Is it better to mix a song with all the beat stems or just the instrumental already mixed?

Is it better to mix a song with all the beat stems or just the instrumental already mixed?

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Is it better to mix a song with all the beat stems or just the instrumental already mixed?

by Andre Gonsalves

by Andre Gonsalves

We get this question from time to time usually from rappers wondering if they have to shell out the extra cash to buy the stems from the producer or if they can just use the one track instrumental. For most rappers buying beats online, the price for an instrumental is usually between $20 and lower if they’re just buying the MP3 of the beat and $50 and up if they’re buying the beat in WAV format.

The reason producers charge less for an MP3 and more for the WAV version, is because the quality of a compressed MP3 is much less than the uncompressed WAV version and the difference is fairly noticeable when the song is mixed and mastered (for instance you’ll notice the MP3 has a crunchy over saturated sound).

For rappers looking to buy the beat steams as well, online producers usually charge $100 or more for the individual stems (or track outs) and I will now explain from two perspectives, the audio engineer perspective and the artist perspective, whether you should buy them or not.

The Audio Engineer Perspective

As a rule of thumb it’s a good idea to provide all the beat stems for your song. This is because it’ll allow your audio engineer full control over the sound of your song and allow them to fix any mixing issues related to the beat.

For example, it’ll allow them to make your vocals sit better in the mix as they can carve out certain frequencies while boosting or keeping others.

It’s important to keep in mind that most producers have limited audio engineering experience and so there will likely be mixing issues with their beats which can usually be corrected by an audio engineer.

The overwhelming majority of songs released by major labels and for mass consumption are mixed where the audio engineer has full control of the individual tracks. I know this because these songs have very well defined kicks, snares, bass and melody tracks which is very difficult to get if the artist just recorded over the one track beat.

For example, if you need to turn the kick up on a one track beat you only have the option of turning up the low frequencies which isn’t going to be as clean and defined as just turning up the kick track. Also if you turn up the whole beat, you’ll likely drown out the vocals.

However, like all things in life there are exceptions to this rule and in particularly hip hop there are actually many hit songs that are just a two track mix (that is where the beat stems were not mixed individually). This brings us to the artist perspective.

The Artist Perspective

Since I’m also a hip hop artist, I’ve found their are times when I prefer the two track mix over the mix of the beat stems. But I’ve found I’ve had to check myself because this preference is likely due to hearing the song so many times and getting used to all these tiny nuances.

So should you go to the trouble of buying the beat stems instead of just the beat?

In the times when I’ve preferred the two track mix, it was usually only at first. Because when I put the song away for a few days, and gave my ears a chance to rest, I’ll always end up choosing the one with the beat stems mixed. Also if I play the two versions back to back for others, they’ll usually choose the one with the beat stems mixed. When I ask them why, they’ll usually say, “It sounds more professional”.

I think it’s important for artists to not fall in love with their songs because like real love it can severely distort your perspective of that song (just like your crazy ex who you were once madly in love with). Once you detach yourself from your emotions (I know it’s hard for an artist to do), you’ll likely hear the flaws in your mix when you compare it the mix and master your audio engineer did.

What if I can’t get the stems to the beat or don’t want to pay more for them, will my song still sound good mixed and mastered?

Yes. Many songs we mix and master, particularly hip hop ones, have just the beat as a one track instrumental and sound great. If you’re going this route, I’d recommend buying beats online as they tend to sound much better than a beat you’d make and mix yourself (especially if you have limited experience).

Another way to look at this is if you’re just putting your song up on Soundcloud than it’s definitely fine to just have the one track instrumental, but if you’re going to eventually put your song on iTunes or Spotify (or one of the dozens of paid streaming sites) than you may want to get the beat stems as fans will be paying for your product and you obviously want to put out the best product.

Andre is the head audio engineer at ADG Mastering. When he's not in front of a mixing board with his eyes closed, he's having impromptu dance parties with his son and daughter: ages 2 and 4.

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