I got in a bit of a discussion today about the origin of the word STEM.

I personally believe it comes from a combination of STEREO MASTER = STEreo Master = STEM.

My coworker thinks that's bunk because 5.1 Stems are still called Stems, and they're 5.1. So, it's just a different use of the word Stem which means branching off from something.

Does anyone know the actual origin of the word "Stem" as we use it in mixing?

I googled and I googled and I googled and now I'm all googled out. I couldn't find it.


  • Ryan

7 Answers 7


Interesting question... I'm not sure about STEreo Master, because that sounds a bit misleading. In my head, a stereo master is the completed whole program; in stereo.

In my head it's a bit metaphorical; like stems on a plant. Mixers can be poetic too, can't they?

That's all i got.

  • Wow thanks guys. I was dead-wrong then. I wonder where I read that Stereo Master nonsense.
    – Utopia
    Sep 18, 2010 at 20:39
  • My teacher was a USC grad. He used the exact same explanation of "stem." Sep 19, 2010 at 1:48
  • @Ryan Not your fault; there's so much bad info out there on the interwebs. I'd still like to know who coined the term... I'm gonna take a guess and say it was first used in the '70s and LSD was involved. Sep 19, 2010 at 3:11
  • @Roger A sound engineer told me he was mixing a band in the 70s and they had lines on the mixboard and someone walked in with sheet music and slammed it down on the board and blew the blow all over the mixboard and into the channels and they cleaned it and literally hung the NEVE channels out to dry outside!
    – Utopia
    Sep 19, 2010 at 4:08
  • 1
    Definitely the plant analogy, that's how I've always perceived it. After all, as long as you know what it is, you don't need to know why it is :D Sep 20, 2010 at 15:58

I have always thought of stems as a reference to plants. The branches (tracks) are being mixed down into fewer units of greater density and more weight.

  • Thanks - I don't know where it was I read that it was from Stereo Master. That's wacky!
    – Utopia
    Sep 18, 2010 at 20:39
  • Actually there was a thread a while back on Gearslutz I think, asking that very question, and indeed that definition (STEreo Master) did come up. It's one of those terms whose real origins have been lost - kinda like MOS...
    – Sonsey
    Sep 19, 2010 at 0:22
  • @Sonsey Isn't MOS "Motor Only Sync"? From the old days, meaning only the camera's motor needed to run in sync or something like that. filmsound.org/terminology/MOS_Thread.txt Sep 19, 2010 at 3:08
  • 3
    For MOS, I've also heard "Mit-Out-Sprechen" (broken English/German for "without speech"), "Mit-Out-Sound," and my favorite, "Mixer Out Smoking." :)
    – Tyler
    Sep 19, 2010 at 17:54
  • 1
    I've always heard that MOS stood for "mit out sound". Something one of those hot commodity German directors might have said in the early thirties with their newly acquired English. They knew "ohne Tone" would not be understood by the Hollywood crew but couldn't remember how to say "with". It probably became a joke and quickly abbreviated shorthand, just like FX, Mvmt, MX, FS. If only we knew who said it first. F.W. Murnau, please call your office.
    – william3
    May 23, 2012 at 17:10

I agree with the rest, with the origin definitely pertaining to a plant reference. Just called my old teacher to get the answer. He had to send out stems when he worked on Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.


Ain't it like a part of something. In music you can have the violins stem, bass stem, woodwind stem etc. So in film industry it means a part of the whole mix, like dialog stem, effects stem and music stem...

Just guessing tho as I'm not a native English speaker:) But here in Finland anyways we use the word stem like I described above Bye / Tumppi


I always presumed it was metaphorical. Like the plant explanation above


I find it tricky to judge those things without having a proper source. So anything is possible. But from all the versions so far the plant analogy seems to convince me most.

I'm not a English native speaker so I had an explanation of myself until now. I find that definitions of the term stem get more and more varieties. For me the stems are the separated elements that if combined at unity gain will result in the final mix. (in an ideal world, without final touches during the printmastering) So the term for me refers to the elements (dx,mx,fx,...) the mix stems from in the sense of originates from.

Sure the term is used in earlier stages of the production process. Which is why personally I would either refer to production stems or (my preference) make a distinction between stems, mixdowns, bounces, subgroups and predubs or whatever you want to name it.

just my two stems


Necrobump, but this is what google shows looking for this The process seemingly originated in Germany. Stimme is the German word for voice. In Dutch its Stem. Seems like a much more likely etymology for something that is commonly mono and originated in the mono days. Was hoping to find more info somewhere

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