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

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

Whichever software you are using, I can work with you and use my 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).

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

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 Us 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.

See all of the services I offer here and please feel free to contact me for more information.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Fort Collins Songwriters’ Workshop

A songwriting meetup group in Fort Collins, Colorado

Upcoming Meetings

Wednesday March 1st, 2023 – from 5:45pm (for 6pm start, ends 8pm)

Wednesday April 5th, 2023 – from 5:45pm (for 6pm start, ends 8pm)


Fort Collins Songwriters’ Workshop is a free, friendly and productive group for musicians and songwriters in Northern Colorado.

Join us to workshop your latest song, and share your constructive feedback on other people’s work.

We meet the on the first Wednesday of every month at The Purple Cup Café, 1119 W Drake Road, Fort Collins, CO, 80526 (at the intersection of Drake and Shields) at 5:45pm.

How to Take Part

Just show up!

Please enjoy a drink or snack in the café (which closes at 6pm) to thank The Purple Cup Café for hosting us.

Bring along a guitar, or any other instrument that you need to play your song.

Recordings of your track on a phone or computer are also welcome and can be plugged in (or connected by bluetooth) to our speaker.

Please print out 6-10 copies of your lyrics and bring them with you, to share with the group when you share your song.

Any questions? Contact Josh Shirt: josh@shirtymastering.com / 856-448-3941

View this event on Scene Think

Join the Mailing List

We send an email once a month confirming the date and time of the next workshop. If you’d like to get these emails, sign up here. You can cancel at anytime and we won’t share your details.

How to Write and Release a Song & Get Great Reviews

Background / Artist Focus

Tofu Boy is the latest project by our Music Producer and Mastering Engineer, Josh Shirt.

On Tofu Boy songs, Josh is behind every part of the music, from lyrics, to song composition, recording and production, and mastering. Josh also plays all of the instruments in Tofu Boy and sings lead vocals.

His production has convinced uninformed listeners that Tofu Boy is a complete rock band (as in this podcast) and not one man doing everything himself.

In this blog post we take a look at all of the stages involved in making Tofu Boy’s first single Shark Attack – from song writing, to production, to release and reviews.

Song Writing


Shark Attack started life as a stream of thought scribbled into a notepad in a coffee shop in Philadelphia, PA.

The lyrics as they were written at this point had a fast-paced and sometimes irregular style, especially in terms of syllable count. Being a British citizen now living in America, Josh’s words were also a mix of British and American colloquialisms.


Josh searched through a “work in progress” folder on his computer containing musical ideas, riffs and hooks (saved from improvisational sessions on the guitar and keys) and found a catchy and powerful guitar hook, written about a month earlier, pinned with a note that it would make the “perfect opening” to a rock song.

And so it became the “perfect opening” to Shark Attack!

By using the riff’s musical key with the Circle of Fifths, Josh experimented and came up with the chord progression that’s heard in the verses and pre-chorus. Later, to keep things interesting, he added a key change at the song’s chorus – switching back and forth between two different keys for the alternating choruses.

The melody heard in Shark Attack’s quirky vocal delivery emerged quite spontaneously. Josh experimented with different melodies over the new chord progression, captured a few phone recordings of his experiments, and then listened back and chose the best results.


Here is the song’s demo. It shows the bare bones of the song at this point, before lyrical substitutions, a chorus with lyrics, production, mixing and mastering.


Next, Josh work-shopped the song with one of his American friends.

Following his friend’s advice he decided to swap some of the British colloquialisms for more universal ones (Josh performs to USA audiences most often). To give an example of this, the opening line “Do you remember when video cassettes stacked the rack” became “Do you remember when VHS stacked the rack”.

Some of these lyric substitutions also allowed him to refine the syllable count and rhyming patterns in parts of the lyrics, which helped tighten up the lyrical rhythm and flow.

Music Production

The finished version of Shark Attack is a quirky mashup of pop and punk music.

In this section we’ll look at how and why Josh chose to shape the sound in this way. You can listen along to the finished song here as you read.

From Josh’s personal love of Garage Rock, Shark Attack was always going to be made into a badass rock / punk song. It’s also a song with a lot of nostalgia for 1980s, 1990s and 2000s pop culture – and this is how the pop sound came to feature in the track.

Let’s go into more detail:

  • It was a known thing that the intro had to rock! This was achieved by processing the guitar sounds with a lot of distortion, and panning two different performances of the same guitar riff “hard left” and “hard right”. The hook was then mirrored in the bass guitar (a Gibson SG artificially shifted down an octave and layered with a “driving” software synth) and finally, a sharp snare cuts through the mix like crackling lightning – rock intro done!
  • Before all of this happens however, he opens the song with the glitched and distressed sound of a dial-up modem – dropping the listener straight back into 1990s nostalgia.
  • When Josh started building and layering the track around the newly recorded guitars, some pop songs came to mind that helped inspire further production decisions: Britney Spears “Baby One More Time” has an opening piano hook that’s parodied at 35 seconds, and is a song that uses bells throughout to give a bright and chirpy sound. In Shark Attack bells are used in verse three as a throwback to 2000s pop music.

There are many more pop culture references in the cover artwork and audible throughout the track – can you spot them all?


Because Josh didn’t have a real drum kit to hand he chose to use electronic drum samples. This was actually an easy decision because Josh also has a passion for electronic music, and likes to cross-over the rock and electronic genres when he makes music under the moniker “Shirty”.

From his Spotify “Liked Songs”, Josh knew that Beck’s 2018 song “Dreams” made good use of electronic drums while still being an indie rock song. The thud of the kick in “Dreams” provided a good reference when mixing and mastering “Shark Attack“.

Rock and Roll Mixing and Mastering

Mixing and mastering work was completed in his studio, using Ableton Live and Josh’s “Shirty Mastering” signal chain which includes Abbey Road Studio’s Studio 3 plugin and Izotope Ozone.

Once mastered, Josh went on to test the master recording on a variety of consumer systems (including headphones, tinny smartphone speakers and a 2.1 sound system) making subtle EQ tweaks to cater to the widest range of devices while not compromising the integrity of Shark Attack’s “in your face” rock sound.



Shark Attack was released via Distrokid on April 4th, 2021 and it went on to receive positive reviews.

Alt 77’s review especially recognized the humor in the lyrics and the production techniques used to bring the song to life:

“[Tofu Boy] makes good-sounding records, but he’s doing it with a chuckle. And, if you don’t get his humor, as most of us won’t, then the joke is most likely on you. Shark Attack is a nice mix of pop melodies and punk-rock political righteousness. Tofu Boy might just be the smartest kid in the room, and don’t expect him to hold his talent back.”

Shark Attack also featured on Music Injection Blog :

I love how this song looks back fondly on things that used to be part of pop culture. The sound of the vocals is quirky and catchy. Take a listen to ‘Shark Attack’. It is well worth your time!

The JFJ Conspiracy Podcast :

“[Shark Attack] starts off with a real heavy riff and that’s what sucked me into it.”

and was included on numerous curated Spotify playlists.

Project, done!

If You’re Making Music

Josh Shirt is available to work with you – as a sound engineer, music producer and/or mastering engineer – wherever you are in the world.

Josh is our Head Mastering Engineer & Music Producer here at Shirty Mastering.

View his rates for studio work here or contact Josh for more info.

Shirty – “Meridian” – Techno Music Production, Mixing and Mastering – Featured on Acid Ted Blog

Featured on Acid Ted Blog 31/05/20

Our music production, mixing and mastering work on nostalgic techno track “Meridian” was recently featured on “Acid Ted Blog”.

See the blog post here: https://acidted.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/ambient-techno-with-shirty-meridian-techno-ambient/

Running since the early 2000s, “Acid Ted” is a respected electronic music blog which regularly features quality electronic music: from Aphex Twin to William Orbit.

To have us lend our music production and/or mastering skills to your music, contact us to find out more. We can work with you anywhere in the world and will work with you to help you release outstanding music.

Robert Shredford – ‘Shreddy Betty’ – Rock and Roll Mastering and Mixing – Featured in 303 Magazine / Aired on The Colorado Sound

It was a pleasure working with Robert Shredford on their new track ‘Shreddy Betty’. They gave us the stems from their recording session and we created a final mix. After a listening session and feedback from the band, we went on to create their master recording. Enjoy!

Featured in 303 Magazine 09/02/19

Feedback From the Band

Josh is a complete pro and lovely to work with. He mixed and mastered our Robert Shredford song “Shreddy Betty” with amazing results. He really put in the time to understand to what we wanted to achieve with the track sonically, he got immersed in music we are inspired by… and with his vast experience, attention to detail, and talent, he made the song sound badass.

Josh was communicative throughout the process and we are so happy with the end result. His rates are low compared to many others in the area, and he completed the project right on schedule.

Would HIGHLY recommend Shirty Mastering to anyone looking for mixing and/or mastering work.

– Jessi Reed, Lead Vocalist / Lead Guitarist