Stem separation is the new player in town at the moment, and it’s helping DJs and producers to become even more creative.
Things are moving very fast at the moment, but before I delve into the lowdown on stems, let me first be clear that most DJs and producers and musicians are using technological advances in one way or another anyway, unless they are simply beatboxing/singing acapella or beating a stick off a stone.
The technic turntable, which became industry standard for DJs the world over, was but one of these incredible advancements, but don’t forget that the first phonograph was invented about 150 years ago. Microphones, headphones, tapes, records, CDs, synthesisers, Samplers, Pro tools, mp3s, ipods and the internet itself, are just a few of the things which helped change the game for, and even as I write, there are new gadgets and products coming on the market.
Stem technology is helping revolutionise DJing and production in a way that goes hand in hand with many of the changes that have happened in the modern digital era. Explaining this in simple terms, the last 20 years or so have changed things up dramatically. During the 90s, young DJs like myself would have played records in clubs and radio on two Technics turntables and a mixer. CD decks were soon about too but when Pioneer invented the CDJ, these decks suddenly replicated the turntables in most ways, and DJs could scratch and mix CDs on them. It meant you didn’t have to have every rare vinyl track to DJ.
By the early 2000s technology saw the rise of virtual djing, and companies such as Serato, Virtual DJ and Traktor created software that meant you could suddenly play music from a laptop hooked up to the technics or CDJs, but with the same feel of DJing on vinyl or CD. A few leads to the mixer and a special control vinyl or CD template that looked and felt like the real thing helped change the game. By 2006 I could rock up to a club and have a choice of 30 or 40,000 tunes on Serato (not always a good thing mind). DJ controllers and those Pioneer CDJs became more and more sophisticated and Rekordbox and other programmes meant that some DJs could literally arrive to a gig with everything on a USB stick. A far cry from the back breaking boxes of vinyl, but for those of us raised on wax, we still continued to play them too (personally for me it’s only practical at special events these days).
The next big advancement is likely to be stem separation, which has existed for years, but which has gathered pace in recent times. Using Serato, my newest DJ controller, supplied by Rane, has got buttons which help separate the key components of tracks in real time. I can thus take out the bass, rhythm, vocals or drums of any tune at any time, and experiment with them in real time as I mix two or even more tunes together. The quality of these stems are insane and the are available to users of Rekordbox and other systems too, depending on what the DJ uses.
We can now get even more creative on the spot live in the mix. It sometimes took me years to find acapellas on vinyl, but now you can create one for pretty much any song in seconds.
As a producer, who uses another Serato programme called Studio, you can sample something and separate out the drums or vocals or bass or melody in seconds too. It opens up a new world and it is great fun. It also brings a lot of great acapellas into play, that were never previously widely available.
Like anything it will be open to abuse, and you will hear terrible mash-ups more than ever, but in good hands it is a powerful creative tool that will make Djing and production even more fun and more creative. I’ve been using stems for about six months now as both a DJ and producer, and I can’t wait to see where it takes our music next!