This is a companion article for the overview article on preparing Stems for your Mix Engineer.
There are certain conventions in the Music world. I know it is easy when first starting out to feel you don’t need them, are too cool for them, or don’t understand them, but it is well worth getting these things clear really early on so your work is easy for anyone to walk into. The other upside is that well organized work helps you to be more creative yourself.
These days it is easy to download a Beat (Music Bed) off the internet and start singing or rapping over it in a DAW. Great.
There will then probably come a time when you want to step up and get your work Mixed or otherwise Produced by someone else. This is where what you have been doing can come unstuck for you. Or maybe that is: what you haven’t been doing.
Whilst working alone you can do whatever you like. You can be messy or do strange things as it is only you. Once you start working with others, you need to be organized or it is really hard to find how to meet each other’s needs without creating a lot of wasted time and frustration – that can lead to failed projects.
Almost everything is done in a DAW (and please don’t use Audacity if you can possibly help as it is not a real DAW built for making music). Choose your DAW and learn how these basics work in that environment.
These Oldies But Goodies (Remind Me Of You)
These are the main things you need to know. I will explain them practically later:
- Stems – are what you will export and send to your Mix Engineer. A Stem is a Wav File that is the complete length of your Song. This ensures that every part exported imports exactly where it should.
- Time, Tempo or BPM – this is the speed of your song and needs to be consistent or it is really close to impossible to make things work. If your piece, and all its parts, are not in time then it is really impossible to work with it and therefore make it sound great.
- Bars & Beats – are the molecules of music. A Bar is generally 4 beats. In 4/4 a Beat is one quarter of a Bar. Most things that happen in music are tied to the beats in the bar.
- Key & Scale – if you are working with instruments or MIDI then you need to include that material as a MIDI File and also share what Key/Scale you used. If it was only the white notes then that is C Maj.
- Tracks – are where things live. Your vocals live in a track. The audio from the track needs to go to a…
- Mixer Channel – where the level of what was recorded can be adjusted. Most DAWs assign this automatically but a few like FL Studio don’t assign new Tracks to a new Mix Channel which becomes a problem when you try to export those Stems – one vocal line per track.
- Instrument & Vocal Lines – are the threads of your song. Each thread needs to be unique yet kept together so it can be treated as a whole. That means that your Lead Vocal should be all on one Track. Your Backing Vocal on another track. If you recorded vocals in many little parts then you need to…
- Compile or Comp – the small clips into one track so your vocal makes sense when exported.
- Levels – are how loud things are. In a DAW you absolutely DO NOT want things too LOUD as once they are over 0dB they distort and cannot be saved.
- Mic Technique – may not seem to be anyone’s business but yours but if you do it wrong, it is there for all to hear and have to deal with.
Time Won’t Let Me
Usually the first thing you do will be to find a backing track (Music Bed or Beat) that you like. Download that using a Wav File if at all possible. mp3s are poorer quality.
If the track comes with info on the BPM great, set your DAW Tempo to that before you do anything. Import that Music Bed and make sure it starts at exactly Bar 1. This will lock all later bars & beats into place. If Chorus 2 is at Bar 48, it will be exactly there.
If your Music Bed doesn’t come with BPM info (find a better supplier). Import it, make sure that it is starting right on Bar 1 (all the way to the left 01:01:000). Now hope that your DAW has a Tap Tempo feature. Get the track playing where the beat is clear and tap that button in time with the major beats. That is usually Kick & Snare – not the high hats. After a few bars you should note the Tempo readout settles. That is about what the BPM is. Let me show you.
Here’s one I prepared earlier. I downloaded this backing from YouTube. No BPM info, no Key/Scale (lucky it was free). I imported using default 120 BPM and nothing matched the Bar markers:
I got that track rolling, tapped out the main Kik & Sn, and Tempo readout settled at 73 BPM. I looked at how the audio and bars lined up and it still wasn’t quite right but it was closer. A few nudges and at 70 BPM, everything locked in.
You’ll see that the main beats are happening on the bar lines and particularly that the key points of 5, 9, 17 Bars etc are all perfect. I checked later in the track and it’s still perfectly locked (lucky most EDM people only use round tempos).
Everything I do with this Project will now be locked to my DAW tempo. If I hand this to someone else along with the info that it is 70 BPM they will find it easy. If I say my Chorus is at Bar 48, they can find it instantly.
What I hope you noticed is that this Wave File I imported is TOO DARNED LOUD. Sadly most Beats downloaded online are stupidly loud, often with a total dynamic range of only 2-3dB (when 12dB crest factor is normal). You MUST turn this down before you do anything as it will mess with everything you do (another good reason to used paid music as that should come with a Mixed but not Mastered version).
Lower the level of that Backing Track until your Master Meter reads -12dB. Now you have headroom and space to work.
Some DAWs come with Limiters across the Masters that let you do anything, seemingly immune to the laws of nature. Be aware of this and DO NOT Mix into them or when you export, everything will be far too loud to be able to mixed properly.
Each track that you add should be sitting at around -12dB on it’s level meter. Solo it if your DAW only shows a readout on the Masters. Don’t be a NAZI about it but keep it around there. Anything that hits or exceeds 0dB you must be a NAZI about. Do it again as that take was useless.
When you export each of these tracks they will import to the Mix Engineer at exactly where they are most useful level wise – more time on creativity, less on problem solving – winning, grinning.
Wrap Her Up
I know you are eager to get singing. Ok, but we should cover some pitfalls of poor Mic Technique that will damage your vocal sound.
#1 is the Rapper’s Delight of “Cupping the Mic”. This is where the signer holds the mic by the ball, the bit you sing into. Commonly then jamming that mic right up against their mouth. Do it in the video but never in the studio.
Never hold the mic by the part that is trying to hear your voice. This will muddy up the sound, prevent the mic from using any room rejection methods built in, and lead to nasty noises like scraping.
Keep the mic 6 inches from your mouth, preferably just above your top lip where voices are their sweetest. This applies whether you are singing Love Ballads, Rap or Black Metal. Clarity counts.
Never shout straight at the mic. The mic itself will distort and that cannot be recovered from in-the-mix. Back away.
Being further from the mic also reduces the impact of “plosives” – those pesky problem thick thuds that make things thound thukky.
Wear My Ring Around Your Neck
Tracks & Parts are how a piece is Arranged and how a Mix Engineer will know what is what and how you mean it to sound.
If you record your vocal in little parts, be sure not to leave them lying all over the place. Put them in the right place. Marry them to the family of parts they are related to. This called Compiling or Comping (sometimes Consolidating – but that is mostly when you take all those clips and turn them into one clip).
- Lead Vocal Verses is one very sensible Track to put all the lead vocal parts that are part of Verses.
- Lead Vocal Chorus is one very sensible Track to put all the lead vocal parts that are part of Choruses.
- Backing Vocal Verse is… oh you get me
Your Project may look like this when you start but it is not easy for the next person to understand what is what – especially if they are all called “recording”.
Once all those parts have been Comped into Tracks that represent what they are, the project is pretty easy to understand. The more complex your vocal part/s the more Tracks you will have but if each part is well arranged & presented, Mary Chorus – French is easy to put into context as the part where Mary sung the chorus in French.
In this second image, notice the Mixer. Being FL Studio each Track must be assigned to a Mixer Channel or you cannot Export your Stems. Most other DAWs do this automatically.
One By One
Now you are ready to Export your Stems (sometimes called Multitracks).
It is vital that ALL effects and processing is OFF. You are not handing off Stems to show how great a producer you are, you are sending them to be mixed and mixing can only be done properly on raw performances.
Most DAWs have a process to help you do this export. Check you manual or YouTube for a walkthrough.
Each Track above will export as a Single Wav File (or AIFF if you are Apple afflicted). The Wavs will probably be named after your Track name so be sure the names are representative. Every Wav called “Soundblaster Input Left” is just infuriating and a great way to be asked to do it again.
Check (listen to) the Exported Wav Flies and check em again so you are confident that a) they are correct and b) well named so anyone could put them into context without considering suicide.
Put all your Stems and a text file with info like BPM, Key/Scale & any other requested info into a Zip File and upload that to a file sharing service like DropBox and send that link to your mix Engineer (once it has finished uploading).
By “raw” I don’t mean terrible. No Mix Engineer likes getting vocals that wouldn’t know what note they were on if it was painted on their hand or drums that are so out of time they are in the next timezone. This is work for an Editor. If you know your material needs Editing, talk with your Mix Engineer first. Some Engineers handle editing (or sub it out), many do not as they find that by the time they are done making things passable they hate the material. Not a great way to start a session where the job is sell the material. I am more the latter than the former as I know that edited & tuned material never sounds as good as real performances.