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Beginner’s Guide: Sidechaining

In the latest edition of our new series exploring the basics of music production, E.M.M.A. tackles the often misunderstood topic of sidechaining, and explains why there’s more to it than pumping synth pads

My introduction to sidechaining was “it’s what they use in EDM to get the pumping effect”, which sounded like the last thing I’d want to do. However, I have realised there is more to it. As well as a problem-solving tool for muddy mixes, it can also be fun and creative. Do I wish I’d known this earlier? YEAH.

If you’ve ever wondered how some people’s tracks have a punchy kick that seems to cut right through the bass, it’s likely they will have used sidechain compression. (If you haven’t already, read our beginner’s guide to compression here). To give space for the kick to drive the track, you’ll want to ‘duck’ the gain of the bass every time the kick-drum hits. To automate this and connect the two elements, in the compressor settings on your bass synth select the ‘sidechain input’ (sometimes called ‘key’) as the channel with the kick to ‘route’ to it. The exact process of channel routing varies in each DAW, but once you have this set up, you can play around with the compressor’s settings to achieve your desired effect.

“I like subby kicks with not much high-end so they often sit in the same frequencies as the bass sounds. I want the listener to feel both,” says producer and Gobstopper Records head Mr Mitch. “If you do it well enough, you can’t hear the sub dip as your brain tricks itself into feeling like it’s still there at the same level.”

Producer and DJ Finn uses sidechaining a lot (see his track ‘RTS’ – “I wanted the kicks and claps to really overcome the sample whenever they hit”). “It’s just a tool you can give one channel to overcome another. I don’t worry about what’s happening technically, I just add it where I want a certain sound to ‘beat’ another in the final mix. As with all things, try not to overdo it.”

So how else can you use sidechaining? Producer and artist LNA, aka Liina, who has a brilliant educational YouTube channel, often sidechains vocals to a reverb using returns in Ableton. “Especially when I want to have the nice wet vocals, but I do not want the decay to be too long.”

“Effects like filters, delays and reverbs can really benefit from sidechaining. In Ableton Live, the Auto Filter also has an option for sidechaining. This allows you to use another signal’s envelope to direct the LFO and Quantisation pulse sound on the filter, and it’s super cool!” adds Liina.

You can create groove by sidechaining a synth to a ‘ghost kick’ or percussion (Mr Mitch calls this “deductive rhythms”). “On my track ‘The Lion, The Bitch and The Bordeaux’, I originally had some claps or percussion playing but it felt like too much,” says Mr Mitch. “So I stopped sending the audio to the stereo out and sent it only to the compressor for the main pad. It allowed me to dip the audio on the pad in a way that added rhythm to the track without adding extra sounds.”

 

“Experiment!” says sound designer Mwen. “I like to see what happens if I use a wild sidechain input source, like the whole drum kit. I think experimenting with sidechain compression is a good way to get to understand how compression works generally because in experimentation mode you’re free to use ‘extreme’ settings for the sake of the creative results.”

Confused? “Start by learning basics,” says LNA. “What is compression, what are dynamics, what is gate and what happens to the signal when it is actually ‘ducking’. Understanding these concepts will really help.”

Want more? Check out previous Beginner's Guides from E.M.M.A. on the mixdownEQreverbcompressionMIDI vs. audio and going from a loop to a finished track

E.M.MA. is a founder of Producer Girls. For more tips and community support follow them on Insta here