What are stems?

“Stems” are all the individual isolated tracks from a recording – the drum part by itself, the bass part, the vocals, the keyboard and so on.

Stems are highly coveted by DJs and remix artists because when you have the individual tracks from a song you have much more creative flexibility when creating your own remixes. You can take a small part of a track and add it to your own backing, or shift the key slightly, or manipulate the audio so that it conforms to a new tempo – one that matches the song you are creating.

When a song is released commercially, all of those tracks are mixed down to a single track and it’s basically impossible to separate the parts cleanly after the fact. It’s a bit like trying to remove the eggs from a finished sponge cake.

If you are a musician or audio engineer and you have access to the original project file from the digital audio workstation that was used in the recording session, then you have access to the stems.  Each of the tracks can be exported separately as individual WAV files and the artist can choose to share the stems with the public.

So what are “Pells”??

“Pells” or “acapellas” or “acappellas” (yep, all of those spelling variations and yes, I’m aware that not one of them is the correct way to spell “a cappella”. I’ve learnt to go with the flow….) refer to vocal stems that have no instrumental backing.   These are also highly coveted. Imagine getting hold of Aretha Franklin’s vocal part for Respect or Freddie Mercury’s lead vocal for Bohemian Rhapsody

Pells can also include the unaccompanied backing vocals from a song and usually have “BV” in the title of the file.

I downloaded some stems but when I play some of them they are silent – what gives?

It’s likely that there is silence at the beginning of a track because that particular instrument doesn’t play (or sing) at the beginning of the piece.  If a vocalist starts after an introduction of 8 bars in the song, then the vocal stem will have 8 bars of rest (silence) at the beginning, before you hear anything.

If you were to drag all the individual stems into your DAW, you’ll be able to see the waveform on each track which makes it easier to know which instrument plays at which time.

Where can I find stems?

There are LOTS of stems available online if you do a bit of searching. However, not many of them are ‘legal”.

The way it usually goes is this – someone gets hold of the stems from a well-known artist (think Michael Jackson, Queen, Stevie Wonder), they upload them to a website or forum, the news spreads like wildfire that the stems are available and musicians scramble to download them before they disappear into thin air.

They often disappear because a record company has discovered the illegally shared files and shuts down the online posting. Then one of the musicians that grabbed the stems before they disappeared uploads them somewhere different and everyone scrambles to download them from the new location.  Most musicians who are into remixing know that these stems are floating around and if they ask enough people, they’ll track them down eventually!

Legal places to find stems

So what if you’d like to try remixing with your students? AND you want to do it legally?

I may be in a minority, but my preference is to find stems that have been shared legally – by the artist themselves, or with their permission. I think it’s better to teach students to look for content that is Creative Commons licensed or in the Public Domain or shared with the permission of the copyright owner.

Here are some places you can legally find stems:

  • Remix competition websites – stems are made legally available for remix competitions but you just need to keep an eye on the competition listings because once the entry deadline passes the download link is usually removed. I like the Indaba Music website (you may need to sign up to download the stems)
  • CC Mixter – this website showcases musical content that copyright owners have shared up front. The remix stems and pells have been shared specifically so other people can remix them.
  • The Internet Archive – lots of public domain and CC licensed material here. You might like to look beyond the musical content and check out some of the recordings of famous speeches. Once they’ve been edited (chopped up, shortened etc) they make good remix material
  • This Wikipedia article lists some works released in stem format

Tip: if you’re looking for vocal tracks then don’t forget to search using all of the spelling variations mentioned in the Pells section above.

The Music Tech Resource Bank – stems for your students

I recently added a new section my online professional development space for music teachers called the Music Tech Resource Bank which contains downloadable resources for you to use in projects with students.  

I’ll be adding some stems (that I’ve found legally!) to the Music Tech Resource Bank and will continue to add to the collection over time.

If you have any legal stems you are able to share with the rest of us, I’d love to hear from you. You can post a comment below.

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