What Are These “Stems” That Kanye West Keeps Talking About?

You can only get Ye's new album via his own Stem Player, which is a surprisingly interesting handheld music mixing board

Kanye West
Ye is seen, outside Kenzo, during Paris Fashion Week on January 23, 2022 in Paris.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Kanye West — who we will refer to by his preferred name “Ye” — made a lot of noise when he announced that his new album Donda 2 would only be available via the star’s own platform, the Stem Player.

Opinions on the new album aside — which continues Ye’s troubling obsession with his estranged wife Kim Kardashian and her new boyfriend Pete Davidson, based on a review taken from a listening party held Tuesday night in Miami — there’s some interesting background to the rapper’s new device and, well, stems.

First, to give credit: On Instagram, West noted that “today artists get just 12% of the money the industry makes. It’s time to free music from this oppressive system. It’s time to take control and build our own.” That’s a valid point about the lack of power and income for artists. If West wants to build his own player and control how his music is consumed, well, that’s not much different from Neil Young.

And the Stem Player of West’s is interesting. The handheld device features a hefty price tag of $200, but it supposedly allows you to customize any song (it ships with your order of Donda 2).

As for stems, a quick lesson. The audio technology site iZotope defines the word as follows: “Stems and multitracks are both ways to break a full song down into its various elements in order to send them to a collaborator.” The difference is that while multitracks feature all the individual elements of an audio production, each with their own dedicated track, stems feature stereo recordings sourced from mixes of multiple individual tracks (so all the drum tracks might be together as one “stem”).

The Stem Player allows you to control those grouped tracks of vocals, drums, bass and samples, while also allowing you to isolate parts of songs and add effects. On Ye’s device, you can control everything via four touch sensitive light sliders; the Player also features a 3.5mm jack, USB-C power and data connection and works with an array of different sound files. While there are apps and sites (like Beatport) that allow for a similar mixing experience for non-professionals, the Stem Player looks like a fun, tactile and fairly intuitive way to remix, mashup or alter music — and it’s also a modestly loud (97db) speaker.

A video review on CNET, while noting the device’s unusual, uh, build (“rubbery, soft, slippery … it feels like a sex toy”), is somewhat positive, the Stem’s minuscule 8GB memory notwithstanding. “Hey, it works, I’m pretty shocked,” says reviewer Stephen Beacham, while attempting to upload and mashup a Drake track. “I didn’t think I’d have this much fun with this thing, but it’s pretty cool.”

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