Native Instruments STEMS: Performing Live w/ SentZ

In this article, Dubspot’s SentZ shares seven observations from gigging with Native Instruments STEMS and offers up some great tips on how to incorporate the open file format in your live performance.

Stems

STEMS is a new file format that allows DJs to divide songs into four individual tracks with independent volume and FX controls. As a producer/MC, I’ve been using STEMS to gig and play my own productions for about a month now. I’m using two Kontrol F1s, an X1, a Z1, and a Korg KP3 for a very portable and flexible setup. Here’s some things I’ve noticed so far, as well as some things I’d love to see in the future as the format develops.

Native Instruments Stems

Vocalist/Musician Friendly

STEMS offer a simple and flexible option for live vocalists/musicians to have independent control of the rest of their mix without a lot of setup. I rap and produce, so “show” versions of my STEMS are divided into four channels: 1: Drums + Bass 2: Instrumentation 3: Lead Vocal 4: Ad-libs. This layout lets me play full tracks when just DJing, or allows control over the vocals in case of a live performance. If I decide to rap over one of my tracks during a set, I can mute the Lead Vocal and lower the Ad-libs in the STEM file using the faders and the mute section on the Kontrol F1.

Native Instruments Stems

(Volume sliders and mute buttons on the F1 allow for quick access to song parts on a small controller)

Jam Time

I help curate a monthly producer showcase in Brooklyn called the Back it Up Beat Club. We’ve been lucky enough to have amazing drummers jam over producers as they play their music, and STEMS have offered a lot more flexibility than Traktor has in the past. Filtering the low end from the recorded drums left room for our live drummer to control the groove. Once a pulse was established, I found myself taking the recorded drums out altogether. Considering how modular the Traktor environment is, I could easily see someone mounting an F1 near a drummer/percussionist or other instrumentalists so they can have a dedicated mixer for levels while playing along with a DJ.

Native Instruments Stems

(OP Grime of Black Space Odyssey live drumming over STEMS during the Back It Up Beat Club)

Bad System? No Problem

One of my gigs last month was at a space with a sound setup that had way too much muddy bass, and nearly nothing in the highs. Normally with a mastered audio file, you can adjust the EQ of the whole track, and that’s about it. With STEM files, I was able to roll volume off of the Kick and Bass channels without affecting the melodic instruments, or top drums. It was a much more precise way of dealing with the inadequacies of the room. You can also filter your tracks independently, for even more control on a bad system.

Native Instruments Stems

(Use the filter section of the F1 to help clean up bad frequencies showing up in a room. Rolling off a bit of bass in melodic parts can go a long way to clearing up mud in a room)

Cue the Loops

Storing dedicated Loops and Cue Points in a STEM file gives you a lot of flexibility and comfort while mixing. It also frees you up from manually beat matching as much and relying so heavily on headphones. When playing my own productions, I find it to be more pleasant and engaging when I can listen in with the crowd more instead of cueing in headphones every few minutes. I also think I mix more intelligently, given that there’s more time to read the crowd. With that in mind, I often set loops around the intro, verse, and hook of my beats so I can quickly go back and forth between sections of the song on the fly using the X1.

Native Instruments Stems

(The Hot Cue buttons on the Kontrol X1 can be used to trigger off looped segments of your song. Use these to change your song’s arrangement on the fly)


When making loops, Traktor’s Loop Length selector maxes out at 32 bars, but if you’d like to loop a larger section you can. Simply use the manual “Loop In” and “Loop Out” buttons, and then you can make a loop as long as you want as well as save it for future use. When you’re ready to use loop points to jump around your song, turning on Quantize will make sure the triggering stays tight. That said, turning Quantize off and performing finger drumming sections of your song can add a nice human feel if you have good timing. It also works really well when you isolate the drums while doing this. Experiment!

Native Instruments Stems

(When organizing your Stems, use the manual “Loop In” and “Loop Out” buttons to set loops larger than 32 bars. Loop 2 is a 64 bar verse)

DAWs, Duh

Native Instruments Stems

The STEM Creator tool is a great resource to create your own files, but the inability to save sessions is a bit frustrating. During the process of making a STEMS file, you’ll have to manually match the dynamics of your Master file to the dynamics of the individual STEMS. There have been a few cases where after playing the file on a sound system, I wanted to go back and make a small adjustment. With no way to save and revisit sessions, I essentially had to start over whenever that happened, including filling in all of the ID3 tags/cover art, etc. Considering the format is open code, my hope is that DAWs like Ableton  Live and Logic begin to incorporate a built in STEMS creator. This feature would be great so that we can save sessions, and more easily create a STEMS file without a multi-step Mastering process.

No Label? No Problem

Native Instruments Stems

SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and similar platforms should host STEMS Period in my opinion. STEMS are currently being sold through resources like Juno and Beatport, but it would also be really nice to see some of the independent music hosting sites get on board as well. With so much amazing unsigned music being distributed through those types of platforms, it would make a lot of sense to provide downloads to a DJ-focused, remixable format.

Future of Construction Kits?

Native Instruments Stems

When I first started DJing with vinyl, there were many records available full of sound FX, vocals, and breakbeats that you could scratch or layer over acapellas. Currently, STEMS allow people to release their music, but it would be cool to see STEM tracks that are just various sounds, drum loops, vocals, and other tempo-based construction kits that a DJ could use. Think of a STEM consisting of a track of different drum breaks, a track of different vocals, a track of sound effects, and a track of scratch tools. Instant inspiration for turntablists!

Conclusion

It’s still early in the life of STEMS, so it will be interesting to see how the format develops. I have to applaud the open approach developers are taking. It’s nice to see that the community is being encouraged to think of new ways to implement the technology. Other pieces of DJ software such as DJ Player Pro are already on board, and one can only expect the list of players to grow. Until then, if you’ve seen any cool implementation of STEMS, drop a reply in the comments.

 


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