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Topic: Stems for Mixing?

  1. #1

    Stems for Mixing?

    Hi -

    Just wondering about delivery of the final product for video/film soundtracks. I assume you send whatever the director or mixer ask you to send, but exactly what is that, typically? Many small stems, like separate stems for strings/brass/woodwinds/perc? Or one stereo mix of the entire orchestra, with maybe synths/effects separated out? Do you send them with/without reverb? Who decides what stems are needed? Do you as the composer have any control over any of it?

    Never done any real projects yet so just wondering what might be expected in this regard.



  2. #2

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    Depends on a lot of factors, but primarily whether we used live musicians, all samples, or a combo of the two.

    If it's all samples, that usually means we didn't have the money to pay for live musicians, and thus don't have the money for at least a couple of engineers - one to do sound design, dialogue editing, etc. - and the other to mix the score. In which case, I do all the engineering - reverb, etc. - and provide stems as detailed as they want them. Sometimes just per section - all strings, all winds, etc. - or per-instrument - 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, etc. I use my best judgment. If there's a bass drum roll or a trumpet blare I feel they might not like, I'll separate it out from the rest of the brass so they can mix it in lower or cut it outright, if they feel that's best.

    If it's all live musicians, I will, on occasion, conduct the orchestra after delivering the score. Beyond that, I do nothing. I don't often conduct. Therefore, I typically just deliver the score, and then they engineer the sessions, mix their stems and apply the reverb and master the tracks, and all this goes on for a couple months while I collect my paycheck and wait around for a phone call informing me of the premiere date. And sometimes that phone call never comes. Bastards!

    If it's some live muso's and some samples, I will be writing the all-samples parts while they record the musicians. Then the session tracks get to me for the live-sample hybrid parts, at which time I will layer on my fully engineered samples over their unengineered live recordings, which they will then finish engineering, mix, and master.

    In short: it depends. You'll always be providing stems, though. NEVER a final stereo track, and you'll only do the mixing and engineering on occasion (i.e., if they don't have any engineers who know how to work with music, like a student or small indy film/game). If in doubt, deliver per-instrument stems - 1st violins, 2nd violins, horns, clarinets, etc. But they'll usually tell you what they want, how much mixing/engineering they need from you, etc. My stems are rendered according to my personal opinion on how the mix should sound, but the sound team almost always ignores what I do, levels-wise.


  3. #3

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    There is a political answer to this question, too. The more powerful you are as a composer, the less separation you provide to the mix. If you give them 48 tracks of separation, they'll mess with your music at the mix ("let's drop the trumpets there..."). If you're John Williams, you provide them with one 5.1 element, and you stipulate in your contract that it can't be edited.

  4. #4

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    I agree that there is a political answer, but it also goes the other way. If they know what they are doing, I can trust that between them and the mix crew, they won't "destroy" my score. If a director is just starting out, then I give them little or no separation. Too many options that early can be overwhelming.

    Usually I provide only Lo Woods, Brass, Strings, Hi Woods, Brass, Strings, Perc/Kybd/Harp, Synth or solo elements. If there's some line that I think they may find questionable (and if I feel it is up for question) then I might separate that as well.

  5. #5

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    Quote Originally Posted by Tomdini
    If it's some live muso's and some samples, I will be writing the all-samples parts while they record the musicians. Then the session tracks get to me for the live-sample hybrid parts, at which time I will layer on my fully engineered samples over their unengineered live recordings, which they will then finish engineering, mix, and master.
    This brings up another related issue: how do you integrate these live recordings that are done at another studio back into your setup - if you don't use ProTools? Seems like the majority of composers don't use PT (I use Cubase), so this must be a common issue? Do you just have the studio send you WAV files back, then import them back into Logic/DP/Cubase?

    Thanks again!


  6. #6

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    Yup, they give me a roughly mixed single .wav file per cue, just so I have an audio reference to go along with the picture. Then I compose with the samples, and render out my stems, and they handle the rest from there.

    I use Acid Pro. I hate ProTools with a mighty hatred. I did do a couple mixes on one of their expensive supercomputer HD systems, and I just wasn't impressed. It's cumbersome, it has annoying limitations and workflow quirks, and it just doesn't click with me.

    I keep a PT machine around anyway. For kicks, I guess. But I don't much like working with it.


  7. #7

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    Just make very sure you connect with the mixer before you deliver on any score to ensure that there will be enough tracks allotted for the music to handle all of your stems. One may think more separation is better or that it can't hurt. But, typically there are only 16 tracks (8 Stereo pairs) allotted to music for the final sound mix on a film. You would not have a good day if you showed up with 12 stereo pairs of music stems and the board is only set up to work with 8 stereo pairs of music.

    My advice is that if you can fit everything into 8 stereo pairs then you are good to go. Different cues may have different stems too. Just make everything clear so the engineer knows what to expect through what channel on his board. And try to be as consistent as possible to save time. (Order of stems...etc...)

    Usually at a big mix...there is a whole separate Pro Tools rig routed through the main board devoted to just music. Of course it can have however many tracks you want in there...but it is the board where it is all routed that you need to be mindful of. And, usually the music computer tracks are also set up with the songs and source music too. So...if there is an area where score and song overlap or anything...that will eliminate one of the stereo pairs you can use for that cue. Again, due to the tracks allotted on the mixing board by the sound mixer...not the computer's capability.

    This is all for when you are going to some soundstage or outside facility by the way. Of coruse if it is a lower budget thing where someone is doing this all in their project studio, they are probably not limited to their music tracks as they are mixing and recording with a mouse, etc...
    Brian W. Ralston

    Check out my new FREE iPhone App! Click Here!

  8. #8

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    My policy, unless one day they demand something different which so far has not happened to me, is generally to give them a complete stereo mix, and then 4 other stems including a mix without anything really melodic which I make a separate stem, and anything else i.e. hi-hat, etc. that could compete with dialogue and therefore cause a cue to be dumped or mixed so low that it cannot be heard.

    But on a low-budget film they frequently cannot afford too much time to mix the picture so they usually go with my complete stereo mix as I am pretty adept at avoiding competing with dialogue.
    Composer, Logic Certified Trainer, Level 2,
    author of "Going Pro with Logic Pro 9."


  9. #9

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    Great thread!

    Is it necessary to dedicate one of the stereo stems to low instruments (basses, bass drums, timps, drones, thumps, and booms) to be routed to the sub?

    I have also been told that you should still keep these bass elements in the other stems for the surround mix, but to also give them separately for mixing in the sub.

    Can anyone comment on this?
    "International Award Winning Arabic Fusion"

    2xMac Pro 2.66, OS 10.4.9,Pro Tools 7.4.8,Waves Plat,Altiverb
    4xVisionDaw PC,NI Komplete, All Play 1.2.5 Libraries

  10. #10

    Re: Stems for Mixing?

    Sorry for the simple answer but seeing my scores hacked in the past I go for the ONE stereo mix if possible. Of course, it requires a strict approval process of said cues (not killing the dialog, sound fx, etc.) of any scene.

    That's a perfect world - if the 'paying' customer wants 24 stems - they get 24 stems (know this going in though so your bid reflects this requirement).

    Rob Elliott Music

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