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Sidechain Compression: An Audio Engineer's Secret Weapon

October 19, 2023 
Last Updated on October 19, 2023

Sidechain compression is a powerful tool that every audio engineer should have in their arsenal. It can be used to create pumping effects in electronic dance music, tighten up the low end in a mix, or even add a rhythmic feel to a track. By learning how to use sidechain compression, you can take your mixes to a whole new level. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of sidechain compression, its common uses in music production, and provide a step-by-step guide on how to apply it effectively. If you want to learn more about this powerful mixing tool, then read on!

What Is Sidechain Compression?

Pro Tools compressor highlighting the key input and sidechain compression.

Sidechain compression is a fundamental technique in audio engineering that can be used for both corrective and creative purposes. To understand the concept of sidechain compression, it's important to delve into its history and origins.

Sidechain compression was first introduced in the 1970s by engineer and inventor David Griesinger. He developed a system that allowed for the automatic control of audio levels based on the input signal from another source. This groundbreaking invention paved the way for the creation of sidechain compression as we know it today.

So, what exactly is sidechain compression? At its core, sidechain compression is a process where the level of one audio signal is controlled by the level of another signal. In simpler terms, it allows you to use one audio source to control the volume of another. This technique is achieved by routing the audio signal from the sidechain source to the compressor's sidechain input.

The sidechain or key input acts as a control signal, determining when the compressor should reduce the volume of the main audio signal. When the level of the sidechain input exceeds a certain threshold, the compressor kicks in and reduces the volume of the main audio signal. This creates a dynamic effect where the main audio signal "ducks" or lowers in volume in response to the sidechain input.

Sidechain Compression In Action: Common Uses In Music Production

Electronic dance music at a club.

One of the most popular applications of sidechain compression is the classic pumping effect, also known as "ducking." This technique is commonly used in electronic dance music (EDM) to create a rhythmic pulsing effect that adds energy and drive to the track. By sidechaining a kick track or a bassline to a compressor on another instrument or the entire mix, you can make the other elements "duck" or lower in volume every time the bass or kick hits. This creates a pumping sensation that can make the music more dynamic and exciting.

Another way to use sidechain compression is to enhance the rhythm of your tracks and make room for different instruments. By sidechaining a rhythmic element, such as a hi-hat or a percussion loop, to a compressor on a competing instrument, like a guitar or a synth, you can create a rhythmic interplay between the two elements. The sidechain compression will automatically lower the volume of the competing instrument whenever the rhythmic element plays, allowing it to cut through the mix and maintain clarity.

Sidechain compression is also a valuable tool for creative sound design and effects. By sidechaining a non-musical sound source, such as a vocal sample or a field recording, to a compressor on a synth or a pad, you can create interesting textures and movement in your music. The sidechain compression will shape the sound of the synth or pad based on the dynamics of the sidechain source, resulting in unique and evolving sonic landscapes.

Related Article: Compressor Cheat Sheet | The Only Guide You'll Ever Need!

Step-by-Step Guide To Applying Sidechain Compression

Now that you understand the concept and common uses of sidechain compression, let's dive into a step-by-step guide on how to apply it in your music production.

1. Choosing The Right Compressor

The first step is to select the appropriate sidechain compressor. Different compressors have different characteristics and sound qualities, so it's important to choose one that suits your needs. Most importantly you need to choose one that support a sidechain input.

2. Setting Up The Sidechain

Once you've chosen the compressor, it's time to set up the sidechain. Identify the audio source that will trigger the compression, such as a kick drum or a bass line. Route this audio source to the sidechain input of the compressor. This will serve as the control signal for the compression.

3. Fine-tuning Parameters For Different Effects

Now that the sidechain is set up, you can start fine-tuning the parameters to achieve different effects. Adjust the attack and release settings to control how quickly the compression kicks in and how long it takes to release. A shorter attack time will create a more pronounced pumping effect, while a longer release time will result in a smoother and more subtle effect.

Experiment with the threshold and ratio settings to determine the amount of compression applied. Higher ratios will result in more noticeable compression, while lower ratios will be more transparent. Adjust the threshold to determine the level at which the compression engages and gain reduction occurs.

Remember to listen to your mix and make adjustments accordingly. Each track and genre may require different settings, so trust your ears and make adjustments until you achieve the desired effect.

Mistakes To Avoid When Using Sidechain Compression

A close-up of a hand holding a puzzle piece that says "Common Mistakes".

While sidechain compression can be a powerful tool in music production, it's important to be aware of some common mistakes that can negatively impact your mix. By avoiding these pitfalls, you can ensure that sidechain compression enhances your music rather than detracting from it.

One of the most common mistakes is over-compression. When applying sidechain compression, it's easy to get carried away and apply too much compression. This can result in a pumping effect that is too pronounced and unnatural, causing the mix to sound overly compressed and fatiguing to the listener's ears. To avoid this, it's important to use your ears and make subtle adjustments to achieve the desired effect without going overboard.

Another mistake to avoid is incorrect setup, which can lead to unwanted sound artifacts. It's crucial to properly set up the sidechain input and ensure that the audio source triggering the compression is properly routed. If the setup is incorrect, you may experience clicks, pops, or other undesirable artifacts in your mix. Take the time to double-check your routing and make sure everything is connected correctly to avoid these issues.

Lastly, it's important not to ignore the impact of sidechain compression on the overall mix. While sidechain compression can be a powerful tool for creating separation and adding dynamics to individual elements, it's essential to consider how it affects the balance and cohesion of the entire mix. Make sure to listen to your mix as a whole and make adjustments as needed to maintain a balanced and cohesive sound.

By being mindful of these mistakes and taking the time to properly set up and adjust your sidechain compression, you can avoid common pitfalls and make the most of this technique.

Advanced Techniques: Sidechain Compression Beyond The Basics

While sidechain compression is commonly used to create rhythmic pumping effects and enhance the dynamics of individual elements in a mix, there are advanced techniques that can open up new possibilities. In this section, we will explore some of these techniques and their creative capabilities.

One advanced technique is multiband sidechain compression. Instead of applying sidechain compression to the entire frequency spectrum, multiband sidechain compression allows you to selectively compress different frequency bands. This can be particularly useful when you want to control the dynamics of specific elements without affecting others. For example, you can use multiband sidechain compression to tighten up the low end of a bass guitar while leaving the higher frequencies unaffected, resulting in a more focused sound.

Another interesting application of sidechain compression is sidechaining reverb and other effects. By sidechaining the reverb or delay to a specific element in your mix, you can create a sense of space and separation without cluttering the mix. For example, sidechaining the reverb of a vocal to the lead instrument can help the vocal stand out in the mix while still maintaining a sense of depth.

In electronic music production, sidechain compression opens up a world of creative possibilities. By experimenting with different sidechain sources and parameters, you can create unique rhythmic patterns, pulsating textures, and intricate grooves. For example, sidechaining a synth pad to kick drum hits can create a pulsating effect that adds movement and energy to the track. Similarly, sidechaining a vocal sample to a rhythmic pattern can create interesting stutter effects.

Related Article: An In-Depth Guide To Parallel Compression: When And How To Use It

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What exactly is sidechain compression?

Sidechain compression is a technique used in audio mixing where a compressor is triggered by a separate audio signal different from the one being compressed. This process allows to create more room in the mix by allowing certain elements to 'duck' under others, creating clarity and space.

Can I use sidechain compression in live performances?

Absolutely, sidechain compression can be an effective tool in live settings. It helps manage the dynamics of various live inputs, ensuring a consistent, clear sound. However, it requires careful setup and soundcheck to match the acoustics of the venue and the specifics of the live instruments and microphones.

Does sidechain compression work in all music genres?

While sidechain compression is widely associated with electronic and pop music, it's a versatile technique applicable across all genres. It's all about how it's applied. In genres like rock or jazz, it might be used more subtly to carve out space for vocals or lead instruments, whereas, in dance music, it could be more pronounced to achieve a rhythmic "pumping" effect.

What’s the difference between sidechain compression and regular compression?

Regular compression affects the track it's directly applied to, controlling the dynamic range based on the volume threshold you set. Sidechain compression, on the other hand, is triggered by an external source. The compressor reacts to another track's signal, allowing for more creative control over how and when the effect is applied.

Where can I learn more about advanced sidechain compression techniques?

There are many resources available, including online production courses, music production forums, YouTube tutorials from reputable producers, and specific articles and ebooks on advanced mixing techniques. Additionally, practice and experimentation are your best educators; they help you understand the nuances of sidechain compression deeply.

Final Thoughts

Sidechain compression is a powerful tool that can greatly enhance the dynamics and clarity of a mix. By allowing certain elements to "duck" under others, it creates a sense of space and separation, making each element in the mix shine.

Throughout this article, we have explored what sidechain compression is, its common uses in music production, and how to apply it step-by-step. We have also discussed some mistakes to avoid and delved into advanced techniques that go beyond the basics.

It's important to remember that sidechain compression is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires careful consideration and experimentation to achieve the desired effect. Understanding the dynamics of your mix and how different elements interact is crucial in using sidechain compression effectively.

In conclusion, sidechain compression is indeed an audio engineer's secret weapon. With its ability to add depth, clarity, and impact to your mixes, it's a technique worth mastering. So, go ahead and experiment with sidechain compression in your next music production project, and unlock the full potential of your mix.

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