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5 Unique Ways to Use Sidechain Compression
Sidechain compression is a mixing technique that’s used in almost every modern dance music song, from deep house to trance and everything in between.
Over the years it’s been used in many different ways, but the most commonly heard use is the "pumping” effect similar to that of Daft Punk or Eric Prydz famous (or infamous?) track "Call on Me.” While it’s great to use sidechain compression for this pumping effect, there are many other ways to use sidechain compression, some of which we’ll take a look at in this article.
Before that, though, I want to go through some pointers and reminders for newer producers reading this and playing around with sidechain compression.
The Classical Purpose of Sidechain Compression
Sidechain compression is essentially the act of taking audio from one source (which we’ll call the trigger), and using it to manipulate the audio of another source, compressing it when the trigger audio is played.
Mix engineers would often use sidechain compression to treat vocals. For instance, the vocals would be clashing with the instruments underneath it, so the engineer would then sidechain that group of instruments to the vocal. This would result in the instruments to "duck” in volume when the vocals were being played.
As technology and music progressed, producers and engineers came up with more creative, musical ways to use sidechain compression. The most popular being the pumping effect, caused by sidechaining elements to a kick drum or four on the floor trigger pattern.
Using the Right Trigger Sample
Let’s say we wanted to sidechain our bassline to our kick drum. We could do this by feeding the audio from the kick drum to the bassline, but there’s a problem that arises when doing that.
You see, most kick drums have a long tail, so if you wanted very short sidechain compression on your bassline, then you’d have to either EQ the kick drum before it goes into the compressor (high-pass to get rid of the low-end tail), or use a shorter kick drum.
The alternative, which gives you a lot more control over the attack and release parameters on your compressor, is to use a muted trigger sample. For those who aren’t aware of how to do that, here’s a simple 5-step process:
- Find a short sample such as a hi-hat or percussion sound
- Adjust the decay time if needed so it’s a short click
- Create a pattern and then mute the track in your DAW
- Set up a pattern (in this case it would be one note per beat, four on the floor)
- Send to your compressor
Make sure your trigger sample is loud enough, and make sure it’s short. The shorter it is, the more control you have.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s learn about some more creative ways to use sidechain compression!
#1 - Different Patterns
Most of us use a simple four on the floor trigger pattern when sidechain compressing, but it can be a good idea to create some extra sidechain trigger tracks that feature different patterns.
For example, you might want your pad to play louder on the actual beats rather than pumping on the off beat, so you move your sidechain trigger for that particular element to play on the offbeat. Or you might create complex sidechain pattern to add movement to a vocal or synthline.
Experiment with different sidechain trigger patterns and see what you can come up with.
Bonus Tip: Add groove and swing to your sidechain trigger patterns.
#2 – Trigger Velocity
Sometimes you want certain parts of an element to still be compressed, just not as heavily. You could automate the compressor to achieve this, or you could take the simple route and simply adjust the velocity of your trigger pattern where desired.
This can be used to add interesting movement to sustained sounds such as pads and long leads. You could even experiment with different velocity levels when trying to incorporate a pumping effect into your song so that certain beats or bars have a heavier, more obvious pumping effect whereas others have a more subtle one.
#3 - Automation
While velocity can add some variation to your sidechain compression, you may sometimes want a more dynamic, evolving sound. Automating compressor parameters to change over time can lead to very interesting sounds that add a unique element to your track.
If you have a pitched riser, you could automate the release on the compressor over time to make the pumping effect applied to it more aggressive, or vice versa. If you have a vocal you could automate a compressor on and off in certain sections to give it variation. You get the idea, endless possibilities!
#4 – Sidechaining Specific Frequencies
You can create the illusion of no sidechain compression existing by sidechaing certain frequency ranges. For example, you might want a bass sound that hits at the same time as your kick, but you don’t want them to clash in the low-end. By sidechaining just the low frequencies, the bass sounds like it’s still playing at the same time as the kick (which it technically is, at least some of it), and you reduce conflicting frequencies in the low-end.
Not sure how to do it? Here’s an explanation using Ableton Live that can be applied to other DAWs.
Sidechain compression isn’t just limited to direct instruments and elements; you can also apply it purely to effects.
For example, you could add sidechain compression to a distortion send so that it pumps with the rest of the song, or sidechain a reverb to your synth in order for it to not clash with the original sound (this is a common trick). It’s easy to do, and you can get super creative with it.
- While every DAW is different, the basic process goes like this:
- Add a compressor and choose a sidechain trigger
- Compress away
There are many more uses for sidechain compression that we haven’t covered, but for now you should have at least a few techniques and ideas to go away and experiment with.
Do you use sidechain compression in a unique way? Leave a comment below and let us know!
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