Want to know what sidechaining is but can’t seem to find the answer you’re looking for? Then you have clicked on the right page!
And before you ask, no, sidechaining is not a gardening tool. Let’s read on…
What is sidechaining?
Sidechaining is the act of making one sound ‘duck’ when an ‘event’ triggers. Or if you want to get technical, it is when one audio signal is triggered or activated by another audio signal.
A good example of sidechaining is when you are listening to the radio and the DJ speaks over the music. The volume of the music decreases and this happens through sidechaining. Therefore, given the example, the sound ‘ducking’ would be the music, rendering the ‘event’ the DJ.
Stick with me.
It can also be described as letting a sound or instrument run alongside another sound or instrument that gives it directions.
This production technique is used throughout multiple genres of music, more commonly heard in electronic dance music (EDM) tracks or techno. Sidechaining is most commonly used for kick and bass and helps to lower the sound of the bass so that the kick has a clearer impact.
Professionals use this technique to prevent tracks from sounding too crowded as it gives clarity to specific elements that may be lost in a track without it.
The technique of sidechaining can be utilized in many ways. So if you have a few minutes to spare, read on to find out more about sidechaining and how it can be used.
Why is Sidechaining So Popular?
Sidechaining allows musicians to turn any sound into music. If you want to incorporate the sound of your toddler banging on pans in the kitchen into music, sidechaining helps you to do this!
Compression in music has been used as a technique for years and is the act of reducing the dynamic range of a signal. Sidechain compression however, is slightly different and happens when the volume of one instrument is controlled by the effect of another instrument. Listed below are some examples (yes, we like to use examples) of when sidechain compression is used.
You may want to separate the vocals on a track but still keep a quiet riff in the background. Sometimes, vocals and certain instruments operate at similar frequencies and can crowd the music and make it sound muddy. Sidechain compression gives vocals clarity and makes them appear separate from the music.
Pump and Duck Effect
This is commonly used in EDM and is identified as a ‘pulsing’ sound. This happens when the compressed element/s is sidechained and as the chosen trigger activates, the ducking effect happens to the sound or instrument that has been compressed.
Sub-bass and Kick Drum Separation
Music genres such as dubstep or drum and bass often use this technique as the tracks are heavily dominated by the kick drum and the sub-bass.
Producers separate the two by using sidechain compression to essentially ‘duck’ sounds of the sub-bass whenever the kick drum triggers. The listener won’t notice that the bass volume has decreased but the kick will appear loud and clear. For some reason, listeners love hearing that clarity which is what makes it so good to listen to!
Many hip-hop tracks use sidechain compression to create a ‘bump’ sound whenever there is a kick. Producers may want to accentuate certain elements such as the bass, lead or chords in order to prevent it from sounding too crowded.
Genres of Music That Use Sidechaining Compression
This production technique can be used in any genre of music but is most definitely more commonly heard in nightclubs that play electronic, trance or house music. The steady pumping of the bass is what keeps the clubbers dancing, and sidechain compression creates those loud ‘dirty’ bass drops we love!
It is not so much used in classical or acoustic music, but that’s not to say it can’t be used.
Maybe just keep those tracks for your own entertainment…
Setting Up a Sidechain
Setting up a sidechain may seem complicated but it is relatively easy and there are a number of ways to do it. Follow these steps for an easy ride!
Manual Volume Automation
This can be tedious but gives you the most control and should be managed with a level control plug-in. The technique is good for raising the sound of certain elements to a level that you are happy with for the final stage when creating the mix-down.
Add a Sidetrack Trigger Chain
Program the pattern of a sidetrack trigger chain into a MIDI channel (use a sampler). Let’s use a 4/4 beat in this example. The audio should be set to ‘sends only’ so that you can still access it through send controls, however you won’t be able to hear the drums playing.
Next, route this sidechain trigger audio to the sidechain input on your compressor. The bassline will now be compressed by the side chain track.
Plugins such as CableGuys VolumeShaper 6 or Magic Core FX volume former allow you to automate the volume of the track’s tempo. This way, you can alter the shape of the curve to exactly how you want it. Just make sure the volume is automated after setting up a 4/4 beat.
How To Sidechain: A (very) Mini Guide
This short guide will teach you how to sidechain using Ableton.
1.Click on ‘Audio Effects’ on the right hand side. Double click ‘compressor’ and drag it down to the ‘Audio Effects’ slot. If using kick and bass, you will want the compressor inserted into the bass channel to direct it to the kick.
2. The compressor has now been inserted into the bass track.
3. Reveal the sidechain by clicking on the triangular image.
4.Once revealed, click on ‘sidechain’ and it should turn yellow. You will now be able to choose a channel using the ‘audio source’ tab.
5.Reverting back to our kick and bass example, here you will choose the ‘Kick’ channel as this is the audio we want to use as an output signal.
6. You have successfully sidechained! Now use the controls to create a smooth transition between the two and perfect your sidechaining skills.
Now that you know how to sidechain, why not include other elements such as instruments or vocals into your mix. Remember, this guide is based on sidechaining in Ableton, therefore the controls and tabs will appear differently in similar programs.
Sidechain controls: What do they do?
Devices such as expanders, dynamic equalizers and multiband compressors use the following settings to control the dynamics of an audio signal.
The threshold of a sidechain dynamic effect is set to the level of the key input signal. It measures the level of the signal triggering the effect. The dynamic effect is locked in when the key signal level increases beyond the threshold level.
The attack time controls how long it takes to essentially ‘lock in’ the effect after the key signal level has exceeded the threshold.
If the attack is set to a lower number, the effect will take place more quickly. If set to a higher number, the effect happens more slowly. You get the jist.
Longer attack times generally provide a smooth level change, as opposed to a small attack time which can sometimes sound a little harsh.
The hold time does just that and effectively controls the time the effect is engaged for, with no need to worry about the key input signal.
It is recommended to have a hold time of between 1.5 to 3 seconds, otherwise the background music may appear between vocals which won’t sound too good.
This controls the time it takes for the dynamic effect to break free after the threshold on the key input signal falls below a certain level.
If done too quickly, the ducked elements will return to their original level too fast. It is best to slowly release which creates a silky smooth transition.
What is a Sidechain Compression Plugin and Do I Need One?
While most digital audio workstations (DAW) provide sidechain effects, many professionals opt for a separate plugin for a more authentic sound. A plugin is specifically designed to create sidechain compressions whereas DAW’s, such as Steinberg or Ableton, are accustomed to a variety of effects.
Creating a sidechain compression effect without using a DAW can be tedious and time consuming. Here are a few plugins to get you started.
This easy-to-use plugin is actually a volume automation device that uses a variety of preset curves to create the ducking effect. With Kickstart, there is no need to send any kind of signal to the input of the plugin to achieve the pulsing effect.
Most popular with four to the floor productions, the one knob pumper is just that. Looking at the interface, it seems pretty basic, but the simple use of the one knob control makes it easy to create perfect sidechain pumping with clarity.
Again, this is more of a volume automation device. However, the Magix CoreFM is simple to use and perfect for beginners. This plugin helps users create beats and rhythms easily as the layout is minimal. Other plugins can be confusing when they don’t need to be.
This compressor is more like a dynamic EQ and can duck an incoming signal to make way for the sidechain signal for over thirty two ranges of frequency. Pretty impressive, huh?
Track spacer has been praised by many professionals and can be used against other musical elements and not just the generic kick drum and bass.
If you don’t want to invest straight away, there are some free sidechain compressor programs you can have a play around with such as:
This is good for beginners as it is easy to navigate and includes audio animations for your entertainment.
While it may seem confusing to look at, Density MKIII is relatively simple to use and has a wide range of controls and effects.
This program is quite complex but is perfect for playing around with a new mix. Nasty VCS is ideal for fine tuning your master track with its many intricate controls.
Again, this is another simple compressor to use, especially for beginners. The compression is managed by the ‘range’ knob and the meter is handy for gauging compression levels.
Expansion helps build a relationship between the kick drum and sub-bass. Usually, the bass ducks whenever there is a kick, but expansion tightens the section.
In this case, the expander is placed on the channel where your bass is. Then, the audio signal from the kick drum is sent to the expander’s key input. Ultimately, the bass signal is enhanced when the signal from the kick drum exceeds the expander.
How Does Sidechaining Help With Masking?
Some elements of music run on the same frequency level. Instruments can often outshine vocals when you try to isolate and enhance them, sidechaining prevents this from happening.
Let’s say you have vocals and a guitar running alongside each other, but you want to drop the sound of the guitar slightly so the vocals shine through and appear louder. The compressor is placed on the guitar section and triggers or engages when the vocals come in. So when there are no vocals, the guitar plays at a normal volume until it is controlled by the compressor when the vocals appear again.
It also allows users to experiment and create unique sounds that listeners become familiar with.
It may sound difficult but sidechaining is simple to use and once you try it, you won’t want to be without it!
Before you go!
So there you have it. Now you know what sidechaining is and how it works. Using this technique is a game changer and will help you to produce music with more clarity and energy.
Have a play around with it and feel free to incorporate it into your next mix. We dare you!