Steve Albini is an amazing audio engineer! He’s worked on thousands of albums, including bands such as the Pixies, Bush, Nirvana, Neurosis, Cheap Trick, and many others. He’s also been around for quite some time, getting his start in the age of analog. One thing that sets him apart from other prominent engineers, is the fact that he still records only to tape.

The above clip is part of his explanation for why he doesn’t venture into the digital world. Honestly, when he came onto Pro Studio Live, I was surprised by his answer to “Why not digital?”. Maybe I’ve been inundated with too many analog advocates that simply claim that the quality is superior. Part of me expected his reason to involve that argument. But I was surprised when he came right out of our meet and greet (part of which we broadcasted on Periscope, follow us @myprostudiolive for future broadcasts!) and said he doesn’t think the quality is really superior anymore. He has other reasons for sticking with it now.

Now, I’m interested in the psychology of what we hear. There are case studies involving trained audio engineers blindly listening to varying types of sounds made with analog vs digital gear. Recently, these engineers often don’t correctly distinguish between the two. So regardless of where you fall in the analog vs digital quality argument, I think most people would agree that it’s a very close call nowadays. At any rate, Albini quickly dismissed that argument, and moved into what I found to be a much more logical defense of analog. “It isn’t the case that anyone with a computer can play any digital session.” So, as the argument goes, digital is chock full of proprietary information. If you’re trying to work on a session from years ago, you’ll have to make sure you have compatible versions of the same plugins, with a valid authorization. You’ll also need a compatible version of the same DAW that you previously had. You’ll also need a computer that can read whatever storage medium you selected back when you made the session. Otherwise, you might be sh*t out of luck. And as Steve puts it, “there’s a long list of expired digital formats that are now essentially useless.” With software versions changing so frequently nowadays, it’s often difficult to resurrect an old session. “In a lot of digital sessions, there is no final master tape. There’s just a series of edits and manipulations that has stopped at a certain point” However, analog doesn’t seem to have this downfall. Steve describes analog as “an open format, where anyone in the world can play any tape that I’ve made, on any machine, of any vintage, and hear what the band was doing when they made their record”. So many of us become focused on the micro concepts in recording, that we forget about the macro concept of recording as a means of preservation. Albini hasn’t forgotten this primary function of recording, so it makes sense that he avoids proprietary digital technology that can really throw a wrench in the longevity of your tracks. “There is a fragility to what everyone is doing now, that I think is not being acknowledged.” So we asked Steve a bit about what he would recommend to those of us stuck in the digital world for one reason or another. He made it very clear that he isn’t about to tell digital people how to do digital, and I respect that. But I am an engineer that does work in digital, and I’ll tell you one way that you can do digital.

So the question is, how do you alleviate this proprietary technology dilemma? How can you ensure your recordings span the test of time? Well, what if I told you there’s one clear way that I see to cut out proprietary digital technology in the form of plugins and DAWs? What if I told you this would allow your mix to remain open for some remixing later, and you don’t have to invest in tape and relearn your craft? Well, this way is called stems.

What are Stems?

Stems are a lot like submixes. To create stems, you process similar groups of instruments or audio material into submix tracks before processing them into a final mix. If you export these submixes as their own audio files, then you have stems. Stems for any given song are identical in length, with an identical starting point. This is so that any other engineer that is given your stems can easily line them up to recreate or remix your song. There are often separate stem tracks for the effects. So for example, you might have one stem track for the main vocals, one stem for the backing vocals all together, and one stem for the main vocal’s effects like reverb, and another for the backing vocals’ effects. This way, a remix engineer can choose how much wet signal (with your effects) to use with the dry signal stems.

Have any of you seen this article from the BBC on stems? If you have, then disregard it. I hate to say it, but in this case the BBC is wrong. The article, posted only months ago, claims that stems is a “new sound format”. This is not a new format by any means. But they are correct in one way; stems are generally used for remixing or reworking a track, not as a means to preserve audio. Most clients that request stems are doing so as a tool to enable remixing. For example, stems are often used for song placement in commercials or film. TV commercials often feature popular songs with the vocals removed so the words don’t clash with the commercial’s voice over. Whenever you hear something like that, that version was created with stems.

The beauty of stems for preservation is that you’re essentially creating a multitrack recording of your song. Stems allow you to print all the DAW and plugin specific parameters and tweaks, all the “series of edits and manipulations” within your session, to tracks that can be opened on almost any computer and in any DAW. It’s not a complete work around for avoiding proprietary technology in digital, but it cuts out a big chunk of it. And if you print stems for all your sessions, that will hopefully lengthen the viability of your recordings. After all, if you want to remix your song with more up to date reverbs and effects in 10 years, you’ll have a lot better chance of being able to easily do so with stems.

How do you Make Stems?

1) Finish your mix. Make sure your mix is exactly where you want it. If you’re planning on printing stems, I recommend getting in the habit of using aux tracks during the mixing phase. Use an aux for each grouping of instruments in your mix, and for any effects for which you might want separate stems.

2) Consolidate clips to make all clips the same length. You’ll want this to be as long as the longest track. To do this, I recommend placing the cursor at the very end of the audio within your session, highlighting all the tracks, and holding shift and hitting enter to highlight to the very beginning of the session. Then you can go to Edit > Consolidate Clip or hold option, shift and hit 3. This will consolidate all the highlighted clips to this uniform length.

3) Organize your session. Make sure you know which tracks belong to which “group” (be it background vocals, guitar, rhythm guitar, percussion, bass, etc), and make sure any effects you have are sent out to aux tracks so you can print separate stems for those too.

4) Print those stems! Bounce out the tracks that you designate as stems, and make sure all your audio is included in one stem or another, so that you don’t miss anything.  You can bounce straight out of Pro Tools, but I recommend bouncing to a new track within your session, so you can monitor for clipping, etc.  Label your stems thoroughly! I like to deactivate the tracks that I’ve printed as I go. You can do this by right clicking on the track nameplate and selecting “make inactive”.  That way I don’t miss anything.

So that’s it!  To learn more about what Albini taught us, become a member of Pro Studio Live, and you can watch all the videos in our archive!

Questions? Comments? As always, please share in the comments below!