Any thoughts on stem mastering vs standard mastering?

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WarStar
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Post 07 Jan 2022

I have yet to try stem mastering but was curious if anyone had any pros/cons opinions on stem mastering. It seems, at least from my research, that it seems more appropriate for electronic music... Anyhow any opinions would be great...

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integerpoet
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Post 07 Jan 2022

How does "stem mastering" differ from mixing? (This is a rhetorical question.)

It seems to me the idea confuses implementation details with process.

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selig
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Post 07 Jan 2022

Back when I first started mixing ITB around 2000 I got all excited on a project when I realized we could just bring the PT rig to mastering. So we did, and I was ready to make mix adjustments if the mastering "ate the snare" or pumped the bass too much, etc. Turns out we didn't do anything but a direct transfer minus my temp mastering plugins.
I guess I would describe that project as something beyond stem mastering, but about as unnecessary IMO. Thing is, if your mix rocks you really don't need much (if any) mastering. And while I understand that is an extreme example, it just means the worse the mix the more likely something like stem mastering will help.
BUT, there is no free lunch. Turning up a vocal stem means there is more dry vocal and less reverb. Unless you also have stems for the reverbs from each track, which means an additional stereo stem for each track in your mix that uses any FX such as reverb or delay. There is also the issue that if the mix needs that much help, stems may not be 'granular' enough to fix all the issues. If your kick is too weak in the drum bus, you need individual tracks to address the issue.
But at that point, you ARE mixing because you are adjusting balances, which again points to the mix not being finished which begs the question "why are you mastering an unfinished mix".
And yes, there are exceptions to all of this, and I'm sure having stems at mastering has saved a project. But seriously, with the ridiculous simplicity of recalling a mix and making a quick change, the BEST solution is to fix the mix - and its super easy to do, so if your mastering engineer says they want to do something that is going to mess with your mix, better to adjust at the mix than with stems IMO.
All to say, in 20+ years of having near instant recall at my fingertips, I've found it much easier (and better in the long run) to adjust the mix in the rare cases there was any problem at all in mastering.
My suggestion if you're not sure about your mixes is to send them to your mastering engineer for feedback, try making any suggested changes, and send both version to mastering if you're still not sure. :)
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DaveyG
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Post 07 Jan 2022

WarStar wrote:
07 Jan 2022
I have yet to try stem mastering but was curious if anyone had any pros/cons opinions on stem mastering. It seems, at least from my research, that it seems more appropriate for electronic music... Anyhow any opinions would be great...
Are you planning to master it yourself or pay someone else to do it?

In the past I've had a pro master my "final" mix but also supplied stems to help them understand the vital parts. Note that "stems" can be a bit vague. Some people will give you dozens of files (maybe even one file per track) and others will give you 4 or 5 files. No mastering engineer wants to deal with dozens of files so aim for the latter. It depends on the genre but typically give them one file for each of Drums, Bass, Vox, Main melody and Backing/Other.

The pros of stem mixing are that it gives the mastering engineer more flexibility. The cons are that the mastering engineer will spend more time on it and thus charge you more money. There is also a growing market in the supply of a "Mix and Master" service. In these cases you need to ask the engineer what they prefer.

Once you find a good engineer - STICK WITH THEM!

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huggermugger
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Post 07 Jan 2022

If you're still at the point where you have to balance stems, which for a lot of so-called "producers" means every damn track in the project, then you're still mixing. A legit mastering engineer will either charge you through the nose for finishing your mix for you, or laugh and show you the door.
Last edited by huggermugger on 07 Jan 2022, edited 1 time in total.

WarStar
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Post 07 Jan 2022

Thank for the input guys..

I had read recently, which apparently was in regards to electronic music, that if you break your track up into the main elements, as Davey_G mentioned then you master each of the elements then simply mix them after each element was mastered and limited I guess and then the last step would be dither? I was kinda confused on how it was described but the writer was saying something to the effect that a clearer end product doing it this way.. but wouldn't just eqing and bus compressing per element be similar minus limiting? I have a bunch of songs all mixed and I like the way they sound so I'm at the self-mastering step so just trying to get an idea on how to approach these songs...

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Kalm
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Post 07 Jan 2022

The only gripe I have with the idea of stem mastering is that… it’s essentially impossible — unless you limit each group bus before the 2 mix and then apply a final limiter at the end. In other words, you have to do something pretty destructive to cause a shift in mentality and workflow to not call it mixing. Otherwise you’re simply mixing the final bus stems and mastering the 2 mix. That’s still standard mastering, you’re just letting the mastering engineer do your group bus mixing.
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QVprod
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Post 07 Jan 2022

Stem mastering is mixing. If you feel the need to use it, your mix isn’t done. Adjusting individual elements makes more sense do within the mix itself. “Mastering” those elements separately and then mixing together afterwards will not give you a better result.

Since you like how your mixes sound already. Regular mastering is all you need. Use references from commercial releases in your genre to see what’s left to adjust in your songs. In some cases it may just be overall volume.

WarStar
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Post 07 Jan 2022

Kalm wrote:
07 Jan 2022
The only gripe I have with the idea of stem mastering is that… it’s essentially impossible — unless you limit each group bus before the 2 mix and then apply a final limiter at the end. In other words, you have to do something pretty destructive to cause a shift in mentality and workflow to not call it mixing. Otherwise you’re simply mixing the final bus stems and mastering the 2 mix. That’s still standard mastering, you’re just letting the mastering engineer do your group bus mixing.
Thats kinda what I was thinking...

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integerpoet
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Post 07 Jan 2022

WarStar wrote:
07 Jan 2022
I had read recently (stuff that included) you master each of the elements then simply mix them after each element was mastered…
I ran into some talk like this on Facebook recently. (Aside: Facebook bad. Just don't do it.)

It sounded like posters were using the words "mix" and "master" interchangeably (sometimes in a single sentence), and the topic at hand was "stem mastering", so as you can imagine things had gone decidedly non-linear. When gently informed of "traditional" definitions in an attempt to establish a shared landmark or two, posters could only fling what they thought were withering insults.

I got the impression they were collectively sorting through a vast toolbox of individual effects, beating on them at random, and unknowingly, in an ass-backwards way, trying to reinvent the bigger picture of accepted engineering practice, along the way murmuring a few words they'd heard in passing. And it was an endeavor whose holiness was not to be questioned by outsiders.

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crimsonwarlock
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Post 08 Jan 2022

The way I see it is, you need stem mastering when you need mastered stems. The only application where you require mastered stems, as far as I know (after seeing a very elaborate explanation by Junkie XL), is for big movie productions where the music gets mixed on the sound stage together with dialog and sound effects. In this case, all reverbs and delays for each track are indeed also exported as separate stems.

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Kalm
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Post 08 Jan 2022

crimsonwarlock wrote:
08 Jan 2022
The way I see it is, you need stem mastering when you need mastered stems. The only application where you require mastered stems, as far as I know (after seeing a very elaborate explanation by Junkie XL), is for big movie productions where the music gets mixed on the sound stage together with dialog and sound effects. In this case, all reverbs and delays for each track are indeed also exported as separate stems.
This or in some instances DJ work. Basically any field that requires the playback or manipulation of stems instead of the whole 2 mix. Only places where I know of “stems” needing separate attention
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crimsonwarlock
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Post 08 Jan 2022

Kalm wrote:
08 Jan 2022
This or in some instances DJ work.
Ah yes, didn't think of that. Live mixing might also include backing tracks for live performances.

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selig
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Post 08 Jan 2022

crimsonwarlock wrote:
08 Jan 2022
The way I see it is, you need stem mastering when you need mastered stems. The only application where you require mastered stems, as far as I know (after seeing a very elaborate explanation by Junkie XL), is for big movie productions where the music gets mixed on the sound stage together with dialog and sound effects. In this case, all reverbs and delays for each track are indeed also exported as separate stems.
I never thought about it that way! That means there are two different interpretations of “stem mastering”: mastering FOR stems (what I quoted above), and mastering FROM stems (what I thought the OP meant). i would say the latter is more common than the former, but we should be clear which one were talking about since they are two different things IMO.
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WarStar
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Post 08 Jan 2022

crimsonwarlock wrote:
08 Jan 2022
The way I see it is, you need stem mastering when you need mastered stems. The only application where you require mastered stems, as far as I know (after seeing a very elaborate explanation by Junkie XL), is for big movie productions where the music gets mixed on the sound stage together with dialog and sound effects. In this case, all reverbs and delays for each track are indeed also exported as separate stems.

That makes alot of sense actually.. interesting

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crimsonwarlock
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Post 08 Jan 2022

selig wrote:
08 Jan 2022
I never thought about it that way! That means there are two different interpretations of “stem mastering”: mastering FOR stems (what I quoted above), and mastering FROM stems (what I thought the OP meant). i would say the latter is more common than the former, but we should be clear which one were talking about since they are two different things IMO.
I agree with some statements made in this discussion that 'mastering FROM stems' basically means 'fixing the mix while mastering'. I cannot think of any benefit towards the mastering stage from this, besides (already stated also) that the mastering engineer can beef up the invoice. If a mix is 'not there' yet, the track isn't ready to be mastered.

This idea of stem mastering moves 'we will fix it in the mix' to 'we will fix it during mastering' :lol:

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