My Love-Hate Relationship With Stem Mastering

Daily Blog - May 18th 2021

Sometimes I feel like stem mastering is the best thing ever and then other times I promise myself never to do a project like that again. Why is that? And what's wrong with stem mastering in the first place?

Attention: Before you read on, please remember that "stems" are not individual tracks, like kick, snare, lead vocal, bass, guitar etc...! These are called "tracks" or "multitracks". "Stems" are groups of instruments that belong together or go together well, like all drums,  all guitars, all vocals, all bass instruments, etc. A mix might have 120 "tracks", but maybe only 5-6 "stems" will be sent to the mastering engineer for stem mastering. People get this wrong all the time for some reason and we finally need to end this. You can do better than that, so stop using "stems" when you're actually talking about "tracks". Thank you. ?
My Love-Hate Relationship With Stem Mastering

I guess it mostly depends on whether the client actually wants and needs mastering or not. 

Today I mastered a project where this was absolutely the case. The band had done a mix, was happy with it and sent me stems that gave me extra flexibility to correct and enhance things. But they didn't want or expect to get completely different sounding songs back. Awesome! That's the type of stem mastering project I love! A relatively quick and intuitive workflow where I can be objective and follow my initial reaction to the mix (one of the main reasons to hire a mastering engineer). Plus, it's a MASSIVE transformation for the client, because I can correct and improve things without damaging other things. Great!

Sometimes, though, what people want and need is mixing. Looking for a "cheaper solution" for their problems they then ask for stem mastering. Danger zone.

This approach is problematic for various reasons.

  1. (Stem-)mastering is not mixing. A mastering engineer has to respect, serve and celebrate the mix. not change it. It's a different mindset and there are different goals to be achieved in mastering. Creative mixing decisions, like choosing effects, shaping the tones of individual tracks, riding faders or finding a balance that works for the song have to be made during mixing. At this stage it's about things like translation, quality control, minor corrections, a final polish, perception, focus, energy, overall frequency balance and dynamic control, loudness and technical requirements. 
  2. Managing expectations becomes hard, very hard with an approach like this. When someone sends me 10 stems, it does not mean I have to change or do something to all of them. But they might expect me to. I have to assume what they've done in the mix was on purpose, while they might be very insecure about it and don't really like it that much. They say they need stem mastering, but they actually expect a mix.
  3. It's hard to resist the urge to "improve" every stem. Even if the client understands the difference and actually likes the mix, it might be me who's causing problems. Because I feel like I could do so much with the stems to make the mix a lot better, but it's just not my job in those projects. It can be hard to remember that I have to stay in mastering land and not start mixing. I have to respect the mix and not abuse my power. It's not my songs, not my creative expression, not my record, my "mixing taste" doesn't matter and I'm not the producer or mixer.  

So, what's the conclusion? I don't know. I'm probably hoping you read this and ask yourself: "Do I need mastering or mixing?" before you think about hiring someone to do stem mastering for you. Stem mastering is an upgraded mastering service, not a downgraded mixing job.

If you understand that and feel like the extra flexibility would be great to achieve your desired end result, go for it! Stem mastering can be truly awesome and absolutely worth it - or ruin your mix and make your mastering engineer want to jump out the window during the process. ?


PS: I often post videos to these daily blog posts in my Instagram Stories: @benedikthain

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