Continuing with the Finish Tracks Faster series, the next stage in building your template project is Stems. I’m going to show you how to create your stem busses in advance, so that you’re ready to hit the ground running with stem mixing in future projects.
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What’s the point?
If you’ve never used stem mixing with busses before, you may be wondering what they are and why you need them. You may have been coping just fine without them. I would argue, however, that you may not know what you’re missing.
I’ll note a caveat here in that not all producers use stem mixing. Many will simply mix tracks individually and take it no further, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
If you can produce great sounding mixes, it doesn’t matter what your process is.
In this post, however, I’m going to tell you why I use stem mixing, outline the many advantages and show you how to get things set up in your template project.
What exactly is stem mixing?
Stem mixing is the process of combining individual audio tracks (including software instruments and audio tracks) into groups, and processing these separately before combining them into the overall stereo (or master) mix.
Think of the individual tracks as branches on a tree, flowing into the main stems, then forming the trunk i.e. the overall stereo mix/master.
Stem mixes are often referred to as submixes, subgroups or busses. However, don’t let these terms confuse you, they’re all the same thing 😃
The key difference to note is that stems are not the same as Auxiliary busses, as they serve a different purpose. Auxiliary busses are used when we want to add the same effect/processing to multiple channels, but we want to have control over the amount of the effect applied to each individual track.
With a stem bus, any processing applied to the bus will be applied in equal measure to all of the tracks routed to that bus.
Where does stem mixing come from?
Stem mixing developed in the analog days of recording as a predominantly practical measure.
In a traditional analog studio, before the days of automation and, due to the number of tracks involved in a mix, engineers would need to recruit as many people as possible to be part of the mixing process. It was quite literally a case of all hands on deck!
This was because it was impossible for one mix engineer to have control over all of the faders and effects sends on a mixing desk (there could be hundreds). So they would often call on assistants, admin staff and even the artists themselves to have command over their share of faders!
The introduction of stem mixing was therefore a very practical one. It meant that engineers could balance an entire mix by simply controlling a small number of busses.
As an added bonus, routing channels to submixes also meant that mix engineers could apply additional processing to the stems themselves. This technique is still used today in order to add processing to groups of tracks at the same time.
For example, you could add the same compression to all of your drum parts for a more cohesive sound, or add analog warmth (e.g. tape saturation) to synths that have been mixed digitally, i.e. ‘in the box’.
Why use stem busses?
If you’re worried that stem mixing sounds complicated or convoluted, don’t be. One of the main purposes of stem mixing is that it actually provides more control and makes the mixing process more simple. This is why I feel it’s important to discuss, so that you can try it for yourself and consider adding it to your workflow.
There are a number of advantages to stem mixing:
1) Easier organisation
You may have many individual tracks in your mix. No matter how well you organise these with labelling, colour coding and ordering, it can become difficult to remember what’s what when it comes to the mixing process. This is especially true if you’re revisiting a project after some time, or recalling a mix for a client.
2) Increased speed
Routing all of your individual tracks down to a handful of stems means that you have less faders to control, and therefore less to think about. Obviously it’s essential to achieve a balanced mix before hitting the stems, but once you get used to this workflow it can drastically speed up the mixing process.
3) Greater control
Organising these individual tracks into stems provides a simple and effective way to control the levels of groups of similar tracks. For example, it’s not unknown to have 16, 24, maybe even 32 microphones or more on a drum kit, depending on its size and the room it’s being recorded in.
32 channels is quite a few to deal with, particularly when you consider that there may also be bass amps, bass DIs, bass room mics, and the same for guitars, keyboards, entire orchestras, choirs…you see where I’m going with this!
If you have a single fader called ‘Drums’ that contains a balanced mix of all of the individual drum tracks, it becomes a lot easier to mix an entire session.
Also, in terms of frequencies, this technique allows you to create more separation between instrument groups. For example, it’s much simpler to solo drums and bass and analyse their frequencies, and then adjust their relationship with EQ.
4) More cohesive sound
From a mixing and sound quality perspective, grouping separate tracks into busses allows you to process them as a whole. This is handy for essential treatment, such as EQ and compression, but also for subtle effects like saturation.
One of the additional benefits of processing stems as a whole, is that it can be used to create a more musical, natural and cohesive sound for groups of similar tracks. As mentioned earlier, drums benefit greatly from unified compression, EQ and effects such as tape-style saturation.
5) Simpler processing
This also makes group effects and automation much easier! Having the ability to treat groups of individual instruments as a whole also has great benefits for processing and effects.
For example, rather than creating many auxiliary sends for multiple individual guitar tracks, you could simply route the guitars to a guitar bus, and then send this bus to the reverb. This is much easier to do, much easier to reference visually and therefore faster to work with.
As an added bonus, any automation is also a breeze, as you only need to work with one track. In Logic (and any other DAW), you can automate plugin parameters placed on the stem bus.
What stems do you need?
I organise most of my projects in a similar way, so that I know exactly where I am from the start. For this template, there are a number of stems that we could create based on the instruments that we built in the previous lesson.
However, it’s always a balance between how much flexibility and control you wish to have during mixing, and how simple you want your workflow to be.
As mentioned, one of the key advantages of stem mixing is that it allows easier control over a handful of tracks, so creating many stems technically defies the point.
I recommend 5-8 stems, maybe 9-10 at a push. With the modern digital DAW, anything is possible, and it really comes down to personal preference. However, I recommend not going overboard.
Below is an example of how you might group your tracks into stem busses:
Straight away you can see that a handful of stems will be much easier to think about than potentially hundreds of individual faders.
What are ‘Track Stacks’?
Not long ago, stems needed to be configured and organised manually in Logic. The main benefit was grouped processing, so we used to put up with the not-so-great organisation. You could create folders of tracks, but the method wasn’t great. Fortunately, in Logic Pro X, Apple brought in Track Stacks to solve this problem.
Originally, when building templates, I used to create all of my stems as busses within the mixer and route to these for processing. However, since the introduction of Track Stacks, my approach has changed slightly. The routing is very similar, but the workflow and organisation is much more efficient.
Visually (and functionally) I find it much easier to create Track Stack folders as ‘Summing’ busses within the Arrange window so that I can pack tracks into folders or ‘stacks’. Most of my projects contain a lot of individual tracks, so the Arrange and Mixer can become pretty confusing unless organised carefully.
This is especially critical when returning to a project at a later date. I may, for example, wish to come back to a sketch or draft that I quickly created after being struck with an idea, or a client may ask for a mix project to be recalled.
For specific tips and advice about organising projects in Logic Pro for a more efficient workflow, you can check out a previous post where I go into detail on my process.
Track Stacks offer a very clear view and a great way to organise tracks into stems, so it’s basically killing two birds. Having the ability to show and hide groups of tracks at the click of a button is also a real boon for workflow, as it’s quick and easy to stay organised and know where you are within a project. It also helps to avoid distraction, which is always welcome!
For more information on Track Stacks you can visit Apple’s support page.
Creating a Track Stack
First of all, before I go into more detail, you’ll need to know how to set up and use a Track Stack.
In the previous part of this series, we prepared all of our instruments and audio tracks in advance. The hard work is done, so now we simply need to route these tracks into a handful of groups.
As with setting up effects sends in advance, there are certain things we know that we’ll need and, once again, wherever we can eliminate repetition, we should.
It’s great to have all of our stems preconfigured, as we then have immediate control of the mix balance when starting a new project. It’s also brilliant from a workflow perspective. You can easily solo/mute individual submixes for referencing, and check the balance between the main elements of the mix very quickly.
Building a Drum Bus
Back in the template project, let’s start by creating a drum stem bus.
1) Select the first drum track i.e. the Kick drum.
2) Hold shift and select the last drum track (in my template project, this is the ride cymbal).
3) Right-click any of the selected tracks (being careful not to deselect them all).
4) An option list will appear – simply select ‘Create Track Stack’.
5) In the dialogue box, choose Summing Stack – this is really important and I’ll explain why below.
Which Stack Track?
The differences between a Summing Stack and a Folder Stack can seem subtle, but they’re important to understand:
Think of folders an organisational tool. All of the individual ‘subtracks’ within the folder will keep their original routing, and there are no further mixing controls (you can’t add any processing to the ‘stack master’).
A Summing Stack sums the signals of all of the individual subtracks into the stack master and allows you to add overall processing. This type of stack has all of the organisation benefits of a Folder Stack, and also offers all of the advantages of a traditional bus.
There is no merit in me explaining how to create a stem bus for every instrument group, as the process is exactly the same. So, my only direction here is “rinse and repeat.” I will, however, offer some thoughts:
Do you need a separate Kick stem?
Before you ask, I skipped over the Kick bus on purpose. For most people, a simple drum bus will do. There are a number of reasons for this and you have a couple of options when it comes to the kick drum:
The kick drum is one of the most important elements in most mixes. I like to create a direct out
for the kick to ensure that I have maximum control and that the sound is as clean as possible. You can still include it in the drum bus if you like for organisational purposes, and change the kick output back to ‘Stereo Out’ so that it bypasses the stack master.
Alternatively, if you have multiple kick tracks (for example, different samples, filters, FX kicks etc.), you can create a separate stem bus for kicks only. I’ve used both methods depending on the track and it’s totally up to you which you prefer.
Degrees of separation
As mentioned, how far you separate your instruments is totally up to you. Once again, it’s a balance between what gives you a satisfactory level of control, and having so many busses to manage that it essentially defies the whole point.
My advice when considering this is to ask yourself one simple question: “Does it sound better?” If it sounds better with one approach, then that approach is the right way to do it. That’s really all it boils down to. I’m ok with a complex bus routing if it makes my tracks sound better.
For example, for many projects I prefer to have separate control over percussion tracks, so I create an additional stem for percussion (e.g. shakers, cowbells etc.) that is separate from the main drums and I can apply unique treatment.
You could combine drums and percussion together (particularly if you don’t have a great deal going on in the percussion anyway). You could also combine ‘Leads’ with ‘Synths’, but, again, I like to have separation between the two, mostly due to spatial differences (leads should be more present in the mix most of the time). It’s about whatever works for you and your music.
Give it a try
Why not have a go at stem mixing by creating your own stem busses as part of your project template? I’d love to hear what you think and if this technique helped you! Let me know in the comments below.
Processing and effects
In the next post we’ll look at setting up essential processing and effects to both individual tracks and stems. Although this can seem strange at first as there isn’t a lot of audio to process, there are certain basic tools that we are likely to need in every project.
Again, there’s no sense in repeating steps over and over again, so it’s better to set these up ahead of the writing and mixing stages so that you can focus on the task at hand.
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