Multitrack vs. Stem Mixing
If an artist sends the engineer ten stems, they will be “easier” to mix than 100 multitracks, but will also be quite limiting. The stems will likely be affected with EQ, compression, and reverb and adjusted to the preferred levels from the previous session. Since that work was taken care of, it leaves less work for the mix engineer. Less work; that’s exactly what the mixing engineer wants, right?
Au contraire! Most engineers would prefer to access the multitracks to have complete control of each element’s levels, panning, and effects (see example scenario #1). However, there are times in which stems are preferred by mixers (see example scenario #2).
Example Scenario #1: After stems are sent to a mixing engineer, the artist requests to have the drum overheads panned closer together, the floor tom panned further right, and the snare bottom-end turned down several smidgens. But if the mixer was given a stereo drum stem rather than individual drum files, the requests cannot be accomplished. There’s no way to tweak those individual elements in a stereo audio file.
Example Scenario #2: A year after the release of a song, the artist gets a licensing deal to have the song featured in a car commercial, but the production company wants a mix with the drums down and vocals up. If stems had been created at the time of the original mix, it would be simple and painless to pull them up and make the new mix. It wouldn’t matter if the mix engineer had a completely different system; any DAW that could read the stem audio files would be sufficient!