On track for drumlessness

Monday, 16 March 2020 9:53 am

Need to remove the drum track? We try two more software solutions which claim to do just that.

One of the most common uses of e-drums is play-alongs with popular music, a process that requires drumless tracks. For the uninitiated, drumless tracks are songs either recorded without drums, or, more commonly, with the drums removed.

There are a number of sources of drumless tracks, but most are cover versions with all the instruments on separate tracks.

A few tools have boasted their ability to remove drums from fully mixed songs – and we had limited success in our review of AnyTune (which, to be fair, is not marketed as a dedicated drum removal app).

In pursuit of the ultimate drum removal tool, we tested two newer programs, both of which are touted as track separation applications.

XTRAX STEMS 2 

XTRAX STEMS 2 from Audionamix promotes itself as “a powerful tool for DJs, remix artists and beatmakers”.

Its developers claim the one-click stem-separation application can provide isolated vocals, instrumental backing tracks and even isolated drum stems for unique loops and samples.

The XTRAX workflow starts by loading the song into the program. I tested with MP3s which XTRAX first converted to .wav files. The first time you use the program, you will have to log in – and you’ll always have to connect to the Internet to use the app as the processing happens in the cloud. Once your song has loaded, you select from three separation options – Advanced, Generic or Automatic. I chose the first because it is “30% faster and dramatically improves separation quality when creating backing tracks and when separating lead, background, and harmony vocals into a single stem”, according to the manual.

It takes a few minutes before you have your song split into three stems – vocals, backing and drums.

You can mute or solo any of the stems to hear drums-only or drumless versions, for example. These are fairly ‘global’ extractions which can be further refined by adjusting the separation balance. Here, you can pull off fairly accurate tweaking.

XTRAX gives you a few export options: you can save .wav files of individual stems or the mix you are currently working on, or you can save a Stems file for further editing in Native Instruments and other DAWs.

Does it work? Well, it certainly does, but the degree of accuracy depends on the original track. If you take an instrumental like The Shadows’ Apache, it’s very hard to remove some of the snare rolls and the ride rhythms because they’re in the same frequency as some of the other instruments. Adjust too vigorously and there are gaps in the melody.

A more basic track like U2’s With or Without You works a treat, with the drums removed cleanly, leaving the vocals and backing instruments largely intact – even in default settings. You can hear how well it works when you solo the drum track and listen to that on its own, finding a clear rendition of the percussion on its own with almost no bleed from the rest of the band.

I got an excellent drumless version of Status Quo’s Rockin All Over the World in default settings.

The real test is Toto’s Africa, which is full of percussion and drums, and here it was possible to mute the beats, but only with some collateral damage to the instrumental backing.

So, the bottom line is that anything with a solid, clear beat is optimal – and songs where the drums are woven into the fabric of the music are harder to unscramble.

You’ll also need to plan on doing quite a few conversions to make XTRAX worth the $99 (it was $49 on Cyber Monday) investment. But the good news is that you can try before you buy with a free online trial.

Update: Since our review, Audionamix has released a new version of XTRAX, and I have to say I was disappointed.

In one way, the app is better now – it delivers four stems instead of three, the additional one being a bass stem. The new separation algorithm is a little more accurate in distinguishing between bass notes and bass drum beats, so you lose fewer notes when you remove the drums.

But the new version dispenses with the fine-tuning tool, replacing it with a de-bleed option for each track.

Performance-wise, I guess you’d be happy if you were a bass player, looking to extract the bass line or produce a bass-less version. For drummers, the new version is actually a step backwards. My test version of Africa contained more drum bleed than the fine-tuned drumless track I was able to produce with the previous version. The Status Quo song was almost identical to the previous version, although I was able to boost the bass, which created a fuller-sounding track.

The other big change with this new version is a new business model: XTRAX has moved to a subscription. Where you could previously own the program for $99, you now have to choose between a six-month subscription ($40) or a year’s access for $60. That’s fine if you only need to do a handful of songs in the near-term, but not so great if you’re planning to keep using this for some time. Personally, I’d try to get hold of the old version – especially if you could get it at the discounted price.

PhonicMind

Another option is PhonicMind which last year evolved into a stems maker, similar to XTRAX.

The conversion method is pretty similar, but a bit simpler. You log into your account (this solution also requires you to be connected to the Internet), load your song, hit convert and a few minutes later, four stems – Vocal, Drums, Bass and Others – appear.

Each stem can be muted and there are separate volume sliders so that the mix can be adjusted.

For our tests, we muted the drums and listened to the resulting mix.

Unlike XTRAX, there is no additional fine balance adjustment – although the four separate sliders do give you fairly good control.

Export options include the current mix, karaoke or vocal mixes as MP3 or Stems files which you can import into Native Instruments and other DAWs.

Again, like XTRAX, we got mixed results. On rock songs with clear drum tracks, we were able to mute the drums without losing too much else. It worked a treat on Rockin’ All Over the World and With or Without You. Africa was turned into a passable drumless track, although there was some loss of other instruments along with the busy drums and percussion. Apache was a bit of a lost cause. The heavy snare patterns could not be separated from the backing without losing too much of the guitars.

 But overall, PhonicMind does what it claims, does it reasonably quickly and a la carte pricing means you only have to invest $3.99 if you only need a single song. There are cheaper options if you need more conversions with the Pro Pack of 10 conversions priced at $19.99. Credits last for 12 months from the time of purchase. And if you want to try before you buy, you can load a song and create stems for a short excerpt – enough to show that it works.

Update

Since our testing, a new online track separation app has been launched. Splitter is a Swedish service based on Deezer's open source research project, Spleeter.

Splitter is totally free – and will remain so, according to its developers.

It is simple to use: open the web page and drag and drop an audio file in almost any format in the appropriate box. Splitter then starts analysing and processing the song in the background while you enter your email details (purely to receive a link when the process is complete).

After a few minutes, an email alert leads you to a download page where you can access your project, delivered as a zip file. When unzipped, you will find five separate files (if you’ve selected the five-stem option rather than the two-stem version).

I tested a couple of songs and was quite impressed with the drum isolation. I found Splitter removed most, if not all, of the drum sounds, without too much loss of detail in the other tracks (vocals, piano, bass and ‘other’, which is a mix of guitar, synth and the like).

Unlike the original version of XTRAX, there are no tweaking options, and all you can really do is play with the volume levels of individual tracks in your DAW or audio software.

The service currently feels a bit like it’s in beta stage and is throttled back because of heavy traffic, so there’s a slight wait before you can load a new song. Developers say they might add a few features here and there.

If you only have a couple of songs to do and don’t want to pay for the pleasure, then Splitter should be your first port of call. If you’re lucky and the drums don’t clash with other instruments in the same frequency range, you might get a perfect drumless track in a few minutes.

And one more ...

Also new on the scene is Ezstems.com, which is pretty much the same as Splitter and also free. When we tried it, it was quite new and still relatively unknown, so it was a bit quicker than its free rival