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Sidechaining in Electronic Music

by | Master Your Craft, Mastering

When it comes to Electronic Dance Music (EDM), sidechaining is a prominent feature used amongst most producers. It is commonly used to create a noticeable fluctuating effect on specific regions of the mix. This effect might be less noticeable in other genres, say if you’re ducking the lead guitars slightly to give way for the lead vocal in rock or pop song, but that is not the idea in Electronic Music. In this case, it is common that a ‘pumping’ effect is left on certain elements of the track, creating an unrealistic (in some cases) yet desirable feel and movement in the song, which suits the style of music. Although this use of compression may sound unnatural in certain types of music if used too abruptly or in the wrong place, it has found a home within the realms of EDM and is an overall process used in most modern productions. 

Low frequencies can be especially problematic if there is an overcrowding of elements, so the fact that EDM places a lot of emphasis on both the kick and the bass means that there is a need to take special care when mixing. You’ll want to carve out frequencies in either Channel to create some space. Still, you’ll also need to take care of the resultant additional level spikes by carving out precise drops in the levels of resonant features to allow the transient components to cut through. This can be done manually or through the use of sidechaining.

Sidechaining can also be accomplished using a multiband compressor by isolating specific frequency regions and treating each independently as you can set appropriate parameters of compression on each region. This will be applied if you’re looking to dip multiple frequencies at once or if there are points in the mix that specific elements get in the way. 

EDM is a creative field of production, and the use of sidechaining can be found in many areas of a mix due to the ‘pumping’ sensation that can be achieved. You might want to breathe some life into a pad/synth section by creating some movement with the dynamic range. You can do this through automation, but you can also use a sidechain to achieve the same thing. Whether you create a ghost track or have a dedicated, send Channel, you’ll be able to do the same thing – it all depends on your situation. 

Through exploring the following topics, many uses of sidechaining within EDM will be uncovered:

  • Kick & Bass
  • Manual Automation
  • Pumping Effect
  • Ghost Channel/Send Channel/Trigger Track
  • Affected Signal
  • Excitement in Percussion
  • Creative

Kick and Bass

The Kick and Bass are two of the essential elements in EDM, and to produce a great sounding track, it’s imperative to form a good relationship between the two. This is important because these two elements of the mix occupy very similar levels and frequencies so, when they are played together, it might create unwanted spikes in level as well as boxy or muddy-sounding low-end. The idea is to address instances where this happens throughout the mix and ensure that the transient of the kick (arguably the loudest element of your track) cuts through without negatively affecting the bass or vice versa. Essentially, you’re looking to momentarily drop the level of the bass (because it is a more resonant feature) so that the kick has space to push through, making it appear dominant. 

If you’re able to get the components in the low-end range sounding good together, then you’re on your way to a great track. Carving out space in the frequency spectrum of each independent track in your mix allows you to glue the two together by giving them their own space. After doing this, the leveling needs to be addressed to create the proper cohesion. 

No matter the sub-genre of EDM at hand, the previously mentioned points will become apparent. There is a lot of energy brought forward through the low-end region. Because a lot of the bass is ‘unnatural,’ it can be exaggerated or act differently, which means that it needs to be treated accordingly to work in the mix. The kick will always be a dominant factor in EDM, and so whatever bassline you end up with, you’ll need to make sure it gives way to the kick transient, which can often lead to some very interesting results. 

Notably, a pumping feel will be prominent due to the slightly more drastic compression levels used in these scenarios – this isn’t always the case as it depends on the parameter settings in relation to your mix. If you have a swift attack and release on your sidechain compressor, you might not achieve a noticeable effect that could tarnish your mix’s clarity. Alternatively, if you have slightly longer attack and release times, the compressor will work slower, leading to more noticeable effects. This can be understood by thinking about the nature of bass and a kick in a track – the bass resonates and sounds for extended periods. In contrast, a kick is a transient, rhythmic pattern that appears momentarily in comparison, so it should be given the room to briefly punch through.

Manual Automation

To further visualize the effect of sidechaining, we’ll look at manual automation and how it would be applied to achieve the same outcome. This is a meticulous process that can be very time-consuming. Still, the accuracy achieved this way is desirable because you can treat every single instance accordingly in order to get the most out of your mix. 

This could be pursued for a number of reasons such as:

  • If there are significant changes in dynamics that don’t trigger the compressor the way you want it.
  • If there are specific areas in the mix that need to be treated differently.
  • If you don’t want the effects of a compressor to be apparent.
  • If you have limited knowledge of compression. 

Automation is mainly portrayed visually in DAWs, which allows you to shape the curve and create precise dips in the level using the aid of another sense. Many compressors don’t have much of a visual element to them, so this option isn’t always going to be available and can be very useful when you’re learning. 

Pumping Effect

As mentioned, the pumping feel achieved through sidechaining is a prominent feature of EDM and can be used across the board in a creative sense. A pad/synth part in the track will not interfere with the kick and bass due to the different frequency ranges and the difference in levels; however, you might want to create some movement on the Channel itself by playing with the dynamic range. Due to most EDM’s rhythmic nature, a consistent fluctuation of levels can enhance the groove and overall energy of a song. 

It’s essential not to be bound by too many rules when exploring the possibilities of sidechaining in EDM because it could work anywhere if done right. With that being said, the one important rule is to make sure that whatever you’re doing is adding to the energy of the track somehow. For example, slight dips in energy can add to the overall groove, but it is very easy to kill the energy by overdoing these kinds of things. If too much energy is being lost or the result isn’t making a positive impact, it’s not worth doing, so be critical when you’re trying it out. 

Ghost/Send/Trigger

There are many ways that one can activate a sidechain, but it depends on the situation at hand when it comes down to deciding what you’re going to employ. You might want direct input from whichever Channel is being used to trigger the compressor, you could wish to set up a send channel and use that, or you could create an entirely separate track used to trigger the compressor. Additionally, it could be used if you want to change the levels of your trigger track without having to revisit each of the sidechain compressors and change the parameters to meet the newly adjusted input levels.

Let’s explore the various methods and uncover why they might be helpful in different scenarios. 

  1. Ghost Channel – this scenario involves creating an entirely separate channel in your mix that will trigger the sidechain compressor on the chosen track. This could be used if you’re looking to have alternate sequences affecting the sidechain rather than an existing pattern in the mix.
  2. Send Channel – creating a send channel allows you to divert the signal to a separate track that will then be used as an input on your sidechain. 
  3. Direct Trigger – you could use direct input from a specific track, but you could end up with less control and a lot of time wasted going back to readjust levels and parameters.

Affected Signal

It can be interesting to use a processed signal as the input for a sidechain in some cases. For example, you might achieve interesting movement if you use the signal from a delay to trigger your sidechain. It depends on your session and its effect on your mix because it can just as easily not work out and create a clash instead of clarity. 

If you use a delayed signal from the kick to compress the bass level, it could result in an interesting pump. This applies to any instance of sidechaining throughout the mix. It’s a good idea to use a different trigger on certain elements to create some play amongst the changes in level in some cases.

Excitement in Percussion

When it comes to spicing up your drums and percussion, this is a fantastic way to get some rhythmic emphasis and dynamic movement in your high-end. Considering that your kick occupies certain high frequencies for its ‘click’ characteristic, it could be interesting to apply sidechain compression on your drums or percussion to let the high transient of the kick peek through. 

This effect can add a lot of feel to your song, but it can also lead to unnecessary drops of energy, so it’s important to make sure that this doesn’t happen. If it does, it could be because your compressor’s ratio is too high, the threshold is set too low, or your attack and release times aren’t suited for that instance. 

Aside from the kick, you might want the high-end sounds of your snare drum to cut through evermore slightly so you could apply the sidechain compressor on your cymbals, hats, and various other elements within that region. 

Creative

The possibilities are endless when it comes to sidechaining, and it can be used in many ways to create various outcomes. Other processors such as filters, flangers, and many more (depending on your DAW of choice) can be used in a sidechain fashion. 

Essentially, any form of processing done on a specific signal with the use of an external signal to trigger the processor is sidechaining. 

Conclusion

Sidechaining has become an imperative feature of EDM due to the nature of the genre and is widely used across productions from all sub-genres by most producers. There are many reasons why it has become so popular as a production technique, and so if you’re learning, improving, or don’t know about it, get involved and experiment as much as you can. Being able to apply sidechaining in your production successfully could be a distinguishing factor for your music, so be sure to get it right, no matter how long it takes to get it. 

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