This Thursday just gone, Native Instruments held a UK national event in several key retailers, giving more detail about the Kontrol D2, and in particular the new Stems technology. The most excellent demo by NI’s Chad Carrier dug deeper into the new format, and showed the out of the box potential for Stems. And not being in front of a laptop or behind a lens meant that my mind was free to ponder the potential roadmap for what I consider to be an immensely important technological step for DJs.
REALLY BIG DISCLAIMER
I must stress that these are my incoherent ramblings honed into an ideas piece. I certainly don’t have any inside information, not have I been prompted by NI to write this. Indeed neither I or any of the DJWORX team have played with Stems files yet. And believe me we’ve asked.
So before reposting or sharing this article, please be aware that this is entirely my train of thought. It would be cool if Stems tech allowed the ideas I’m proposing to become a thing, but don’t go sharing this as some sort of official NI missive, because it absolutely isn’t. There is nothing to read between the lines. Clear?
Just to cover this off again, a Stems file is the master track, plus four individual stems such as drums, bass, vocal, and lead. NI will be supporting this out of the box with Traktor 2.9 (or so we were told at the UK NI events), and the Kontrol S8 and Kontrol D2 are the ideal controllers for this format.
Bar a few notable exceptions however, most tracks aren’t produced with just four individual stems. Even music prefixed with minimal is often quite complex in its construction. So for Stems files to contain only four individual stems in total is probably leaving quite a lot of the individually crafted bits of original music out.
At this point, my brain went off on a sleep-deprived trip. Having been shown so marvellously what Stems can do, my grey matter got to work on what Stems might be able to do in the future.
DEFINE YOUR OWN STEMS FILE
My thinking is that a master stems file should be just that — all stems (not just four) used to create a track be supplied in one big file, which will offer the ability to create your own stem file with just four selected stems inside. The MP4 format is a container that can store considerably more than the four stem limit being proposed in this new format, so this idea is quite possible.
For example, how cool would it be to be able to create your own version of a track and be able to just turn off the drums leaving the rest of the track intact, and then layer another track’s drums over the top on another deck? Alternatively to be able to have instrumental versions of tracks by just turning off the vocal? Perhaps you’re happy to have vocals and drums in a single stem, or maybe very individual parts of a song and not the drums, bass, vocal, and hook.
Stems as they stand will be a click and load thing with no track prep needed, and as such will make them considerably more attractive to more people — it’s called plug and play for a reason. But this idea gives control to you, and for you to decide just how you want your Stems files to be. Choice is good people, even if it does come with the ball and chain of track preparation.
FULL SONGS WITHIN STEMS
Having established that each Stem file is four individual stems, my mind got to thinking about what can be done with that. So instead of individual stems, what about putting full tracks in each stem file?
Because a Stems file loads into a single deck and thus has a master BPM, ideally you would tweak them to be synced and the same BPM within the master Stems file, so that all the songs can be faded in and out at will without the need to manually beat match. Essentially, a Stems file used in this way has the potential to load 16 full songs into a Kontrol S8 at once, with the ability to apply effects and filters to each one. Or if you choose, a mixture of songs and stems.
Just so you know, you can already load full tracks into remix deck slots, so this idea isn’t exactly unproven. But having 4 track loading at once, already synced to each other running from a master BPM is very handy. Obviously the master track will be a cacophony of beat matched noise, but you’ve now got way more music loaded than before. In fact, 16 tracks can be an entire set to a lot of people. That’s a lot less time gazing into your laptop screen.
STEMMED SONGS WITHIN STEMS
Taking this principle just one step further, what about taking the individual stems and creating a single stem with the individual stems laid out one after another?
This could them allow you to fully load up a Stems file with four fully stemmed tracks into a single deck. And if the original stems files had more than the current limit of four stems, you could start getting really creative and complex.
Now there are some serious limitations on how useable this could be right now — for example, how do you find the start of each stem track other than via waveform on screen? Hot cues can be added to a track, but you only get eight per stem file, a seemingly arbitrary limitation that really needs to be ditched. All I see is a Launchpad or Push’s 64 buttons laid out in a 4 deck grid, each with 4 cue point per stem — that’s 16 tracks, all loaded, stemmed, and the start of each stem just a button push away.
Given that Stems is open source, it should be relatively easy for some clever coder to make the “songs in Stems” and “stemmed songs in Stems” a reality. Drag and drop files into… umm… stem cells? Yeah I went there.
A FURTHER LEAP — AUTOMATION
Having all this quite amazing new tech at your fingertips opens up a huge amount of potential for raw DJing, performing, and producing. But the only way of capturing all this is to record the master mix. But to me, it seems that being able to record the sequence of events is probably quite doable, allowing for editing in post. Sorry – camera head on there.
When Serato and Ableton announced their Bridge collaboration, the most exciting thing for me was the Mixtape idea, where all music and hardware actions could be recorded, and tweaked in Ableton Live. So it’s not much of a reach to work out that NI is perfectly capable of doing the same, and recording every fader move, EQ tweak, and effects parameter to a file. This can then be edited in the Maschine software, or if NI were so inclined, created an additional open source Stems mix format that everyone else could adopt, allowing DJs to use Trakor to mix, and any other suitable tool to edit.
Quite a reach there, but that would be a powerful move for NI. Sometimes it’s not about directly monetising and all about effecting change for the greater good. So I’m glad to see NI getting behind it, even if they’re not really making any money directly from it.
If you’ve worked through the whole piece and not just looked at the pretty pictures, you’ll have worked out that most of this is a pipe dream, and one that requires varying amounts work from NI and others to make it happen, and work from you to create the experience you want. It’s also clear that this goes some way beyond playing song A to song B and back again. It definitely isn’t DJing as we know it, and has the potential to energise hardware thinking too.
Never before have the lines been so blurred. Stems are a natural extension for DJs, but also give producers a valid method of live performance, an area where Ableton Live definitely excels, but perhaps isn’t aimed quite so much at producers. So somewhere in the middle is a hybrid DJ/performer/producer type that has yet to be given a name. Or alternatively, why label it at all and just have a bloody good time doing it?
Stems is a bold initiative, and one that has the potential to make more sense for DJs than Remix Decks ever did, and affect real change, and possible even a revolution in software and hardware. But it will require a large scale signup from some big names, both in technology but more importantly from artists and labels. It won’t be enough that unknown artists get behind this format — it’s going to take some big names with big tunes to enable Stems to get traction. Maybe just a couple to start with, but without music that people know being available, everything I just postulated above will remain as nothing more than ideas. This I feel is the area that the Stems consortium really needs to work on.