Stems are the parts of a song that make up the whole, and in a studio there may be dozens of them. But in DJ software, “stems” describes usually four parts – vocals, drums, bassline and melody – that some modern software can let the DJ isolate or remove from their music in real time.
The ability to do this – especially to separate the vocals (or “acapellas”) from the instruments – is a bit of a holy grail for many a creative DJ. And since a year or two back, it has become a reality.
Read this next: DJ Jazzy Jeff’s 3 Tips For DJing With Stems
First Algoriddim added it to its djay Pro AI macOS and iOS software (they called it “Neural Mix”), then Virtual DJ literally a day later announced it in its own platform, bringing it to Windows users as well as Mac for the first time, and then Serato recently announced a beta, with some really exciting forthcoming stems-enhanced hardware from no lesser than Rane.
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But which is best? Firstly, don’t think of this as a definitive review. Both the Virtual DJ version we are about to talk about and the Serato take on it are in beta, Rekordbox hasn’t gone near it yet despite its developers Pioneer DJ being the biggest name in DJing, and that much-anticipated Rane hardware isn’t here yet. Rather, treat this as a “state of play”, and our thoughts on the three platforms as of now, November 2022.
With that said, let’s find out who is currently ahead…
Which Is The Best DJ Software For Stems In 2022?
So, Virtual DJ vs Serato vs djay Pro AI – which one wins? Let’s find out…
Ease of use
- Serato – Serato is famously easy to use, and so it is with its Stems beta. If your gear is compatible, you just switch out a pad mode (eg the sampler), and you get simple, great sounding, easy on/off buttons for the available stems, plus some “done for you” FX
- djay Pro AI – Again, these are pretty easy to use. The software is not as tightly integrated with available DJ hardware and you may want to do some mapping to get the controls how you want them, but it won’t trip up most DJs
- Virtual DJ – Virtual DJ is fiddly, and so it is with its Stems, which is a product of its stems being powerful and flexible, and both its v1 and its v2 stems being available to DJs. Virtual DJ users will be used to getting under the bonnet with their software and reaping the rewards due to that, but the learning curve is steeper for the uninitiated
- Virtual DJ – It might not be the easiest to get your head around and set up, but that’s partly because it’s the most powerful. You can separate up to five stems (only Virtual DJ gives you a hi-hats separation), and configure it in all kinds of ways both with your pads and your EQs. It also has comprehensive mapping
- djay Pro AI – You get two, three or four stems to choose from when setting up to suit your needs, and can use both the EQs switched to stems mode, and the performance pads to control them
- Serato – Just performance pads, just four stems, plus some effects (to be fair, you do get a bit of flexibility on how the effects work). But generally, Serato is going for immediacy over lots of choice for the DJ, hence its stems are the simplest
WINNER: Virtual DJ
- Virtual DJ – Whether you have an old laptop or a powerful modern one, and no matter what DJ gear you use, Virtual DJ has a flavour of stems that will work for you (you can use v1 and v2, depending what works best with your laptop). Its software is famously compatible with just about all DJ gear, and so is its stems
- Serato – Serato’s stems work fine with Mac and Windows, and upon actual release (ie when it comes out of beta), it will work with most modern-ish Serato-licensed hardware. Serato has designed its stems to play nicely with older computers too, so as long as you have hardware that already works with Serato, you should be fine
- djay Pro AI – It’s only for Apple, so Windows/Android (the majority of DJs) can’t use it, period. However, in its favour, djay Pro AI will let you DJ with stems on an iPad or iPhone, which is crazy. But overall, the software is “pain-free” compatible with less hardware than the others, hence it is last in this list
WINNER: Virtual DJ
Compare the platforms yourself
In this video, I give you a direct audio comparison of Virtual DJ, Serato and djay Pro AI, with selections from dance, hip hop and rock music.
- Virtual DJ – Virtual DJ’s Stems 2.0 blows the rest out of the water. Maybe not surprising as it is the most recent, but for both clarity and separation, it wins. We did feel that maybe it lacked a little dynamic range when stems is switched on but all the stems are playing… but overall, it’s a clear winner
- Serato – Serato is a decent second, again, it is only a couple of months old, so you’d expect it to sound pretty decent. Until Virtual DJ Stems 2.0 came along it wowed us, but it is currently just not quite as good-sounding. Over to you, Serato engineers…
- djay Pro AI – It may be a little unfair to run this test now as djay Pro AI’s Neural Mix stems is neither new nor updated recently, and it shows – it is the muddiest and least defined, with the most “leakage”, out of the three
WINNER: Virtual DJ
So Virtual DJ is our overall winner. You can try the early release beta by using these links, for Mac and Windows. Serato is also still in beta (get it here), and djay Pro AI is and has been available in your Apple app Store for a $49 a year subscription.
The truth is that this is a rapidly improving area. We fully expect djay Pro AI to come back strong, Serato to keep tweaking to get closer to Virtual DJ, and so the wheel keeps on turning.
The big one will be Rekordbox. If and when it decides to take the plunge, Stems will be truly mainstream, but the next big question is: Will it truly catch on? Or will DJs prefer to use their stems features when preparing sets, and do the actual DJing the way they’ve always done?
Time will tell – but you can rest assured we’ll be here to teach, advise and share what we are learning with you all the way!
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