STEREO MASTERING Vs. STEM MASTERING
- Which is better?
By Jeremy Chua
The answer to whether stereo or stem mastering is the better process is – neither, but which is better for your project? Let’s break down the main differences between the two and why you might choose one over the other.
What’s the difference?
The differences between stereo and stem mastering lie only in their process. While the mastering engineer works on a single stereo file in stereo mastering, he works on multiple stems or groups in stem mastering. They both end with a single stereo file, ready for distribution and print.
The Stereo Mastering Process
"Do thingsactually soundbetter louder?"
It is important that I firstly explain that stereo mastering has traditionally been the typical process used for most songs.
This is a good time to segue into a short explanation of mastering, in case you are not 100% clear on its purpose in the post-production process. The process of mastering serves two main purposes – to help a mix sound as good as it can, and to meet certain specifications for its intended format. If the latter isn’t done right, issues such as over-compression on digital streaming, distortion on tape, or needle skipping on vinyl, might result. Simple enough, but truly a delicate and intentional process that takes a mastering engineer a lifetime of experience to master (pardon the pun).
While some might view the mastering engineer not having access to stems as a limitation, that is actually far from the truth. This is because a mastering engineer simply does not need to balance the elements in a mix the same way a mix engineer does. Instead, he is listening for overall balance, elements or sections in a mix he might want to bring out or push back, energy from the low end, whether transients need taming, and so on. He might route the mix to analogue gear or apply plug-ins like EQ, compression, distortion, saturation, expansion, imaging, limiting, etc., all in the name of achieving the goals we mentioned above.
The Stem Mastering Process
Stem mastering has seen an increase in popularity over the recent years, but what is the main benefit of doing it this way?
Stem mastering offers more control over the sound and allows for mastering engineers to make bigger and more precise moves, and it is often believed that this results in a better end product. It also gives mastering engineers more room to deal with potential problems in a mix without affecting everything else that lives within that frequency bandwidth.
So then, what are the cons of stem mastering? The biggest barriers are time and money – stem mastering is simply a more expensive and time-consuming process. Additionally, some argue that taking the mastering engineer away from a macro perspective of the mix might result in a less musical outcome; although I’d be quick to dismiss this if the mastering engineer was a professional. It should be noted that stem mastering should not replace a bad mix in any situation.
Stereo mastering might be the right choice if you are 95% happy with your mix and its balance and are just looking for it to be enhanced and ready for distribution. Consider also how complex your song is and whether it calls for stem mastering. Stem mastering might be the right choice for you if you don’t feel like the mix has been nailed yet and would prefer to give the mastering engineer more room to navigate. You should also not be in a position where your budget or deadline is too big of a deal.