You've just finished the mix of a song and printed it to tape or back into your DAW. You spent hours getting everything just perfect with your analog outboard gear and console. If you tried to write the settings down for every knob it would take several hours and the chances of getting it all patched in again and "recalling" the mix exactly is pretty slim. The band is stoked and so is the producer. You're a hero. Everybody wants to take you out for drinks but you tell them to go ahead and you'll catch up with them in about an hour. Once the band leaves, you start printing the stems of the mix.
This article will present a way to mix in the analog realm, while allowing for balance changes after you're done with the console and outboard units. Anyone who's spent time mixing through a console with a bunch of outboard equipment knows how frustrating it is to get the call, "We love it, but we have to turn up the ____ or we can't use the mix."
When we (John and Larry) first started working in recording studios, everything we multitracked was on analog tape and the concept of recording into a computer was way off in the future. The usual process of making a record involved tracking to a master tape, and then mixing down the tracks to a stereo tape recorder. Multitrack tape to mixer to 2-track tape. Simple. You would sit down at the console, balance the tracks to stereo, and if you deemed the mixes unsatisfactory you would repeat the process.
With the advent of recallable, automated consoles, many elements of our working methods began to shift. A mix might begin to take shape during the tracking sessions. Full console recallability, such as the SSL mixer line, could facilitate large or small changes to a mix. Recall sheets allowed outboard gear and partially automated consoles to be reset with varying degrees of success.
But the widespread adoption of computer-based recording now allows digital-based mixes to be 100% stored and performed in the digital realm; or "in the box" (ITB) as it's commonly termed. As this technology has become available to the general public through affordable software, a "mix" is now less of a performance, and is instead something that can easily be returned to repeatedly for subtle changes and tweaks. But now we are in a scenario where we've abandoned some fabulous mixing consoles and outboard gear, and our hands are no longer on the faders guiding an intuitive mix.
We're not presenting this article on stem mixing with an agenda to denigrate ITB mixing; it would be foolish to attempt to dictate how others work. Instead we offer it as one of the many ways to integrate analog and digital working methods in the studio, as well as a way to provide the best work for your clients (or yourself) without endless mix recalls sucking up your time. It also offers up an excellent way for a freelance engineer to efficiently utilize time in a professional studio and still offer up mix tweaks on a session on a budget.
Some newer recordists might ask, "Why would you not want to mix this ITB?" Almost everybody I've met who works as a professional recording engineer will agree that mixing through an analog console usually sounds better. However, many professional engineers do mix ITB. Reasons include repeatability, recall and the ability to please clients and record labels. Labels often ask engineers to be able to recall any mix instantly and make a minor change. This has become expected in the music industry at all levels. But still, I've never heard anybody say, "I mix in the box because it sounds better." Never. -JB
What are stems? Stems are simply elements of a final mix that have been isolated as their own stereo mix. These stems can then be combined in parallel, using the same starting point, to create a similar version of the main stereo mix but with slight changes as needed. In film and post-production audio it has always been common to work with stems — elements of the final mix broken out into various subgroups. Dialog, music, sound effects, background sounds and such are all submixed into surround or stereo tracks for ease of final film audio mixing. This allows for control over the sound without having to monitor hundreds, or thousands, of tracks.
For Post Production: Often referred to as DME stems (Dialog, Music, Effects) they are generally due as deliverable assets along with the final mix. Stereo mix = stereo stems, surround mix = surround stems. If ya wanna get really specific there are also DAME stems (Dialog, Announcer, Music, Effects), but usually only for content like a documentary where there is a VOG (Voice of God, disembodied) that may be over on-camera BG...
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