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New backward-compatible audio file format can split songs into four tracks

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Melody, bass, drums, and vocals

Native Instruments — best known for its DJ and music production software — is rolling out a new royalty-free audio format that could be a big deal for professional and amateur remixers alike. The format, Stems, can store up to four individual tracks within a single mixed file, which means that different components of a song (the drums and vocals, for instance) could be made available as isolated audio. For DJs and remixers, that makes the task of reusing key components of a source track much, much easier.

That may not be Stems' most interesting trick, though: the format is completely backward compatible, so you can load a Stems song into any media player that supports MP4 and have it play like a normal song. Only when you load a Stems file into an app that specifically supports its advanced features — Native Instruments' own Traktor DJ suite, for instance — do the individual tracks within the song become available.

Not for everyday listeners

The theory is that producers will be interested in upcharging for Stems files versus conventional audio formats, but higher price isn't the only reason that everyday listeners won't want to start using them. They're significantly larger than a normal audio file because each track is stored separately in addition to the fully mixed song, and audiophiles will be disappointed to learn that they're not available in a lossless format. Basically, these are strictly for use by DJs of the bedroom and professional variety — but within that market segment, Stems could end up going big.

Online music stores Beatport, Juno, and Traxsource have signed up to start offering Stems files for sale, and a free utility released by Native Instruments will let producers to create their own. Files, tools, and technical specifications for the format will all launch this June.