Changes in music arrangement, use of stems

September 7, 2016

group of acoustic musicians playing - music party at the bearcaveOn our last two CDs — Beartracks: Journeys and Beartracks: Friends — we recorded different parts of the CD with relatively little arranging[1] being done prior to the mixing process. I felt the limited predefined arrangement of the songs would give the musicians freedom to improvise, enrich, and apply their own unique styles and takes on the song in order to make the songs more unique and rich. The downside to this approach is that it places a great burden on the studio engineer, who then has to to wade through large numbers of stems[2] to find the best ones to use. While this approach allows a particular tune to expand greatly in the mix and often move to places not originally planned, it puts great pressure on the engineer, making his job much longer and more complex. Given the way our studio is structured, putting this responsibility on the engineer — who works only one evening per week — slows down the whole process.

We are planning to make at least some simple arrangements prior to any future recording. Once we have recorded the stems, we plan to go through the stems eliminating ones that have problems. This minor change should greatly improve the movement of tunes through the mix process.

mandolin - music party at the bearcaveWe also feel that arranging prior to recording should improve the integrity of process, allowing the artist to play against the other musicians in a final form. This will require artists to return to the studio after all the leads are recorded to play backup to the lead. In some cases, where the artist is extremely busy and scheduling a second recording session very unlikely, we may have to record the leads and backups at the same time. Gretchen Priest-May is one person that we feel very comfortable doing this approach with, as she has an uncanny sense of knowing where the lead will be played and providing backups that work with a variety of leads. Reality sometimes forces compromise on the most well-intentioned plans.

We will reevaluate this new process while creating our third CD. At that time we will write a follow up post evaluating how effective the changes were.

Notes

[1]Music arrangement in music production

In music production, the arrangement of a musical composition is a reworking of a piece of music so that it can be played by a different instrument or combination of instruments from the original. For example, a song written for one voice with piano accompaniment might be arranged so that it can be sung in parts by a choir, or a piece for violin might be arranged so that it can be played on a clarinet instead. The person who does the arrangement may be the composer, or it may be someone else.

[2]Stems

recording music tracks with digital recorderIn music production, a stem is basically a sub mix or partial mix of only some of the tracks or instruments used in a song. For example, in preparation for our new CD, one of our talented musicians, Gretchen Priest-May, came to our recording studio and recorded her parts of a given song. This could be referred to as the fiddle stem of that song.

As an open multi-track audio format, the use of stems enhances creative possibilities in music production. A stem file contains a track focusing on one of the many different musical elements: a rhythm stem, a mandolin stem, a vocal stem, and so on. These stems are then reviewed for possible in the final mix.

The stem format provides the ability to freely interact with a track’s different musical elements. Each stem can be controlled independently to create new instrumentals, mixes, and more.

Resources

Music arrangement

Music production term stem

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