Make your musical ambition a reality, and start by getting your audio quality slick and professional. In this email I give some tips on stem mastering, and when it’s most needed.
Add 2 x FREE stems per track (£14 value) with code: 2022FreeStemsOffer Order “Stereo Mastering” then select “Add Stems” and use the code at checkout to get 2 x free stems!
(You can use the code up to 5 times! Get 5 x stem mastered tracks done & save £70! Code doesn’t expire until the end of June 2022. Scroll down for more details)
Topics covered: What is Stem Mastering? How can it help improve your music productions? How is it different to “regular” stereo mastering?
The difference between a good master & a fantastic master is subtle but important…. A great one just has “something special” about it, which noticeably adds to the overall impact of the track, but isn’t always easy to pin down why. It just sounds “quality”! Labels, sync agents, music supervisors and playlist curators notice the difference.Mastering is like most things in life – the better the input, the better the output. So today we are going to talk about Stem Mastering, which can help optimize a few of the most demanding parts of a mix as an integral part of the mastering job.
What is Stem Mastering? Stem mastering is like a mini-mix combined with mastering. It can optimize a mix that’s already great, or correct a few difficult elements and rescue a mix that would otherwise have major issues.A mediocre mix will be massively improved by an experienced mastering engineer anyway, but think how much slicker the end result would be if the tricky mix elements were perfected.Stem mastering is the process of sending certain parts of your mix separately, so the mastering engineer can adjust key elements individually during the mastering process.Often during mastering certain elements get highlighted and mix flaws revealed. It’s really useful for the engineer to be able to adjust these aspects on the fly to get the best end result.For example, there may be an instrument that overlaps the frequency band of a vocal performance, and during the mastering process the vocal needs a little EQ tweak… but this makes the other instrument sound harsh. Or vice-versa and adjusting a harshness in the other instrument then dulls the vocal. It would be helpful to be able to adjust these elements with a little more separation (there are A.I. tools that can be useful, but they are hit-and-miss sometimes).
When do you need stem mastering? Low-end problems (kick, bass, sub):Many technically excellent, talented producers don’t have the luxury of a fully accurate listening environment which can cause problems balancing their low-end. Matching the kick & sub levels between each other is a very common problem which relies on both accurate monitoring AND environment.There are a few A.I. driven tools on the market which are helpful, but in my experience they don’t quite get it right most of the time. I often use one in my chain, but the majority of the time (90%+) I don’t actually follow its suggestions completely, and use it more as a quick way to check another approach, like a second pair of ears to ask an opinion of. The neutral room + human ears still give the best results tailored to your track.Vocal balancing:A vocal is one of the most tricky parts to make sit naturally inside a mix, and because we all know the sound of a human voice intimately, a vocal that’s not quite blended perfectly is the easiest way to make an otherwise amazing mix go downhill. So many talented producers find getting the vocal to sit right the most challenging part of a mix. If this is you, you are not alone!The highest level mix optimisation:Even if your mix is pretty damn great already, and you just want to get the most optimized mastering possible, then stem mastering can make that happen. It gives the engineer full flexibility to tweak micro aspects of the master and get really precise for ultimate results.Weak sounding drums:A classic problem, especially when using live drums. The track is banging, guitars sound huge, vocal is great, bass is thumping, but the drums sound weak and let the whole track down. By sending the drums as a separate stem we can give the extra push needed to fatten them up in the mix.Any instrument that isn’t “sitting right”:Don’t let it annoy you. Send it separately as a stem and let the engineer fix this in the mastering.
How To Set Up A Stem Master: It is good general practice when mixing a song to group various elements to different subs/buses before the master output fader. This is helpful for many reasons: You can pull down just 1 fader to adjust all the drum channels for example, or effect all vocal channels with 1 effect. Or send different parts of your track to 1 reverb… Or many other cool things beyond the scope of this article! Sending grouped parts to buses is also useful in optimizing your gain structure to avoid clipping. It’s generally a good habit to have when mixing.When you export your mix, you will choose the option that exports all these different buses separately – these individually grouped wav files will be your stems.
There’s no specific rules for what parts to use as stems – it will vary depending on how many instruments are causing issues, or how complex your track is.Often you will only need 1 or 2 stems to get an optimized result. Vocals and Drums are common choices in this scenario.
For a rock stem mastering job, you might have the following stems: vocals drums bass rhythm guitars lead guitar synth
Or for an electronic track:
kick drum other drums bass sounds soft sounds hard sounds
This is a common stem setup for a dance track: kick drum Bass sounds everything else
Tricky vocal?: lead vocal backing vocals everything else (also makes it a breeze to bounce an instrumental master version at the same time)
Lots of options! Note how sometimes I’ve grouped them as “hard” & “soft” sounds – really it depends on the track and what elements work most naturally together.
Once you have chosen the best stem configuration for your mix, export them (“Export – Buses” or similar), then load them up in a new project and check to make sure they play back exactly the same as your normal stereo mix.
Feel free to reach out to us for advice if you have any problems making stems.
Send them all separately in a zip file to us HERE, along with a regular stereo copy of your full mix as a reference so the engineer can check all is correct.
Final thoughts: Stem mastering is not essential for every track. But on a tricky or complex mix it can make the difference between a good final result and a fantastic final result.
It doesn’t have to be expensive either. For example, at Fat As Funk Mastering, you can add a stem for just £7 on top of the mastering cost (or free with this offer!).Try stem mastering on your new track and see how much difference it can make.
Try our stem mastering for free: Add 2 x free stems per track with code: 2022FreeStemsOffer (Order Stereo Mastering + Add Stems, & add the code at checkout for the 2 x free stems discount per track. You can use it up to 5 separate times to get 5 x tracks stem mastered & save up to £70! Code doesn’t expire until the end of June 2022)
If you are wondering “How can I make my music sound better?” You may be considering taking your mixes to a pro, but are wondering what service your money is better spent on: professional mixing vs mastering, stem mastering or stereo mastering.
Below is an easy flow chart to help you decide, and we will briefly answer some common questions like what is the difference between mixing and mastering? What is stem mastering? We will explore stem mastering vs mixing and mastering.
Pro Mixing and Mastering packages:
Send us your recordings and we will transform them into a record! Get your mix as close to your vision as you can, then export your individual instrument stems (as many as you need) and send them over. Make sure you export all the parts from the same time, so it all lines up (usually from the very start 0:00).
We will give it a luxury analogue mixdown using our old-skool analog desk, valve hardware and 25 years of studio experience. We will then master lovely new mix and deliver you a radio-ready album you will be proud of.
What is stems mastering? Stem mastering is like a mini-mix and mastering approach. It can optimize something brilliant, or correct a few difficult elements.
If your mix is pretty damn great already, and you just want to optimize it, then group the various elements together before exporting. E.G. group all the drums together in 1 stereo file, all the vocals in 1 stereo file, softer instruments, heavy instruments etc. Usually around 5 or 6 stems works well for most tracks. We will mix them back together, tweaking the individual parts so they sit perfectly together, use analogue summing then a fat analogue master for awesome results.
We can also save a mix using stem mastering. A classic situation is having a great backing track with a vocal or lead guitar that just doesn’t quite “sit right”. Or maybe you are not confident in you Sub/kick balance. We can stop your headache and ease your pain for pretty low price. Just bounce us an exported mix with the problem elements muted, then export the tricky elemements soloed. E.G. [Main track No Lead Guitars / Lead Guitar 1 / Lead Guitar 2] or for a dance track [Sub Bass / Kick Drum / Bounce Bass / Everything Else].
If your mix is already perfect and you are happy with it, then just send it over for straight-up stereo analog mastering. We will treat your mix like a queen, pamper it, give it some love, fatten it up, polish it shiny, make it sound expensive (but it won’t cost you too much). Fire it over. and we will deliver your awesome results.
Now you know what approach would suit your music best, upload your files and we will work some magic on your mix, and deliver you that pro sound you crave.
If you want to order stem mastering, simply choose “stereo mastering”, and add the number of stems you require using the “add stems for stem mastering” product.
In this day of the disposable digital-only single culture, the release of a proper, full album is a thing of beauty. An album remains the best place to showcase your musical works and demonstrate who you are as an artist.
Our album mastering service is where we really demonstrate our skill too. Mastering an album requires subtlety, intuition & a certain sprinkle of black magic that can only come with plenty of experience.
Even if you have a mixture of soft & heavy songs on the album, the end result must make them flow perfectly together, & smooth out any discrepancies between mixes. This must be achieved while keeping your original preferences & ideas in mind.
Highly dynamic, subtle music must be blended flawlessly & sensitively into an understated work of art. By contrast a bass-heavy, banging album needs to hit the listener hard and loud all the way through. The skill comes in minimising the compromises needed on each track to join-up different tracks naturally. A compilation album is the most extreme example of this problem, but most albums have some variation that needs smoothing out.
Be Beyond Binary – Feel The Music In All Stages
Whatever the music needs, an experienced mastering engineer can intuitively make it happen – they must feel the vibe first to know the best approach to master an album!
The best album mastering service is a human expert. Mastering an album is not a “1-size fits all” task that can be properly achieved with technical metering alone. It’s important to trust your gut – where the music is felt.
No A.I. online mastering service (like eMastered or Landr for example) can actuallyfeel music in the same way as you the artist did when creating it – by definition A.I. automatic mastering can only ever see it as digital binary code. Musicians think and feel beyond binary.
A.I. online mastering is getting better, but there’s a big difference between an unfeeling computer algorithm making decisions based only on maths, Vs a human music lover with soul thinking “that 2nd guitar riff is fu**ing wicked – I’ll bring that out!”.
Analogue hardware is another essential part in achieving next-level sound quality across your album. Especially if the track was produced 100% “In the box” as so many are these days, a lovely mastering-grade analog tube EQ for example, can enhance it sweeter than any plugins could, and bring a certain “magic” to the sound that is still not-quite “there” yet with even the best plugins.
Your finished album should sound cohesive, level matched & with appropriate pauses between tracks (or seamlessly if you prefer). Softer songs shouldn’t feel overly pushed, and banging tracks should feel fat and hefty – and most importantly should both sound “right” when played together. This is where experience comes in.
Dynamic range won the loudness wars – celebrate!
Mastering in 2022 is a little different to a few years ago. Physical CD releases are less common every day, and streaming services are using sophisticated auto-volume levelling to even out playback between songs.
This means that trying to max out your tracks to compete for the ultimate perceived volume blast is not as important as it used to be (although we are fully equipped to max out the volume if you want).
Depending on the genre of music, you may prefer the sound of a more dynamic, quieter master which can sound punchier and more dynamic on streaming services than a super-compressed crunched master. Most music sounds better with more dynamic range. Also with services such as Spotify Loud, listeners have a certain amount of control over the perceived loudness of playback.
Of course many electronic genres and heavy rock styles just sound fatter with a more pushed, louder master – and it is what’s expected from the listener. There is a lot of well-meaning pressure from some places not to push your music to an extreme level, but in the real world a heavy dance track finished to the suggested -14LUFS will simply sound weak in comparison to similar tracks, even with volume levelling. This is a slightly controversial opinion, but a realistic one. Looking at the vast majority of big dance and heavy rock tracks released, they are finished much louder than -14LUFS, and everyone loves it.
So really the best choice is what is right for your genre of music AND your intention as an artist. As an experienced mastering engineer I know immediately what is the best LUFS to master an album.
These auto-volume levelling systems are only going to get better, so it really makes sense to master your music for ultimate sound quality for your individual album and genre, not just maximum volume for the sake of it OR stick rigidly to a LUFS number without taking into account the needs and expectations of your genre. We recommend this approach – if you have other ideas, we are happy to oblige you.
It’s important to finish the album slightly differently for a vinyl press run too, so the vinyl version translates well in keeping with the version finished for digital. There are a few key differences in the mastering finish if it’s going to be pressed on vinyl to avoid problems with the cut, and make it sound great. Often using masters that have been finished for digital use will lead to a less dynamic vinyl cut, and not “kick” as hard as you’d hoped. We recommend getting dedicated pre-vinyl optimised masters in the same session (for only £10 each).
If you are having a CD run made, you can then optionally deliver a DDP file to the pressing plant. A DDP is like 1 special zip file with everything needed to make a CD, with all your ISRC codes, credits and title metadata embedded. This is not essential, but some pressing plants request them, and it is the neatest, most secure way to deliver your album.
Let’s Go Far Out For A Moment
Loz (our mastering engineer) is a zen practitioner and generally esoteric chap. He uses barebow archery, meditation and other ways to clear his headspace when the computer gets too much, and comes back to the job with fresh perspective and clarity.
We feel this gives us an edge which, in our opinion, helps make us one of the best mastering services around (especially when you consider our highly competitive rates). These visceral approaches really come into play when finding the correct natural point in an album to start work from, and in the final levelling and “tying it all together” thus making the final result flow together beautifully (spoiler alert: you can’t just rely on a LUFS meter to level out an album properly).
Trying not to be too much of a hippy about it, but perhaps music is a tangible expression of the living, all-connected energy of the universe, and when musicians are totally buzzing during a recording, they are channelling that energy during their flow state – reflecting their synergy with the universe at that time. That’s when a track turns from good to awesome.
When the hairs on your neck stand up and you feel your blood run cold from hearing your great new song on a fresh head, or you just know that this take is “the one” while you’re recording it – that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what needs to be channelled during mastering an album. Why throw all your magic to an A.I. tech company’s cash-cow, (essentially just running your music through a meter-adjusted plugin preset chain) just to save a small amount of money right at the end of your creative process – one of the most crucial stages. Get a human expert instead who can feel your music.
Fat As Funk – Est. 2006. – Album Mastering Experts
Fat As Funk offers great rates on album mastering, & you can order with confidence knowing that your carefully crafted studio mix will stand up as a complete work you can be proud of.
You can try our online mastering free. Upload your track today for a free stereo mastering demo!
If you want to test our stem mastering before committing to a full analogue mix+master, you can buy some stems and try it at a greatly reduced cost! (Stem mastering is like a mini-mix+master).
We usually hit the sweet-spot first time, but rest assured that if you feel any adjustments are necessary, we will gladly tweak our work for free. We insist on our clients being thrilled with their masters, as we want you to tell your friends how pleased you were with all aspects of our work. If you’re happy with your album, we’re happy.
We would love to transform your recordings into a record! Try us today and level-up your sound!
Humans are the natural choice to master your music – A.I. bots are getting better all the time, but they can’t feel the rush of a hot performer, or the anticipation of a bass drop. An A.I. bot will never shed a tear when the violins rise up, or a surge of energy deep within them from a wicked riff. You can… We can.
Mastering bots don’t have the soul that your music does. Hire a human for this crucial last stage.
You cantry online mastering for zero cost (from a human expert), with no obligation to buy. We want to make your music sound amazing.
There’s nothing to lose, and the potential to make your music sound nice and expensive, for free!
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