If you’re a DJ or Producer, it’s likely that you’ll have seen or heard at least something of Native Instruments (NI) new audio format, called “Stems.” But what exactly are Stems, and are they actually going to revolutionize the way we interact with music as NI seem to be suggesting?

A Stem is a new audio format which will behave like a “normal” song file (such as an mp3 or wav) until it is played in Stem-enabled software or hardware. At that point it opens up into four constituent parts. NI is trying in introduce a standard for these parts of beats, bass, synth and the vocal/lead. Their aim is to enable DJs to have much greater control over the individual parts and be able to mix and match parts from different songs easily. Using Traktor and a controller, the DJ suddenly has two tunes, split up into eight separate tracks of audio to play with.

Why are Stems a big deal? Because Native Instruments have made the Stem code non-proprietary, so any company can make Stem controllers or decks. And because the software to create Stems is completely free, anyone can make a Stem file out of any audio they wish. If NI get their way and everything goes to plan, Stems will become the new default audio format.

 

WHEN ANYONE CAN STEM, EVERYONE WILL STEM

There’s been plenty of online discussion around various issues raised by Stems and most DJs and Producers have a number of questions. Among them:

Are Stems just an attempt to sell controllers?

What will happen when Mr Local DJ gets their hands on our precious productions and starts to tear them apart live as part of his “show”?

And won’t this be a huge threat to artist copyright?

The first one is the easiest to deal with: as the Stem code is completely non-proprietary, any company can make controllers or software that can work with Stems. If, as NI plan, the industry at large adopts Stems, clubs and consumers would be able to choose from a number of different manufacturers, just like now.

Producers have expressed concerns over handing over control of part of the production of their music to a (perhaps) amateur DJ. When a producer finishes a track, having invested a lot of time in getting the music to sound exactly how they want, there is reluctance to let anyone tear their tune apart and publicly display the musical bones and sinews that previously held their tune together.

This is partly from an attachment to the old idea of the authority of the composer – and it’s something that has actually been steadily eroded ever since DJs started mixing records together and deciding which parts of the records were the best and which to discard. It’s partly also a sense of preciousness about the sanctity of their productions.

The answer to this would be to simply not supply Stems with your master when you sign with a label. Of course, some labels may insist – so this may affect the decisions that artists and producers take regarding who releases their work.

There has also been lots of talk of the implications of Stems for copyright. If anyone can make a Stem file out of any audio they wish – isn’t that a threat to the producers and their copyright? Doesn’t this mean we’ll be opening the floodgates to thousands of unlicensed and unofficial “remixes,” mash-ups and bootlegs?

Well, have you been on SoundCloud lately? This has in fact already happened and far from being the situation that Stems will create is in fact simply how things already are.

 

STEMMING FOR FUN AND PROFIT

The four track limitation when making Stems is an interesting obstacle. Certainly when I tried to make a Stem version of one of my releases, I struggled with what to fit in each track. There must be plenty of producers that make simple music that can be split up into four parts, but often composers in the electronic field use many more tracks and may have layers and layers of synths, samples and programming. Deciding how to split this up into a usable track for a DJ can be challenging. To make this work, producers are inevitably going to have to compromise when “Stemming” their tracks.

There have been plenty of times when technology has driven the character and content of music – take, for instance, he time-stretching function on Akai samplers and ’90s Jungle, or the introduction of amplification to guitars. If we imagine for a moment that somehow Stems do become the new audio format and manage to generate income for producers, this might also change the character of the music produced. It’s not completely unlikely to imagine a world where we suffer from new “Stem-friendly” genres, or an overabundance of simplistic, one-riff “Stem-friendly” tracks.

Another interesting area is what might happen should the larger music industry decide to get involved. Major record labels have a treasure trove of material stored on multi-track; what would happen if they decided to start to re-release their back catalogs as Stems? Would we see Jimi Hendrix Stems? Chic Stems? Having attended a recent NI Stems launch event and chatted to their marketing team, this seems to be the larger vision – a model that in theory would benefit many areas of the beleaguered music industry. The original copyright holders would earn from Stem sales and there would be a huge increase in mastering work as labels remastered their back catalog into Stem format.

In theory, smaller producers could also benefit from the increased income that stems could produce. However, the reality is that as with most industry innovation, if there are financial benefits to be had, they will likely be snapped up by the bigger players. Certainly if any of the recent innovations of the last twenty years are anything to go by, smaller artists and producers are unlikely to benefit in any substantial way from Stems. The current music industry business model means that, as ever, it will be major labels, with “big name” back catalogs to exploit and their hefty marketing budgets that stand to earn. And of course, we need to remember that currently, pretty much any piece of music ever created is available for free online. You can pay for it, or not. The same will surely be true for Stems as well.

So a future with Stems as the default audio format? Perhaps, perhaps not. It all depends on which way the majors jump. If they think that they are about to repeat the great CD Re-sell of the ’80s and ’90s, then I find it hard to believe that they would resist the chance to sling huge chunks of their back catalog for a third time. With online retailers like Beatport, Traxsource and Juno already stocking Stems, I imagine that there might be some marketing execs at Universal, Sony and Warners who are already starting to get dollar signs in their eyes.