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Sidechaining: Why, What, When, Where, and How?

by | Master Your Craft, Mastering

The topic of sidechaining is a hot one amongst producers, amateurs and professionals, alike. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot because of its multi-purpose nature and the many resulting uses in music production. However, just like with anything in music, things can go wrong very quickly. The effects of sidechaining can have a disastrous outcome on a mix if the parameters or chosen areas of use are incorrect. Therefore, it’s essential to understand a bit of the topic to apply it correctly in our productions. This way, we can avoid negative scenarios and achieve a better quality mix. 

Traditionally, sidechaining has been used to create space amongst specific frequencies for similar instruments and sounds that co-habit that range. This is done for the chosen signal to come through more prominently which inevitably, creates more clarity in the mix as there is less overcrowding of frequencies. Additionally, it has been used similarly for adding frequencies or sounds at specific brief intervals. 

This is all very vague, though, so let’s explore the concept a little further and touch on what this means exactly. Various types of processors, such as compressors and gates, can be used to achieve these outcomes. This is done by redirecting the signal from a specific audio track to that of the chosen track to trigger the processor. It will then be triggered and perform a certain ‘ducking’ or ‘release’ effect, depending on your situation. 

The following questions that arise are, when and where would we use this? This depends on what you’re trying to achieve, how drastic it needs to be, and what instruments need to be affected. In EDM, the bass and kick have a unique relationship compared to various band-style genres. This is because they are both equally important to the mix, but they occupy similar frequency ranges. So without sidechaining, the results would be boxy and muddy due to the overcrowding of low-end frequencies. This is just a simple example, but the concept is similar for whatever the scenario may be. 

So, depending on whether you’re looking to achieve a ‘ducking’ effect to give space to specific frequencies or looking to employ more of a ‘release’ effect to add certain elements, you’ll use either compressors or gates. 

Now that we’ve touched base with the concept of sidechaining, let’s dive in and explore the topic further by answering five questions. 

  • Why would you need to sidechain a signal?
  • What are some of the things you would want to sidechain? 
  • When would you apply this process?
  • Where in the mix would you look to do this?
  • How would you achieve it?

Why What, and When?

As was briefly touched on earlier, the reasons for sidechaining are pretty extensive so let’s explore some of the areas of concern in more depth. The idea of making room for specific instruments and sounds becomes apparent when you find yourself in a situation where you can’t get the mix right due to certain elements fighting with each other for space. You might lose too much energy of either element if you lower the levels, so you’re left in a sticky situation without the use of sidechaining. If you’re not already involved with music production and mixing, but you’re interested, you’ll likely encounter various scenarios like this one where you’ll release that this can result in a muddy mix or overcrowding of various frequencies. The idea here is to adopt a ‘ducking’ effect, which gives way for the chosen frequency to push through with more clarity. 

Let’s look at the EDM example again and dive deeper into what makes the kick and bass relationship so unique, as well as what role sidechaining has in that process. The kick drum and bass frequencies co-habit very similar frequency ranges due to the nature of the genre. If you’ve mixed before, you’ll know that this can be very problematic as the low end of any track needs to be clear and not overcrowded otherwise, you’ll end up with a nasty, muddy mess. Sidechaining will be used in this situation to duck the bass frequencies when the kick drum is activated to give it space to push through without causing issues. In this case, the kick is transient, whereas the bass would be much more resonant – this means that you’ll use the kick as the dominant factor and try to create space for it. This also plays into the rhythm element of dance music by creating a ‘pumping’ effect. 

In various genres that employ vocals as the main components of the mix, you may need to address certain instruments and frequencies as the human vocal range is similar to many instruments due to its complexity. Take rock music, for example; in exciting parts of the track like the chorus, a lot is happening all around, but specifically, the lead guitars need to be a powerful element of the mix, just as the vocals are. However, they occupy similar frequency ranges and can end up fighting with one another, so the idea is to discretely apply sidechaining to briefly duck the guitars and give way for the vocals to cut through. 

Talking more about the ‘ducking’ effect, we’ll look at how it can be helpful when it comes to making space in your overhead mic tracks. Due to the nature of these specific instruments and sounds, their frequency ranges, and their purpose in the mix, they must be given the treatment they deserve. The kick drum’s bass frequencies in the overhead and the kick drum track will fight with one another; therefore, it’s a good idea to make space for the dominant one to push through. Similarly, the track in the mix will be treated with the snare and sound a lot better than the drum pushing through in the overhead recordings, so you’ll want to make space for it so that it cuts through and sounds good. 

Another interesting use of sidechaining is if you are trying to accentuate certain rhythms. As mentioned in EDM, the desired result is more of a pumping feel, whereas this would sound unnatural in rock music because the bass and kick drum should coexist and work together rather than pump and “give-way” to one another. Imagine that you are mixing a rock track, and you can’t redo any recordings, so you have to work with what you have. Say, for instance, the bassist didn’t quite nail his take, but the rhythm guitar (which is a similar pattern) was perfect – you can use sidechaining to accentuate and enhance the rhythmic feel of the bass. 

Lastly, we’ll explore why you might want to use sidechaining to add specific elements to your mix. It’s common to use sidechaining in a similar way to add instances of sounds other than to take them away. There could be a specific sound that you aren’t happy with and that needs some love – this often happens with a snare drum where you might be lacking in the snappy, high-end region. It’s much more common with syncopated, transient-style instruments because this process happens very quickly and almost unnoticeably (especially to the untrained ear), so it works perfectly. 

Here is a list of things that you might need to sidechain to either duck or release specific frequencies:

  • Kick and Bass (more so in EDM)
  • Vocals and other lead instruments
  • Vocals and lead instruments with the reverb
  • Bass and rhythm guitars for accentuating the rhythm 
  • Pumping feel of certain elements 
  • Ducking of kick and snare in overhead mics

Where?

Now let’s take a look at the technical side of things and breakdown the process to understand sidechaining in more depth further. When you’re trying to establish where to apply the sidechain, there are a few essential things to keep in mind. Below is a list of these concerns:

  • What is the dominant sound that you’re trying to clear space for? 
  • Which is the sound that you need to create the space in?
  • If you’re adding sounds, then you need to figure out both of the above too. 

Once you’ve established these variables, it’s time to get down to business. Let’s further expand on the EDM example. Say you’re using a compressor and you’re trying to duck bass track to make room for the kick; you’ll need to put the compressor on the bass channel.

Depending on your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice, there are different ways of doing this as you might need to create a send channel/track, or you might be able to achieve it without. Either way, depending on your DAW routing, you’ll need to send the signal from the kick drum (the dominant track) to the compressor on the bass channel because this will be used to trigger the processor into ducking the bass momentarily. 

If you’re trying to add frequencies, you might use a gate instead of a compressor. Expanding on the snare example, if you’re trying to add some high-end snap, you might consider using white noise as a medium. This would be done by having the white noise playing on a dedicated channel with the gating processor setup on here. The snare drum will be used as the signal and must be sent to the gate compressor.  

How?

The process for both instances is pretty universal across most plugins and VSTs, and it requires that you set the input on the processor to pick up from the desired signal path. This will be used as the trigger for the sidechain in either a ‘ducking’ or ‘releasing’ scenario. 

If you’re ‘ducking,’ the process entails setting the parameters on the compressor in such a way that allows this to happen in accordance with your genres and goals.

The kick and bass relationship in EDM requires a much harder level of compression on the sidechain than the vocal and lead guitar relationship because of the desired result. This makes the effect very noticeable and results in a pumping feel. However, that’s the desired outcome here, whereas this wouldn’t sound natural in a rock track, for instance. 

When you’re making way for the lead vocals to cut through the lead guitar in a chorus, you’ll need to make sure that the effect is minute and hardly noticeable to the untrained ear. The secret is to find a good level of compression and then implement it to where you can barely notice it – knowing that you’ve set suitable parameters and that it sounds the way it should, you can rest assured that it’s working subtly, which is what you want. 

If you’re adding frequencies, you’ll need to set the parameters on your chosen processor (probably a gate) and make sure that what’s coming through the gate sounds good alone and then, more importantly, together with the signal. If this is done right, it will translate well in the mix.

Conclusion

In conclusion, sidechaining is a valuable skill to learn and master because there are so many instances where it is useful and can add a lot of character to your mix when used correctly. Aside from the traditional uses, the limits are endless, and your creativity will play a role in determining what else you can use it for. Remember, compression is a complex phenomenon, and it’s super important that you practice it regularly and continue experimenting until you become a pro at it. 

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