Stems: Luciano, Carl Craig + Kerri Chandler Discuss The New Music Format

Just a few weeks ago in Barcelona, there were a slew of talented artists performing for the Sónar festival. It was perhaps easy to overlook an event at the parallel Sónar+D conference that packed several legendary DJs and producers in a single room. Native Instruments enlisted Alexandre Cazac of InFiné records, Kerri Chandler, Carl Craig and Luciano to talk about the new Stems format, in a discussion hosted by Tony Nwachukwu, all in front of a packed audience. Guest contributor Steven Maude has captured some of the highlights of the discussion in today’s article.

What are Stems?

In case you’ve missed any of the background on Stems, you can catch up with this article. In a nutshell, it’s a new file format wrapped in an .mp4, with four separate audio tracks that can be controlled independently in supported software. Native Insturments is behind the format, and their Traktor software will be the first to support it.

Stems files retains backwards compatibility with MP4 players, including CDJs, that don’t support them: they will playback, but only as a single, conventional audio file. Establishing a new file format as a standard is difficult and NI are on a big push; making this format an open standard shows that they mean business. As well as being supported in Traktor, it is royalty-free to use, their Stems creator tool is a free download and the source code will be made available, although the licensing on this is as yet unclear.

Photo Credit: Hipasonic

What Does Stems Mean For DJs?

DJ Techtools and the forums have discussed this at length – but what do industry DJ veterans make of Stems?

Both Kerri Chandler and Carl Craig were highly enthusiastic: Chandler describing Stems as “Tascam on steroids”, with the ability to use individual elements perhaps giving a longevity to records.

Carl Craig‘s opinion was that Stems was incredible since it lets you play four files in sync and have the possibility of multitrack live remixing. He cited the advantage of not having to worry about nudging one of those files; Stems, he said, were better than remix sets as they are full tracks and more cohesive.

Luciano pointed out that having the Stems format might give interested listeners a better insight into how the music they’re listening to is formed; he said that he used to isolate, e.g. percussion, when growing up listening. Stems could perform a similar function.

The artists noted that DJ tools have existed for a while – historically, rap, grime, and dance music artists have provided a capella and instrumental versions for DJ and remix use. This can help keep a record around and fresh as producers continue to rework it or use samples in their own tracks, and DJs can use and re-contextualize elements in their sets.

However, these are not always available, and from a DJs point of view would require juggling, say, two decks to control the a capella and instrumental at once. With Stems, a single file and a single deck has everything, reducing some of the overhead involved.

Alexandre Cazac, whose InFiné label is eclectic (listen to a few of their artists below), was enthusiastic about applying Stems to other genres, maybe allowing for DJs to incorporate different sounds outside of the usual.

What Does Stems Mean For Producers + Labels

For producer-DJs, Kerri Chandler was extolling the virtues of being able to create a Stem, playing it out live and tweaking it in a DJ set to gauge the reaction and get crowd feedback. He even went as far as saying you may want to record live and use that as your master.

For labels, there’s now a way to sell the standard version of a track, along with a premium Stem version. Also mentioned was even the possibility of selling alternate versions of Stems; you can imagine that there are different ways that you might opt to bounce a project down to four tracks. Particularly hot tracks might well get away with this, so that DJs have a bit more variety when playing the same track out.

What Does Stems Mean For Listeners?

Outside of the audience who get to enjoy DJs playing out Stems and do things they previously couldn’t, there’s a potential market of Stems selling to dedicated fans.

Special edition albums are nothing new, but if, say, Apple decided to support Stems (and they’re on a real marketing push with their music business right now), it would be possible to sell digital copies with bonus Stems such that fans effectively get instrumental copies. Again, this means that there could be a bigger market for back catalogue reissues in Stems format too. That’s not necessarily going to work for every artist, but may work for those who have ardent fanbases. Going even further, perhaps it’s possible for Stems to sell outside of electronic and rap music genres entirely.

“Why Only 4 Tracks In A Stem File?”

An audience member asked this question. The panel’s consensus response was that four tracks was a good balance between flexibility and complexity.

Luciano mentioned that there’s probably not enough time in on-the-fly DJ mixing to really make the most of anything more than four channels to start using more short time you have to mix between two pieces of music, say 30 seconds. Likewise, Kerri Chandler mentioned that, with four decks and four tracks in each Stem, means you actually have up to 16 tracks to work with.

Carl Craig highlighted that Stems with more tracks might be a convenient format for producers who currently might exchange multiple individual stem files. Instead, they could just send over a single file instead and load that into a DAW. The current specification supports Apple’s lossless ALAC format (which itself is open source under the permissive Apache license). An official or otherwise extension of Stems that supports more tracks for this purpose certainly isn’t out of the question.

Challenges Part 1: Preparing Stems

Stems themselves are simple to create, with the caveat that there needs to be the source material to create them from. If your project files exist, producing Stems from them shouldn’t be difficult.

This is exemplified by comments Carl Craig made: he said at the event that his label was committed to Stems for future releases. Reissuing his legacy material, he said, might prove difficult. He used to mix straight to a 2 track DAT master and add effects in real time. Recreating those effects would be a problem, and might mean there were slight differences between the Stems version and the original. On the other hand, his label’s forthcoming releases will be available as Stems.

Kerri Chandler was more upbeat, though he said he’s “gotta dig”: half of his stuff is on tape and may be hard to find. This highlights how important archiving and keeping records (both types!) can be for producers and labels.

Photo Credit: Sonar+D Instagram

Challenges Part 2: Selling Stems

Carl Craig suggested that Stems would could revitalize a stagnant music industry. He pointed out that just about everyone was guilty of downloading at least one thing for free. Alexandre Cazac had earlier said that the advent of the MP3 meant that many people no longer understood why they should pay for music.

Stems is certainly something for the industry to get excited about: it’s a new product, and one they can charge a premium for, and one that can well apply to classic tracks from back catalogues too, as well as new tracks. But, how much more can they charge for them remains to be seen.

I’m not sure that it will be a panacea to the problem of people not want to pay for music either. At best, the labels can hope that Stems are traded far less than MP3 versions of music, perhaps making them much more difficult to get hold of outside of legitimate stores and forcing people who want them to actually buy them. And, of course, they can’t be ripped from YouTube.

That said, for smaller, lesser known labels whose sales are primarily to DJs, this boost may be enough to help them and their artists to develop and flourish. And NI do have the likes of Beatport enlisted as partners, so there’ll be a place to buy Stems as soon as there’s a publicly-released Traktor version that supports it.

Watch Ean’s overview of Stem Decks in the below video and read more here

carl craigkerri chandlerlucianoNative InstrumentsSónar+Dstem decksstems
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  • Replacing MP3: Is A New Format Likely For DJs + Listeners?

    […] dethrone MP3. One thing that comes to mind is functionality like Native Instruments’ Stems, which I suggested here on DJTT might be sold more generally as a way of providing different ways of listening (e.g. bundling […]

  • Lucas Czuchraj

    This is just a bad idea. Music being watered down even further than it already is these days to nothing more than the individual parts that make it. I think jacking up the price of stems so that they are more exclusive would make sense for labels and artist financially (a lot of artists already work with their own produced STEMS during live sets and performances – just look at what Deadmau5 does as an example) but to hand off individual parts that make the backbone of a song and let someone else butcher it sounds sort of sketchy to me. There is a reason why acapellas & instrumentals were rare to find and you had to dish out $15-20 to get it on vinyl. I hope this doesn’t catch on and if it does the term “sellout” will have more merit to it.

  • Black_Rag

    Wow, this horrible impractical gimmick is still alive? Stems have lasted far far longer than i thought they would. But then again “dumbed down remix decks” as i call these, might be needed, not everyone takes the time to experiment fully with remix decks and most never ever will in their entire lives realize the potential of remix decks.

  • konradical

    “… and from a DJs point of view would require juggling, say, two decks to control the a capella and instrumental at once. With Stems, a single file and a single deck has everything, reducing some of the overhead involved.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, which I’m not, but, the juggling part… THAT PRETTY MUCH SUMS UP DJ’ING 101!

    don’t even get me started…

  • 26Tracks

    based on your description on how the stems tracks are built, does the full song then not include anything done on the master track (mastering, effects, sends, etc)?

  • JJ

    Yeah, I don’t know of any professionals (outside of NI sponsored/1% major label artists that is) willing to give away all of their hard work in the studio just for a couple of bucks. In fact, most cleverly mix tracks of various elements specifically to keep people from stealing signature sounds (beats, bass, etc… ).

    Now top that off with the idea of making DJ’ing easier than it already is… the result (as if we arent already there) is a world of part time hobbyist wannabe hacks pretending to be something that certain others have genuinely dedicated their entire lives and careers too.

    Most producers make their songs dance floor ready.. FOR A REASON! An official remix is just that, officially approved. Again, for a reason! There is nothing more annoying than listening to some hack destroy a song, just to be “different”…. fans want to hear the songs they love, not some irritating artistic interpretation of it.

    Stems is just adding to the pile of sh*t this industry is already in. No thanks!

    • Bryan Noss

      Well said!!!!! ??????

    • Dubseed

      Native Instruments is working on a super complex tracking system to ensure artists are compensated for their work, sort of like a watermark for tracks (and stems). It’ll be interesting to see how stems develop!

  • CUSP

    There are three big concerns to be worked out: 1) availability of good stems (without these, there is nothing to talk about) 2) adequate compensation for artists 3) reasonable pricing for said stems.

    People may be requesting $2-5 per song for stems, but that may not be enough for the artists (whom already feel cheated having to sell their tracks for $1 each) to release the building blocks of their songs. Once someone has all the stems, the artist no longer has control.

    In general, Stems is far from being a done deal, let’s just say the road is open (and parking spots are available), but it’s going to some convincing to get the cars to come down the road.

    • Bryan Noss

      I agree with you 100%. Another thing ¿what happens with producer and creator of tracks? I don’t like that I’m not getting pay enough for some I created and spends hours and hours getting detail and perfect sound and now somebody else wants to use it easily and then do the remix and after they will be the superstar absorbing all the credit without created anything.

      As a Dj, Yes, I love stems. As a producer and artist not to much.

      • Dubseed

        Native is working on a complex tracking system (sort of like audio watermarking) to make sure artists receive credit and compensation. It’ll be exciting to see how stems develop once the tool is released

  • Monkton

    What an amazing idea. I really hope this takes off. I think it has way way more potential than “Remix Sets”. The only thing is tracks would still have to be reasonably priced. I’m thinking between $2-5 Dollars depending on the label, to realistically sell a massive amount. if the price started off just close enough to a regular Beatport or iTunes track, I’m sure many many DJs would convert large amounts of their library’s to Stems, which would create more demand and more diversity and slowly grow the format. start it off too expensive IE. $8 dollars a track and Im pretty sure they would loose the masses, and it would become obscure, and eventually never catch on similar to Remix Sets. Just my thoughts, I could be wrong…

    • Rob Ticho,Club mU

      Agreed. I think think the Remix sets on Beatport are too expensive.

    • No Qualms

      I believe remix sets have been taken the wrong way.
      I make my own by essentially making stems, but in 4 or 8 bar loops instead of whole songs.
      But because it is not a whole song format like stems I have actual control over the arrangement of the song, much more like a live band.
      If I want to extend a particular part of a song to scratch over or a guest musician to solo over I can.
      I can have the drums as a loop and individual parts so I can finger drum as part of the performance.
      I can also have many different variations of each section because there are a lot more remix deck cells than the 4 stem tracks.

      Buying remix sets and muting and unmuting sections is boring and sounds like crap to the crowd, using them this way completely underutilises there potential.

      • Rob Ticho,Club mU

        With a stems file you could loop sections of the song to extend portions and accomplish a similar result. Nevertheless, it sounds like remix decks are working for you and it’s not like Traktor is going to drop them.

        One of my issues with remix decks (when I produce my own stems) is they can be too loopy and don’t have the longer automated effects/sounds that I incorporate when I’m producing a full track.

        • No Qualms

          Yeah you could definitely just loop parts. And if I am performing the song live with other musicians, stems would be perfect. Just mute the drums or bass or whatever. Much better than having to have multiple versions of each song.

          But if I am doing a solo live performance thing. Remix decks allow me to drop the bass from the bridge over the drums of the chorus or whatever I want, this would be much more difficult with stems and would need multiple decks.

          It also depends on what genre you are doing. Trance or Prog House you need longer passes for sure. Most of my original live performances are Hip-Hop where I scratch, Rap and do some finger drumming. So it is loop based anyway.

          But what I was saying originally was Remix Decks are generally under-utilised and are amazing for original live performances, not when used as a replacement for regular songs in a DJ set. Which is why a lot of DJs don’t know what to do with them.

          I think stems will be a similar thing. DJing with them as a replacement will most likely end up sounding like shit. The arrangement makes a track. As soon as you start putting vocals from one song over bass from another or whatever, you maybe having fun but the crowd will be thinking what’s this shit. It will end up being more of a live performance thing.

    • Dubseed

      We agree! It’ll be interesting to see what the industry adopts as the standard rate for stem tracks as well as if larger names will adopt the format. We’re a site devoted to stems. Check out, we’d love to hear what you think!