Sidechaining is one of the most commonly-used tools in mixing, and even if you’re a complete beginner in the field, you’ve likely heard the term being used frequently. In reality, “sidechaining” is actually mostly a shortcut term for “sidechain compression”, a type of compression manipulation that is used hand-in-hand with “regular” compression to create clean, harmonious mixes in every genre of music, from classical, to pop, to rock and even show tunes.
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No matter what type of music you make or wish to create, compression and sidechaining are two useful tools to have in your back pocket in order to make your music sound like music to the ears!
What is sidechain compression?
Sidechaining falls under the umbrella of processes known as compression. While a sidechain can be created using other tools, like a noise gate, it’s most commonly created with a compressor. When sound engineers and audio producers throw around the term “compression”, though, they most commonly mean, in general, a processing tool that is used to regulate audio and control a certain dynamic range.
Compression almost always works with just one track in your mix. For instance, if one of the tracks in your mix is a guitar track that plays behind some vocal tracks, you can use compression to make sure that the volume of this guitar track always remains within a dynamic range that you specify. Any sounds in the track that fall outside of this range will be made louder or softer so that in the end, you’re left with a balanced-sounding track that you can then adjust to fit in with the other tracks in your mix more easily. Overall, compression makes sure that your music is easy to listen to and doesn’t contain any inequities in the tracks that distract from the overall sound and the beautiful music you’ve created.
Sidechaining is a type of manipulation using compression. Rather than simply setting a dynamic range for a track and making sure that every sound in the track complies with it, sidechain compression adds another level of movement to your music. Often working hand-in-hand with regular compression, sidechaining does more than just set a dynamic range for a single track. Sidechain compression pulls in multiple tracks from your mix and ensures they work dynamically together.
For example, let’s take the guitar part mentioned previously. You’ve already used the compression tools to make sure that it never outperforms your vocal mix track and instead stays in the background, but at some points in the mix, it might feel a bit too quiet. Perhaps it’s getting buried by a bass drum or some other percussion instrument. Sidechaining allows you to effectively link the bass drum track and the guitar track so that they move dynamically together in harmony. When a bass drum kick sounds, sidechaining can allow the guitar track to increase or decrease within its dynamic range to make sure that the two audio sounds are working together and can both play their part. Overall, sidechain compression makes your music feel more polished—it’s for intertwining dynamics and movement between your instruments. If you’re wondering about how to mix vocals specifically- we have an in-depth article that looks at this in more detail.
How do I set up a sidechain?
Most digital audio workstations have all of the tools that you need to set up a sidechain built right in, so you can start experimenting right away! If you decide to get more serious or want to go beyond the limits of your workstation’s built-in features, there are a number of external tools on the market that can give you varied effects when working with sidechains. As a whole, though, sidechaining is pretty consistent across all different platforms, and once you get the hang of it, it’s not too difficult to create one for yourself on various plugins!
Setting up a sidechain in your digital audio workstation is relatively easy as long as you know the correct clicks in the correct drop-down menus. First, you’ll need to find the option to create a sidechain in your plugin. Then, the program will likely ask you to choose a track as the input for your sidechain. This track will be the one giving the directions—in our example above, it would be the bass drum because it will tell the guitar track when it needs to be louder. You’ll apply this sidechain to the compression on guitar track—or whatever instrument you would like the sidechain to control! You can then start to fine-tune your adjustment until you get it sounding just right. Of course, as with most every tool used in audio production, practice makes perfect, and creating great-sounding music through sidechains with your preferred dynamic range control will come with time!
How can sidechaining be used?
In the above example, we used a vocal track, guitar track, and later a bass track to demonstrate how both general compression and sidechaining can be used in a music track. But your own music is as unique as you are, so here are some other instances of when sidechaining is used.
Of course, audio production isn’t just limited to music—with podcasts on the rise, almost anybody can be a talk-show host. Just like real radio program hosts do, you can use sidechaining to make background music or other sound effects fade out to ensure that every spoken word is heard clearly. And in music, like in our previous example, this same method can be used to make sure that no lyric is missed.
Beyond the more technical applications that sidechaining has when it comes to spoken words and lyrics, it can also add great energy to the music. Sidechaining coupled with a kick and bass tracks can make your music have a great pulsating energy that takes it to a whole new level.
Now its your turn!
No matter the genre or instrumentation you’re working with, sidechaining with compression and noise gates could just be that extra touch of movement that your song needs to bring it up to its full potential. No matter if you’re working with a simple two-track piano-and-vocal melody or a 100+ track epic, genre-bending monstrosity, working to make sure that each and every element of your song plays nicely together will help you to create a masterpiece, and compression and sidechaining are the tools to help you do just that!
Sidechaining and compression are just a few of the many tools that our audio engineers use to turn your raw tracks into finished masterpieces!
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