What Are Stems in Music, and How Do I Make Them?

by Josh Shirt, Professional Mastering Engineer, Mix Engineer & Creative Producer

Last updated: April 4th, 2023

Whichever software you are using, I can work with you and use my expert skills to mix and master your music, thanks to stems.

In this article I will cover the topics “what are stems?” and “how to create stems”.

Let’s start at the beginning. When you have created a song or piece of music on your computer it will usually be a set of channels (or tracks) layered on top of each other.

There will likely be a channel for guitar, drums, bass, vocal, and surely many other sounds, too.

When you play the song back, the play cursor runs from left to right, playing all of these channels (i.e. instruments or parts) at the same time, to create the piece of music that you intended to make.

In order to play the song on your phone / Soundcloud / BandCamp, you need to “export” or “render” the audio into a single audio file (the term that is used depends on which DAW (digital audio workstation) you are using).

The amount of time that you tell your software to “export” / “render” (i.e. how much of the arrangement you highlight) affects how long the resulting file is, and therefore what’s included in the audio file.

For example, if you ask the arrangement to begin rendering 5 seconds before the first instrument in your song plays, then the exported file will contain this 5 seconds of silence, too.

Now, let’s talk about stems.

What Are Stems?

Stems are the individual tracks or channels that make up your song, soloed and rendered into their own individual files.

SOLO is usually marked with a single ‘S’, and appears at the end of each channel in your DAW, along with other mixer settings.

Selecting SOLO isolates the sound / instrument in the soloed channel, so that it plays back on its own, with no other channels (aka tracks) audible.

In this example, only the kick drum is heard on playback.

How to Create Stems

Making The First Stem

To make a stem, select an amount of time to render (shown by the dotted line and greyed area in the image above) and SOLO the first track / channel (in this case, the kick drum).

Select “export” / “render” and name your file with the name of the track you soloed (e.g. songname-bass.WAV or songname-bass-tracktempo.WAV).

Once the file has been created, it will likely contain silence at the start, and in this case, with the kick drum, the sound will not be heard until closer to the end of the file. This is correct. When making stems, all of the stems need to be the same length (this is explained in more detail later) so they often contain silence to allow this.

The Best File Format And Audio Settings For Stems

When you select “render” / “export” you will be asked what type of file you want to create, and be given audio settings to select from.

First, decide if you need to export a “mono” or “stereo” stem. Select “mono” if the channel / track appears in your DAW as a single waveform, like this:

A mono audio recording

Alternatively, if your channel / track contains two waveforms (i.e. one for the left speaker and one for the right speaker), use “stereo”:

A stereo audio recording

If you are exporting MIDI (and do not see a waveform similar to those above, but instead MIDI notes), always use “stereo”.

Next, export your audio as a WAV (wave) file, 32bit, 48kHz (aka 48000).

Make sure any option to “Normalize” the audio is turned OFF (If “Normalize” is turned on, it will make every stem as loud as possible, destroying your current “final mix” when then stems are reassembled.)

Making The Second Stem

Next, and this is crucial, keeping the same amount of “time to render” selected (shown by the dotted line at the top of these illustrations), click solo on the next track (in this case, the guitar):

Press “render” / “export” and name the file accordingly (e.g. songname-guitar1.WAV or songname-guitar1-tracktempo.WAV).


Repeat this for all of the tracks in your song.

Finally, solo any “send / return” tracks in your set (these tracks usually contain FX: reverb, delay etc.) and add those stems to the folder containing all of your stems.

Job done!

An illustration of re-assembled stems. Because the stems are the same length they can easily be stacked on top of each other to re-create your song in any DAW.

The Benefits of Making Stems of Your Song

Your song can be re-created exactly as you intended, yet everything is still up for grabs – individual instruments can be adjusted in level and I can use my expertise to add extra processing and FX, to enhance your sound.

Stems also allow people to easily remix your music later, for example if it is to be used in a TV show and a version of the song is required without the vocal, or if another musician or DJ asks to re-interpret your music.

When You Send Me Your Stems

When you work with me through our “Mixing and Mastering Package“, I load up your stems in my studio and export them into a single WAV (wave) file.

I send this WAV file back to you and ask you to listen to it to confirm that nothing is missing from your song.

Once you confirm, I get to work, returning to you a professionally mixed and mastered song ready to release to the world! My clients usually take finished tracks and send them off for CD duplication and/or they distribute them to the major streaming sites globally. I am also knowledgable about this distribution process and I’m happy to share advice and guidance once your music is complete.

Let’s Work Together

I can help you achieve a better sound from your music and I have a proven track record – My work has been featured on music blogs, on the radio and on TV and is highly rated on Google.

You can see all of the services I offer here and there are answers to frequently asked questions here.

Feel free to contact me for more information. I look forward to hearing from you.

Josh Shirt – josh@shirtymastering.com