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Creative Sidechaining

by | Master Your Craft, Mastering

As we’ve discussed over the previous two sidechain-based articles, this method has become an integral part of modern production. It is used in one way or another across all genres of music in different ways. What may not be clear is that it isn’t a new technique, it’s been around for ages and has been used in the past, but over time, it has become more pertinent and widely used amongst producers. Essentially, it’s set up using an external signal to trigger a processor on a separate channel(s). This method is used for several reasons, such as creating space in the frequency spectrum for sounds occupying similar regions to avoid overcrowding, accentuating rhythm, establishing a pumping feel, or manipulating a mix’s dynamics. When it comes down to it, there are plenty more uses for sidechaining, and it depends on how you approach it that will determine what you can do with it. 

Now that the basics have been covered, it’s time to take things a step further by exploring several innovative sidechaining methods spanning across various disciplines and genres. The aim of this is to stimulate further experimentation and thinking on creative uses for the technique. We’re going to look at multiband compressors in more depth, frequency selective signals, gates, affecting entire groups, using processors other than compressors, and a few other things to dig a little deeper into the expansive realms of the ‘sidechain.’ 

EDM: Mass to Bass

When it comes to EDM, we know the importance of clearing space for the low-end, dominating elements like the bass and kick, but we haven’t explored how we can further this interaction of low frequencies. Many songs within the realms of Electronic Music have more than one bassline, so it’s also essential to make sure that they’re glued together nicely and interacting in a non-invasive manner. 

The idea here is to establish which of your basslines is the dominant one (bear in mind that this can change around as the track progresses, so make sure that you’re processors are doing the right thing) and then apply a sidechain compressor with that signal as the input on the less-dominant bass channel compressor. 

You’ll want to make sure that your kick sidechain is first in the signal path because it a transient by nature and will be more of a regular occurrence. The bass-to-bass sidechain will come after this. 

This is a great trick to get the basslines in your tracks to work well together and make sure that their interaction is audible and positively affects the song. 

EDM: Snare in Breaks

Suppose you’re producing music within the realms of Breakbeat, Breakcore, Drum and Bass, Jungle, and other similar genres. In that case, you’ll be dealing with a lot of processed, busy drum loop samples that occupy the same frequency range as the snare drum that you’ll program separately. It’s very easy for the snare to be programmed in to clash and get lost amongst the crazy breaks developed from the drum loop samples, so it’s a good idea to employ some sidechaining to allow the programmed snare drum to cut through the mix. 

Depending on your needs, you might use a compressor or a multiband compressor to achieve this. The concept here is the same as when mixing live recordings, whereby just as you’d dip the snare in the ‘Drum Overhead Mics’ to allow the dedicated snare drum to cut through the mix.

Gates: Transients

Sometimes there’s an element of your mix that isn’t entirely sounding the way you’d like, but you want to preserve the original sound as much as possible while adding the flare it needs. Imagine your snare drum doesn’t quite have that high-end presence – an excellent way to deal with this is by using a gate to momentarily release white noise that will add to the presence you’re after. Similarly, you can apply this concept to other features of your mix, such as the kick drum or high hats. 

Commonly, original recordings or samples need some work to get them sounding the way you’d like. Be it a kick sample needing some extra punch in the low-end, a kick sample lacking a satisfactory high-click or cymbals that don’t sparkle the way you’d like, there is a way to use creative sidechaining to solve it. 

Transients will always require a momentary input of a signal to match the sound, so the parameters on the gate will be set to work very quickly.

Gates: Musical

Transients aren’t the only things we can affect. Sometimes this method isn’t used to add to anything specific but instead slowly release and retract various sounds. You can automate the parameters of the gate to change and act differently over time to achieve interesting soundscapes instead of having it momentarily open and then close again. 

This trick can be very effective on instruments such as synths. Imagine you have a track with a synth instrument set up to produce MIDI notes and you program a single long chord (or note) to play constantly – the MIDI pattern could even change and progress over time. The idea is to apply a gate on this channel with a sidechain input from an external source. Depending on your needs, you could either use a transient as the input signal (which will create a pumping feel as the sound will be released in accordance with the rhythm of the track), or you could choose a bassline or another melodic element to be the input signal which could give more of a lasting effect. 

This category is endless. One can do with gates to create exciting sounds, enhance rhythm, add missing frequencies, or act independently from existing elements. 

Multiband Compressors

Find yourself in a situation where using a compressor to dip the level of an entire signal leads to a substantial drop in energy. You might consider using a multiband compressor. A multiband compressor combines a number of individual compressors into one, allowing you to activate or deactivate each ‘band’ as well as to independently control the parameters of each separately. This gives you a lot more control over what regions of the frequency spectrum will be affected as you can set each band to work within specific regions. 

Imagine you’re trying to make way for vocals in a lead synth part. If you drop the entire channel’s level, there might be too much of a drop in energy, but if you leave it untreated, it could clash and not sound so good. In this situation, you’d want to use a multiband compressor to select the frequency regions dominant in the vocal and apply compression to those specific bands. You’ll find that this allows for the vocal to cut through without losing vital energy or harmonics in a track. 

This can be applied to almost anything in your mix – as long as you can correctly establish the frequency ranges and set up the compression parameters to act accordingly on each, you’ll be able to have a lot more control over your mix. 

Spechific Frequencies

We’ll use the bass as an example here due to its loud nature and fairly extensive frequency range. When you’re using a sidechain compression technique, an external signal will be affecting a chosen channel, but this might not always be desirable. The signal from the bass comes in very hot due to its level, and this might cause specific issues with your compressor where you hear undesired artifacts or too much of an effect.

Fortunately, it is possible to counteract this issue with some compressors – bear in mind that not every device has this as a feature, but it’s worth exploring your DAW to see what your capacities are. Certain compressors allow you to be selective of what frequency will be triggering the processor, which is particularly useful when using the bass as the input. This will enable you to still use the character of the bass as the signal input, but you can choose to select a higher frequency (say between 300Hz-400Hz) as the focal point for the signal. 

To break it down further, bass frequencies resonate at a much slower rate but are much louder than high frequencies, which means that if you’re using the bass as an input, the compressor will be affected by the loudest part of that signal. However, if you select a region higher up the frequency spectrum, the signal input level will be lower and more manageable. 

Affect Busses/Groups

It’s also common to group entire tracks in a mix if they need to have similar work done. This is much more common in EDM due to the driving nature of the kick. Many producers will sidechain many elements of their mix to the kick to create a pumping feel and establish some movement. It does a lot for the rhythm and works well with a lot of EDM sub-genres. 

If you wanted to be more organized, you could group all of the desired elements into one and affect them equally. This can create major drops and spikes in energy which might not sound great, so be very careful because it’s easy to overdo it. It will undoubtedly have a different outcome than treating each channel individually, but that might be what you’re after. 

Speech Clarity

If you’re dealing with any discursive audio with background music and sounds, you might want to employ sidechaining to bring about clarity in the vocals. 

The same concept applies here – put the compressor on the background music or sounds and use the voice signal as the input. 

This can be useful for podcasts, radio shows, broadcasting, or anything along these lines.

Other Processors

Although a lot of what has been discussed revolves around compression, it is not the only type of processor that offers this as a feature. You’ll be surprised as to what you can use a sidechain input for, so it’s worth exploring in your DAW and keeping an eye out for. 

The exact process will apply no matter what type of processor you’re using or how you’re using it. A sidechain is a sidechain because it uses an external source to trigger a specific processor. So whether you’re doing this with a filter, flanger, or delay, the idea remains the same. 

This is where things get interesting because as time goes on and technology advances, who knows what more we’ll use sidechain techniques with but for now, there is so much out there and so much that hasn’t yet been discovered. 

Conclusion

The methods you decide to employ when using a sidechain technique are up to you and only limited by your willingness to explore and learn more. There are traditional methods that work and have been used for ages because of their proven success, so it is important to be familiar with all of these. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, so familiarize yourself with the various techniques necessary for your music. However, don’t let that get in the way of experimentation and trying new things because these can lead to some ground-breaking discoveries. 

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