The very biggest question anyone new to the community of isolation is "What are multitracks?"
What are Multitracks?
To begin we will dive into how songs are made.
Songs begin on paper, of course, and are then recorded and sent to a studio to be accepted and signed then released. If you are already a signed musician or band your song will be released even faster, and is sometimes written solely for you to perform. When these recording are made, yes you have the opportunity to record your whole band playing at once with a single microphone that is 10-30 feet away. However, most bands would record their songs in a studio way, recording each instrument separately as to be later able to control their volume.
This is how multitracks are made. The bands record their parts separately for the studio or audio masterer to later alter if need be. It's all the same in concerts except a sound engineer controls the volume and sometimes the effects of the instruments via a soundboard. Still they are separated into channels.
What's the use of Multitracks?
When you get the files for a multitrack, it could be just two files. An acapella partnered with an instrumental is in fact a form of multitrack. However most of the ones you get will be separated further. To fully understand why someone would want these you'll need to look at some of the uses multitracks have.
Multitracks are used in music-rhythm games most often. These games include Guitar Hero, Rockband, Band Hero, and many more games that are similar. The games work by giving you a midi track to reproduce on an instrument of your choosing.
As for Guitar Hero, you'd get a plastic guitar with 5 frets (sometimes 10 with the extra frets near the body of the guitar) that you would hold down to prepare a note or chord, and strum the strum bar to play the note or chord you had prepared. If you played the note or chord at the time it reached you, the guitar would play. However, if you missed the note, the guitar would be silenced until you played a note properly.
The mechanics behind this are based off of multitracks. In the game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock you have 3 tracks. Guitar, Bass, and Band ("extras"). Band is constantly played without any silencing unless you change the volume settings. Guitar is played until you miss a note. Likewise with bass. The tracks are all started at the same time and are the same length. So if you miss a note or chord, the guitar part is silenced. On a two-player mode, if the bass player misses a note the bass is silences. The notes/chords only silence the track until they are played properly.
Further explanation? Sure thing. So all three tracks are played at 0:00.00 with 100% volume. The guitar player hitting the notes perfectly would keep all the tracks at 100% volume. If they miss a note, the guitar track goes to 0% volume while the bass and band tracks stay at 100% volume. You would hear the Band track (all of the song except the guitar and bass) alongside the bass both playing at their full volume. Once you hit a note again the guitar track goes to 100% volume. Some games make it so if you miss a note, the next note will be at 100% volume unless you miss it making a very short sounding guitar part again.
Rockband is a game similar to Guitar Hero, except unlike GH3 and its predecessors Rockband has Drums and Vocals as well. It works very similarly except that you'd think there are 5 tracks this time. Guitar, Vocals, Drums, Bass, Band/Extras.
The band track for this game usually contains background vocals, keyboard, synths, extra percussion, the count-in sounds, and like guitar hero if the guitar has a solo, it has the background guitar. There's going to be a more detailed explanation of band tracks below.
Rockband is similar to Guitar Hero in the way that there are notes on a midi track coming towards you and you'd have to hit them. This game lets you choose Guitar or Bass when playing with a guitar controller, and if you hook up a microphone and a controller you can sing with lyrics and their pitch values on the screen, or if you choose to play drums you'll get a similar track to the guitar, but missing the orange note being replaced with the kick drum.
The drums are very peculiar however. Since there are up to 5 tracks for the drums. Kick, Hi-Hats, Toms, Snare, and sometimes Cymbals separated. This makes a total of up to 9 tracks per song. That's quite the isolation!
Rockband 3 came out with a new instrument which only lasted for this version of the game, keyboard. Keyboard was another track added to the multitracks once they were available. It was similar to guitar except it had more notes for the song to silence. However unlike drums, if you hit one note and missed another, it couldn't silence the missed note.
Rockband 3 had: Vocals, Guitar, Bass, Keys, Kick, Snare, Hats, Toms, (sometimes Cymbals) and Band.
Here's an example of the parts found from a song that came out as DLC for Rockband:
The highlighted parts are the drums. 3-parted to Kick Drums, Kit (which contained hi-hats, cymbals, toms, and extra snare/kick parts), and snare. The "song" part is the band track that was talked about slightly earlier. Rhythm is the bass track, and of course guitar is the guitar track.
Not all songs have that much separation, and not all tracks have that little separation. It varies from game to game and track to track.
Rockband 4 was a great game at first. In the realm of people who collect and use multitracks/stems for personal reasons, the Rockband games were a great source. All of the on-disc songs are okay. However the DLC they've released that only works with the Rockband 4 game now (to make them unable to be ripped by previous game-rippers) are a wild guess. You will get either real or fake or a mix of both for these songs. An example would be Toto's "Hold The Line" - If you whammy the guitar or bass parts, you'll hear the vocals and synths whammy too. Meaning the isolation is NOT from the studio (or it is from a Surround Sound mix). So those are useless for stems, but are great for playing the game and being able to play good/popular songs.
Yes, multitracks are useful for more than gaming. In fact you can use them to learn your favorite songs! So long as the artist that makes your favorite songs has an agreement with one of the below companies.
If you look up my name and Jammit in the same search, you'll see a few harsh words towards me. Yes, I should have never gone public with my first method for getting the multitrack files from Jammit. This caused many artists/labels to abruptly end their contract with Jammit and pull their content from public downloads. For this, I do apologise.
Now to explain - Jammit is a company and program that signed with many artists to get their multitracks, and scores for how to play their songs. With this amazing program you would buy a song for $2.99 to $6.99 (from what I remember before I was banned). They had so many artists and great songs to choose from. You would then receive a download that had the instrument part you bought (Guitar, Bass, Drums, Vocals, or Keyboard) and a band track. Most of the time the guitar part would have Guitar 1, Guitar 2, and the band. Bass has a second part only on one song that I've seen so far. Drums have a second part on only two songs I've seen so far. There are over a thousand parts. There are over 400 songs. When you loaded the song (I'll use guitar as an example) you would have on-screen notation or tablature (depending on the option you chose) and you would have volume controls for your guitar 1, 2, and band parts. Lots of the songs ALSO came with the Line 6 setup files so that you didn't have to adjust anything to get the sound you needed to play the song as a cover with your band (or alone). You can isolate the guitar to hear it while you learn it, or silence it to play along and hear yourself.
How does that help with multitracks?
Here's an example of a song fully separated (one with all 5 parts) - Dream Theater's "Through My Words/Fatal Tragedy"
As you can see, there are also 5 band tracks. Creating a final band track is the hard part. The do that you need to import one of the current band tracks, and all the isolated parts except what is already missing from the band track (into Audacity for example). You would then invert all those tracks except the band track, and mix them all together. This sounds easy, but when you try it you'll notice a few errors in the encoding (from Jammit, not the people who rip the songs). This is somewhat able to be removed, however it takes lots of tries with multiple parts like this. Here are the videos explaining how to create a final band track if you have at least two parts (which means two band tracks also).
All of the above will help you get the cleanest possible extras, however they will still be DIY, not official.
These songs cost a lot of money if you get every single one, and Jammit has made so much money off them that they could sign more artists - if I hadn't ruined that by posting a public way to get the stems/multitracks in the first place. That's why I won't tell you how to get them yourself. You'll have to search for them on your own and you'll probably find lots of them ripped by other people so you don't have to.
Yes there have to be more companies using real stems. But the fact is, most of them only get them to advertise the song or artist. This is done by releasing them to the public as remix stems. People will download them, make a remix, upload it, and hope that remix is good enough to win. However other companies get stems/multitracks as well. Radio stations get them sometimes to make clean versions, or to make mashups, or even just so that they can fade one song into the next seamlessly. If you ever start a company that has a use for them, you might get them!
Producers get stems to remix with, and to use in live sets. Mainly it's only popular producers or ones the artists know of that will get them. You can also pay directly for stems to artists and agents some of the time. I once asked a small band for stems and they said "Why don't you go ask Taylor Swift." So I did, and guess what? I got a few great files that I can never share (bound to an agreement me and her agent made). I can describe them without naming them, so here is the description of my favorite - It's a song, by Ms. Swift, that features lots of pop-style instruments and talks about a lost love partner. The file is a mix of said song with multiple parts missing, but a few other parts that never made it to the final cut in there as well.
That was harder to describe than you might think. We'll talk about "a mix of a song with multiple parts missing, but a few other parts that never made it to the final cut in there as well" later on.
Not only gaming and software/learning/companies get stems. Remixers and producers do all the time. It's said in the previous section about that as much as I can, however this section will show you how you personally can start your collection of multitracks or stems.
Begin by listening to remixes all over. This is crucial, because it provides the inspiration behind collecting and using stems. Then figure out who has made remixes. If the remix was done by a very big group or artist such as The Chainsmokers or Zedd, then the stems are probably not going to be available to you. However if it is a name that you've never heard of, and can't recall anything about, then you're probably in luck.
Next you want to try a few common phrases in a search engine. "[Artist] Remix Stems" is the most popular one you can try. Next I would look up "[Artist] competition" which proves useful in the long run because you'll find ones that either ended already (but there is hope for a new one) or you find info about an upcoming one which is always exciting.
Next try the common sites! Remix Comps is the most common used portal to find remix competitions all over the world and even host your own if you're a know artist/group. You can also look at remixcomps.io and then try Indaba.
One of my new favorites that helps new producers out quite a bit is Splice. Splice has everything. DAWs, VSTs, Stems, Samples, Tutorials and more. And, with their Splice desktop app you can make your remix so much easier.
Yes, there are other ways to obtain multitracks and stems. You'll find them on promotional CDs and DVDs and even in movies!
Artists often release CDs that have the instrumentals on them. However Lily Allen released a CD that had a website on it for people to go to and remix her songs. All of this was done as advertisement as are the promo CDs
DVDs are released by artists that have their songs and a bit of a biography on them. If you happen to find the right one, sometimes it has a bit of isolation (not from the below format). Such as 10cc having a section where they talk about how "I'm Not In Love" was made.
Okay not all of them are movies, but some artists release surround sound versions of their albums with the music videos in the background of them. You can extract the 5.1 or (on Blu-Ray) 7.1 audio from these discs and listen in separation.
Disney movies are a great source of this as well. Since the release of Blu-Ray Disney has kept up with their musical movies having great surround separation. In the latest movie (check the date this was written) Moana, the movie even has separation of songs by popular artists. (Makes me want to get the Blu-Ray for Frozen).
And so that is the explanation of Multitracks (and a bit of an explanation on Stems) and where they come from.
More info will be added I'm sure, and some corrected.
Where can I personally get multitracks?
Legally? Ask a producer, artist, or their agent(s) by phone and email. They'll ask for a reason.
Otherwise you'll have some guesswork.
- https://www.reddit.com/r/SongStems/ - Also has stems.
- http://literecords.com/forumdisplay.php?7-Stems-amp-Multitracks - Also has stems.