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What is sidechain?

What is sidechain?

Audio sidechain, a term that might sound complex at first, is actually a fundamental technique in the world of music production and audio engineering. It’s a method where one audio track is used to control the effects on another. Imagine a dance track where the bass seems to ‘pump’ in rhythm with the kick drum; that’s sidechain compression at work.

The concept of sidechain compression is simple: when the level of one sound (like a kick drum) reaches a certain threshold, it triggers a compressor on another sound (such as a bassline), reducing its volume momentarily. This creates space in the mix, allowing the kick drum to stand out, giving that characteristic pulsing effect that’s especially popular in electronic dance music (EDM).

But sidechain compression isn’t just for EDM. It’s used in various scenarios, such as ducking in radio broadcasts—where the music volume dips when the DJ speaks—or in mixing different instruments to prevent them from clashing in the same frequency range. For instance, ensuring a vocal track cuts through over a powerful horn section.

The technique has evolved over time, and now, sidechain effects can be applied to more than just volume. It can control filters, equalizers, and other effects, expanding the creative possibilities for producers and engineers.

Sidechain compression is a versatile tool, and its applications are only limited by the creativity of the person using it. Whether it’s creating rhythmic interest, clarifying a mix, or simply making a voiceover more intelligible over background music, sidechain compression is a staple in audio production that continues to shape the sounds we hear every day.

Setting up sidechain compression in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) can significantly enhance the dynamic quality of your mix, creating that pulsating effect often heard in electronic music or ensuring clarity by allowing certain elements like vocals to stand out. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process:

1. **Choose Your Tracks**: Decide which track will be your sidechain source (commonly a kick drum) and which will be the target (like a bass line).

2. **Insert a Compressor**: On your target track, insert a compressor that supports sidechain input. Most modern DAWs come with stock compressors that have this feature.

3. **Configure the Sidechain Input**: Route the output of your sidechain source track to the sidechain input of the compressor on your target track. This setup varies between DAWs, but typically, you’ll find an option to select the sidechain source within the compressor plugin’s settings.

4. **Adjust Threshold and Ratio**: Set the compressor’s threshold so that the sidechain source triggers the compression. Adjust the ratio to control the intensity of the effect.

5. **Fine-Tune Attack and Release**: The attack and release controls determine how quickly the compressor reacts to the sidechain signal and how quickly it returns to normal levels. Adjust these to get the desired ‘pumping’ effect.

6. **Experiment with Additional Parameters**: Some compressors offer more advanced features like knee, which controls how the compressor transitions from non-compression to full compression, or a sidechain filter, which allows you to compress based on a specific frequency range.

7. **Test and Refine**: Listen to your mix and adjust the sidechain compressor’s settings as needed. The goal is to achieve a balance where the effect supports the rhythm and energy of the track without overwhelming it.

Remember, the key to effective sidechain compression is subtlety and musicality. It should enhance the listening experience, not distract from it. For more detailed instructions tailored to your specific DAW, there are numerous tutorials available online that can provide guidance.

Sidechain compression is a powerful tool in music production, and with a bit of practice, you’ll be able to use it to bring a new level of polish and professionalism to your tracks. Happy mixing!