Stems — open format multi-track songs from NI

Native Instruments Stems MP4 (2)

DJs and producers perceived to be merging together into a single homogenous blob, but the way that they work is however still quite different. Producers craft and blend individual bits to make a track, and DJs take those complete creations and either play them in their complete state, or chop them up to make something else. And today, the worlds of DJ and producers collide with the all new Stems from Native Instruments. And it is exactly what you think it is, and most probably what NI’s #futureofdjing is all about.

We’ve now got a team chat all about Stems right here, but for the official announcement, read on.

There’s some PR from Native, so let’s read the whole lot first:

A New, Open Multi-Track Audio Format is Announced at WMC 2015 in Miami

New audio file format provides DJs, producers, and live performers the ability to mix with a track’s different musical elements individually

L to R: Luciano, David Morgan (Juno), Brian Tappert (Traxsource), DJ Craze, Mate Galic (Native Instruments), Jason Bentley KCRW)

MIAMI 2015 – Stems – a new, multi-channel audio format has been unveiled at WMC (Winter Music Conference) in Miami. A Stem file allows DJs and live performers to interact with different musical elements of a track independently by accessing four different ‘stem’ parts such as the bass, drums, melody, or vocals. This type of mixing introduces new performance possibilities and enriches the listening experience for music lovers. As a premium file format, Stems can also create new revenue streams for music labels and online retailers to grow their business. Developed by software and hardware DSP specialists Native Instruments, Stems is an open file format designed to benefit the entire music industry.

Stems was introduced this past Friday, March 27 at a WMC discussion panel moderated by KCRW Los Angeles Music Director Jason Bentley. Online music retailers Juno and Traxsource joined five-time DMC World Champion DJ Craze and DJ-producer virtuoso Luciano in engaging discussion – sharing their early impressions about the forthcoming technology. The format was highly regarded as inspiring, easy-to-use technology for DJs and live performers to interact differently with a track’s musical elements. Stem parts can be modified independently to create spontaneous instrumentals while effects can be applied to specific parts of the track. Transitions between tracks can be mixed part-by-part rather than using global volume and EQ control for the entire track.

As an open format, anyone will be able to create, perform with, and distribute Stems in any way possible. Producers, DJs, and labels will be able to author their own Stem files using a free standalone application called the Stem Creator Tool. Developers will have full access to format specifications and code examples for them to integrate Stem support into future music performance and production tools.

Stem files use the mp4 container format to store the four individual stems of a track within a single file. This single file can be managed as easily as an mp3 file, which can even be played as a normal stereo audio track with any mp4-compatible audio player such as iTunes. To play with Stems’ individual parts, Stem-supported software and hardware will be required. Native Instruments’ TRAKTOR software will be the first to offer Stem support this summer – opening the gates for further integration.

In the coming months, select artists, labels, production companies and Native Instruments will begin supporting the format step by step. A website containing all technical specifications, source code, tutorials, and downloads will launch Stems this coming June.

The industry reacts to Stems:

DJ Craze

“The Stems format is very exciting to me because I come from the generation where records have 1/Instrumental/Acapella and Dubapellas, so now I’ll be able to get way more creative with my sets and have fun combining elements from tunes I like.”


“The Stems are the most innovative idea for DJing because they push creativity to the next level and they push DJs and producers into a new era for dance music. We are finally to the point where it’s not about playing A with B anymore, but we can take the essence of A and adding C, D and B and splitting this upside down with an absolute freedom of composition. It’s time for a creative era.”


“Stems is just what the industry needed. It will change the way music is mixed down from a producer’s standpoint. It will make producers think more about what they are actually doing when they make music for DJs to play.”


“The world of electronic music is always evolving, both culturally and technologically. Beatport is therefore proud to support the new Stems initiative as a retail partner to continue serving DJs in any format they desire.” – Rich Ziade, Chief Product Officer


“Stems is a truly exciting development for DJ and live music performance. It strikes the perfect balance between simplicity and flexibility, and incredibly, it’s all achieved with a universally compatible file format. We couldn’t be more pleased to give Stems our full support, and look forward to adding the download option to our site in the coming months.”


“Traxsource is 100% behind Stems and we are extremely excited by the possibilities.”

Baroque Records

“We couldn’t be more excited about putting together an exclusive release for this new format, just when we were all looking for the next major step forward in DJ technology, this came along! The possibilities really do seem endless, and with the open source format everyone can get involved. We feel something big on the horizon here.”

Cr2 Records

“Cr2 Records will continue to support the evolution of the modern day DJ. With Cr2 Traktor Tools combined with our releases for the revolutionary Stems technology, our DJ fan base will be able to provide the ultimate in live performance.”

Get Physical

“Remember the days when DJs had to carry very heavy reel to reel tape recorders into the club in order to make their sets special, to play around with basslines and drums and loop songs into danceable tracks? No? Well we do, and we still remember the pain of the physical implication. Hence we think Stems is a great idea to bring back that fantastic tool into the world of DJing without having to carry around these heavy machines!”


“InFiné is music, art, and technology and so is the new Stem format. This is opening new creative doors for us!”

Kling Klong

“We are happy to provide these tools to the DJs who love to entertain with creative sets and play with the music from our artists.”

Mobilee Records

“It was always part of Mobilee’s mission to embrace new technologies and innovations for DJ and club culture. We learned that every generation is discovering music production and DJ performance in its very own way. Stems will be the next big thing to add new opportunities to DJs’ creativity. And the fact that it is an open format proves Native Instruments’ passion for music and technology.”

Modeselektor (Monkeytown Records & 50 Weapons)

“Hi-hat in, hi-hat out, ride in, kick in, clap in, everything out… Being able to break down all tracks to your favorite elements will bring loads of fun!”

Noir Music

“Once you see, hear, feel, and try it… It’s AWESOME!”


“Stem files offer DJs the creative freedom to control different elements of a track, blurring the lines between DJ and live sets. We are happy to be part of this exciting new concept with our labels GREEN and Rejected.”


“We have always encouraged the evolution of DJing, providing an expanding market with the musical tools it demands to make a DJ set reflect an individual’s sound. For us, DJing has always been about owning a sound and style. From the early Hip Hop years of looping the break on 2 decks to Richie Hawtin’s Closer To The Edit album, the idea of creative manipulation has always driven our scene forward. We are once again pleased to be working on a project that allows for this to happen.”

Labels who are officially supporting Stems:

Baroque Records


Cr2 Records

Get Physical


Herzblut Recordings




Kling Klong

Mobilee Records


Monkeytown Records

Noir Music


Toolroom Records


50 Weapons

And there’s an FAQ too:


What is a Stem file?

A Stem file is an audio file that contains a track split into four musical elements: A drums stem, a bassline stem, a harmony stem, and a lead stem for example.

What makes Stems an ‘Open file format’?

The Stem format is open because all details on how to make Stem files and how to play them will be publicly available. Anyone can create Stems without paying licensing fees for creation, distribution, or use.

How can DJs benefit from playing with Stems?

Stems expand DJ mixing and performance possibilities by allowing you to mix with isolated parts of a track such as the vocals, or by applying effects to specific parts of the song. This can make DJ sets stand out.

I’m a DJ but I also produce my own tracks. Why should I use Stems?

You can export your tracks as Stems and play them in a DJ setting with full control over individual parts of your track. This gives any producer-DJ a hands-on, flexible way of playing live that’s exciting for the crowd to watch.

I work for a label or an online music retailer. How can I benefit from distributing Stems?

You can sell Stems at a premium price and create new revenue streams for your business.

What are the benefits of the Stem file format for music software and hardware companies?

You can create new exciting products that will help redefine music performance for DJs, producers, and live artists.

Where can I buy music in Stem format?

The open file format means that anyone can sell music in Stem format. Online music retailers Beatport, Juno, and Traxsource will offer music in Stem format starting June 2015. Following the launch, more retailers will begin supporting the Stem format.

Can I create a Stem file myself?

Yes you can – the technology is free for everyone to use. The official Stems website* will include a step-by-step guide on how to create Stem files.

How many individual stems are included in a Stem file?

The Stem file format contains four stem tracks.

How do I create or edit metadata in a Stem file?

You can create and edit the metadata of a Stem file using any ID3-enabled software, like iTunes for example. The Stem Creator Tool will also offer this feature. However, it will initially be the only tool to allow editing the name of each individual stem track as ‘Drums’ or ’Synths’ for example.

Are there any best practices on how to create a Stem file?

A document outlining best practices for instrument grouping, order, names, colors, and mastering techniques will be available from the official Stems website.

Will I be able to play a Stem file in my audio player?

Yes. A Stem file will play as a normal audio track in any player that supports the mp4 format and follows the mp4 specs. This means you will hear the full track, but not have control over the individual stem parts. To listen and play with the individual parts, you’ll need software or hardware that supports the Stem format.

Which software currently supports Stems?

Traktor Pro 2 (version 2.7.4 or later) will allow you to load and play with individual stem parts. Other software companies can integrate the Stem format into their software and hardware once Stems is publicly released in June 2015. All relevant information and resources for developers and musicians will be available on the Stems website.

Can Pioneer CDJs play Stems?

If the CDJ model supports the mp4 format, it will play back a Stem file as a normal audio track.

Can I create Stems from my DAW?

Any DAW allows you to export grouped tracks such as a mixdown of just the drums, the bassline, harmonic elements, and lead sounds plus effects. Once these four files are processed by the free Stem Creator Tool application, these become a Stem file. Any DAW developer can implement additional Stem features into their software.

I am a developer. What do I need to do to make Stem authoring and playback possible for my software and hardware?

All the necessary information to implement Stem functionalities in soft- or hardware is documented and will be publicly available on the Stems website.

What will the file extension be?

Stem files will carry a .stem.mp4 extension. For example: filename.stem.mp4

Can I decode a Stem file into another format like mp3?

No, mp3 does not support multi-channel audio as required by the Stem format.

*Stems website to launch June 2015.


Sorting this English anomaly, stems are individual tracks that go to make up a song — think drum track, bass track, vocal track etc. Stems is NI’s product that makes stems useable for DJs and producers. Clear?

Let’s be clear — the concept of Stems is old. I seem to remember conversations in Berlin about track stems when we went to see the Traktor Pro launch back in 2008. Indeed, we’ve been actively talking about them for years. But something has happened to make it a reality. And I for one am very glad that it has.

These aren’t samples — this is the complete tracks broken up into four individual parts packaged alongside the complete track in an MP4 container file. I suspect the parts will be down to the artists and record labels. Interesting note about the MP4 format — as a container, it can have any number of audio and video tracks. The four track limit is probably down to simplicity and NI’s current hardware setup. But as a start, four should be enough, especially as this number basically means that beats, baselines, vocals, and hook will be more than enough. But it does open up the possibility to buy Stem tracks with a lot more than four tracks and be able to pick the ones you want.


While it has just been announced, my mind wanders to the technical side of stems. So you’re playing a stemmed track, but do features work with the master track or can you add cues and loops to the stems? Can apply filters and effects to stems or just the master track? Will this fundamentally change hardware to be more desk-like than controller or mixer? The press release implies that you’ll be able to use digital tools at an individual stem level, so time will tell.


Be under no doubt, Stems is about to seriously shake things up in DJ land. But just because NI has announced this doesn’t mean that everyone else will follow. With music libraries still being proprietary and no signs of that changing, what’s to stop others coming up with their own stem format? There’s no doubt that stems is about to change everything, but there’s money to be earned from this, potentially serious money.

Stems makes sense of the S8, and perhaps was a driving force behind the design. But for other software companies to support stems means spending much time coding with no tangible return. So certainly with regards to Serato, I would expect that they’ll see if they become popular (they will) and then make a plugin to support them.

Vital to the success of Stems is CDJ compatibility. Yes, most should be able to play the master file, but accessing and using stems on current CDJs may be tricky. That said, the touchscreen of the XDJ-1000 may well be updated to cope. SO you can see immediately how this announcement can massively impact on the DJ scene.

The unknown variable right now is price. I fear that stemmed files will incur a premium disproportionate to the time needed to create them. I hope that four times the tracks doesn’t mean four times the price. If the format is to take off, let’s not kill it before it gets going by pricing it out of the market. I don’t think anyone expects them to be the same price, but let’s not get greedy.


Youtube and Soundcloud will now have four more ways to throw your mixes and mashups from their sites, and packs of legal dogs will be hunting for the doubtless exponential number of infringers. Now you have access to individual parts of a song, the chances of artists being ripped off have just expanded four-fold. And I suspect that this is one of the cans of worms that has stopped this idea from appearing before now.


Be under no illusion, this just changed DJing. We old duffers craved such things back in the day, but haven’t really taken to using loops or remix decks in the same way. I just want to play tracks, and having the ability to just mix and play is considerably more preferable to constructing complex sets from loops. And now I can, but those who want to continue to use loops can do that too. Everyone is a winner.

Following this is a DJWORX Teamtalk piece, where we share out thoughts on this important announcement.


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