but it's not correct.
your mixes for polarity. Same
thing. Put your stereo
mixes into a DAW program and insert a plug in that flips the
polarity. If your mix sounds fuller, more punchy and smoother in
the upper mids and highs, then you have corrected the polarity.
If instead the sound gets a little thinner and less pleasant in the
treble range, then your mix was correct before flipping it. The
leading edge of the waveform is pushing when the polarity is
correct. It's pulling when it's not. Yikes but it can be
tricky on some systems... why? Because some playback systems have
polarity issues in their components, cross-overs etc. If you hear
no difference at all, stick with your standard mix setting and we'll
check it out.
will take more time
you to make your Separations.
Use the 3-D's
- Document, Describe and Detail. Be sure you are organized,
because good file folder management helps the load-in process go much
faster. Document your track layout and double check to be sure all
tracks are accounted for, no tracks are duplicated, reverbs and effects
are included in the respective Separation tracks. The more
organized you are, the less likely that mistakes can
in your stereo
mixes - slamming to the max
isn't the best way to go. If you
can, remove your master fader for better sound
(unless you are
using plug ins across your stereo buss that are important to your
sound). Your mix shouldn't create digital overs (clipping) when your
master fader is set at -0- unity gain. Particularly when your
system is 24-bit, it's better to have your
peaks top out at -2 to -3dB on your stereo mix buss! Remeber,
don't raise the gain of the tracks when you make your
Separations! Everything should stay exactly as it was when you
mixed.... just separated.
make sure you've included every
musical element in your Separations that is contained
mixdown! When it comes to kic drums, use reverb and/or big room sounds
carefully because mastering up to today's hot CD levels can add sustain
and presence to that room tone - which can blur the overall sound. If
you want that big John Bonham room feel, you may want to separate your
kic (in stereo) from the rest of the kit. That way if the verb gets too
heavy, it can be trimmed without compromising the other drums. By the
way, a key to that great Led Zepplin sound was the fact that vinyl
wasn't slammed the way CDs are today - leaving an openness and punch
that's still awesome 30+ years later!
If you are mixing to a
Masterlink, stand-alone CD burner or other
"wild" mixdown format (non-exact start and end times) instead of a
computer "bounce" - include a sharp click, tic or other line-up cue at
beginning of each separation. Preferrable is a metronome or other
pure-wave sound with a crisp, immediate front edge. A kic, snare,
stick-click count-off is fine, but a bass note or vocal cue makes
Separation-syncing more difficult! Be SURE the EXACT same click
is used for each and every Separation!!!
Display the LEAST amount of
visual graphics on screen when you are recording
your Separations. Once you're done setting the pan position/automation
in your mix, remove the pan pots (visually) from your
display. Same thing with your fader meters, I/O displays,
mute/solo/record button displays, plug in windows, etc. The fewer
graphics, the less your computer's processor has to work.
Do your homework! Listen to
CDs and find the sound you love the most.
Note the musical arrangements on your favorite CDs to hear how
much space, sustain, reverb, bass, vocal, etc. "defines" your taste.
Example: If you love the sound of CDs that have sparse instrumentation
and close-miking techniques, check that yours isn't full of sustain,
room sound, reverb and mulitple layers of overdubs that are crowding
the "air" in your tracks. If your favorite group has a bass part that
lifts between notes and your bass part is all sustain, it will add some
challenges to our ability to achieve your sonic goals. Separations give
the ideal way to steer in an ideal direction, but they don't replace
the car! Bringing in a reference CD or two with your session can be an
easy way to show us the sound you like.
2011 Vestman Mastering
Created 9/14/09 modified 1-2011