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2 Years In: What Will It Take For Stems To Go Mainstream?

It has been two years since Native Instruments announced their open multi-track audio format: Stem.mp4. Since that time, the format has shown steady but slow growth and adoption. So what needs to happen to take Stems to the next level? Keep reading for our thoughts, as well as input from labels and NI.

Although the concept behind Stems has been proven, there are still three areas that need to develop to take Stems from being popular among Native Instruments supporters, to an industry standard form of live mixing.

Crucial Steps for Stems

Hardware + Software Integration

First off, more platforms outside of Native Instruments need to integrate Stems into their hardware and software. This would put Stems in the hands of more DJs who have not yet had access to Stem compatible gear.

Coming soon!

Posted by Pioneer DJ on Friday, September 16, 2016

Most importantly, industry heavyweight Pioneer DJ should integrate the format – the recent NXS2 line of CDJs are already designed for a potentially great Stems experience. They even hinted at it last year in the above Facebook post. They’re most likely holding for signs of solid revenue and influencers using the format, of which there’s not a compelling amount at this point. It’s a chicken and egg situation – the revenue and influencers will emerge faster when Pioneer integrates the format and opens it up to a larger audience.

Look at how Ableton Link was adopted and integrated in Serato, Traktor, and others – why not the same with Stems?

As Native did when creating the Stem format, it is also important for other companies to take a step back, and focus on the logical evolution of DJing and Mixing, as opposed to the revenue. Look at how quickly the Ableton Link technology was adopted and integrated in Serato, Traktor, and others – why not the same with Stems? Although not traditional business practice, it’s those types of decisions that truly push an industry forward, and if done correctly the money and artist champions will follow.

Pioneer is a great starting point, but of course having companies under the InMusic umbrella (Rane, Numark, Denon, etc) on board would also help push the movement forward.

From a production angle, imagine if DAWs integrated the Stem Creator tool into their software, making it quick and seamless to create a Stem file!

“Being able to use Stems within traktor is a great first step but the format will truly take off once other hardware and software companies integrate Stems into their platforms. It will also be a big move when more labels get involved and are on top of the progression.” – Ben Archuleta, Moody Recordings

Recognizable Content

Second, there needs to be an abundance of Stem content from many different types of genres, and from well-known artists and labels. On this front, things are going well. There are big artists actively backing the format, including Carl Cox, Richie Hawtin, Tiga, and Booka Shade. On the label side, Ghostly International, Toolroom, OWSLA, and Dim Mak are all frequently releasing tracks in Stem form.

All major DJ music marketplaces support and sell Stems. There’s even a marketplace/community called Dubseed which is exclusively devoted to Stem content.

Dubseed’s marketplace for Stems

13 major distributors distribute Stems, with a few such as Symphonic Distribution, Kontor New Media, and Dig Dis Distribution taking an active leadership role in guiding and informing their clients and the rest of the industry about the potential of Stems. Clearly the foundation exists for content to freely be created.

The Stem player is in its early stages and could use a few tweaks to improve its usability, but there is a bigger reason why we are not seeing more Stem content. As with hardware/software, many artists and labels are holding off on releasing Stem content until there is proven revenue. And just as before, there isn’t much revenue because there isn’t a large Stem userbase.

Mass Awareness

There still needs to be awareness campaigns about Stems and the various ways DJs are able to mix with them. Any campaigns should start by focusing on younger bedroom DJs. This younger crowd not only represents the future of DJing and live mixing, but are also generally more open to creating content in Stem form.

Compared to prior generations, young DJs have a greater openness to sharing music, and are less concerned about the potential of bootleg remixes being created out of their songs (which is not necessarily a bad thing). They also understand that Stem mixing is not here to replace traditional mixing, it is simply a new branch of live performance.

“The biggest step forward for the Stem format is to help and motivate more people and labels to join and support Stems. It is already happening… you can see that Toolroom, KittBall, Nervous and Turbo Recordings have all hopped on board.” – Antal Tamas, Play And Tonic

CDJs did not replace vinyl, and Stem mixing will not replace mixing in any prior form. Stems embrace the ‘instant beatmatch’ culture, and replace it with a different layer of interaction and experience. These messages should continue to spread among younger generations, as they are the ones who are growing up in the Stem era.

Native Instruments’ Take

We reached out to Native Instruments’ Global Communications Manager Andrew Burton for an update from their end as to the current and future plans for Stems. Here’s a quick Q+A:

How has the overall Stem catalog grown since its introduction?

It’s hard to measure because there is not one single store/site that has the entire repertoire. NI is also not aware of all Stems tracks released, because much of it happens independently through distributors all over the world.

At launch there were about 500 tracks available. At this point it’s safe to say that the catalog has grown to somewhere between 5000 – 10,000 tracks.

How have Stems grown in terms of popularity since their introduction?

For many participating smaller to mid size labels, Stems now generate more digital revenue than streaming or other download formats. Every single week sees 2-3 new labels join the Stems family. Especially in 2017 the weekly releases have significantly grown. LANDR’s extremely affordable Stems mastering, which was launched at the beginning of the year has enabled many smaller labels and artists to afford proper Stems releases.

Introducing Stems Mastering From LANDR

An entirely new way to play now sounds even better: Stems by NATIVE INSTRUMENTS x LANDR

Music: Eye Luv U by Tiga

Posted by LANDR on Monday, January 30, 2017

What types of content is selling the best?

Traktor is particularly strong in the techno and tech house world. Those also happen to be the dominating genres in terms of sales across all leading download stores. So it’s no surprise that these are also the best selling genres for Stems. There are releases across the board though. Recently more and more Grime and Trap have emerged as well as more experimental electronica from the likes of Plaid or Bola.

What does NI think the single most important thing that needs to happen to take Stems to the next level?

Independent from the organic growth that is happening at a moderate but steady pace, it would certainly help if other manufacturers would implement the format into their playback devices. From Serato to Pioneer, but also smaller DJ brands.

In a couple of years several of the especially younger fans of the format will be the new headliners of this scene. By then the popularity of the format will see another boost. Additionally there are several technical revolutions around the corner that could potentially also help the popularity of a multi channel format like Stems.

Final Stems Thoughts

The next year may be a big one for Stems, if Native and the rest of the music industry could work together to overcome these issues. Stems are here to stay. It’s a matter of the strategy behind growing the format.

What are the reasons you believe are preventing the Stem format from being an industry standard form of live mixing? Let us know in the comments. 

If you are unfamiliar with Stem mixing, check out the weekly Dubseed.com Stem Mix Show that demonstrates the various styles and techniques used:

  • e n g i n e e e r

    First of all, I want to mention, that I created some tracks in STEMS. It’s pretty easy. You just make four groups (you can bounce out) and do not apply anything except of the standard compressor and limiter on the master bus. All other effects and EQ, you do in these four groups. Do not use any sends, which output to the master bus! In the NI STEMS tool, you match the STEMS up with the master bus, as good as possible. You won’t ever get this 100% similar, with this tool, but close enough.

    Now about the actual topi, why STEMS is not getting more tracktion
    1. Most DJs do not really care for the format. Some do not even know about it. There is also the unwillingness to learn something new. Even though, that there is not really much you need to learn. The crazy thing is, that all Traktor DJs I talked to, do not want to use STEMS! There is even one guy, who owns an S8 and strongly opposes STEMS.
    2. The current (club standard) Pioneer CDJs are not supporting it, and probably never will. Before Pioneer supports any NIs stuff, they make their own.
    3. For singled out tracks is too less. It’s often challenging to choose which layers. Six would be better. More than that would be too much to handle.
    4. Most music stores, distributors and labels are not supporting it.
    5. The crowd does not really care for it and may not notice any difference. Many people do not even know the difference between a Live PA set and a DJ set. I have people telling me “”great DJ set”, while I stow away one synthesizer after another. 😉
    6. As a producer, you can always make special versions of your own music, beforehand.
    7. Some producers and labels do not want to loose control, who can use pieces of their tracks in other music. Understandable.
    8. As far as I know, popular mastering plug-ins are not supporting it. (Haven’t checked, if this has changed.)

    Generally, I love the idea of STEMS: This is real progress and gives the computer DJ an artistic advantage. It’s cool to have hands on effects on the different stems and being able to mix with surgical precision..Unfortunately, this seems not to be desired by most DJs out there.

    If Pioneer would have implemented (a 6 stem version version of) the STEMS format in the new CDJ series, we would have seen slightly more success..

  • drno

    hopefully they will go away. its bad enough we have more remixes than original tracks now. making the stage the music studio is just bad for original artists. DJ’s get enough hype as it is. when it becomes boring for a DJ to just play great tracks by original artists without puking all over them you know something is wrong.

  • Stem deck is basically a duplication of the remix deck, it’s the same thing. But the remix deck didn’t create a revenue stream. It seems that NI decided to re-invent the remix deck and call it stem deck in order to create a revenue stream. Aside from this, anyone with a creative flare that understands the stem decks is most likely creating their own beats anyway and then simply exporting them to wav and using them either in the remix deck or in the standard traktor deck. We don’t need a million loops all happening at once. 4 decks is more than enough to control and monitor when DJ’ing. Traktor, for me, is not about music production, but more about DJ’ing, so that’s where the stem thing fails. It’s out of place. The ideal production / DJ set up is syncing up with Ableton, not using stems.

  • CUSP

    What do you think a fair price should be per STEM track?

  • Rick

    trance has too many layers to just split a track into 4 stems.

    bass has 3 or 4 lines
    arpeggios
    pads
    percussion
    melody

    ah… now I’ve run out of stems lines…

    hence what I have seen released in stems format are tracks that don’t have so many layers.

  • Keith Matocha

    I’ll never even consider using stems until I can get well known tracks from mainstream artists. Even then it would probably be on a limited basis. When I come up with an idea for a mix or a cool transition this would be nice, but I don’t see the major labels jumping on board on this one. If you need proof of that all you have to do is look at the karaoke industry. Artists on Sony have mostly been pulled from all karaoke companys in the United States and Geo blocked from ip’s originating in the US. Karaoke Cloud had to pull over 5000 songs from their library because of licencing issues with Sony. So I’d say your gonna be hard pressed to get major labels to jump on board.

    • Good comparison to karaoke. It’s worth noting that many mainstream club rap artists released vocal-only and instrumental version of their tracks in the 2000s – maybe some mainstream artists are more likely to adopt this type of format?

  • CUSP

    I’d like to see more education and use cases. When anything new arises, only a small amount of innovators can see how to use it. Right now, there are some training videos, but none so far as I can see that really do a deep dive.

  • Junglist1981

    I don’t think that Stems is ever gonna go mainstream, the majority of DJs just aren’t interested in it. It’s a cool idea, and for sure there are certain DJs into that sort of thing who will do mad things with it, but I’d suggest that most just wanna roll out tunes as they come perhaps with the odd loop or effect here and there.

    To me personally it just feels like a bit of a gimmick, and I wish NI would go back to focusing on the core DJ experience rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

  • Slipperyfetus

    Two things are holding it back. Price and which tracks have stems.

  • Sole

    I want to buy stems, I even have the TK D2. But I play more mainstream tracks, and there is non.
    mainstream hits needs to be added to the market.

    I would love that!

    • Kiz-One Williams

      I agree 100. If they could get some more genres of music I would support it big time. I play Old school hip-hop funk and soul. I would love to take a bass line and remix it with something. and to do it on the fly would be butter! I don’t play trap,etc..(nothing against it) but in my circles of playing out a great re-edit of something live, makes for a really creative night.

  • Matthew Andrew

    I may have an unpopular opinion on this topic, but it is things like stems and remix decks that distract from what I enjoyed most about DJing. I realize this opinion is purely personal, but I enjoyed DJing because I enjoyed presenting familiar music in ways people haven’t heard before using relatively simple tools. This is also the appeal of sampling… using existing material in interesting ways. To me; stems and remix decks only distract and pull me farther away from creating an amazingly dance-able performance.

    I also think there is a fundamental problem with mixing stems in a DJ setting: DJ sets sound so good because the mixing and mastering of the tracks being played have been manicured to sound as good as possible on large sound systems. If you remove the final processing of mixing/mastering from the track by providing separate stems… you lose that element of sonic polish that exists in most DJ music today. This removes one of the key reasons that DJs have such a low overhead.

    As far as I’m concerned… if you want a piece from a song… sample it. If you want to create an instrumental/vocal from something, find a way to do it using cue point juggling or using filters/EQ.

  • Tony Mitchell

    NI hasn’t done anything right since Traktor 2.6.

  • jm2c

    without comprehensive hardware support for stems, this train aint goin nowhere. Besides, the punters enjoy a good tune, how masterfully you mix em is not their concern unless u train wreckin. days of mashups being cool are done and dusted.

  • DJ Bravo

    I told you since the stems format was released that it would be a failure. The main issue with stems is not the price or format, it’s demand. Most Djs; 99 percent want stems of current hits not underground tracks that are only played by a select few DJs. When a hot song is released, the labels need to release the stems along with the song for an additional cost. A lot of producers, experienced DJs and new DJ will buy it because they can mix it and remix it as they like. That would help make their sets unique with a personal touch and could potentially get them major exposure if the mix or remix is great. Stems as it is today are only being release by small labels and those songs are not popular, hence very few dj/producers are buying the format. The problem is major labels don’t want everyone creating a bootleg remix of their songs, they only give the stems to superstar DJ to remix like David Guetta or Calvin Harris etc. If you can convince the labels to release the stems, then Serato and other software makers will support the format. Why will they support a format that very few Djs use? It makes not economic sense. Why would dj and producers buy unpopular songs in stem format? It would not make sense to spend more money for a format that is not turning a profit or getting them more exposure.

    • CUSP

      I don’t believe the format is a failure, I think the adoption has been lackluster, and that’s due to a failure of N.I. Marketing… which is in-turn partially due to old school-minded producers and labels. Obviously, these producers/labels think they can simply hold out and outlast this tech they think cannibalizes their sales (I believe this isn’t true especially for older tracks that are pretty much at end-of-life in sales), and that’s where tech-savvy deal makers should make their case.

      Most DJs are not trained in the art of production, and few producers see the benefits of releasing their songs as STEMs… but this simply means they’re both extremely ignorant of how the music could be. Yes, Producers like to control how a song sounds, but that’s narrow-minded and kinda’ selfish. A select group of hand-picked specialists (playing in select markets) could be trained to use tracks in a manner which would satisfy a slightly wider vision of the producers wishes (or potentially lose their ability to be part of the project).

      There’s no point in debating that Bootie Mashup music is still insanely popular, and having STEMs makes remixing music that much easier. Strong regulation (lawsuits) of recorded media is killing creativity, and most DJs aren’t willing to challenge this paradigm (as they did at the end of the ’80s and early ’90s with samples… and the impending lawsuits).

      As I understand, one-off usage qualifies as “fair-use” and this really should be protected. When it’s safer to play elements of sound in this manner, more DJs should feel more empowered to experiment.

      Personally, I use STEMS to mix in this fashion, but it’s soooooo hard to find older songs released in a format that can be converted to STEMs. I also drop parts of (period correct) TV commercials, movies, (and anything else I think fits) but lately I’ve been looping beats and/or playing some mood supporting music in the background, as I read a few phrases out of classic books (with a pitch shift on my mic). Theme nights kick more ass when you reinforce the music with storytelling.

      It takes a lot more prep time to prepare sets in this way, because it’s more like being a live performer, but oh-my-goodness does this receive a warm reception.

      I just wish I could get more old DJ kits for songs I play.

      • DJ Bravo

        Your whole post points out all the reasons why it’s a failure. As I said, they need to release stems when they release the songs and sell it to the masses. Don’t just give it to a few superstar djs to remix. That is the only way the format will gain popularity, otherwise it’s dead on arrival.

        • CUSP

          I only meant for the limited group to be trained with the techniques and calm the nerves of the producers, eventually convincing said producers to allow their tracks as STEMs to the rest of us… kinda’ like test pilots for airplanes.

          I’m curious what the rest of us think about what a fair price should be per STEM track?

          I’m no Superstar, but I’m doing some interesting stuff with STEMs… partly due to the fact I have an S8.

  • dj real djing

    are there stems for hip hop ??
    would be interesting to have acapella, instrumental and the song in one file.

  • Anton.a1

    If you want to make a new standard or format I think that Ableton’s Link is the holy grail of how to make a technology indispensable:

    1. Keep it simple for the users
    2. Make it incredibly useful (solves an actual need or problem)
    3. Make it easy to integrate into third party tech
    4. Make it free (or as close to free as possible)

    Your brand goes up, peripheral sales go up, etc. etc.

    N.I. and Apple have an approach of trying to keep things under lock (or semi-under lock) that at times works really well, and other times backfires on them…my two cents.

    N.I. would do well to pay more attention to point 3. in particular.

  • sammsousa

    from a dj perspective i could not care less about STEMS
    i find it really interesting from a producers POV just for me to make my own edits/remixes.. but the main problem here is that STEMS does not support lossless

    • Be

      Stems are just a specially formatted MP4 file, so I think they an use Apple Lossless Audio Codec instead of AAC if you want. But AFAIK no one is distributing lossless Stems files.

  • Be

    > First off, more platforms outside of Native Instruments need to integrate Stems into their hardware and software.

    I think NI shot themselves in the foot on this one. The initial launch of the Stems Creator tool and the SDK were delayed quite a while after they said they would initially be available. They said it would be an open format, but when the SDK finally became available it was made available with a proprietary license ( http://www.stems-music.com/sdkagreement/ ). If they are serious about getting others on board they should relicense it as free software under a lax permissive license (MIT/BSD style license). If they’re concerned about compatibility they could use the “Stems” trademark to enforce interoperability among implementations of the format.

  • I think the biggest issue with any new technology coming in is whether there is a big enough demand for it. Yes, it is really cool the opportunities it gives in terms of control of the audio, but does it enhance the experience enough for the DJ enough to make the investment?

    Looking at the best-selling controller list in the US, DJTT did at the beginning of the year clearly that indicates the answer is no.

    But you could also look at it from the point of view that in the pro audio industry there are so many niche products that only get used by or appeal to a small group of creators, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have failed as they add great benefit to the workflow of those individuals. However, in reality they will never achieve a huge mainstream market.

  • Anthony Alonso

    The biggest hurdle is mastering cost. Currently at $40-60 per tune, you are looking at $160-240 for a stems master. Now multiply that times 2-4 depending on how many tunes are in the release. It’s already hard for mid-small sized labels to recoup costs as it is.

    All that added cost for a file type that is only available on what playback format. NI needs to work harder in partnering with hardware manufacturers such as Pioneer DJ and Denon. At the moment, it seems like NI is more interested in keeping stems in house.

    • Dubby Labby

      Even in iOS ecosystem they haven’t a proper support… if they update Traktor dj iPad app with Stems and support for D2 maybe some users will jump into the format. It seems even themselves don’t bet for the format…

      • DJ Hombre

        DJ Player Pro has had support for STEMS since 2 years ago. Works fine on iOS, other app developers need to catch up

        • Dubby Labby

          I know but the big players seems not interested on DVS at iOS. Just recently Cross has entered the arena. It’s a pity but it seems too niche nowadays and nobody cares. Pioneer is just checking boxes to cover all the slots to become the usual standard. Pioneer doesn’t need to be profitable on those, just gain the whole market and revenue from their flagship products totally comptible with teir own niche solutions.

  • White Wulfe

    I think one of the biggest hurdles is cost… Yes, there’s more flexibility to it, but to budget conscious people (or hobbyists) paying 2.5-3.5x the cost of a regular track can make some slightly leery about supporting the format, especially for anyone who’s wanting to build up a reasonable sized collection of a few dozen tracks at minimum with such capabilities.

    • marnis

      I don’t necessarily disagree, but in the days of vinyl we were paying 25-35x current prices for a single track. To have 12 tunes literally cost hundreds of dollars… Crazy how now $5 can put people off as too expensive.

      • Eonkenshi

        Honestly, the difference is still, one is digital, and is physical. You can touch the one, but not the other, so it is reason enough for a lot people, to pay more for the vynil, but not for “any” digital format.

      • pixelbreak

        you know…people complaint about the price of the $1000+ Technics but buy the newest CDJ model every 2 years at $2000 a pop. In my own experience, the offering is not that valuable for just DJs, if you have a hybrid or live rig I do se the appeal to have more flexibility. Distribution is limited and usability mostly confined within the NI gear ecosystem…Stems are not bad but are a solution for a problem that wasn’t generally there.

      • White Wulfe

        I’m curious as to where you’re getting those figures from, because even with overnight shipping via FedEx Express from the UK to Canada (which usually tacked on $45-60 CAD per order if you picked up more than 8 records) I was usually paying no more than $20 CAD shipped per record from HTFR, and said records were usually two sided, therefore having two tracks each. Even if one were to be purchasing it for just one of the songs, that’s still only $15ish USD per record, which places it at a meager 5x higher than a $3 USD Stems track, or 6x the cost of a $2.49 USD new release on Beatport (and 7.5x the cost if it’s older than three months at the pricing of $1.99 USD)

        I would regularly put in orders with HTFR that would be around the $200 CAD mark and I’d be taking home 8-12 records in that order…. And that $200 CAD includes the 7% GST we had at the time (it’s now down to 5%, and before you ask about PST or HST we don’t have that in Alberta). If I ordered 12-15 it was usually around the $300 mark due to the higher shipping costs.

        If I shopped what was locally at the time (man I miss Phonics in Calgary), even the new releases were only $15-18 CAD at worst depending on the label, but sometimes it would take a week or two to get the new releases, compared to next day if ordered via HTFR.

  • Thomas Møller Djdanmark

    Make some classic tunes as Stems – Fx When an artist release a new song, add a former hit from this artist as Stems as well.

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