Bouncing stems and mix

Recently I’ve been weighing the benefits of focusing on just one part of my production process exclusively, or, working on all the steps of a production simultaneously – arranging, mixing, pre-mastering, etc.. Very often producers ask me to explain a perfect workflow recipe and the truth is, there really isn’t a one size fits all answer.

But in theory, there are 2 main approaches I’ve been seeing in production to make a song.

  1. Classic way. Which involves taking one phase at a time but with the option to roll back to go fix something.
  2. Modern way. You go from one phase to the other in no particular order, as your needs change. You’ll mix as your arrange, change sounds of the percussion to match a melody, add saturation for aesthetics, etc.

One of Ableton’s feature that I find killer is the option to export all channels as separate stems. It really is great for so many reasons but also allows your to really divide the production from the mixdown, which you could do in another DAW.

There are many reasons why you’d like to do your mixdown into another DAW. One of the reason is, you’re basically blending, what I call, software grains. Think of the various apps on your smartphone that offer various filters for your images, where you can go from one to another, taking advantage of each strength. I would say it’s the same for DAWs.

  • Workflow. Each DAW has its own workflow, appearance, feel. Sometimes, just a change of platform is enough to, psychologically, feel your track in a different way. There are countless researches that have been done in between DAW, to which has the best sound, but in terms of summing, if you take a file with nothing on it and bounce it, they will all provide the exact same file. Where there will be a difference is on automation, interface and that alone can make you behave differently in a mix situation. There’s also all the macros and gizmos they all offer too.
  • Native plugins. Again, this might be a game changer. This of an any DAW, they will offer different plugins doing different things. Now, just for compression and EQ, it becomes a serious business. Mostly because there’s a big difference between what you see and hear, plus no one really does things the same way.

That last point is crucial here. You can take the same compressor concept (ex. FET compression), but it will sound different from one company to another. There are no real universal standards on how to approach compression or EQing. An EQ can show you a curve but the filter in the back might slightly be different to give a color, for instance.

So, when it comes to Ableton, I now export all channels as stems to do the mixdown. No more mixing as a arrange. I put a wall between the 2 phases. Some of the reasons are:

  • It liberates CPU usage. No surprises here. When you deal with a heavy load of VST’s and plugins it can often be a lot to manage. The act of bouncing out and mixing stems will force you to focus on only mix related plugins such as EQ and compression. No more delays, chorus and reverb adjustments. At this stage, you’ll focus on the volume levels alone.
  • It put’s an end to the endless adjustments you can make to every sound. You’ll have the option of correcting that little hihat detail that’s been bothering after hearing your track 100 times, but honestly, someone who has just heard your song for the first time will interpret that sound as part of the track, not as a mistake. It’s good to put an end to endless changes and adjustments and move on to finishing your production. Professionals keep their eye on the prize and get things done.
  • The audio summing seems to reveal imperfections. I’m not sure what’s happening here but sometimes, when you bounce the stems, things are just slightly different. I can’t pinpoint why and in theory, it’s not supposed to be but sometimes, it does sound slightly different. In fact, once you bounce it, that’s when you know exactly how it will be so it’s interesting to bounce all channels apart.
  • Ability to use other DAWs. As described earlier, this is the ultimate way to move from one platform to another. You’ll be to leverage the strength of each DAW.
    Build live sets or NI Stems. Having stems on hand can be useful to create live sets. Native Instruments offers a technology for creating a stems release to be played in Traktor, which is really cool, and super in demand by many of the world’s top dj’s.
  • Backup and remixing. Having stems is the ultimate way to have a real backup of your music. In 10 years time no one can predict what technology will be available, but having stems will prove useful as a way to be used with any new technology.

All an all, try it and see for yourself. Bouncing stems can only bring advantages to your workflow and I’d love to hear about it.

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