After being the holy grail for producers and DJs for decades, over the past few years, it’s become easier than ever to separate stems from a full, mixed down stereo track. Stems are the name given to individual parts of a song that make up the complete track, like drums, bassline, vocals, hi-hats, snare, synth pads, etc. Up until recently, it was near impossible to extract a vocal, for example, from a mixed track. Some techniques — like phase reversing the instrumental with the vocal version — made it possible, but you had to have access to an instrumental and the results varied from track to track.
Technological developments in recent years — largely based around AI and machine learning — have meant that it’s now possible for software to identify certain elements of a track and mute them, or solo them, sometimes in real-time. It’s a huge development and not only is it big news for DJs and producers looking for ways to get instant acapellas from their favourite tracks, or to sample just the drums without owning the parts. It’s also led to some more advanced tech developments like the ability to ‘upmix’ old music whose tapes have been lost, warped or degraded so they can’t be used. Wired wrote an article about this back in March.
It’s also triggering a mass conversion of older stereo tracks into Apple’s Spatial Audio format, priming and preparing music catalogues for the future of audio listening.
Last month, Kanye West released a piece of hardware that was designed to be able to mix his new album DONDA from the stereo files, using touch-sensitive faders on the device. While, initially, it seemed the stems were loaded onto the hardware, it turned out that the device was using the same AI stem separation technology that’s been popping up across the net, and it’s possible to load any song onto the device and have its stems split automatically.
For most producers and DJs though, being able to reach in and grab your favourite stems almost instantly is a very exciting create prospect. We explore five of the best ways to split stems below. There are of course many more tools including Hit'n'Mix, Xtrax Stems and Steinberg's SpectraLayers Pro 8, to name just a few.