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Native Instruments Looks To Shake Up Digital DJing With New Stems Audio Format

Native Instruments are set to shake up the digital download market and end the ‘Do DJs just press play?’ argument once and for all.

There’s a new music format on the horizon, and it goes by the name ‘Stems’. Actually that’s a little misleading, because the format isn’t really new – it’s mp4, which is a software container that stores files. It’s been around for donkeys, and it’s mainly used for storing videos side by side with subtitle tracks, or for storing audio in its M4A alias. What’s different about this iteration is that there are numerous audio files in the same container, and they comprise the individual elements of a song.

Anyone who has ever sent a track off to the mastering house will know about the concept of ‘stems’. A stem is a grouping of tracks from within a project that have been bundled together and rendered as one. Typically these groupings represent the basic constituents of a track – drums, bass, synth and vocals, for example – and the idea behind rendering them separately is that the mastering engineer has more control over the individual elements of the track when he/she is polishing the mix.

“infinitely more scope to remix on the fly, play with different elements of a track, live sample”

Of course, if the end-user – namely the DJ – were to have access to these stems, they’d have infinitely more scope to remix on the fly, play with different elements of a track, live sample… applications that go way beyond the usual EQ and compression polish of the mastering house (don’t worry, I’m aware that this statement dumbs down the role of a mastering engineer somewhat – I’m fully aware that it’s a phenomenally skilled job, and truthfully, I’m very envious of their trained ears, those hyper-attuned freaks of nature).

The boffins over at Native have decided to take the idea of stemming and make it easily available to the masses. Using the mp4 container they’ll bundle up 4 different stems, with a fifth file comprising the mp3 you’d usually buy (or more realistically illegally download). This mp4 can then be opened in two ways – firstly, the same way a regular mp3 would be opened, by dropping it into iTunes, a CDJ, and so on. Alternatively it can be opened by dropping the mp4 into any Stems-ready software, which will take the 4 stem files and open them on separate tracks. This is very similar to Traktor’s ‘Remix Decks’, with the key advantage that it’s way less fiddly and completely open-source.

“The extra layer of complexity is there whenever you want it.”

I mean, let’s have a think about some of the drawbacks of Remix Decks. There’s basically no content out there ready to just load up and use, leaving you to mess around chopping up your own samples, then when you drop them on top of normal tracks everything starts to sound soupy and cluttered… the Stems approach solves this – loads of huge labels are already onboard to release in the format, and because you’re manipulating different elements of a track you’re not overloading the sound. Maybe all you want to do is add a cheeky flanger to the synth line, that’s cool. Maybe you don’t want to mess with the track at all – also cool. Maybe you want to go full-on, Beatmashing and splicing things right down to micro-glitch level – still cool, although this one is audience dependant. The extra layer of complexity is there whenever you want it.

And don’t forget the open-source aspect. That’s huge. It’s a big move for a company as massive (rimshot) as Native to develop something like this and gift it to the world. It means all your favourite DAWs have the possibility of working with the format, and indie developers can get in on the act too. It also gives the format much more of a chance to stick, as it’s not boxed into a corner by proprietary restrictions.

“There’s a whole new subset of possibilities opening up with the advent of this format.”

Digital Djing has always had a reputation as easy, the cheat’s version of spinning vinyl. This step in the evolution of the digital format has the possibility to open up a divide in what it means to DJ digitally, and to cement the idea that digital DJing is well on its way to becoming a completely different art form to that of the vinyl or CD based DJ. Sure, it’s easier to sync a digital set. But how deep can you really go with one stream of audio on that CDJ? There’s a whole new subset of possibilities opening up with the advent of this format.

Here at HBF we’ll be looking to give you a hands-on review as soon as we can, and we’ll let you know if the substance matches the hype.

More info: http://www.stems-music.com/

Labels that have already thrown their weight behind the format include:- 50 Weapons, Abstract Architecture, Autofake, Baroque Records, Black Hole Recordings, BluFin, Cadenza, Cr 2 Records, Deeptown Music, Dimmak, EPM, Factor City, FLASH Recordings, Formatik Records, Get Physical, Ghostly International, Green, Herzblut Recordings, Hotflush Recordings, Hydrozoa, Hypercolour, InFiné, Intec, KD Music, Kling Klong, Lapsus Music, Large Music, m-nus, Manufactured Music, Milk & Sugar, mobilee, Monaberry, Monkeytown Records, Moon Harbour, Myth Music, Noir Music, Objectivity, Octopus Recordings, Ovum Records, Pild Records, R&S, RAM Records, Rejected, Room With A View, Sci + Tec, Simplify Recordings, Shogun Audio, Spektra Recordings, Spinnin Records, Systematic Recordings, Toolroom Records, Upon You Records, Watergate Records.

James Brown

is a musician/producer from the north-east of England, now residing in a charmingly frenetic area of north London. He is generally engrossed in music production under his Plainview moniker, and has a soft spot for old-school sci-fi novels with badly drawn covers. You can find him out and about in Dalston and Stoke Newington most weekends, or Djing at his residency for club night French Cafe. Feel free to contact James at james_philip_brown@yahoo.co.uk