STEM Mastering Vs. Stereo Mastering

02 Sep 2014

Stem mastering Vs. Stereo Mastering

Firstly, we’ll explain the difference between the two;

Stereo Mastering:

Stereo mastering is probably the most common of these two types. Stereo mastering is the final stereo track that the mix engineer has produced. The mastering engineer will take the stereo .wav file and master just this track.

Stem Mastering:

Stem mastering is a little different to stereo mastering. Stem mastering is the mix down of different instruments into categories which will then be sent to the mastering engineer as anything from 2-infinite number of mixed down instrument groups. I say infinite, no mastering engineer in the right mind would master from thousands of stems, but you get the idea.

Say you had a rock band of two guitars, a bass guitar, drums and three vocal tracks. In this kind of setup you could mix down the guitar and bass together, or drums and bass together, and then the three vocal tracks together. These three final mix tracks would be mixed correctly by the mix engineer and when they are happy with the mix, bounce down each STEM group separately.

Stem mastering is a good alternative to stereo mastering if you want the mastering engineer to have more control over the whole track, but it is also more time consuming for the mix engineer (it takes a surprising amount of time to bounce all the different stems down, especially if your mix is big!) and also for the mastering engineer, which in turn will cost more money.

If you are tempted by Stem mixing If you’re unsure on how the mix is sounding, play it out on tonnes of different systems, send it to a mastering engineer and get them to give you a mix review before it get’s professionally mastered, this way you should definitely know that you’re happy with how it’s all sounding. Then it’s just up to you, some people prefer to get their tracks mastered using stems so that the mastering engineer has more control over the whole sound, but most artists and producers get their tracks mastered using the single stereo WAV file.

Mastering engineers are happy to work in either environment, but a good thing to remember here is that mastering engineers are mastering engineers, not mix engineers, so it is worth keeping that in mind when mastering from stems.

How do mastering engineers normally work their masters, Stems or Stereo?

Ask any mastering engineer and I’m pretty positive they would tell you that this was an easy answer, and there was a flat out winner…Stereo Mastering.

This isn’t because mastering engineers are lazy and don’t want to take on stems, it’s because if a mix is good then mastering from stereo tracks will improve it tenfold, but mastering from stems because the mix isn’t very good won’t improve it, and will just take longer to achieve the same result.

Writer – Roy Dykes