Stems is the new music format from Native Instruments that allows producers to provide DJs with their tunes in four separate “stems” (ie bass, drums, synth, vocals), to give DJs far wider scope for creative mixing that with just normal stereo files. You can check out our Stems tutorial and full Stems review… but today I want to share with you what I learned playing my first real DJ set with them.
As well as my job here at Digital DJ Tips, I present a weekly radio show for Beachgrooves Radio in Spain, and last Friday I played my whole show with a Kontrol S8 and as many Stems files as I could cram in! Not only was it my first time DJing with Stems files, it was actually my first time DJing on the S8, too…
Read on for my thoughts “from the frontline”. Meanwhile (for as long as it stays up…), you can check out my SoundCloud mix of the full show (as broadcast live in our VIP Platinum Facebook Group – hi VIP-ers!), and also at the end of this piece is a decent chunk of the show on video (apologies for the picture wobble, those subwoofers kick out some volume in the Beachgrooves studio!).
7 Stems lessons
1. I felt like I didn’t play as well, but it was great fun!
Because I decided to take the plunge on Stems in its week of release, there’s a limited amount of tracks available, especially in the genre of tracks I find interesting enough to play on the radio – so to an extent, I compromised on the “strength” of my set to do this.
Also, because I was trying this experiment of playing as many Stems tracks as I could, I got caught up in playing Stems instead of playing a DJ set – not surprising really, because live remixing is truly great fun!
However, having listened back afterwards, I’m actually very happy with the set. As there was so much to think about, I felt a bit disconnected from what the output was (that’s concentrating a lot on all the controls for you!) – however, compared to say the Remix Decks, they really are far easier to get along with.
Lesson learned: Get the basics right and it’ll sound good, but trying to DJ a whole set with just Stems is not usually going to be practical, at least not yet.
2. It’s easy to forget that you’re NOT playing a Stems track
I tried to play as many Stems files as I could, managing 17 out of 25 tracks for my show. But this has a curious knock-on effect: You can easily forget that you’re NOT playing Stems tracks! On several occasions when not paying attention to the screens I tried to knock out say the synth line or a vocal, only to find that I was playing a normal MP3 and it doesn’t work at all with such files (obviously).
Another strange result from this is that you then feel really disappointed that you can’t do that – but the point is that it’s about the right tune for right now, not whether a track is Stems or not. I guess once Stems work beds into your overall DJing style you’ll stop being so eager to always use Stems, but right now it feels like you really want to use Stems all the time, which is clearly not advisable or practical.
Lesson learned: DJing is bigger than Stems (and bigger than scratching, key mixing, beatmatching, etc, etc): No single technique or technology should sway you from the real job at hand, playing great music as well as you can – no matter how much fun you’re having personally!
3. The average person really isn’t going to know what you’re doing
Until there are more well known tracks out there, the average person really isn’t going to know what you’re doing – unless you screw up, that is! I am a professional DJ, but listening back to my OWN MIX, even I wasn’t too sure what was going on at many points – and it was me who had mixed it!
What is true is that some transition limitations of certain track combinations were lifted. For instance, I didn’t have to worry too much about key matching my tunes, because I could strip out key clashing elements while still beatmixing, (however at least one of the mixes in my video would suggest I should have paid a little more attention!) but as I say, this is stuff the end user isn’t going to spot/hear; as far as they’re concerned, you’re just doing “a smooth job”.
Lesson learned: Be bold about playing anything at all that people may know, and don’t be scared to use and re-use any familiar elements you find in Stems tunes. And jump on “big” tunes as soon as they’re available: your job will be to use the format to do something awesome with them.
4. Not all Stems are created equal
The blunt truth is this: some tracks are pretty boring to start with, and splitting them into four gives you four even more boring constituent parts. To be fair, I like music at times that has “not much going on”, for lots of reasons (to bridge styles, or between more “full on” tracks, for instance)… but Stems are relatively expensive, and frankly, the more minimal a tune to start with, the more it’s worth thinking twice as to whether you really want or need a “Stems” version of it.
Because of this, I found the shopping experience subtly different. For example, if I heard a track I didn’t like the vibe of but thought it had a promising vocal, as a Stems buyer, I found myself not discounting it in the way I usually do when assessing whether a track is for me or not. Likewise, to avoid what I spoke of above, I quickly learned to avoid Stems files and just go for the normal version with more minimal, bland tunes.
Lesson learned: Just because you like a tune, doesn’t mean you need a Stems version – and just because you don’t like a tune, doesn’t mean you don’t! There’s a new way of auditioning tunes to be learned here.
5. There are annoyances in the way Stems work in Traktor on the S8
There are things the S8 (and D2) screens do best, and things the Traktor screen does best, and so you’re not sure where to look at times.
Most Stems stuff goes on on the S8/D2 screens, but the best place to see if a file is a Stems file or not is in the laptop library. There IS a whole song waveform on the S8/D2 screen as well as the one on Traktor’s laptop GUI, but touching FX or filters obscures the one on the as those functions’ control panels scroll up. (Plus, no Stems view at all on Traktor.)
Finally, it would be nice if the headphone “Cue” buttons could toggle between “Stems” cue and full cue (so you can preview exactly how the full track would sound), currently you have to hear what the channel is delivering, or nothing.
Lesson learned: It’s definitely worth getting used to DJing with Stems before you play in public anywhere, even if you “get the hang” of it quite quickly (and you will: They’re devilishly easy to get the hang of). That way, you can get used to limitations and find your own workarounds, avoiding panic “on the night”.
6. …that said, the implementation is rock solid
We had an early build of Traktor 2.9 to test Stems here at Digital DJ Tips, and when we were preparing our reviews and talkthrough, occasionally managed to crash Traktor or get some mighty weird behaviour to exhibit (different waveforms and BPMs on each device, for example).
I used the production version of Traktor 2.9 for this live set, but still I had CDJs all ready to jump onto in the studio just in case of issues, and being the realist that I am, I didn’t hold out much hope of it all coming together without a hitch – but it did! For a v1, and despite the things I wish could be improved, Stems, and their integration with the software & hardware are 100% rock solid, so you needn’t worry about DJing with them.
Lesson learned: You can trust Traktor 2.9, Stems, and your Kontrol S8 (and thus we must presume the Kontrol D2 and F1, too): the developers have done good work getting it all production ready.
7. Having challenged myself to do this, I came away feeling invigorated
I’ve been DJing for 20 years, and frankly, when I get to a gig or studio the work is done. Tracks bought and selected? Check. Grids and cue points thought through? Check. Keymixes practised? Check. At times, DJing for me after all that preparation and with my experience to guide me can feel a little like an effortless “victory lap”, maybe just a bit unadventurous.
However, Stems meant I actually had to work really hard for a change, and I mean that in a good way! There were real-time artistic and technical challenges, and as I therefore was forced to put more into it, I felt like I got more out of it by the end of my set, too. Frankly, I felt like I’d worked more than I had in years…
Lesson learned: You CAN teach an old dog new tricks, and for any DJ who’s feeling a bit jaded, or wanting to push themselves artistically, Stems are definitely worth looking at. Put it this way, I’m going to be using them this week, too…
Steve Canueto Beachgrooves Stems Set – Hour Two, 7 Aug 2015
Full show recording on Soundcloud…
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Tracklisting – [S] = Stems Track
Weiss – “You Treat Me Right” [S]
Volkoder – “Sensation”
Riva Starr Feat. DJ Sneak – “In Da House Tonight” [S]
Honey Dijon, Tim K, Jason Walker, Knights Of The Hunted – “Burn” (Step Into The Knight)
Spirit Catcher – “Fast Empire” [S]
Chris Lum – “Big Tool” (Big Tool (Ovidio & AC’s Express Remix)
John Stoongard & Gianni Bini – “Deputy of Love” (Stoon & Bennie Goes to L.a. Mix)
Edwin Oosterwal & Woodie S – “Missing” [S]
Hayden James – “Something About You” (Just Kiddin Remix)
Delgado – “Jack Jack Jack” (D Wants You To Jack Mix)
Mark Knight – “Be Real” [S]
Hour 2 – Video Starts Here
Steve Bug – “Tell Me Why” [S]
Kings Of Tomorrow – “Fall For You” (Sandy Rivera’s Classic Accapella) *Acapella Mix*
Douglas Greed – “Summerless” [S]
Sean Miller & Daniel Dubb – “Sinnerman” [S]
Ninetoes – “Finder” [S]
Pezzner – “All Night Dancing Party” [S]
Noir & Caitlin – “Let It Go” [S]
Banji Boys – “Love Thang” (Cat Walk Mix)
Monkey Safari – “Jorg” [S]
My Digital Enemy – “Self-Inflicted” [S]
DJ Pierre & Supernova – “The Beat” [S]
Total Science – “Positive Vibration” [S]
Spirit Catcher – “Fast Empire” [S]
Milk & Sugar Vs Simon Harris – “Bass (How Low Can You Go)” [S]
This is the earliest stage of the life of Stems. The implementation is still a little clunky (if rock solid), the number and breadth of files available still rather limited. And they’re not exactly cheap, so it’s well worth deciding if you really need a Stems version of that song you love, or the normal one would suffice.
That said, in my view forward-looking DJs should never be scared of technology. Just like other digital innovations such as keymixing, the sync button, multiple decks, choice/accessibility of music, and all the rest of it, Stems files offer something new and exciting, and if they interest you in the slightest, I fully recommend you give them a go.
• Want to learn to DJ with acapellas like Steve did in the opening three minutes of this mix? Take a look at our Acapella Mixing Masterclass.
Got any more thoughts on Stems and the software/hardware from seeing/listening to this? We’d love to know your experiences and ideas, so please share in the comments.