Sidechain Compression [Behind The Bars]

sidechain compression

Official Artwork by Cookbeat

Time to raise the bar of digital iron and master the sidechain compression. In this article you will learn everything you need to know about sidechaining, what it is, how to use it, where to use it etc.

It is made to be an ultimate producer manual to a better, faster final projects. We will touch on some core basics, as well as the deeper layers of some useful tips and tricks. And the best part is, you can implement them to any DAW you`re working with.

It is a simple, but thorough guidance that will help you  understand not only what you are suppose to do, but teach you to catch that high note bar of instant hits sooner than ever.

In order to keep your heads hot, we`re taking one smooth step at a time. Let`s create some chain links together with sidechain compression behind the bars! 


Sidechain Compression – The Definition

sidechain compression

Mixdown sessions in the studio

SIdechain compression is a whole another science on its own. I mean, it`s easy to understand, slightly tougher to train in, but never impossible. To me, it`s like a completely individual instrument in the workflow speed. It has its own tone or timbre, and when you can`t hear it, you can feel it. 

It gives your mixes liveness, a pump, or popularly called ducking vibe. But, before I take any further admiring step, let`s go back to the starting point. And the sole definition of sidechaining. 

To understand sidechain compression, and in order to make a good, no, great use of it, you need to know at least the basics of how compressors work. We are not going to go all geeky about them right now. But here`s a useful link as a help if you having any doubts in your level of knowledge.

Moving on.

The Sidechain Setup

Sidechain compression


The sidechain technique can be defined as a process of using the output of one signal to control the output of completely different one, and mostly through a compressor attached to the second signal output. Confused much? 

Let me put this in more simpler way. Sidechain compression is used to emphasize  one signal over another. It is used on  instruments that occupy the same sonic space (the most usual kick and bass ducking). Or to keep the vocal constant in a song and so on. So, to sidechain any instrument, you need to attach it (or connect) to another track that will be ducked by its output. The trigger  (or the lead sidechained signal) will then control the rhythm or dynamics of the second signal (that it is sidechained to) by lowering its volume everytime it is active.

sidechain compression

A compressor plugin

The instrument you want to be controlled (or ducked in volume by another one) need to have a compressor or an EQ inserted into its mixer channel in order for everything to work. I.E. for the trigger to duck the other signal. Better now? 

If you still feel a bit of confused, don`t worry, there will be links to video tutorials attached later.

Let`s move forward.


Types Of Sidechaining

As mentioned earlier, sidechain compression has couple of different roles. You maybe didn`t know it, or haven`t thought about it. But you do hear it more than you are aware of. Its most common use is on the radio stations, when a sidechain is set to automatically duck the music everythime the speaker starts talking.

sidechain compression

Sidechain meme

The other most common use of a sidechain compression is on your everyday most favorite mobile device. Your cell. Ever wonder how does the music or the video you are looking at reduce in volume the moment your new text message arrives? Well, yeah, that`s the art of sidechain compression. 


Sidechain In Music Production

sidechain compression

Music production – sidechaining

They say the most common sidechain feel is the one from dance music. But today, there is no track where you cannot feel it if you listen well. Trap and Hip Hop use their kick and bass correlation too with sidechaining. But you hear it everywhere, especially with keeping the vocals constant. Pop genre will give you that hear and feel also.

But to keep in track with the school class, let`s lay out different types of sidechain compression and sort them out properly.


Mode 1 – Vocal Sidechain

sidechain compression

Vocal sidechain

Let`s explain the vocal sidechain compression technique first. As this is one of the most important instruments (and the hardest) to mix in. Because, first, you already have so many things going on, making the shape of the song. And a vocal must stay constant over, or on top of all the other instruments.

And don`t forget the back vocals too and their take on the sonic space. So mixing the lead, must be as perfect as possible. Now, not to get into complete vocal mixing details, because it will take eternity, but there`s a fine approach to this when sidechaining comes to act.

Now, after learning how the sidechain actually works, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably the idea of sidechaining the lead vocal to a whole mix and voila! Well, even though this may seem like a logic thing to do, it`s actually not that good idea after all.

Why? If you dip the whole mix, your song will sound more artificial, and the lead will turn to a typical radio speaker overdub, than an actual part (lead) of the song. And why would you go and attenuate your  background instruments that make the atmosphere around your vocal?

sidechain compression

recording vocals in the studio

The solution? 

Instead of loosing them all, again, use your logic. That being said, figure out which instruments or elements of the audio spectrum take the same space as the lead. Or which instruments have similar harmonies and sidechain the vocal to only those particular spots. And that`s it. I call this a surgical ducking. So find the bug and cut it off.

sidechain compression

mixing vocals

Now as for the compressor settings for all of this to work, you need to be subtle and fast. What do I mean? You don`t need the lower volume of the mix to have the vocal on the clear. You need the vocal to stand out. So no volume automation.  And therefore you will need your compressor to act fast on the release. This will make it let go of the instrument ducking in between the vocal takes, making the music feel dynamic and constant too.

How Much?

As for the attack time, it should also be very fast. For that fast return of the other instruments in between vocal takes, start with attack time of 30ms. The Ratio should be around 2:1 as to begin with and then adjust the threshold in that way that you get a 1-2dB (5 dB max) of gain reduction. Apply 1dB of post gain after that.

Now if there are too many instruments that need to be controlled, or triggered by the lead, here`s what you will do. Create a separate mix bus (stereo group channel) and route all those instruments to it. Insert the compressor on it and do all the sidechain compression steps given above. But remember to keep it subtle. You can be a bit more agressive on the individual channel. But with multiple instruments on one bus, you have to be more careful not to create that artificial effect.

Nobody wants that.

sidechain compression

funny mixing meme

Bonus Tip

A wonderful extra mixing tip for more advanced mixing engineers comes from “Musician On A Mision”`s author Rob Mayzes. Here`s Rob`s advice: “If you have a multiband compressor that permits it (like the Waves C6), sidechain a band across 800Hz-6kHz to the vocal. Now you can create room for the vocal without ducking the lows or highs.” 


Mode 2 – Sidechain Between The Instruments

sidechain compression


Second most common use of sidechain compression is with leveling the dance between different instruments. Mostly because they collide in frequency battle between eachother. And you just cannot have all the instruments to lead the track. So decide which of the instruments are going to be more accented and in front of the mix. And which ones are going to sit in the back. 

After you make a pick, you then use sidechain compression by attaching the trigger instruments to the ones you want in the back. Usually pads, synths or even some guitar tracks. Plug in a compressor on them and sidechain the trigger like bass line, snare etc. 

Another cool trick I`ve discovered is using a sidechain compression within the upper drums/percussions. Using a correlation between hi-hats and crashes or shakes, distinguish the lead drum perc and sidechain it to the other to give them a space all together.


Mode 3 – The Kick Sidechain

sidechain compression

mixing a kick

The most favorite sidechain compression within the producers, especially in our Hip Hop/Trap genre. Right? Bottom end, like bass line and kick is our project body`s skeleton. So let`s open up the closet and show it exactly how it fits.

To feel the bass correctly and hear the kick beat in your chest, you need to make space for it first. To do that, you create a bus for a kick and you feed it with the kick input, but no output signal. What this means is you only need to send the kick`s signal information, not the actual sound coming out of the kick bus. We need just the kick signal to act as a trigger. 

Second step is to put the compressor on one of the instruments, or the whole mix bus and adjust it. Start with the slower attack and Ratio a bit higher, and the release a bit longer (try about 60ms). And just experiment until you get the desired and likable effect.

But pay close attention to a subtle sidechain compression when the kick and bass need to get mixed in well. If the kick is buried under the strong bass, use a compressor on a bass and sidechain it to the kick. With the fast attack and release, you should get the kick out and above the bass. Keep it in the range of 1-3dB of gain reduction. 


Mode 4 – Gate And Ghost Sidechaining

Two more interesting ways or the two Gs of triggering some cool and creative sidechain compression.  First one is by Gating the synth with kick bus sidechain. Use a low frequency sine wave or a bass synth and put a gate on it. Second, route your kick to the bus and trigger the gate on the synth. This is like a reverse sidechain. Why do this? As a result you will create a sub thunder support for the kick, making it thicker and fuller. Because in this reverse sidechaining you don`t kill the low end, you add it as a compliment to the kick. The gate reacts simultaneously with the kick trigger.

sidechain compression

sidhechaining with a ghost

ghost sidechain compression is similar as with the kick and the bass settings. The only thing that differs is that, you have a separate kick, which can be any sample from your DAW`s library. Now, depending on your project`s tempo and the groove, you will draw the ghost kick`s notes accordingly.

Why is it called a ghost kick? Because you will only use its signal`s shape not the actual output as a trigger for the, say bass line. That way, your projects actual drum loop can be heard much clearly and you can feel the bass ducking under it. Basically the same principle for standard ducking. 


Mode 5 – Advance Sidechaining

The more advanced approach to sidechain compression includes playing with some of the different synths, especially the modular ones. They have to support the sidechaining effect first of course. The good examples are Vocoder, Vocal Synth etc. 

sidechain compression

iZotope Vocal Synth VST

The instructions to this sidechain compression works like this. You create a rhythmic  loop on one of the synths. Now, don`t know if you had a chance to try the Vocal Synth plugin. The amazing thing about it is that it`s already packed with four modulators. So after you feed it with your rhythmic elements, most probably a vocal track, then you can tweak it by taste. With those cool modulators like Vocoder you can create that Daft Punk/T-Pain robotic, Auto-Tuned style of effect.

FL Studio`s Vocoder on its own can be used very creatively too. You sidechain a vocal track as a modulator and a rhythmic synth chords to Vocoder`s carrier sidechain. So the synth chords act like a trigger for the voice, that way creating again the same Auto-Tune effect we explained above.


Frequency Sidechain

sedechain compression

Sidechaining a specific frequency in Fl Studio

Another advanced sidechain compression deals with so called frequency sidechain. It means you can activate the compressor to only trigger a specific frequency. Why would you need this technique you ask?

This is mostly used on a Mix Bus of the project to get rid of some unnecessary low end. Its power can cause the compressor  sitting on the Mix Bus to act drastically and squeeze too much in the down department. Which then creates a really odd and weak mix.

To avoid this, add a Multiband compressor to control the low end. Activate the frequency sidechain by applying a High-Pass Filter at 100Hz.

This way lets your compressor act upon the low frequencies more subtly and not get too much triggered to compress hard and lose the body of the mix.


De-essing Sidechain Effect

Similar approach or second form of  frequency sidechaining is with the De-essing setup. Maybe your bass has a note that is way to odd, or a vocal heavily tonally  misbehaving in some parts, use a De-esser. 

sidechain compression

FabFilter Pro-C De-esser Plugin

Before the De-esser, do this. Insert an EQ to an troubling instrument`s channel. Emphasize  the unwanted frequencies. Then send that signal into the sidechain input. I.E. the De-esser. 


Sidechain Compression Tutorials

sidechain compression

A capture from an online turotial on sidechaining

For the very end, as promised, here are some great video examples of the sidechain compression. Short tutorials to match all the read info above with the practical use of this crucial mixing technique.

If you missed my previous posts, make sure you stay updated right. Go and read all about “PreSonus Faderport 8” hereAnd if you`re a beginner, you must check out my “5 Beginner Mixing Tips (Fl Studio 12)”


Now let`s check out those video tutorials:



Happy chaining everyone!


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